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Ready to hire? Don’t get scammed

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Posted: Monday, June 20, 2011 11:47 am

So you’ve decided to repaint your house or replace that weed-infested landscaping. In Lodi and across California, contractors and handypersons alike are eager for work, so it is a good time to stretch your dollars.

Yet a major home improvement project can still cost hundreds or thousands.

How do you make sure you won’t get ripped off?

It pays to be selective and do some homework.

“Most people spend a lot more time researching their new $350 television than a major building project,” said Rick Lopes, chief of public affairs for the state Contractors State License Board. “But the building project may cost a lot more, and present considerably more risk.”

To make sure you get the job done right and don’t get scammed, here are some tips:

  • Know when you need a contractor. In California, any job that costs more than $500 in combined labor and materials requires a licensed contractor.
  • Consider licensed or not. The reality: Many unlicensed contractors linger in the legal shadows, ready and willing to take on a variety of projects. Lopes argues you should go only with licensed contractors as they’re required to post a $12,500 bond, pass licensing exams, and show proof of worker’s comp insurance or a waiver from needing such insurance. “If an unlicensed guy comes by and gives you a cheap quote, there is a reason. Corners are being cut. You have to ask what those corners are,” Lopes warns.
  • Check ‘em out. All licensed contractors are listed on the state’s website Department of Contractor:  cslb.ca.gov/Consumers/HireAContractor/. The site includes whether the license is active and whether there have been any actions against the license.
  • Get multiple written bids and meet personally with the contractors. You’ll get a sense of their professionalism. You can ask about their background, other projects they’ve taken on like yours and obtain local references.
  • Get a contract. Contractors are required to provide both written bids and contracts.
  • Communicate, be specific, and get it in writing. Want a $400 Moen sink for your kitchen project? Better specify that, or your contractor may bring in that XYZ brand that only runs $22.95. Many contractors won’t push a lot of paperwork at you. “They are good with their hands, and some of them aren’t as good with business,” Lopes said. Be a pro-active commuicator. Clarity on the front end can avoid hard feelings later.
  • Ask about worker’s compensation insurance. Some contractors get a policy covering only one worker, when in fact they will employ several employees — who will not be covered. That could leave you on the hook if that uninsured carpet worker slips and breaks his ankle on your front step. Just in case, you may want to check your homeowner’s insurance to see if that policy can click in if your contractor’s insurance wasn’t what it should have been.
  • Don’t slap down too much money upfront. By law, contractors may only ask for $1,000 or 10 percent of a job’s cost, whichever is lower. (Exception: Some very large contractors, such as Lowe’s and Home Depot, are allowed to require all fees upfront because they have posted special performance bonds offering consumers extra protection if things go awry.)
  • Pay as you go. After the initial payment, agree with the contractor in writing what is to be paid for each phase of the project. For example, a landscaping project may include payments after demolition, site prep and sprinkler installation, purchase of plants, and final planting. “Your best leverage is money,” Lopes said. “If you pay everything up front, you lose much of that leverage if things don’t go well.” However, the state does have a dispute resolution service to help salvage a project gone sour even if most or all monies have already been paid.
  • Will you need a permit? Check with your local jurisdiction to see if you need a building permit. Many projects, even small ones, such as installing a water heater, do require them. To check on permits in Lodi, call 209-333-6711, Galt, 209-366-7200 and San Joaquin County, 209-468-2098.

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