Home improvement can be an enjoyable experience—if you choose the right professionals
The contractor's name, address, phone, and license number.
Everything the contractor will and will not do.
A list of materials for the project in your contract. This includes size, color, model, brand name, and product.
The approximate start date and substantial completion date(s). It should also address back-up plans if complications or surprises arise during demolition or construction. "There's always a gray area in a project that you don't think about," Larson says. "Make sure your contract fills in as many of those holes as possible."
Study all required design plans carefully. Insist that you approve them and that they are identified in your written contract before any work begins.
Federal law requires a contractor to give written notice of your right to, without penalty, cancel a contract within three business days of signing it. This protection is provided if the contract was solicited at some place other than the contractor's place of business, such as your home.
Make sure financial terms are understood and spelled out in the contract. The total price, payment schedule, and any cancellation penalty should be clear.
A warranty covering materials and workmanship for a minimum of one year should be written into the contract. The warranty must be identified as either 'full' or 'limited.' The name and address of the party who will honor the warranty (contractor, distributor, or manufacturer) must be identified. Make sure the time period for the warranty is specified.
While direct good-faith discussions and mediation are preferred methods to resolve disagreements, including a binding arbitration clause in your contract may also enable you to facilitate disputes without costly litigation.
Thoroughly review the entire contract and be certain you understand it before signing it.
Consider the scope of the project and make sure all items you've requested are included. If you do not see a specific item in the contract, assume it is not included. Never sign an incomplete contract. Always keep a copy of the final document for your records.
Consider having a legal professional review the contract before it is signed.
Every city has its own building codes. Building permits are usually required when structural work is involved or the basic living area of the home is going to be changed. Exterior changes often require a permit. Ensure that your contractor gets the required building and planning permits for your project. Failure to obtain them, or to arrange for the necessary building inspections, can be illegal and cause the homeowner major headaches.
In some cases, if a project violates a zoning law or some other code, the work may be stopped until it complies, or, conceivably, it may even be demolished if there is no way to comply with the law.
"From a realtor point of view, not getting the required permits can cause problems," Munson says. "I know a person who might have to take out an entire addition because they did not get the required permits. It's a big problem we're facing, and it's quite dramatic."
A qualified remodeling contractor will be familiar with the permit process and ensure that all permits have been obtained before starting any work.
In virtually all cases, the professional and the homeowner both want a successful, trouble-free project. Careful research, thorough planning, and thoughtful decisions will lay the groundwork to ensure that the process goes smoothly from start to finish. Clear communication can also express the expectations of both parties. In the end, you'll end up with home improvement that not only increases the value of your home, but the quality of your life, too.
Photos: David Toerge, Michael O'Callahan; and courtesy Klopf Architecture
John Klopf (Klopf Architecture): klopfarchitecture.com
Frank Larson (Larco Construction): larcoconstruction.org
Catherine Munson (LVP Marin): lvpmarin.com
Eric Boyenga (Intero Real Estate): EichlerLiving.com
Contractors State License Board: cslb.ca.gov
Better Business Bureau: bbb.org
California Architects Board: cab.ca.gov
American Institute of Architects: aia.org
National Kitchen & Bath Association: nkba.org
National Association of the Remodeling Industry: nari.org
National Association of Homebuilders: nahb.org