Make sure to do your research before hiring a contractor, especially for costly renovations. (Photo Credit: Photographee.eu via Adobe Stock)

If there’s one thing that the gays like, it’s a home improvement project. From a whole house remodel to a bathroom or kitchen renovation, every LGBT person I know has tried it at least once. And, for most of them (except for the lesbians), it’s a disaster. Complete. Utter. Disaster. Because, really, who has time to learn the difference between a flat head screwdriver and a Philips head screwdriver, and even if you do, who cares?
That’s why contractors are so important — they know how to do the stuff we don’t. You’ve probably heard more than one horror story about a contractor who is really good at making a mess, but not so good at fixing it, or worse, a contractor who took the money and ran. Finding a reputable, reliable, honest contractor can be hard work. After all, you’re trusting this person with your dreams, and more than likely, not a little money. It’s a daunting challenge.
For almost a decade, I’ve represented contractors and homeowners alike in a range of disputes. Along the way, I’ve developed a list of things that homeowners can do to make sure that, when it’s time to hire a contractor, they find the right one. I’ve outlined some of the most important considerations in this article. Of course, this isn’t legal advice — and if you’re about to start a home improvement project with a contractor and have questions about this (or if you’re in the middle of a project and are having trouble), you should reach out to your lawyer for advice relative to your specific situation.

Check the Contractor’s Qualifications

Under North Carolina law, in order to complete a project that costs more than $30,000, the contractor must be a general contractor licensed by the North Carolina Board of Licensing for General Contractors. $30,000 seems like a lot of money, but when it comes to a renovation project, it goes faster than you think it might. And, sometimes, what starts off as a small project quickly turns into a much, much larger one. The first question you should always ask is whether or not the contractor is actually licensed. Or, if the contractor is licensed, whether or not there have been any complaints filed against it (or him or her). The best way to do this is to give the North Carolina Board of Licensing for General Contractors a call (919-571-4183) or check online (nclbgc.org). The board can confirm both a contractor’s licensure and complaint status. The board will let you know if the contractor has ever had disciplinary action taken against them. Just because there’s been a complaint doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hire the contractor, but it’s a good place to start your investigation.

Bonded and Insured?

You’ve probably seen contractors who advertise that they’re “licensed, bonded and insured.” But what does that actually mean? Ask to see certificates of insurance. Make sure the contractor carries general liability coverage and has a completed operations endorsement. Insurance policies aren’t warranties — so they won’t warrant the contractor’s work. But, a good insurance policy may be useful to you if the work turns out to be defective and has to be torn out and reconstructed. Usually, you can activate a contractor’s insurance coverage to fund at least some of those costs.

Insist on a Detailed Contract

Contractors aren’t always the best at preparing contracts. But it’s probably the most important part of the project, because the contract answers questions about the type of work that will be completed, the timeline, the costs and the frequency of those payments. The bigger the project, the more important the contract. Most construction disputes revolve around a consideration that should be controlled by the contract. If the dispute isn’t resolved, a court will use the contract (in whatever form it is) to decide who is right. Even if the contractor doesn’t have a contract for you to sign, you can always provide your own. It’s worth spending time and money at the outset developing a contract that protects your rights.

Ask for Recommendations

A good contractor should have a history of satisfied customers. Ask for a list — and then call those people. Explain that you’re interested in hiring their former contractor and if they’d be willing to share their experiences with you. Ask candid questions of those references, and whether or not they’d hire the contractor again. You’ll be surprised what you can learn. Good or bad, most people will be willing to share their experiences. Just keep in mind that if the contractor is providing the list, chances are those references will have mostly positive comments.

Online Reviews

Check out online reviews. It’s a great way to learn about a contractor’s general reputation. If there are bad reviews, don’t be afraid to ask the contractor to explain why. Sometimes it’s a legitimate concern and sometimes it’s just crazy. Online reviews, in my experience, aren’t always the most accurate indicator of a contractor’s skill — but if more than one review makes the same complaint, there may be something to it.

Hire a Consultant

In large projects, hiring an independent consultant to provide you with an honest assessment of the progress and quality of the work is really important. Most of us don’t know the first thing about construction, and a consultant (often another general contractor) will be a great resource. Typically, in projects funded by a lender (like a bank), consultants are a part of the deal, and the consultant will inspect the contractor’s work before authorization payment from the lender. Even if there isn’t a lender involved, a consultant can provide a neutral assessment of the contractor’s work and progress and will help you understand if the work is proceeding according to the schedule.

Don’t Pay Everything at Once

Only agree to a contract that provides for regular progress payments as work is completed (and approved). You’ve probably heard the expression “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Often, that’s the case with contractors, especially the unscrupulous ones — they’re using the money they receive from you to finish up the project before yours, and they’ll use the money they receive from the next job to finish yours. The best way to avoid this trap is to ensure that you only pay for work as its completed (and approved). Don’t agree to use a contractor that requires total payment up front, no matter the size of the job. And, the more money you can withhold until the final payment, the better. That will ensure the contractor comes back to finish your job.

Lien Releases

Make sure that a condition of each progress payment is the contractor’s waiver of liens. A good attorney can help you create a strong lien waiver form — and in exchange for each payment, the contractor should waive its lien rights and the lien rights of any of its subcontractors. And while you’re at it, you should consult with an attorney familiar with North Carolina construction law before you undertake any sizeable project to your home. Liens can be complicated, and often take owners by surprise. Even if the contractor is performing the work itself, there are still a number of other people involved in the contractual chain, including materials, suppliers and vendors — all of whom may have a lien right on your home. A lien waiver, on receipt of each progress payment, protects you from hidden or surprise liens.

Talk to the Contractor

Make sure you’re staying in regular contact with your contractor. You’ve probably heard that the squeakiest wheel gets the grease. The same is true with contractors. A contractor is going to have a number of projects going on at the same time. Make sure your project is always its priority. The best way to do that (other than withholding payment) is to talk to them, ask questions and stay involved.

See a Lawyer

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, and the contractor’s best efforts, things just don’t work out. That’s okay. But don’t waste time — as soon as you feel like the relationship with your contractor is souring, go see a lawyer. A good construction lawyer can help assess the situation and guide you on what you can do. If the project can be salvaged, the right lawyer may be able to navigate you through the process. But if the relationship is too far gone, then you’ll already be ready to take things to the next level if necessary. The larger the project, the higher the stakes and the more likely people turn to litigation to sort out their disputes. Don’t wait until there’s litigation before you hire a lawyer — have a good one on your side from the start.

There are some excellent contractors in the area; many of whom support LGBT causes or are led by LGBT-identifying people. Chances are, you also know someone who is involved in contracting themselves — that’s always a good place to start.

Robertson is a partner at Robertson & Associates, a boutique business litigation law firm that represents businesses and non-profit organizations in a variety of disputes. Robertson is a lifelong Charlottean.

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