Be smart when selecting a contractor for home repairs

Ask the contractor for copies of current licenses and insurance certificates. In Maryland, anyone performing home improvement work must be licensed. All advertisements, contracts and estimates are required to have the contractor’s full name and MHIC (Maryland Home Improvement Commission) number. | Stock photo via Pixabay

Need some repair work done around the house? Want to remodel the kitchen or bath? Need the trim painted?

Here are some tips for choosing a contractor to do the job. Follow some or all of these depending on what kind of work is needed—repair, maintenance, or full-blown remodeling.

  • Ask friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors to recommend contractors they have used who did a good job. It is helpful to know if someone didn’t like the work a contractor did as well. Some neighborhood associations maintain a list of contractors and repair services that members recommend.
  • Ask the contractor for copies of current licenses and insurance certificates. In Maryland, anyone performing home improvement work must be licensed. All advertisements, contracts and estimates are required to have the contractor’s full name and MHIC (Maryland Home Improvement Commission) number.
  • Licensing requirements vary widely from state to state. State licensing requirements for other contractors can vary; check your state’s requirements at www.contractors-license.org.
  • The contractor should carry personal liability, worker’s compensation, and property damage insurance.
  • Check with the appropriate local trade organization or association for builders, plumbers, electricians, remodelers or other trades for members who perform the work.
  • The telephone yellow pages may give you a starting point for finding a reputable contractor, but it can’t tell you the quality of their work. The same goes for online listing services.
  • Check out the contractor with the Better Business Bureau (or local/state equivalent) or your local or state consumer affairs office. In Maryland, you may call 1-888-218-5925 to check a contractor’s complaint history.
  • Ask the contractor for customer references, particularly those customers who had a similar job done. Ask the references questions about their satisfaction with the work; whether the job was completed on time; if there were any issues or unexpected costs; if the works showed up on time and cleaned up after themselves; and whether they’d use the contractor again.
  • Get written estimates from more than one contractor. Make sure that all of the estimates are based on the same specifications. If a contractor wants to deviate from the specifications, have them write those changes up as options.
  • Decide how you want to pay for the job. The bigger the job, the more options. Do you need a loan? If so, do you find your own financing or work with the contractor to arrange financing? Will you pay by check or credit card? Your credit union can help you with a loan. Avoid paying cash. Never pay the complete fee upfront before work has begun. If you must make a down payment, pay the smallest amount possible. Make payments contingent on completion of specific tasks, and only make the final payment after you are satisfied with the completed work.
  • Get a written contract. It should spell out who is performing the work, what work is being done, where the work is being done, the start date and completion date, and what it will cost. The contract should be clear, concise, and complete.
  • Get all guarantees, warranties, and promises in writing.

Avoiding rip-offs and scams

Here are some red flags to watch for. Say “no thanks” to any person or company who:

  • Solicits business door-to-door. A reputable business doesn’t need to go door-to-door.
  • Wants payment in cash.
  • Wants the entire payment up front.
  • Offers you discounts for finding other customers.
  • Just happens to have “material left over from a previous job.”
  • Requests that you get the necessary permits. This could mean that the contractor is not licensed or registered as required.
  • Is not listed in the local telephone directory or does not have a local address.
  • Needs an answer immediately. Don’t sign a contract until you have reviewed it thoroughly.
  • Offers exceptionally long guarantees.
  • Wants you to borrow money from a lender they know. This request usually signals a home improvement loan scam.

Individuals eligible for legal services may contact the Client Services Division, Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, by calling 410-278-1583 or stopping by building 4305, 3rd floor, room 317, for more information.

The Client Services Division can provide advice on a wide variety of consumer matters, and assist eligible clients in understanding home improvement contracts. Attorney consultations require an appointment.

By Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, Client Services Division