Hiring Home Improvement Contractors

Each year New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs receives thousands of complaints from consumers who hire contractors that produce poor quality workmanship or fail to complete the work at all.

Starting December 31, 2005, The New Jersey Contractors’ Registration Act required home improvement contractors to register with the State annually. Contractors who are not registered or licensed will not be permitted to do home improvement projects in New Jersey or obtain building permits.

What is the difference between licensed and registered? Electricians, plumbers and architects are required to be licensed. To become licensed in these areas, individuals must complete specific educational requirements and apprenticeship training or internships prior to taking and passing state board tests. Home improvement contractors such as carpenters, masons, flooring installers, painters and a host of other trades who work on residential or noncommercial properties in New Jersey must be registered with the Division of Consumer Affairs.

Unfortunately, there are no educational requirements or experience required to be registered. Although a contractor’s experience or competence is not validated, the law does provide some level of protection for consumers that did not exist prior to 2006.

To become registered in New Jersey, individuals or entities doing home improvement projects in New Jersey are required to submit the following information to the Division:

  • provide a Certificate of Incorporation or other business certificate
  • provide proof of a policy of commercial general liability insurance in a minimum amount of $500,000
  • provide proof of U.S. citizenship or a legal alien
  • provide copies of any judgments against the applicant

The law also protects the consumer by requiring all home improvement projects costing $500 or more to be in writing. The written contract should include:

  • the legal name and address of the contractor
  • registration number
  • signature of contractor and consumer
  • total price
  • description of work to be performed and principal products and materials being used
  • statement of guarantee or warranties
  • dates or time periods for when work will begin and be completed
  • a copy of insurance certificate

Signed contracts may be canceled by the consumer for any reason before midnight of the third business day after receiving a copy of the contract. If you wish to cancel the contract, you must send a signed and dated written notice of cancellation by registered or certified mail, return receipt requested or personally deliver the letter to the name and address listed on the contract. If you cancel the contract within the three day period, you are entitled to a full refund of deposit money.

How can I find a competent and reliable contractor?

Usually the best way to find a competent and reliable contractor is a recommendation from a family member or friend, preferably someone who had a first hand experience working with the contractor. Some of the things you would want to know are if they were pleased with the quality of work and what was the overall experience of their project. Did the contractor show up when he or she said they would? Did they use the products and materials quoted in the contract? Did they respect your property and clean up daily? Did they complete the job for the agreed price? Although there is no guarantee you’ll have the same positive experience, a personal recommendation should be your first choice. If you can’t get a recommendation and must rely on advertisements such as the Yellow Pages, newspaper ads or web sites, there are steps you can take to increases your chances of finding a suitable candidate for your remodeling project. Listed below are some guidelines you can follow:

  • Look for a license or registration number. The law requires it to be listed in all ads. Although there is a difference between licensed and registered, many contractors use them interchangeably.
  • Do not consider anyone who is not registered or insured.
  • Contact Consumer Affairs to see if any complaints have been filed against the contractor and to confirm their registration. Call 1-888-656-6225.
  • Set up appointments with at least three contractors. If you leave a message, they should return your call within 48 hours or less. If they don’t, remove them from your list and try someone else. Remember you want to work with someone who is reliable.

Now that you have set up appointments, what should you look for? Think of it as if you are the employer interviewing candidates for a job. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did they show up on time (within 15 minutes)?
  • How did they present themselves?
  • Were they professional?
  • What condition was their vehicle in?
  • Did they listen to your concerns?
  • Did they take measurements and photos?
  • Did they attempt high pressure sales, like “this price is only good for today”? Don’t allow yourself to get suckered into this nonsense. They do not want to give you time to change your mind. Most contractors offer prices good for thirty days.

If you think about the above questions during this interview, it may help you decide who is best suited for your project and who you feel most comfortable working with.

There are a couple of other things you can do to prepare for the initial interview. I often hear complaints from people who have difficulty getting contractors to return calls or getting back to them after the initial visit. Although there is no excuse for this, it happens frequently. So what can you do? Try to be clear on what it is you want done. A sketch or drawing would be helpful or a picture from a magazine. It is impossible to price out a job without enough information. If they are not clear on what it is they’re bidding on, you may not hear from them. Also, the contractor should be able to tell you if the project requires the services of an architect or designer.

Now we can go over what questions you should ask the contractors. The first things most homeowners want to know are how much and when can you do it? While a budget and timetable are important, you should also focus on someone who is going to respect your property and produce quality workmanship.

Here are some questions you may want to ask prospective contractors:

  • Who will be doing the work? How much experience do they have?
  • Will the owner supervise or be available to address questions or concerns?
  • Who is responsible for trash removal and will it be included in the price?
  • Will you provide me with a list of references?
  • What condition will you leave my home each day?
  • Will I have limited access to any area of my home?
  • How will you protect my personal property from dirt or damage?
  • Will you get all required permits?
  • Will you provide a written estimate?

As I mentioned earlier, price and timetable may be important, but be sure to consider the other points that I mentioned in this article and trust your own instincts.

For more information on hiring a home improvement contractors, contact the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs 1-800-242-5846 www.NJConsumerAffairs.gov.

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