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Home improvement projects are often some of the most expensive services that a consumer will purchase. Understanding how to buy these services is important. There are times that what appears to be a bargain can be a costly mistake. Other times spending a lot of money is a waste.


“Pre-shop” for your improvement.

Buy magazines showing the products that you are considering. Cut out the photos showing products or designs that you like. This will widen your options and focus your decisions. A picture can do more to communicate what you want a project to look like than a thousand words.


Drive through housing plans looking at homes similar to yours. Knowing what looks pretty in the sample box, but dirt ugly on the home is important information.


Look at jobs in progress. This is the first step to shop for a contractor. Look at job site cleanliness and safety. Watch job progress. Hiring the wrong firm can be a nightmare you may be reminded of every time you pull up to your front door for months while a project is incomplete and the rest of the time that you live in a home.

I remember wanting to send a sympathy card to a homeowner whose back yard consisted of a hole in the ground with yellow caution ribbon surrounding the hole in the spring and did not turn into a swimming pool until the leaves changed to fall colors. The only things in the pool water that year were the fallen leaves.

Get a professional inspection of the entire home as a part of the planning process

Is it better to add a small furnace or replace the older furnace with a single, larger furnace? Are there repairs that will be needed soon that will be less expensive to make as a part of the renovation? If the roof is cracking, it is better to change the roof before the new siding is installed. If the electrical panel is at its maximum capacity, a new larger service may be a smart and safer inclusion for the project.


Compare apples to apples, not bowls of mixed fruit.

On large projects, consider having a professional write a specification for all of the qualified bidders. On smaller projects, list the features and services you require. Include the exact products selected and require “installation to manufacturer’s specifications.” List incomplete decisions as “options” that are to be priced in the bid. Competitive bidding will almost always provide better pricing for options before the construction contract is signed than after. A statement as to the “worst case” maximum charge including labor cost and material markup for hidden items should be included in the bid.


The contract should define the policy and cost of change orders. This will avoid disputes. If a contract specifies that a change order needs approved and signed by both parties before work is done. Let’s face it; pricing will be lower when you can still say “no.”

“Check out” your contractor.

Check with Angie’s List, the Better Business Bureau and any of the many online review programs. An absence of complaints does not tell you if the contractor is established, experienced and secure in the business. Friends and family are usually one of the best referral sources.

A new contractor or an "old" contractor with a new name may use a referral service that have “pay to play business listings.” That can mean that if they paid the listing fee, they may have a record that does not include their past problems.

Check the credit record of the contractor. You could be stuck with an unfinished project from a financially troubled contractor. Major suppliers are often a great source for finding the best contractors. They know who pays their bills, has lots of business and employs responsible workers.


Obtain an insurance certificate from the contractor's agent. The certificate should include liability, auto and workmen’s’ compensation coverage. If the contractor gives you a photocopy of a policy, you will not know if the policy is still in force.


Make sure that you only pay once for a job.

If a project is for more money than you can afford to pay twice, you should have a “no lien” contract prepared and filed for the project. Without this type of contract, suppliers and subcontractors can force you to pay them even if the contractor was paid in full.

Ask about work policies of the contractor.

The bid process is like dating. The actual project is more like marriage. How the contractor performs the project may be different from the promises they made when they sold the project.


It‘s not binding that a contractor “expects” to have a project done in three weeks. It is enforceable if the contract requires a completion date with a penalty of $200.00 for every extra week the project takes.

Other work policies include site cleanliness, utility use, access, work hours, responsibility for damage caused by the workers, and communication issues. Workers that show up unannounced one day and not at all the next is just one aspect of many potential irritations.


Include service policies and responsibilities in the contract. Who pays to have defective products replaced and who is responsible for obtaining the replacement materials are contract issues.

Decide how to disagree before you have a dispute.

Decide who, how and where to settle a dispute before the project is started to save years of litigation. There are many arbitration services available.


You will be living with your contractor during the project. Make sure that they are a match for your needs and personality.


For More Information:

Information about the role inspection can play in planning your home improvement project and more information about you and your home:

For information about a healthy home environment:

A listing of contractors belonging to the National Association of the Remodeling Industry

A listing of the National Association of Home Builders Remodelers Council

Find a Home Inspector near you

Local Contractor Reviews

Better Business Bureau company complaint history

Inspections for “Seniors Aging in Place” The service provides advice, planning and safety information for seniors “aging in place” and to help their children that are too far away or too busy to check a home for needed care or repairs.