Publication Date: Friday, October
Who're you going to call?
Personal referrals can be hard to come by in construction
by Elizabeth White
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."