Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Some consumer advice on renos

Here's a story from the CBC (Don't get nailed under the table, contractors warn consumers) about a new campaign launched by the Eastern Home Builders Association to warn people about the perils of the underground contractors.

As you might have followed from my personal blog, I have been involved in a set of extensive home renovations for some time.

If you've ever had a child, then you know that once you're pregnant, all you see around you are other pregnant people and all people want to talk about is pregnancies and kids. Same way with renos - everyone around you is involved in their own renos and that's all you hear about.

Now I have no real problem with what the home builder's association are doing. They are doing what they think is best to protect the public, and incidentally, their own market.

But after you hear enough stories, a few things start to become clear.

It surprised me to find that of the many horror stories I've heard from people about gross overcharges and shoddy work, just as many are as a result of charter and respected members of the homebuilding community as from the evil underground economy.

I know people who have received excellent service from the guy in the pickup truck who wants cash. I know people who have been ripped off by some of the most "reputable" contractors in the province including the "in" contractors of the year and the ones sent by major national building supply chains.

The past few years have been very good for the reno industry and that has made it hard to get a builder when you need one. And the upward trends in prices, and their behavior, reflect that.

I've contacted all kinds of builders who just wouldn't return my calls.

I've had lots walk through the house, tell me they'd give me a price and that's the last I ever hear from them.

I've had builders come into my kitchen, sit down and, figuring they had us over a barrel, propose a price for renovations higher than the value of my home. One came in and wouldn't touch the reno work of an existing house unless he could buy the house, do the work, and sell it back to me.

As long as you keep in mind that they are in business to make money and not building or renovating out of a sense of public service, then it's easier to keep perspective.

So what has that experience taught me?

First, it's buyer beware no matter what the legal status of the person you are dealing with. Unless and until these associations provide more teeth than a mere voluntary Code of Ethics, unless they actually impose standards on membership instead of accepting all comers and unless they have some way of enforcing clear and unambiguous rules to protect consumers, then they can't help really help you.

Second, know who you are dealing with check on their past work and customers. References are worth gold.

Third, get the scope of work down on paper but be realistic about what that means. Things will change over time so be flexible and stay on top of things.

Finally and most importantly: Supervise! Supervise!! Supervise!!! When it comes to someone messing with your home, Trust No One! Be aggressive is pushing for your rights because contractors will be aggressive in looking for their money.

I figure that we will be in reno mode for the next 24 months or so. I'm not looking forward to all parts of it but I am prepared to spend every day of that time deeply involved in the project.

It's the only way to make sure things happen correctly.

And no, you can't have the name of my builder.

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