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Contractors Face County Scrutiny

For the second home improvement project on Lisa Toler's home in Fairfax Station, the Tolers expanded their living space with a sunroom off their kitchen. Their contractor came with neighbor recommendations as well as a photo album of his completed projects easing their minds.

Is he local? Does he have references? Despite the neighbors' assurances, Toler heard some horror stories of contractor mishaps so she pondered these questions.

"He had a book of pictures showing his jobs," she said.

Now with the project half way done, she's picturing family gatherings and nights by the new fireplace in the room. Her contractor, Jim Brock, is local and keeps her in the loop as things progress.

"He's kept me abreast every step of the way and that's important," she said.

WORKING WITH WHAT they've got seems to be the plan of many homeowners in Fairfax County lately, making home improvements and additions instead of buying a new place. The county's Department of Cable Communications and Consumer Protection offers guidelines in choosing a contractor called "Careful Selection is Key to Successful Choice of Home Improvement Contractor."

Carolyn Quetsch with the Fairfax County Department of Consumer Complaints was aware of the popularity of home improvements.

"Home improvements is one of our largest complaint categories. It can be miscommunications, we work with the contractor and try to rectify the situation," she said, although a loss of a contractor's license or a lawsuit can be the result in extreme cases.

In Fairfax County, contractors are required to be licensed by the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, and the State Board of Contractors. They also must have a Fairfax County Business, Professional and Occupational license. The county also recommends homeowners check the contractor's insurance and get a lien waiver so the contractor is responsible for suppliers and subcontractors.

WITH THE INCREASED county rules on home improvements, remodeling or adding on to a home is more complicated than just grabbing a hammer and saw, sketching out a plan, and working on it. Permits are required for most projects. Blueprints, drawings and electrical diagrams must be submitted in the permit process. Failure to do this could affect the quality of work, insurance matters, and safety. Toler worked with a designer before even contacting Brock.

"I went to a designer. She came out, took measurements. She gave us a blueprint to go by," Toler said.

Resale is affected too. Dave Meyers, a Realtor for Long & Foster in Burke, is familiar with the permit process.

"Everything has to be to code, you'll lose your insurance if it's not," he said.

Before he advertises a house, he checks those items. A finished basement is a signal to inquire about permits.

"When I'm listing a house, I look at the basement and that's the first question I ask," he said.

Professional contractors are familiar with the permit process. By letting them get the permit, the contractor is responsible for any mishaps, according to Sonny Nazemian, owner of Michael Nash Kitchens and Homes in Fairfax.

"Always have your contractor pull the permit," he said.

For many, equity is high, housing prices are high, but availability in the county is low. It's the ideal combination to make investing into an existing house the smart thing to do, according to Nazemian.

"With the housing market, they [homeowners] have found a lot more cash, they refinance it," he said.

This is what Toler did. When they remortgaged the home at a lower rate, they took the equity and just about paid for the addition and kept the mortgage approximately the same.

Quetsch said that home improvements seems to be recession proof.

"When money's tight, we see people stay where they are. When money's flowing, we see people investing in their homes," she said.

KITCHENS AND BATHS are Nazemian's area of expertise. He said 80-90 percent of a home improvement investment in these areas can be recouped when the house is sold.

The kitchen is becoming a central gathering spot for the family. Nazemian says kitchens are now 40 percent functional and 60 percent cosmetic.

"It's more decorative. They live in the kitchen," he said.

This was the situation at the Toler house. They renovated the kitchen about three years ago, taking out a wall, and making it the main room in the house.

"Over here," she pointed, "was an eating area. We took that away. Everybody would converge in the kitchen