My business has provided home-improvements for over 30 years: heating, air-conditioning, plumbing, water treatment, electrical, bath remodeling, etc.
I'm not referring to repairs (which we also do), but rather major projects to rehabilitate and/or add new facilities to an existing home.
I've also engaged several companies for projects at my own home and office, so all-in-all, I've seen "the good, the bad and the ugly."
As such, I want to offer the following advice to people considering purchasing home-improvements.
1. Only deal with profitable companies:
Home-improvment contractors are in business to make a profit. If they don't make a profit they go out of business. Some are unprofitable, some break-even and some make a modest net profit of 5-10+%.
You should only deal with profitable companies.
Why? Because profitable businesses have money in the bank, which means they can see a job through to completion, even in the face of unanticipated cost over-runs, and have the ability to offer you a real warranty. Unprofitable companies, on the other hand, have little if any surplus cash, so when their costs are higher than anticipated they might cut-corners to make ends meet; or if you make a warranty claim, they might not return your phone calls.
How can you determine if a company is profitable?
Visit their office. Look at their vehicles, tools and equipment. Profitable companies have the money to invest in new equipment, employee training, maintenance, janitorial and landscaping service, etc. They also have the money to invest in bright, capable people that will serve you well.
Do profitable companies charge more? Absolutely. But the chances are far greater they'll deliver what they promised.
2. Get customer references and interview key people:
After you've visited their office, ask for a list of 6-8 customer references. Make sure these references include the scope, price, foreman and dates of these projects. If the contractor hesitates to provide them, they probably don't exist.
When they provide the references, take the time and effort to contact the individuals and chat with them by phone or email. Ask alot of questions, listen and take notes. Your final question should always be, "Would you hire them for your next project?" If the answer to this question is anything other than "Yes!", do more research.
Also, ask to talk in-person with the foreman that will run your job. The business owner may be a sharp guy, but the foreman is the key to your satisfaction. Take him to lunch before you sign a contract.
Another good source of company information is the Better Business Bureau and Angie's List. Angie's list will cost a small amount of money to subscribe to, but this is "chicken feed" by comparison to the cost of your project.
I can't emphasize enough the need to get customer references: if you want a "great job", you need to assure yourself that the contractor is in the habit of providing "great jobs" on a regualr basis.
3. Negotiate a thorough contract and scope of work:
You'll probably have numerous conversations with the company before the job commences, and will get a written "proposal."
Make sure that everything you expect in regards to the scope of work, material, payment, warranty, job schedule, access, clean-up, etc. is in writing. So often there are numerous "side conversations" between homeowner and contractor that never get put in writing and will lead to disagreements. Make sure you and the contractor explicitly understand and agree on each element of the job.
Depending on the size of the contract this may require a 15-60 minute meeting and a final revision of the contract.
I can't tell how many times I've had disagreement with customers becasue they thought something was included and I hadn't include it in my contract.
4. Once the project is underway:
If you've taken my advice above, hopefully things should run pretty smoothly.
However, insist on regular communcation from the contractor (perhaps daily on a small project), updating you on job progress and any complications. If the project will last 2 weeks, it makes sense that you and he meet daily for 15 minutes. Don't waste his time, but you can stop small problems from becoming big ones by inspecting the site once a day.
5. Project close-out
Hopefully, your project runs pretty smoothly, but there's always "loose ends" that need to be addressed.
Rather than calling the contractor every time you have a question or comment, send him an e-mail or fax daily near the end of the job, addressing items not completed. Ask him for a response in writing and a completion schedule.
There's always the issue of final payment vis-a-vis project close-out. If you've selected a good and profitable contractor, he should be reasonable about final payment in relationship to project completion.