Shortly after moving to the area, Teran Judd decided in May 2005 to have his unfinished basement renovated to include a family room, a playroom, a spare bedroom and a full bath. “[Our contractor] said he would do all the work and be done by July 4,” said Judd, 33, who lives in Woodbridge near the Montclair area.
Judd, who is married with two young daughters, could never have guessed what would happen next.
“He didn’t finish our basement until November — six months off his forecast,” said Judd.
The cause of the delay, Judd says, fell squarely on the contractor’s work habits. “He’d come in one day and then I wouldn’t see him for three weeks,” said Judd.
The contractor explained the various disappearing acts on a string of family emergencies, claiming his father had died, his mother was in hospital, his daughter got into a car accident, and his dog died. “That’s what he said anyway,” said Judd.
The constant delays prompted Judd to call the Better Business Bureau and “do everything legally in my power to get the job done.”
“It was a complete disaster,” said Judd, who on several occasions had subcontractors knocking on his door asking to be paid when they, too, had difficulty tracking down the contractor.
“It was the worst process my wife and I had ever been through,” said Judd.
FINDING THE RIGHT contractor for home improvements or renovations can be the key to future heartache or happiness, as Judd attests.
Judd tells friends not to do what he did. “I did it the wrong way,” he said. “I found [a contractor], I looked at his Web site and that’s about it,” said Judd. He said he wished he’d made a lot more inquiries.
Because of thorough research, Gail Belt said her experience with a contractor was terrific. Belt, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker, renovated her unfinished basement six years ago. “I definitely got referrals,” she said. “Each one couldn’t say enough good things.”
Belt, who has about 40 years experience in real estate, also went to one of the homes where the contractor had completed a project. “I liked the job that I saw,” she said.
When it comes to finding contractors, the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors (NVAR) advises that people hire experienced, licensed and insured contractors — “ones that come with good references,” added Jill Landsman, director of communications and marketing.
Belt said she would never consider hiring a contractor without checking referrals, saying it may be the most important part of the process.
WITH THE HOUSING market cooling compared to the intensity of the past five years, there seems to be a greater demand for home improvements, according Landsman.
“When you had the frenzied market, it was ‘what you see is what you get,’” said Landsman. “Well, now [sellers] have to think in terms of snap, crackle and pop, and home improvements are the logical method to make the home more sellable.”
Many real estate agents say that improvements — particularly new carpets, fresh interior paint and kitchen and bathroom improvements — can be the difference between selling a home right away or watching it remain on the market for months. “We try to look at things that will make your house show well,” said Carolyn Pittman, a Realtor with Weichert Realtors in Manassas. “There’s just too much competition in the market right now [not to].”
According to Belt, Realtors are often asked about contractors. But brokers, she said, won’t recommend a contractor lightly. “As agents, we will refer somebody only if we can personally vouch that one or more of our clients has had a positive experience,” said Belt.
Referrals, particularly neighbors or friends, are vital in the process of selecting a contractor, said Belt. In addition, she said that customers ought to get everything in writing. “And get it as specific as possible,” said Belt.
AS MORE AND MORE people turn to the Internet to find contractors, they still have to do their homework, said several brokers. “Reality does not always live up to the marketing,” said Belt.
Sean Zobaa, part owner of Contractors.com, a Web site that includes a directory of thousands of Washington, D.C.-area contractors, said his site makes it easier for people to research contractors for free. “It’s an empowerment tool for homeowners,” said Zobaa. “If a contractor isn’t properly licensed, you as a homeowner could be in trouble. If a contractor is not insured, you as a homeowner could be in trouble,” said Zobaa. The site also includes a section where clients can review or provide testimonials — positive or negative — on the work of an individual contractor. The more information a homeowner gathers, the better, said Zobaa.