Excerpt from my regular column in the Santa Barbara News-Press.
Dealing With Contractors
Question: My wife and I are in the planning process of what we consider to be a big remodeling project at our home in Santa Barbara. We are expanding the size of our kitchen by pushing out the exterior walls, converting the attached garage into 2 new bedrooms and building a new garage. We are trying to find a reputable general contractor to work with who understand our needs, and will remodel our home in a timely professional manner. We have heard many “horror stories” from friends about experiences they have had with contractors and want to avoid these types of problems. How do we go about finding a general contractor who can be relied upon to do a good job?
Your Handyman: Santa Barbara has many excellent contractors in all the different construction trades, but like every community, has a few bad apples. It certainly is not uncommon to hear of situations where friends or relatives have hired a contractor to do work at their home and things went less than smoothly. Unfortunately, contractors are right up there with used car dealers and cell phone providers when cited by consumer groups for frequency and volume of customer complaints. But with a little knowledge of the laws governing contractors in California and a little due diligence beforehand, your remodeling project should go off without a hitch.
The typical homeowner is unaware of the basic California State laws governing the business of providing labor and materials for home improvement or construction. In California a person or business contracting to do any job exceeding $500 including labor and materials, is required by law to have a valid contractor’s license specific to the trade. A person who wants to apply for a contractor’s license must have years of verifiable experience in that trade, pass a comprehensive exam on the specifics of the trade and of contracting law that is administered by the Contractors State License Board, not have any history of criminal arrests, and post a contractors bond of $12,500 with the State. In California, different trades like plumbing, masonry, painting, and electrical each have a different license category with a test specific to that trade. A homeowner can easily go online to the Contractors State License Board website www.cslb.ca.gov and search by contractor’s name, business name or license number to verify that a license exists, who the license is issued to, if the license holder currently has workers compensation insurance, and if there have been any disciplinary actions against the license.
It is my opinion that any person who works in the building trades, who is self employed, does not have a criminal background, and is serious about their work will early on in their career acquire a contractors license. No license = no legitimate business = no insurance. It is very important that anyone you hire to work at your home has general liability insurance to protect you against any one of the myriad things that can go wrong in construction, and also workers compensation insurance if they have any employees. A contractor with insurance can simply request from their insurance broker that you are sent in the mail or email an insurance certificate confirming the details of their insurance coverage. If someone is hurt on the job at your home and the contractor doesn’t have worker compensation insurance, then you may be left paying some or even all of the medical bills, lost pay for the injured worker, and rehabilitation. There are more than a few law firms in Santa Barbara who do nothing but represent injured workers with their worker compensation claims against either the injured worker’s employer, or the property owner of the jobsite where they were working when the injury occurred. A contractor should also be able to provide proof of automobile coverage in case a truck gets backed into the wall of your house or a worker gets in a fender bender while picking up materials for your job.
California State Law states that the amount of a deposit on a contract is limited to $1000 or 10% of the total contract amount, whichever is less. There is no legitimate reason for an established contractor to require a deposit greater than these amounts and it is a serious red flag warning sign if a contractor is asking for a large deposit. I know a local custom home contractor who has built over 200 homes in Santa Barbara in the past 30 years, who requires zero deposit and submits only 1 bill to the owner when the house is fully completed. Most contractors however will ask to be paid by a percentage of completion agreement where basically the contractor presents an invoice weekly or biweekly billing only for work that has been completed at the date of the invoice. It is not a good idea for the homeowner to pay ahead for work that is yet to be completed or to pay for materials that are still on order or sitting on your jobsite.
Possibly the best way to find a good contractor for your project is by referral from friends or neighbors. Talk to people you know and associates at work to find people who have had work done at their homes that is similar to the project that you are planning, and who were happy with their contractor and the quality of his work. When interviewing contractors ask them for referrals to past clients, be sure to call the referrals to hear from them how their projects were handled, and ask them if you can stop by to take a look at the finished work. With some research and leg work you should not have a problem finding the right contractor for your project, your job will run smoothly and you will soon be enjoying your new kitchen and extra rooms.
Owner, YourHandyman & Construction
CA License #935259