Having construction work or renovations done on your home is certainly an exciting, but undoubtedly stressful time. In fact, the process from selecting a suitable (and experienced) contractor to completion of the project can be downright daunting at times. As a homeowner myself, who coincidentally is going through this very process as we speak, I know the difficulties of sifting through countless potential contractors, negotiating prices, and coordinating schedules and the like. As daunting as it may seem, there are certain steps a homeowner can take at the outset that will mitigate potential pitfalls during construction, ensure your project is constructed properly, mitigate construction disputes, and alleviate unnecessary stress.

Finding the right contractor for the right price is no easy feat, but is one of the most essential tasks you will undertake when you begin your construction project. So how do you go about finding that perfect contractor? One of the best ways to find the right contractor is through a referral. Has your neighbor recently had work done on their home? A friend or family member? Ask them about the contractor they used, their experiences with that contractor, and how the work came out. Ask to see the work so that you can see firsthand the workmanship and quality of construction.

If you are a member of Facebook there is certainly a local page or community page for your town or city. Submit a post asking for references. People will surprise you and be quite helpful. In my own search I have found several of my contractors through local Facebook groups and even referrals from Facebook friends. I found the contractor that will be redoing my bathroom through my neighbor who also recently had their bathroom done. An additional source for locating a contractor is the website Angieslist.com. The website has submissions from millions of homeowners reviewing contractors, and the best part—the website just recently dropped its subscriptions and is now free to join.

Once you find a contractor that you are comfortable with, both professionally and pricewise, it’s time to place your John Handcock on the contract documents. At this stage, one would be well advised to seek the advice of counsel and have the contract reviewed to ensure you, the homeowner, are protected. However, some things to keep an eye out for:

  1. Ensure that the commencement and completion of construction is explicitly stated, either in the form of x days, weeks, months, etc. or with a specific start and end date;
  2. Ensure that any materials to be used and/or installed are clearly identified. For example, if you asked for Hardie Plank siding, make sure that is specified in the contract;
  3. All changes, alternations, increases in price, etc. must be made only pursuant to a change order request, in writing, signed by both the contractor and home owner;
  4. Ensure that the terms of payment and payment schedule are acceptable to you. Payment should be made contingent on the completion and approval of work i.e. progress payments. Never pay the contractor the full contract price upfront!

These are but a few of the items of concern that homeowners should look out for in their home improvement contracts. The more complex and involved your project is, the more reason to bring your attorney in early to ensure the contract complies with New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act’s Home Improvement regulations and to ensure that you are protected.

Speaking of protection, always make sure that your contractor is insured. This should be one of the first questions you ask the contractor during your search. While an uninsured contractor may come with a (slightly) lower price tag, the risk is typically too great to do without. Retaining a contractor with proper insurance will provide you with the necessary safety net in the case of damage to your property or injury to persons during construction. It will also provide you with a possible avenue of recovery in the event that one of your contractors’ work is defective and causes damage to the work of another.

Be sure that your contract has a provision requiring your contractor to provide proof of insurance, which typically comes in the form of a “Certificate of Insurance.” The certificate will identify the contractor’s company name, business address, the insurance company who issued the policy, the policy period, and limits of liability. Take a look at the certificate to ensure that the policy coverage period extends for the duration of your project. If not, ask for proof of renewal or proof that the contractor obtained a new policy.

My last bit of advice for you, and I know you will think: “I don’t need that.” But trust me, you do.

Depending on the size and complexity of your project, it may be wise to hire an independent construction manager, engineer, or architect to supervise and inspect the progress of work.

Let’s face it, you have your own job, family and responsibilities to take care of, and quite frankly, more likely than not, are not familiar with the applicable building codes, industry standards, and the like. That is where your construction manager/engineer/architect comes into play. They act as your representative at the job site, whether it is on a daily basis, weekly basis, or only for inspection prior to the issuance of progress payments. Their expertise will be invaluable to you and will ensure that your project goes smoothly and is constructed properly. During construction projects, expect the unexpected, but know that your construction manager will be able to advise you and guide you as a disinterested expert.

These are just a few ways you can mitigate construction disputes with contractors. Here at Stark & Stark, while we cannot build your dream home for you, we can ensure that the process goes as smoothly as possible and provide you with the legal counsel needed to guide you through all phases of your construction. When one thinks of beginning a construction or home renovation project, they typically do not think of having an attorney on their team…until it’s too late. Getting your attorney in on the ground floor will help fend off construction disputes and legal battles down the road, and ultimately save you time, money, and stress.