Each year thousands of Westchester residents hire a contractor to improve or remodel their home or apartment. While most consumers are satisfied with the work done by their contractor, others complain about shoddy workmanship, overcharges, missed deadlines or the contractor’s failure to complete the work. Some even complain that the contractor failed to start the project at all.
Your home is your biggest investment. So for your own protection, there are things you should know before hiring a home improvement contractor. You should also be aware of some important legal rights and protections that you have.
The Welcome Network
The Department of Consumer Protection is reminding consumers and businesses that home improvement licenses are issued only by the department and any other registration or certification from an outside service is not required to maintain a county home improvement license. Documents recently sent out by "The Welcome Network" used a heading of "Westchester County Certification Office," which contractors can easily be mistaken as an official notice or document from the Department of Consumer Protection.
What is a home improvement?
Examples include waterproofing, exterior siding, gutters, decks, roofs, construction of additional rooms, window replacement, driveway repaving, kitchen and bathroom renovation, masonry, fence installation, chimney maintenance, exterior painting, landscaping and gardening and swimming pool repair and installation.
Where do I start?
Take your time, plan ahead and do your homework. Think about the specific design you want and what you can afford. Think about the materials you want to use. Visit home improvement centers, read magazines, browse the Internet and talk to others who have completed similar renovations. Figure in all the costs, including materials, supplies, labor, permits, and financing. Create a workable, realistic budget.
Be sure to know what you want. Be specific. If you don’t know what you want, you might not like what you get. It won’t get cheaper if you make changes after work has begun.
How Do I Find a Contractor?
Shop around. Try to get recommendations from people you know: your friends, neighbors, and colleagues at work. Good contractors are usually found by word of mouth.
How Many Estimates Should I Get?
Get at least three estimates, especially if the job is big. Make sure all estimates are based on the same set of specifications, materials and scope of work. Be sure the estimates include details and specifications, responsibility for clean up, and amount of downpayment required.
In assessing the estimates, don’t always go with the low bidder. A higher price may be worth it if the contractor is the most experienced, will use better materials, will do a better job, and keep to a timeline.
Be wary of an extremely low bid. It may be an indication that the contractor is overeager for your business, made a mistake in preparing the bid or is not including all the work quoted by the other bidders
Should I Ask for References?
Yes. Ask each contractor for local references, and call the references to see if they were satisfied with the work. Ask questions such as: Did the contractor keep to the schedule and the terms of the contract? Were you pleased with the work? Was the project completed on time? Were there unexpected costs? Did the contractor clean up after finishing the job? Were there any problems, and if so, was the contractor responsive to your concerns? And most important: Would you hire the contractor again?
Get references on jobs that are still in progress, not just completed jobs.
Don’t just call the references. See for yourself by visiting the homes where the contractor has done work.
Also, ask each contractor for references from material suppliers and subcontractors. Make sure that the contractor has been paying his bills on time.
What should I ask the contractor?
Ask each contractor:
How do I make sure the contractor is licensed?
Check with the Department of Consumer Protection. You can also check online or by phone at (914) 995-2155. Note: Contractors who do work in Yonkers must be licensed by the consumer affairs office in that city. All vehicles used by a licensed contractor must display a decal issued by the Department of Consumer Protection.
Why should I hire a licensed contractor?
License holders undergo a criminal background check, and must supply proof of insurance and financial responsibility. A license can be revoked for violations of law and for failure to resolve consumer complaints.
An unlicensed contractor could have a serious criminal record. Remember, you’ll be letting this person into your home. An unlicensed contractor might lack insurance. Remember, this could expose you to liability in the event of an accident or injury. An unlicensed contractor could have unpaid judgments. Remember, the contractor’s failure to pay subcontractors or suppliers could delay the completion or your project, or result in mechanics liens being placed against your home.
Should I find out whether there have been complaints against the contractor?
Yes. You can contact the Department of Consumer Protection, your local consumer affairs office if you live in Yonkers or Mount Vernon, and the Better Business Bureau. You can also check with your local building department
What “Red Flags” should I look out for?
How do I know if the contractor is insured?
Ask the contractor to provide you with a certificate of insurance. Don’t just take his word that he’s insured.
Should I get a written contract?
Yes. Contracts for jobs costing $500 or more must be in writing, but it’s best to get a written contract in all cases. Insist on a written contract, and make sure to get a copy. Do NOT agree to an oral contract.
What must the contract include?
By law, the contract must include:
What else should I put in the contract?
What if the contractor is providing the financing?
A contractor who directly or indirectly arranges for financing of a home improvement project must give you a copy of a Consumers’ Bill of Rights which advises you to shop around and compare loan rates and fees and consider consulting with a financial advisor or reputable counseling agency.
What should I do after the project has begun?
What should I do if there's a problem?
If you have a problem, you don’t have to fight it alone. The Consumer Protection can help, and there is no fee for our assistance. You can file a complaint online or call (914) 995-2155. Your complaint should include a complete description of the problem, the name, address and telephone number of the contractor and a copy of relevant documents such as the contract, any guarantees or warranties, photographs, correspondence and canceled checks (both front and back) showing proof of payment.
The Department of Consumer Protection will investigate your complaint and try to mediate your dispute with the contractor. In many cases intervention by our office in the form of telephone calls, letters or visits by one of our inspectors can resolve the matter. If the contractor committed violations of law, an appearance ticket can be issued and may result in the imposition of civil penalties.