Secrets to Hiring the Right Contractor for Your Job

Westchester’s top builders give their tips.



Sequoia Contracting in North Salem translated architect Lucio Di Leo's plans into this expansive renovation. photo by Phillip Ennis Photography

 


Rendering by Studio RAI Architects 
 

Before, photo by Alan Megerdichian

You’ve lined up the funding, got your plans drawn up, braced yourself for months of dust and paint fumes. But whether it’s a new bathroom, a new wing, or a whole new house, there are definite do’s and don’ts when it comes to hiring a contractor. “There are a lot of bad apples out there,” says Anthony Maiolo, owner and president of Maiolo Construction in Eastchester. “They get their foot in the door, they’re good salesmen, but that’s where it ends.” 

Sometimes, your architect will oversee the project—at a price—and offer suggestions, handle the paperwork, the payment schedule, and the inevitable glitches. But even without an architect at your beck and call, you can find the right contractor for the job, whatever the size. Here's how.

Ask around.
Of all the ways to find a contractor—Google searches, Angie’s List, the Pennysaver—nothing beats a personal referral. “The best recommendation you can get comes from someone you know,” says Alan Mergerdichian, owner and president of Sequoia Contracting Co. in North Salem. “If a friend has done a renovation and is happy with the contractor at the end, that’s the best.” Be aware that in-demand contractors are choosing you as much as you’re choosing them. “If I were to get a cold call from a homeowner that’s interested in having me bid on a job, I’d ask them where they got my name,” adds Mergerdichian, who lines up jobs through architects who use him regularly. Your local building department and chamber of commerce may be able to offer some names as well. And check out FranklinReport.com, a sort of Zagats for all things home improvement, including contractors.

 

Cover your assets.
Even on small jobs, your contractor must have a New York State Home Improvement Contractor License issued by the Department of Consumer Affairs as well as workman’s comp insurance. (He can’t get a building permit from the town without them.) He should also have liability coverage insurance. Make sure his subcontractors are also insured, and ask to see the actual paper documents. Ask for a “hold harmless” agreement so you’re not held responsible in case of an accident. “The biggest investment is your home, and you’d hate to leave yourself open to jeopardizing that,” says Michael Murphy, head of New Project Development for Murphy Brothers in Mamaroneck (and, ironically, not a Murphy brother). “I would never consider anybody who wasn’t licensed or insured. People think the worst thing that could happen is the guy doesn’t show up. The worst thing that could happen is a guy falls off a ladder or burns your house down.”

Check references—in person.
A reputable contractor will hand over recommendations without question. But don’t just call the homeowner; if possible, go to see the work. Not only can you see his craftsmanship up close, you’ll verify that he didn’t give you his sister-in-law’s name. Also, “make sure the references line up with the kind of work you want to have done,” advises Murphy. “If you’re having a kitchen done, make sure he has kitchen references. If you’re doing an addition on a house with stucco or stone, make sure he’s worked with stucco and stone before—unless you don’t mind being the guinea pig.” Also, use the opportunity to quiz the homeowner on other aspects: Was his crew neat and respectful? Was he on the job every day? Did he get it done on time and on budget (or at least in the ballpark)? Was it a happy job?

Study the website. 
Most professional companies will have a polished, upscale website with plenty of pictures of completed jobs. “I think it’s tremendously important,” says Thomas Clemmens, president of Clemco Construction & Restoration in Ossining. “It lets people see what kind of work we do.” Since Clemmens specializes in historic restorations in Westchester and Putnam Counties, the website pulls in people searching for that niche. “When I first started my site 10 years ago, I was skeptical, but in the past few years it’s generated more contracts from people I don’t know.” The website can also show you if the contractor is up to the task. “Think of it as an electronic brochure for what kind of company they are and what level of work they do,” says Murphy. “If the contractor’s biggest job is $250,000, you wouldn’t want him doing a million-dollar job.”

 

Be prepared. 
Once you’ve lined up your candidates, invite them over to see your property. Have your plans in hand, either from an architect or a certified kitchen or bath designer. “When I come out, I would hope you’ve already talked to a licensed architect or interior designer,” says Murphy. “They hand us the plans like it’s a recipe and we’re the bakers. We follow the recipe to a T.” What the contractor should tell you is whether you need a permit. Most jobs do, says Tom Gallego, owner and president of Bashford Construction in Yonkers. “If he’s willing to the job without a permit, be cautious.” 

Narrow the field down to no fewer than three candidates. “You always want three or four bids; one’s going to make the other honest,” says Gallego. “The other two are high or low; the third should average the others out or be in the middle.” Gallego also recommends getting an itemized bid, not a lump sum: “Giving a breakdown shows the client where the money is going. It’s like a restaurant bill.” 

Meet and greet. 
When meeting a contractor, “first impressions are everything,” says Anthony Maiolo. “How does he carry himself? Is he respectful? He’s gong to be there for weeks at a time—you want to make sure you’ll be comfortable with him in your home. I was on a kitchen job for six months. By the end, I’d become part of the family.” 

On a new build, a site supervisor or foreman may be required. “If you’re dealing with a large outfit that uses a site super, it would be a good idea to actually meet the person who’s going to be running your job,” says Alan Mergerdichian. “Chemistry comes into it a lot,” especially when you seeing this person every day for months on end. “You may have a different style, or maybe the person rubs you the wrong way.” It’s good to know before the walls come down (or go up).

Get the lead out.
Any contractor worth his tool belt will ask you how old your house is. This matters because the EPA-passed Renovation, Repair, and Painting Rule (RRP for short), which requires firms working on a house built before 1978 to be certified in lead-removal techniques, went into effect two years ago. “I don’t think a lot of homeowners are aware of the rule,” says Maiolo, who works on many old homes and is licensed for the process, which involves sealing off the area and using special equipment.  “I explain to them how it’s supposed to be tackled.”  If a contractor isn’t certified (though most good ones are), he will use a specialist for the work. This will not only affect his bid, it should affect your bottom line, since it would be best to move out and rent temporary living quarters during renovations, especially if you have young children. A simple lead-paint test kit from Home Depot can tell you if lead paint is a problem. (To learn more, go to www2.epa.gov/lead/renovation-repair-and-painting-program.)

 

Don’t be cheap.
While it’s tempting to go with the low bid (especially in this economy), cutting costs can cost you in the long run. “Going with the cheapest guy can backfire,” says Mergerdichian. A super-low bid means “the guy may have cut the numbers to the bone.” He’s more likely to charge you for every little thing, whereas someone who bid higher has a built-in cushion to do “freebies,” such as wall-mounting your flat-screen. “He may cost more in the end, and probably will, than the guy who’s charging the right price from the beginning.” 

There is also the risk that a contractor who bids low might “disappear” and not finish the job. “The low guy, he either misses something in his bid or he’s using inferior materials,” says Mergerdichian. “Let’s say he made an honest mistake and he missed something. Two thirds of the way through the job, he realizes, ‘I’m going to lose money.’  That’s when you hear about contractors who run away and don’t finish the job. A lot of times, it’s because they’ve mispriced it from the get-go.”

Keep him close.
No ladies, this isn’t some HGTV hunky contractor fantasy—we’re talking accessibility. All our contractors agreed that being available to clients is key. Can you reach them on their cellphone? Do they have so many jobs going on at once that yours gets short shrift? Tom Clemmens suggests asking a potential contractor how much time he will personally spend on the job—and hold him to it. “If he’s just going to come in with coffee for the guys and then be gone the rest of the day, it’s probably not a good sign” that he’s on top of the job.

Follow the money.
Most contractors ask for a 10-percent retainer. “Small jobs are three payments; on bigger jobs, the payments are spread out,” says Clemmens. Unfortunately, it’s not unheard of for the money you give the contactor to pay the plumber goes instead to buy sheetrock for another job. Michael Murphy recalls one instance involving a different contractor, in which the homeowner went to turn on his new air conditioning system. It didn’t work. “He called his contractor and the contractor said, ‘Call the HVAC guy.’ And the HVAC guy said, ‘I wasn’t paid. When I’m paid, I’ll make sure it works.’” 

To protect against this, Tom Gallego asks his subcontractors to sign a “release of lien.” This ensures that the sub won’t come after you should he not get compensated. “When I give my subs a check, they sign a release of lien so if the client says, ‘Tom, what did you do with this money?’ I have a paper trail.” Finally, don’t give your contractor the final payment until the job is done and he’s given you the new certificate of occupancy. If he’s willing to go along with these conditions, says Gallego, “you’ve got a good builder.”   

A frequent contributor to Westchester Home, Dana White has a few contractor horror stories of her own.