Can I Trust My Contractor?



Q: How do you know if your contractor is taking advantage of you? My contractor is a sweetheart, a perfectionist, and a seemingly hard worker. But the work was supposed to be completed last July — he now predicts March of this year. Every time he touches something it seems, oops, there’s a big problem that needs to be addressed. As a result our bill has more than doubled. The house is looking great, but...are we being taken? —
M. D., Ossining

A: So your contractor is a sweetheart, a perfectionist, and maybe attractive, too, what with his manly tool belt and muscles. But were those the terms used by his references? Or did they speak highly of his ability to get a job done on time and close to budget? You got references, right? And not just from his mom?

“If you do your homework and check out your guy, you shouldn’t get burnt,” says Roseanna Tedone, project manager at Scarsdale’s CCI Group, Inc., a construction company that’s done a lot of high-end work in Westchester (www.theccigroupinc.com). Your contractor should be licensed, bonded, and insured, and carry workers’ comp as well as liability insurance, she advises. “Get at least three references and actually go to see projects that he has completed.”

It sounds like yours is an old house, bristling with what’s known in the biz as “unforeseeables,” like asbestos, missing beams, this and that not up to code. “But for a bill to have doubled ¬— that’s extreme,” Tedone notes. “It sounds like the contractor isn’t very experienced.” CCI’s owner, Carmine Tedone, has been in the construction business for 30 years, so “he’s come across every problem you can come across,” she adds. He’ll explain what “unforeseeables” may be hidden behind the walls and beneath the floors in an old house, and take them into account when estimating a job.

Another reason your bill may be mounting is that the cost of materials has risen significantly in recent months. “Roofing, siding, and masonry — anything to do with plumbing — it’s all gone up,” Tedone says. “Windows are up almost 30 percent.... Liability insurance and workman’s comp have increased a good 20 percent in the past year, too.”

Tedone also wonders if you’ve joined your contractor in the quest for perfection. “Often the client will see work being done, and say, ‘That looks good,’ and then want to improve the rest of the house, to make things match. Or a client will go for a bathroom with standard fixtures and when push comes to shove, she’ll want premium products instead — glass tiles from India, a toilet from France.”

Are you ordering toilets from France? If not, you could give your contractor a budget for the remaining work and make it clear that he can’t exceed that amount. “People are hesitant to give a budget, but it’s one of the smartest things you can do, so you’ll end up friends,” Tedone advises. As for getting the job finished in this lifetime: perhaps you can break it down into phases, she says.

It takes a long time to build up a good reputation and only one or two dissatisfied customers to drag it down. You are a future testimonial for your contractor, so it’s unlikely that he’s deliberately swindling you.