By Mike McClintock
Special to the Tribune
February 28, 2008
It's smart to comparison shop before you buy, and easy enough on basic products. Comparing contractors' estimates is more difficult because there are so many variables -- in materials and construction methods, and even more so in contractors. This checklist can help weed out problem bidders and reveal the best overall deal.
APPLES AND ORANGES
You don't need a full set of blueprints, not yet anyway. You do need a plan specific enough for contractors to bid on the same basic job. If you talk about a deck and some sort of access, one contractor may price an elegant French door while another figures a basic slider. The deck in one bid may be larger, higher, with a railing and steps. One bid might be for pressure-treated 2-by-6s, and another for synthetic planking. Bids on projects that don't include details of materials and construction are pointless.
You don't have to settle every detail to get an estimate. But at least sketch out a floor plan and specify the major materials. Sure, that gets complicated on large projects like a full kitchen renovation.
So check product catalogs, showrooms, Web sites, and pick a brand and type of tile that's at least close to what you envision. Pick a line of appliances that's in the ballpark -- maybe all Kenmore entry level, or all Kitchen-Aid top of the line. If need be, you can adjust those calls later, before you sign a contract.
If you're really stuck for particulars, use details from the first estimate and ask other contractors to price the job the same way. Different guys have different ideas? That's fine -- and maybe they'll suggest some worthwhile improvements. But ask them to estimate those differences separately so you won't be caught comparing apples and oranges. To make valid comparisons, solicit bids that have common denominators.
You also should compare several points aside from prices -- fundamentals about the contractor that many people leave until contract time.
But what's the point of considering a detailed estimate from someone who doesn't have a license or insurance, and doesn't measure up in other basic categories.
Most states license electrical and plumbing contractors, but only about two-thirds license or register other contractors. (Check state requirements on the Web athttp://www.contractors-license.org .) However, many county agencies require at least a license to do business. These give some indication that the contractor is reputable but say nothing about expertise. Many agencies also keep a record of consumer complaints, which can be more instructive, though fly-by-nighters sometimes beat this safeguard by operating under different names.
LENGTH IN BUSINESS
Longer is better, one premise being that a contractor who fouls up can't stay in business too long under any number of names. New contractors may trim more fat off the estimate, but you're generally better off with a more established firm.
It's best to use a contractor who has experience with the specific work you have in mind. Ask for a list of recent jobs, and call former clients to see how the jobs went.
Decorating projects don't need permits. Jobs that involve new concrete or structural framing do. Permits are generally required as well if you change the use of a space, for instance, turning the basement into an apartment. If the contractor says you don't need a permit, call the building department to check. If the contractor doesn't want to deal with the department call another contractor.
Some remodeling firms have salespeople bid jobs. But you'll never see them again, and need to inquire about the on-site workers. If the company farms out projects to local contractors and doesn't know or won't tell you who will be on site and in charge every day, look elsewhere.
If you're hiring a general contractor who in turn hires plumbers, painters and other subcontractors, ask for their names and license information so you can check their reputations.
Contractors should have personal liability, worker's compensation, and property damage coverage, and be able to show you proof of coverage.
Some contractors ask for 50 percent or more up front, which is unreasonable. Generally, first and final payments should be equal, say 10 or 15 percent each, leaving enough to give you some leverage with the final checklist.