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For all of us, there are tasks for which we need professional help to complete a home improvement project. Whatever help you require, these pages provide some guidelines for hiring professionals. Finding good tradespeople can be difficult. Seek out help through personal recommendations or through professional organizations, and preferably view their previous work before hiring them. Always insist on a “price.” This should be the amount you pay for the job specified—no less and no more. The only reason a price should change is if you alter the specifications of your particular job or if the professional discovers “unforeseen problems.” Both should be clearly defined in the contract.
• Always use personal recommendations for tradespeople.
• Always get estimates or prices put in writing with a detailed job specification.
• Check that heating, plumbing, and electrical contractors have the required qualifications.
• Check that any tradesperson has the appropriate insurance.
• Ask for samples of any materials that will be used, such as bricks, blocks, shingles, or finish material.
An architect will draw plans required for construction, if you are seeking a building permit, for example. Architects generally charge a flat fee for drawings, and then extra to oversee work being carried out (normally a percentage of the final building bill, ranging from 5 to 25 percent). If the architect is going to oversee work, check what this entails and get it in writing.
Masons and bricklayers
Bricklayers tend to solely lay bricks and blocks, whereas masons will also build natural stone walls and construct special stone features. Charges for stone and masonry work are normally based on every 1,000 bricks laid, or a lump-sum price for a specific job, such as building a chimney. If you hire a bricklayer, specify the brick type and insist on seeing samples.
Large building companies manage trade contractors to do the work on your behalf. Smaller building companies or general contractors will normally have trade skill sets themselves, such as carpentry or bricklaying, but may also become the project manager for part or all of the work being carried out. The builder may include this cost in the submitted price, or charge a further percentage on top of the final cost. Get this in writing before work starts.
Carpenters and joiners
Finish carpenters assemble custom-made, wood-based items such as doors and windows, whereas rough carpenters or framers will fit these items into your home, and tackle structural tasks. There are overlaps between the two. A good carpenter can be invaluable in complex tasks, such as calculating complex roof layouts. With a finish carpenter, be clear on specifications for any items that you have commissioned him to make. If he is making custom cabinets, for example, make sure that he specifies the type of wood and the finish detail. The difference in quality and price, can vary greatly.
An electrician will carry out all types of electrical work, usually for the wiring of outlets, light switches, phones, and televisions. Most states require electricians to be certified but specific requirements may vary by county and state jurisdictions. Check with the city building department about the specific type(s) of required certification and /or licenses and verify that your electrician meets those requirements.
General flooring companies can tackle any floor requests, ranging from initial leveling to waxing a hardwood floor, for example. However, make sure they have the relevant experience in all areas. You can also employ carpet installers, wooden floor specialists, or floor tilers.
Before a building starts to go up, excavators generally do all the preparatory work, including digging for foundations and routes for drainage and utilities. Many are employed by a builder, but some work independently. It can save time and money to employ an excavator and his equipment for the day to carry out all of the heavy earth- moving requirements on a project.
Skill and experience in this trade vary greatly. Good laborers are skilled at helping another trade to finish a job. General laborers will price themselves based on knowledge and experience, and hourly rates will vary widely. Personal recommendation is essential.
Painters and decorators
A good decorator will carry out all aspects of decorative coatings, including painting, papering, and , in some cases, tiling. Specialist tilers sometimes tile both walls and floors as a full-time occupation. Good decorators can provide very-high-quality finishes—a preferable option when looking to hang expensive wallpaper, for example. Make sure that the number of coats, type of paint, and general quality of materials is specified in any painting lob. Decorators can be an excellent source of ideas for new effects and finishes.
Minimal drywall repair is easily done by the “do-it-yourselfer” but large scale jobs require skill. Pricing for repair work is usually set according to square footage or estimated time. Check that the price includes all coats required and whether painting is included. They may also offer “tacking” services—cutting and fixing drywall before repair.
Plumbers and heating contractors
There is often an overlap in expertise between plumbers and heating contractors. When installing, servicing, or maintaining a gas- or oil-fired furnace, they must have the relevant county and state certification/licensing. If you do not have experience in working with gas or propane piping, hire a professional. For general plumbing work such as installing tubs or toilets, the law is less exacting but most often also requires state or local licensing. Always find out what is required by your area before you hire one of these specialty trades.
A general contractor may be the best choice for project management. He can schedule the job, coordinate the various trades, and communicate on your behalf with everyone involved in the project. If you are employing an architect on new building work, it may be best for them to project-manage. If the size of job warrants a professional project manager, be certain of their credentials based on proven experience.
Usually, roofers only deal with roof coverings, such as tiles, shingles, felt, and finishing and any mortar work on the roof. A carpenter will deal with any structural elements. Large companies have carpenters working with the roofers. Smaller firms subcontract out structural carpentry. Roofing bids or prices can be complicated. If weather delays work, this can have effects such as increasing the price of scaffolding rental. On large jobs, a roofer may actually scaffold over the top of the house and provide a waterproof “tent” so that work can continue in most weather. This increases cost and is only worthwhile on larger jobs. Check samples of materials, such as tiles and felts, before they are bought and make sure your choices are specified in writing.
This category includes all those trades and services that offer a product with their own installation service. This can be anything from new windows, to garage doors, blinds, or custom kitchens. Make sure the product you receive is the same as the specification you were sold to avoid problems with your installers. As the number of different installers a project involves increases, more vigilance is required to ensure that the job runs smoothly. Make sure that you specify each installer’s individual responsibilities. For example, a company that installs blinds only has to supply what you ordered and use relatively basic skills to install them. A company that offers a custom kitchen installation service needs to supply carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and possibly heating engineers, decorators, and tilers.
As their name suggests, structural engineers assess the structural and load-bearing issues of a building and provide specifications. For example, they can calculate requirements for headers and for foundations. They are often consulted by architects when plans are being made, and generally charge a flat fee. Many municipalities require a stamp from structural engineers for new or remodeling jobs and ignorance of this requirement could cost you serious money in fines or replacing work in place.
Payment and extras
On small jobs, never pay the entire fee up front. It’s not uncommon to pay a deposit but be clear on what your recourse is. Pay the full amount only when you are satisfied that work has been completed to specification. On larger projects, it's common to stagger payments through the course of the project. Link these to clear stages, such as the completion of excavation, for example. On large projects, a builder may require some money up front. This acts as a deposit and allows the builder to order and buy materials. The builder usually has a clear “progress schedule” for payments and you should feel comfortable with the requirements. It is standard practice to retain a portion at the end until all work is complete to satisfaction. Any payment in addition to that originally estimated, or quoted, should be backed up by reasoning agreed between both parties, in writing.
As building materials, environmental protection policies, and health and safety standards change, so do planning and building regulations. Local authorities deal with most planning issues under an umbrella of national policy and rules. Further rules apply to listed buildings and conservation areas. If you are considering structural work, always contact the local building department first. They are there to help, not hinder. A quick phone call can often put your mind at rest about what does or does not need a permit. Construction is supervised by an inspector. Again, a quick phone call can often solve many problems. If you are carrying out work, the inspector will often need to check various stages to ensure that regulations are being adhered to. Insulation, ventilation, electrical wiring, water supply, and drainage systems have all recently become more stringently regulated. Use these highly trained professionals as allies. They offer excellent advice and help.
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Updated: Wednesday, September 12, 2007 2:54 PST