According to the latest report from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, the housing market is finally on the upswing. The number of people who signed contracts to buy homes rose in April to the highest level in three years. Housing prices have risen across the country (and here in Maryland). And the U.S. remodeling industry is making a robust comeback as well, with home improvement projects expected to grow nearly 20 percent this year.
Home improvements are gaining popularity here in Baltimore too. As confidence in the economy rises, more homeowners are upgrading their properties…from wood flooring to granite kitchen countertops to a new sunroom. If you’re considering making some improvements, here are a few tips to hiring the right contractor for your needs:
1.Verify credentials, references and history Do your due diligence by checking to ensure that the contractor:
• Is licensed and registered in Maryland through the MD Home Improvement Public Query
• Has been in business for a while
• Has liability and worker’s comp insurance
• Has local references
• Has a solid reputation
• Is in good standing with the Better Business Bureau and the Maryland Consumer Protection Division. Also be sure to check references to find out if the contractor was competent, prompt, finished on time and whether there were any unexpected costs.
2. Ask for bids. Once you’ve narrowed down the field, get bids from your top three choices. If one of them comes in several thousand dollars below the others, cross it off your list. Although everybody loves a great deal, beware. A contractor who is lowballing the estimate may well be cutting corners somewhere, (like using cheaper materials), or may tell you in the middle of the project that it’s more complicated and therefore more expensive than originally thought.
3. Consider the working relationship as much as the price When making your decision, think about how comfortable you are with the contractor’s personality, background, methods and communication skills. Is everyone on the same page about the project? If it’s not well defined ahead of time, you could be disappointed in the final product and possibly out several thousand dollars beyond what you budgeted for.
4. Always get a contract No matter how small or extensive, every project should have a contract. All the details of the project should be listed, including (but not limited to):
• Work timetable with start and finish dates
• Description of the work
• Materials that will be used—spelling out the brand and other relevant details
• Payment schedule
• Time limit for fixing defects. Contracts maintain clarity and ensure that if a dispute arises, it can be dealt with in a timely manner.
5. Nail down your payment terms ahead of time How you pay a contractor is as important as how much you pay. Here are a few guidelines:
• It is illegal in Maryland to pay a contractor more than 33 percent upfront.
• Make an average of three periodic payments per project as the contractor completes certain agreed on portions.
• To ensure the work gets done when and how you want it, insist that a significant amount—at least 10 percent – is held back and will be paid only when the job is completed to your satisfaction. CHAI (Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc.) has compiled a Contractor Referral List for your convenience, which is regularly updated.
The agency does not recommend, endorse or vouch for the quality of the listed contractors’ work, but encourages you to do your own research, including talking with past customers. CHAI strongly recommends following the advice of the Maryland Home Improvement Commission (MHIC) for more information on what to look for and steer clear of when it comes to hiring a contractor.