Deferred home maintenance is oft-times caused by an aversion to confronting the fear of being taken advantage of (much less the thought of spending more money). There are several things you can do as a homeowner to help yourself, but probably one of the most important is to adopt some basic guidelines that will serve you well in warding off the majority of scams that con men are out there with this year.
Surefire signs of early Spring!
Homeowner's Guide to Springtime Contractor Hiring Decisions
License = accountability and security
Maryland has several requirements that it levies on its licensed trademen; and most of these are solely for the benefit of the homeowner (a.k.a. taxpayer). To hire an unlicensed individual is to deprive the honest tradesmen of business, but, perhaps more importantly, it removes several key protections/benefits from the homeowner. For example, if the guys you decided to hire off of Thumbtack, Craigslist, or Home Advisor are not licensed, and most aren't by the way, and they cause significant damage to your property, the only recourse you have is a civil suit--and that's only IF you can properly identify them. Remember, there is no effective screening performed on individuals using or paying for these services. Thumbtack and Home Advisor both make their money off of the people they're referring their leads to and their overriding criteria for "contractor" participation essentially boils down to the ability to pay their fees. Additionally, there have been times when criminals have posed as tradesmen to "case" a house for a future burgalry (or worse). Most typically, the unlicensed individual is going to do slipshod work and still expect to be paid. The drama is rarely worth the perceived savings, so why go there? Also, don't just take their word for it, look them up and check them out! DLLR MHIC license search hyperlink
Deposits <= 33 percent of the project and should always be specified in a written MHIC contract agreement
It's not uncommon for a contractor to ask for a deposit to cover the up-front costs of materials, permits, etc. By COMAR, a licensed MHIC holder can not charge more than 1/3rd of the contract's total value as a deposit. If you're being asked for more than that, something isn't right. Also, beware of verbal agreements. Insist on getting the most significant items in writing within the contract document, and KEEP A COPY OF EVERYTHING! If changes do occur, ask for a written summary--to include costs--so that there are no nasty surprises. Also, don't expect that your seemingly innocuous color changes, etc. are going to be free. Having to spend an extra few hours applying primer to a darkly painted room that you now want white again isn't going to be something that will be done without someone (read, the person requesting it) having to pay for it. Just make sure you nail down how much extra it's going to be beforehand...
Social media and references matter
In today's marketplace, you simply can't rely solely on the online reviews anymore. There are several motives for bogus reviews, and there are plenty out there. Forensic analysis of some of the reviews we've looked into has found that the same exact phrases often appear on more than one site! Most reputable businesses, contractors included, have a social media presence that can be reviewed by prospective clients. Additionally, it's "okay" to talk to past customers, ask the contractor for pictures of projects in the before-during-after stages of past projects, and to verify the owner actually belongs to the house being photographed (via publicly available County property records). Adherence to this one principle would foil the vast majority of the frauds out there...
Organization affiliations make a difference
If there's a professional trades or business association and the contractor you're considering doesn't subscribe to them, ask them why. Affilation with professional organizations shows a commitment to professionalism that should parlay into a higher quality outcome on your project. Belonging to the Better Business Bureau, etc. goes a long way in making sure you're dealing with a ligitimate business and actually comparing "apples to apples." A word about the sea of Internet referral services out there: if you're getting the referral at no cost to you, who do you think is paying for it (and why)???!!!
Beware of BOGUS claims of background checks, etc. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE REFERRAL SERVICES IS SUBJECT TO MANIPULATION AND FRAUD!!!
Best defense is to hire a locally referred contractor who maintains a reputable, verifiable business. Don't get fooled by slick, seemingly endless advertising and don't scammed by the guy referred to you by that free web-based referral service that HE/SHE IS PAYING FOR!" In other words, you are not really getting "referred," rather you are being "steered" to the person paying for the "advisor" services you think you're getting for free. Think about it...
Responsiveness and attitude matter as much or more than the actual contract
A policy isn't what's said or written, it's what is actually done... A contractor who doesn't return phone calls or e-mails within a reasonable amount of time is probably not going to change after the contract is signed and the deposit paid. If the tradesman is agreeable and flexible with most of the requests, then you've probably hired the right one. This is the guy or gal who puts the customer's desires ahead of their own (provided, of course, that the customer is being reasonable and isn't asking for "something for nothing"). Also, does it really hurt to insist on an arbitration or mediation clause? Sure, you can sue them if you wish, but wouldn't it be easier (not to mention faster and cheaper) to have a means, such as Better Business Bureau, the MHIC Commission, et al, arbitration to make sure you have a workable means to compel an errant service provider to do the right thing... Think about it and then insist on this feature in your MHIC contract. You can learn more about MHIC contract requirements at this hyperlink DLLR Notice of MHIC Contract Requirements
MHIC contract rules have changed for seniors--be sure to insist on your hard-earned rights!
Maryland has recently enacted significant contract changes in MHIC contracts, under amendments to the Door-to-Door Sales Act, for senior citizens (65-years or older) when hiring for work on their homes. You can read up on these requirements at this hyperlink DLLR Explanation of Recent Sales Act Changes
Be the grown up in any disagreements with your contractor!
A final word of advice. All contractors have had their share of unreasonable, overly-demanding clients. Unfortunately, this has been the underlying cause of many of the almost pathological responses we hear about from time-to-time. Reputable contractors are professional business owners. That means they pay their taxes, keep their insurance in place, and have sage legal counsel to keep them out of trouble. If you're the type that likes to immediately threaten litigation (or a butt whupin) the moment something isn't going your way, be sure you KNOW what you're doing first. In many cases, verbally or physically threatening a service provider will immediately void any express or implied warranty related to their work, or worse, could actually result in civil or criminal charges AND involuntary enforcement of the contract. Be the grown up in any disagreements. If things aren't working out, arbitrate, mediate, or litigate--DO NOT ATTEMPT TO INTIMIDATE. The same holds true for the threatened homeowner. If you're uncomfortable with the behavior or attitude of one of the contractor's employees or subcontractors, you have the right to insist that they be replaced. Keep in mind though that the contractor may have to amend the agreement to cover additional, REASONABLE costs associated with this. Not all subcontractors will do the work for the same price, and a short-notice replacement of an employee will most likely extend the duration of the project, etc. Still, it may be worth it if your safety/peace of mind is shaken by a personality you'd rather not put up with...