Hiring A Massachusetts Home Improvement Contractor: 10 Things You Need To Know

by Rich Vetstein on July 14, 2009 · 17 comments

in Construction Law, Home Improvement, Lead Paint, Massachusetts Real Estate Law

Sadly, completing a home improvement project on time, on budget and with good, quality work is the exception rather than the norm these days. I have seen homeowners pour their home equity lines and savings into home improvement projects only to see the project left incomplete and riddled with defective and poor quality work, or worse, with the contractor abandoning the project and going bankrupt.

Homeowners can avoid ending up in this predicament by following my 10 Things You Need To Know About Hiring A Massachusetts Home Improvement Contractor. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

1. Pre-Construction Planning:  Budget, Budget, Budget

Recognizing that even the most thought-out home improvement projects tend to run up to 10% over budget, careful planning and budgeting before the work starts is paramount. There are almost always going to be contingencies and unknowns (like the mold in your walls that you never knew about) cropping up during construction so you need to allocate a sufficient reserve (10-15% should do) to cover these unknown risks. Once the budget is set, stick to it, even if it means foregoing that gorgeous Italian tumbled marble in the master bath. Also, come up with a written construction schedule.

2.  Interview At Least 3 Contractors and Obtain Written, Detailed Estimates From Each

I cannot tell you how many times homeowners select the first contractor to whom they were referred without vetting them through a proper bidding process. Interview 3 contractors, be with them when they walk through hour home, and more importantly, get written, detailed estimates from each contractor. None of this, “Yeah, this project should run about 10k.” This is also your best opportunity to negotiate the best price as you can play each contractor against each other. Be aware that the cheapest bid does not necessarily equate with the best work.

3.  Obtain 3 References And Check The Better Business Bureau

This is a critical, yet often overlooked piece of preventative maintenance. Most folks are referred to a home improvement contractor through a friend or family member, however, you should ask the contractor for at least 3 references. Call each of them, then ask each of them if they know anyone else who has worked with the contractor and call them too. (The contractor will always list their most “friendly” references). Ask them if the contractor performed quality work on time and within budget. Were there issues with scheduling, delivery of the correct materials, and the labor?  This is your opportunity to get the real scoop. Search the Better Business Bureau for any complaints about the contractor. The BBB has a good resource for spotting contractor rip-off artists.

4.  Check License/Registration Status Of Contractor

You should always select a licensed home improvement contractor. They are regulated by the state and using them entitles you to the protection of the Massachusetts Home Improvement Law and Contractor Guaranty Fund if there is a problem. There are 2 types of home improvement contractor licenses in Massachusetts. A Home Improvement Contractor (HIC) license covers most types of typical home improvement work, except for structural work. Structural work must be performed by a contractor holding a Construction Supervisor License (CSL). You can search for Massachusetts HIC or CLS licensed contractors here. The license search also discloses any complaints against the contractor.

5.  Sign A Written Construction Contract In Compliance With Massachusetts Home Improvement Law (General Laws Chapter 142A)

The Massachusetts Home Improvement Law provides the bare minimum of what is required to be in home improvement contracts over $1,000, but most contracts supplied by the contractor are non-compliant and terribly one-sided. Here’s what you need in your home improvement contract:

  • The home improvement contract must be written, dated, and signed by both parties. Make sure the contractor executes the agreement under the entity which is pulling the permits. Some contractors attempt to work  under another contractor’s company or worker’s compensation policy–this is a red flag. If the contractor is not incorporated but is a “dba” (unincorporated doing business as), he must sign individually. The contractor needs to list his license number as well.
  • The home improvement contract must provide the start date of the work and the date of “substantial completion.”
  • The home improvement contract must provide a detailed description of the work and materials involved.  I suggest incorporating that detailed estimate provided by the contractor discussed previously. (You can attach it as an exhibit or addendum to the end of the contract).
  • The contract must detail the scope of work, being as specific as possible. I cannot emphasize this enough.  Itemize the exact type of materials involved (Andersen windows, California paint, Italian ceramic tile, etc.), and work to be performed (full kitchen remodel with installation of new flooring, appliances, etc.). If you are not specific in the contract, and there’s a problem later, your claim will be severely weakened, if not dead on arrival.
  • The contract must provide the total contract amount and the timing of progress payments. Massachusetts law prohibits a contractor requiring an initial deposit of over 33% of the total contract price unless special materials are ordered.  Any contractor demanding over a 33% deposit should raise a huge red flag . (I recommend setting up payments into thirds, with the first payment due at the start of work, the second payment due halfway through the work, and the final payment due at the satisfactory completion of the work.)  The homeowner should always “holdback” up to 33% of the total cost until the work is done and done right.
  • There are other requirements mandated by the Home Improvement Law.

To be safe, I recommend having an attorney review the contract. Proposed contracts which do not comply with the Home Improvement Law are a red flag.

6.  Hold A Pre-Construction Meeting

Seems pretty obvious, but again frequently contractors jump into a job right after signing the contract without taking the take to meet again with the homeowner. Walk through the project again after the initial estimate. Discuss any changes and scheduling issues. Pin down the contractor as to exactly when the crew will be on the job. Talk about expectations for day end and clean up.

7.  Verify Sufficient Liability Insurance and Worker’s Compensation Insurance

Obtain the contractor’s Worker’s Compensation Insurance Coverage sheet showing that it has worker’s compensation insurance in place as well as the coverage page for its Commercial General Liability (CGL) policy. Request that the contractor add you (and your spouse if you own the home jointly) as “additional insureds” on the policy with at least $1M in liability coverage in place. This should protect you if a worker injures himself on the project site.couplewithhouse

8.  Ensure The Contractor Pulls All Permits

Always have the contractor pull the building, plumbing and electrical permits. Owners who secure their own permits are ineligible for protection under the Home Improvement Law. If a contractor is reluctant to pull permits himself, it’s a red flag.

9.  Document All Changes In Writing

I cannot tell you how many times that after signing a comprehensive written agreement, homeowners and contractors alike change the work and increase the contract price orally without any written documentation. This is a huge No-No and will get the homeowner into trouble every time. Ask the contractor for a “change order” to fill out and sign, or create one yourself.  It should, at minimum, provide the original contract price, a detailed scope of the new work, its cost, and the updated total, signed and dated by both parties.

10.  Carefully Monitor The Project And Keep Lines Of Communication Open

Seems like common sense, but don’t go on vacation during a home improvement project, lest you arrive home to a mini-disaster. Keep a log of daily activity that you can match up with the project schedule. Another common complaint is when the construction crew inexplicably fails to show up when you expect and is instead at another project. This happens a lot at the end of the project when the contractor is focusing on the next job. Email or write the contractor and get his firm commitment to finish your job or else you will withhold final payment. If there are any issues or problems, the best way to cover yourself is to document them. Email works great here as it is not too formal yet more than adequate to memorialize the event. Create a final punch list for all incomplete items and withhold final payment until it is completed.

If you are seeking a licensed general contractor in the Greater Boston area who follows these guidelines, call George Lonergan of Lonergan Construction, Inc., (Tel: 508-875-0052) based in Framingham. He also certified under the new Lead Paint Removal Regulations.

Best of luck with your Massachusetts home improvement project!

  • John L

    We need to have some FHA repairs done on a rental home before purchasing. Seller cannot do repairs. We will hire a painting contractor to scrape and paint some areas so that the FHA loan can be done. Seller won’t let contractor do work without workmans comp but contractor has great commercial insurance. Is this law or can contractor work with Commercial insurance only. It’s not much work at all.

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  • fed up

    What does it mean when your builders name is not on the permit, it is someone elses?  Does it mean he is not licensed?  I had to provide the bank with the insurance binder from him to cover the work? I am so confused! biggest nightmare of my life

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  • Playing a critical role are the professional associations created to represent the architects, architectural technologists, interior designers and skilled trades that provide specialized services to homeowners. These associations provide credibility, trade guidelines and useful information to help homeowners learn more about the trades they are about to hire.[
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  • Brian & Mary

    VERY USEFUL information. THANKS!

    So… onto my issue…

    We have a roofer who recently called us up after five months to inform us that the price of materials would be going up and that we should go ahead with our plans to get our roof fixed. The last time we saw him, we had signed a contract to have him do our roof contingent on our getting financing and him informing us when his callendar would open up. We waited five months, and during that time we needed to use what funding we had to deal with other house-fixing issues with our old house.

    No work has been done. The contract never had a start date put on it. We do not have the money to fix the roof and do not want to have this contract over our heads indefinitely. What should we do?
    -Brian & Mary

  • Brian & Mary

    This was VERY helpful! Thanks!

    Ok… here’s our issue… we have a roofing contractor who just called us after 5 months to tell us that the price of materials is going up and that we should hurry up with our roof! We sat with him in October and signed a contract pending financing… sadly, other house repair problems have come up in the time we’ve spent waiting for this man to call us… we were told he would contact us when his schedule opened up… There was NO date put down on the contract for it beginning… nor a date for it to end.

    So… what are our legal options? Is the contract legal? Can he raise the price on a contract based on the price of materials? I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable with the fact that he didn’t contact us for five months and then used a bit of a pressure tactic with the price of materials…

    Thanks!
    -Brian & Mary

  • Robert

    I have an electrical subcontractor who demanded more money after a couple weeks on the job. He stated that all the work he was doing wasn’t agreed to by him. My General Contractor spoke with him and he returned to the job and finished. Now I have received a little from his lawyer sating that he is suing me for the difference. The General Contractor has stated that he will not get involved. I don’t know what conspired between the two. But, I never signed a contract with the electrical sub contractor. Under the home improvement law am I liable to pay this person the extra money he says he is owed?

  • Rick

    You mention “substantial completion,” but don’t define it. Could you elaborate? Thanks!

    • Rick, substantial completion typically is met when the work is 99% complete, all permits have been signed off, and there is an occupancy permit in place. There may be minor punch list items left to do, but substantial completion has been achieved.

  • Cate

    This is very helpful information, thanks! I’m wondering what, if any, regulations there are regarding new buildings – if there is a major structural issue do owners have any recourse against the builder? My 4 unit condo building was gutted and rebuilt in 2007 and the units were sold in the fall 2006. At the time I purchased the unit (fall 2006), I did have it inspected and everything check out. However, in the first year, the roof began to leak into my neighbors unit. The builder patched the roof at that time. Last winter (2008/2009), the roof began leaking not only in my neighbors unit but into all the units because the water got under the roof and leaked down the side of the building so we all now have water damage in our units.

    We have since found out that when the builder “repaired” the roof the first year, it was repaired with tar – our roof is rubber – which basically ate through the rubber roof. Also, when the roof deck was added by the builder (after we had our inspections and were already in the building), the deck was installed improperly and that further caused the roof issues (the posts were driven into the roof and nothing was done to seal around the new posts). Right now, we have about $8k in roof repairs on a 2.5 year old roof. Needless to say, the builder isn’t taking our calls.

    Are there any regulations that protect against this kind of poor workmanship?

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