After two serious hits from Old Man Winter, it looks like Spring is right around the corner for Oklahomans.
I don’t gloat to my Yankee friends about the “early” warm weather in Oklahoma. It’s as welcome here as the first warm breezes are in my native Ohio, although those winds show up about three months later than in OKC. “Early,” you see, is a relative term. After nothing but gray skies and something like four feet of snow over the course of a Great Lakes winter, you can bet anybody in the area is beyond happy to see a sunny day…muchless a week of them strung together.
Know who else likes warm weather? Con men! A new spring means another round of victims for them. As I continue my BBB career and grow a bit older (and one might argue “wiser” in there, too), I’ve noticed that we don’t see all too many serious con men who hit once and disappear. When the Attorney General or another law enforcement arm really drops the hammer on this breed, it tends to be after a long time of ripping people off. You hear about multiple companies these clowns have operated, even a generational bogus business passed on from con-father to con-son.
BBB computers are built to identify players with sordid backgrounds, but we’re willing to admit that there are ways around it. There are ways around state databases designed to monitor similar behavior. Not to give instructions on bad business, here, but we might have a record that Dan Jones has disappeared without doing work after accepting up-front payments from retirees, and if Dan Jones tries to register himself under a new business name, the computers should catch it. What if Dana Jones files the business questionnaire? It might take until a complaint gets filed to make the connection. Much as we – and the Secretary of State’s Office, or the Attorney General, and every other consumer information or protection outlet from the local police station through the Federal Trade Commission – work to watch these guys, they can play a shell game with business ownership, passing the paperwork from one extended family member to the next. They shuffle the deck by trading in in-law names and opening one business on the heels of closing another. They’re practiced at it, and unless a prosecutor eventually sees enough abuse of the system, they may get away with the shoddy practices for decades. That’s the cold reality of things. For some people, the con game is a way of life.
It’s not all gloom and doom. I like to think that most companies are in business for the right reasons and for the long haul. In short, business owners may be in business to make money, but I think most of them prefer to do it legitimately. They want to earn a living, in the purest sense of the term.
What about the others? You need to weed out the bad guys. The Better Business Bureau is one way to do that. So is asking around – friends, coworkers and family are great barometers of good and bad contractors. Contractors live and die by their reputation, and good ones protect it by standing behind their work and getting the job right the first time, but they also are skilled communicators and careful negotiators. They don’t over-promise or over-commit, and experience has taught them that a little honesty up front (like knowing what job to walk away from or tactfully telling a customer that he’s expecting too much for his dollar) go a long way.
See, sometimes a bad contractor out-and-out steals your money and leaves you with nothing to show for it. Another one might promise to start work on the first of the month when he knows there’s no way he’s going to show up on your porch before two weeks in. There’s all kinds of “bad.” We don’t even have to get into the one who thinks he knows what he’s doing because he worked a couple of summers with his dad – who may have been the best builder in the world – and can get some help part of the time from his unemployed cousin. Professionalism counts, too. You need to weed through a lot of bad apples to find the guy you want to work with.
If you’re considering a home improvement, you’ve got a lot of homework to do before you pick up the phone book or supermarket paper and call the first contractor you see. You want to know as much as you can about the project you have in mind before you make the first call. I’m not saying you have to be certified as an architect, but there’s a huge difference between knowing that you want to build on an eight by ten foot room, with two windows and electrical outlets, and simply saying “We need an addition.” I’m also not saying that you should decide what you want and put blinders on, ignoring what the contractor can and cannot do for you. Contractors can make great suggestions, and we pay them for their experience. Maybe you could get a ten by ten foot room for the same or less money because this contractor can cut the beams differently than you expected. Maybe your community’s building code won’t allow a razor wire fence. We expect a contractor to make suggestions and let us know the rules, but if you have a solid idea of what you want – the basic size, amenities, and your plans for how the space will be used, for instance – you’ve done yourself and the contractors you’ll speak with a big service. You’ve given yourself a starting point that most experienced contractors can understand.
Now, you need to meet with contractors and get your estimates for the project in writing and in the most specific terms possible. Some vagueness in the estimate is okay, as long as it gets tightened up by the time you sign the contract. Get at least three written estimates and work from there.
A word on pricing issues. Nowhere in the world can you play the numbers game like construction. Getting back to our example of adding an addition to your home, all sorts of variables will impact the price. What kind of wood do you want to see used? What kind of finish on the walls? How many outlets? Besides altering your plans to suit your budget, less-than-scrupulous construction crews have been known to substitute cheaper materials on the projects of unwary – or, worse, unspecific – homeowners. If you want an oak staircase (and if you’re paying oak prices), make absolutely sure that you’ve specified that in the contract. In writing.
This is the perfect spot in our discussion to remind everyone that the days of the “handshake deal” or “gentlemen’s agreement” are long gone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, folks. One thing a contract should guarantee is that, once everything has been reduced to specific words, item numbers and, if needed, diagrams and everyone involved has signed off on the deal, everyone should be on the same page and have the same expectations for the finished product. The last thing a homeowner wants or needs is “mutual mystification,” or any sort of misunderstanding that lays between him and the contractor like a lump, just waiting to cause expensive trouble down the line. Remember: In general, once you’ve signed the contract and made your down payment, modifications will probably cost you. And, honestly, they should. A reputable contractor is proceeding from his hard copy of the plans for your project – everything from hiring subcontractors to buying materials to scheduling the time for the work – and alterations to those plans upset not only the program for your project, but the others he has lined up for other customers. Remember, also, that if dates are important to you (like the date you expect the project finished, for instance), get that in the contract, too. If the contractor won't put it in writing, assume that factor doesn't exist.
Here’s another bit of bad news if you’re planning a home improvement that will take more than about a day: Expect inconveniences. A good contractor will warn you that you’re going to be without power for an afternoon, or that to complete the job, he needs to shut off the water for a couple of hours first thing in the morning as you’re getting ready for work. Tearing off old construction to make room for newer and better? Expect a mess before things look good again.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and even the easiest home improvement project will cause headaches. That’s part of the game. You minimize the need for painkillers with every step you take to be prepared ahead of time.