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Anonymous Contractor Reveals 10 Insider Tips on Renovating:

We’ve all heard the stories of the charlatan contractor. The guy who installed a garage door for $800 cash, for um, Irene, (the homeowner’s name has been changed to protect the innocent and the embarrassed), but neglected to switch out the springs so the damn thing is too heavy to lift without borrowing someone’s husband.
Naturally, the contractor’s cell number has changed and Irene is out of dough. Moral of the story: whether it’s a small job like a garage door or a large project like a second-storey addition, any home-repair job requires certain acumen on the homeowner’s part. That means doing your due diligence about the repair guy whose purported job it is to make your life run smoother around the house. Here are 10 tips from a seasoned contractor who prefers to remain anonymous, and who we’ll call Jack.

1) Do a background check
It’s silly and lazy on a homeowner’s part not to do some probing about the fellow who has come to rebuild your entire first floor. “He shouldn’t just flash a few photos off of his phone,” says Jack. “Anyone can steal photos off the internet.” Ask the contractor to provide at least 10 contact numbers. Now start drilling the homeowners with questions: How much down payment did they pay? Did he start and finish on time? Were there any issues? Hidden costs? Are you happy with the work? In addition, an honest contractor will also divulge what a former client paid for a job. But keep in mind if the bathroom was completed two years ago, you should factor in inflation.

2) The expertise should match the job
Maybe it’s obvious, but it wasn’t to Irene when she had her garage door installed – by a plumber. Always ensure the person doing the job is an expert in their field. A finish carpenter should not be installing the new electrical panel. The contractor should verify that his trades have the credentials for the job. If you’re suspicious, you have a right to see the electrician’s license.

3) Ensure he (or she) is insured
Did you know if a roofer falls off your house you’re liable? Workplace safety is serious business. It’s critical to both your peace of mind and your contractor’s, which is why in Ontario we have WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board) coverage. The government agency will pay a certain percentage of net wage loss should an accident occur onsite. “If a homeowner asks, I can show proof of WSIB coverage,” says Jack, who says every contractor should be able to.

4) Start a paper trail
The most common disputes after a job finishes revolve around money. That can be avoided with this advice: “Get a written contract. I can’t stress that enough,” says Jack, noting extras are commonplace on jobs, and should also be accounted for in writing. “As a job proceeds there could be unexpected surprises behind the wall that could cost more to fix, or the homeowner may decide they want to add something to the job.”
Before proceeding with the work, the extras should be noted in writing. Jack sends an updated email weekly that lists anything new that may have cropped up, so that no one is surprised by the final figure. “If someone comes back at the end and hits you with an outrageous bill, that’s shifty.” The written contract, he adds, should never be vague and always include the following: the starting and finishing time, taxes, a line-item breakdown of materials and a detailed payment schedule.

5) The cheapest guy is the most expensive
The adage “you get what you pay for” comes to mind here, as does “a dude with a hammer doth not a contractor make.” True story: our friend Irene had her basement gutted by a man promising cheap labour who ended up tearing out the perforated weeping-tile system on the wall she had paid to put in. Remember: get multiple quotes, and determine the man (or the woman) for the job only after you’ve done the background checks.

6) Pay some up front
Jack has decided to pass on this question, but contractor extraordinaire Mike Holmes says pre-paying a small amount is fine — “it shouldn’t be more than 10% of the total cost of the job or $2,500. Homeowners should never pay a contractor more than $2,500 before they’ve even stepped foot in their home.” Holmes says there are exceptions to the rule, if the job requires, for instance, pre-paying for custom cabinetry.

7) Never dish dough
It’s tempting to pay cash because you can save on tax. Don’t do it. A cash transaction translates into a headache if there’s a dispute over the work. And if it turns ugly, you can forget about taking anyone to court without a paper trail. A cheque or certified cheque is best. Get a receipt.
8) Premium products are your choice
Not everyone wants a fancy toilet that could inflate the price of a job. The contractor should give you the option of choosing your materials. However, when it comes to insulation and other specialty materials, Jack says it’s wise to listen to the pros; certain materials perform better depending on the circumstance.

9) Don’t play contractor
Bravo! You trust your contractor — now scram. As a homeowner, you shouldn’t linger on the job (except to offer cold beverages and to show the trades where the bathroom is located). “If a homeowner is constantly asking questions on the site, it slows everyone down,” says Jack. It’s best to check in after the day’s work is done.

10) The light fixtures don’t work — now what?
Great news! Since you’ve hired an honest contractor whose cellphone won’t automatically be out of service now that the job has ended, he should come back to your house in a timely fashion to fix the problem. Because everyone makes mistakes, and contractors are only human, after all.

By Iris Benaroia