A contract is an important element of any home improvement project. The level of detail required depends on the size and scope of the job, but even simple repair work should be governed by a contract. While scrupulous contractors strive to create contracts that are fair to both parties, homeowners are responsible for reading and understanding the contract before signing.
A home improvement contract should spell out the precise work to be performed. "Paint the bedroom" is vague and could be interpreted differently by each party. "Apply two coats of Behr paint to bedroom walls, ceilings and trim" is better, but still not detailed enough. Who is responsible for removing hardware and patching holes? Will the old paint be removed? Will primer be used? Who moves the massive antique wooden furniture?
Some contractors assume that certain basic preparation tasks are their responsibility, but others charge a premium for these jobs. As a general rule of thumb, if a task is not specified in the contract, it is not included in the price.
State and local permit requirements vary between locations. In general, minor jobs such as painting do not require permits, while electrical work and building projects do. In historic districts, exterior painting may require permission from the local historical commission. Permits cost money and may take time to obtain. The contract should specify who is responsible for getting the permits for your job.
Home improvement contractors charge according to various payment schedules. Many require a 50 percent deposit and the balance due at project completion. Some charge a smaller deposit, perhaps 10 percent, but require interim payments, known as draws, at different points during the project.
Payment schedules can be complicated and confusing, and should always be clearly delineated in the contract. If draws are required upon completion of project phases, the contract should specify the criteria for finishing each phase.
It is impossible to predict with certainty how long a home improvement project will take. A good contractor can estimate project length within a few days, providing no unexpected problems arise. An estimated project completion date can help you plan, but be aware that it is subject to change.
It is most common for the contractor to provide all necessary tools and materials for the project. For smaller projects and homeowners on a budget, some contractors may be willing to use materials that you provide. If the contractor will provide the materials, the contract should specify exactly what will be used, including brand, color and quantity.
Your contractor might discover hidden problems during your project, you might decide to add new tasks or you might simply change your mind about the work. The contract should delineate how such changes are handled. Is there a change fee? Do you want a written estimate if the project will exceed a certain dollar amount? Do you want to be consulted about new problems? Get everything in writing, and never make assumptions.
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