Fall Real Estate 2004

Publication Date: Friday, October 1, 2004

Who're you going to call?
Personal referrals can be hard to come by in construction

by Elizabeth White

Nicole Hughes and her husband heard about their contractors through a friend who had used them. After meeting them, the deal was clinched -- and soon "they were like being with members of my own family," she said.

Judith Stewart found her contractor through her cabinet man who told her about a guy who did small jobs on the side. "Generally speaking, I think 'word of mouth' is the way to find a contractor," she said. "Ask someone you know who has just built or remodeled. It may take several tries before you find one you like and who can start before 2007."

But, the Menlo Park interior designer warned, be careful about choosing someone solely on the basis of availability. "I had a client in Atherton who wanted a bathroom gutted and re-done NOW, so sent his gardener driving up and down the street to look for contractor's signs. He came back with a name and phone number and the head guy came right away to look at the job. He could start immediately (bad sign) and he turned out to be the Contractor from Hell. I do not recommend this method!!," she wrote in an e-mail.

The lucky ones have friends or neighbors who loved their contractors. For the rest -- including those new to the area -- there is help finding someone to work on the house.

The National Association of the Remodeling Industry and the Contractors State License Board offer a number of resources for people in need of contractors, interior designers, landscapers and more.

To check whether a potential contractor is trustworthy, the first step is to check his or her license number with NARI (www.narisj.org or www.nari.org) or the Sacramento-based CSLB (www.cslb.ca.gov). Although the organization cannot recommend contractors, it does maintain information on licensed contractors, according to Lynette Blumhardt, a CSLB information officer.

Blumhardt suggested that asking neighbors who are having work done on their homes currently can generate ideas and referrals. And calling trade associations, such as NARI or the National Association of Home Builders, is a useful pursuit. She also advised getting three bids for comparison purposes and insisting on a written contract.

Once that contract, with a schedule of payments, is drawn up and agreed upon, Blumhardt said it's vitally important to stick to it. A customer should pay only $1,000 or 10 percent of the total price up front, whichever is less, at the outset.
"Then schedule your payments as the work is completed," she said.

When going through the classifieds or Yellow Pages to find a contractor, Blumhardt said there's at least one thing to look out for.

"When somebody's licensed they must put their number on the ad," she said. "If there's an ad with no license number, that's a red flag."

In fact, the CSLB conducted a number of sting operations in late January and early February to ferret out unlicensed contractors. The stings, in San Rafael, Sunnyvale, San Francisco and Burlingame netted 81 suspected unlicensed contractors. All were cited.

The only way a contractor can operate without a license, Blumhardt said, is if the work being done is less than $500 for materials and labor. In this case, the contractor must state that he or she is unlicensed.

Even those who call themselves, for example, interior designers may need a license if they're acting in the "capacity of a contractor," Blumhardt said, especially if they are using employees of their own or subcontractors.
"If there's permanent work being done to a structure -- if you're altering or adding to a home -- the person must be licensed if it's more than $500," she said.

For its part, NARI, which has 90 members from Morgan Hill to South San Mateo, screens all of its constituents to make sure they are not only licensed, but also that they come insured and with references and that they are willing to abide by the NARI Code of Ethics.

"Of course, there are people that aren't NARI members that are good," Musser said. "But NARI has companies that we would recommend. We check customer references and you have to be in the remodeling business for at least one year to be a member."

Calling the Better Business Bureau once a potential hire has been identified can't hurt either, said Dan Mackey, the NARI San Jose chapter president and owner of Daniel Mackey Construction, Inc., a design-build-remodel firm.

"If you get a hold of a contractor and they're busy, then ask them for referrals," Mackey said, adding it's always a good idea to ask to see pictures of a contractor's work before hiring.

"Oftentimes if a homeowner's been happy with work, they're very happy to promote that contractor," he said.

Still in the need of ideas for where to start? Visit your local appliance store, Mackey said. Workers there deal directly with contractors all the time and can be a good source of information.

Mackey also said visiting the NARI or CSLB Web sites or picking up a copy of the NARI Home Improvement and Remodeling Guide is a good place to start.
"We have lots and lots of information for consumers," Blumhardt said. "We offer questions to ask before you hire a contractor, we have tips and lots of publications and information available."