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Building on Compatibility

Finding a good contractor you can trust is worth a careful selection process. Don't just pick the lowest bid.

October 01, 2000|KATHY M. KRISTOF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sandy Jung knows just how difficult it can be to look for a contractor in today's booming remodeling market.

One landscape contractor who promised a bid just left, never to return, when she briefly went into her Hacienda Heights house. The 27-year-old schoolteacher says she's had painters complete half a job, then fail to return to finish the work. She has a list of general contractors who have told her that the retaining wall she needs built is "too small a job" for them.

"It's really frustrating," says Jung, who adds that she can't figure out what she's doing wrong.

Admittedly, Jung's search method--going through the Yellow Pages and Internet-based contractor sites--is far from ideal. But, increasingly, consumers complain that finding a contractor who will bid a small job, or even return a phone call, is tough. It's even hard to find a good contractor for a major remodel, especially if you're anxious to start right away.

"I'm 'projected out' for a year and a half," says Dee Bailey, vice president of sales at Harrell Remodeling Inc. in Menlo Park, Calif. "In this economy, all of the contractors are busy and all of the subcontractors are busy."

The fact that good contractors are pressed for time makes the search all the more frustrating, especially when experts advise that you should choose your contractor as carefully as you choose your spouse: Not only are you going to see a lot of each other for the duration of construction, you'll live with the results for many years to come.

It is possible to hook up with a great contractor who will do a professional job on time and within budget. But doing so takes plenty of time and work.

The best way to start your search is with referrals from an architect or designer, who should be able to give you names and phone numbers of several good contractors in your community. It's also wise to chat with your friends and co-workers and cruise your neighborhood, looking for other projects that appear to be similar in scope.

Contractors' signs freckle the landscape. Pay attention to who is working where, and don't be shy about knocking on doors.

Naturally, you should be considerate of people's privacy and time. But if you happen to catch a remodeling homeowner with time to talk, you might get a rundown on how the project is going, and either a glowing reference or a warning about a contractor.

"Get references, particularly on contractors who have done work similar to yours," says Paul Deffenbaugh, editor in chief of Remodeling magazine in Washington, D.C. "Don't say, 'Great deck! Does he do kitchens?' Spend the time to find the right person for your job."

The National Assn. of Home Builders, (800) 368-5242, can provide a reference to a local remodelers' or home builders' council, from which you can get additional contractor referrals, says Bailey.

By the time you're through collecting names and numbers, you're likely to have more potential bidders than you want.

Why not have everyone bid? It's expensive, says Andrew Hui, a Los Angeles-area homeowner who added 1,000 square feet to his Westchester home. Every contractor who provides a bid needs a set of plans. Your architect is going to charge for each extra set that you require, so being selective saves money, particularly if you're doing a major remodel with a thick set of blueprints.

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Hui narrowed his list by creating a short questionnaire that started with whether the contractor wanted to bid his job, whether he or she had ever done similar work and, if so, for whom. It also asked for the contractor's license number, references and a list of current and recently completed jobs.

He sent the questionnaire to seven contractors, got back six and then asked the four contractors with the most relevant experience to provide bids.

It is very important to carefully check contractors' credentials, builders say. Fortunately, this is easy to do in California, thanks to the Contractors State License Board. The state board offers both a Web site and telephone hotline, which can give you a glimpse of whether the contractor has a history pockmarked with regulatory and legal problems, as well as whether the contractor has an up-to-date license, is bonded and insured and has special training or professional designations.

The agency's Web site (http://www.cslb.ca.gov) will allow you to pull up contractors' histories by company name, contractor name or by plugging in the contractor's license number. To use the telephone hotline, (800) 321-2752, you need a license number.

Any disciplinary or legal history noted on the board's report should be a bright red flag, telling you that your contractor may be trouble, says Rob Rosebrugh, owner of RR Construction in Thousand Oaks.

"It's got to be pretty bad before you get a mark on your record, because they [officials at the state license board] try to resolve things first," he says. "When you see something there, it's usually because it's something the contractor has refused to correct."

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