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Get it in Writing

Owning a home usually involves repairs or renovations. If you hire a contractor, avoid potential problems by doing a little research to make sure the contractor you choose is reputable.

Before the first nail is hammered, check references. Local building inspectors, the Nova Scotia Home Builders Association, Better Business Bureau, developers and previous customers are all good sources of information.

  • Get key information: the contractors' policy on guarantees, a sample guarantee and contract, information on sub-contractors they may hire. Read this information carefully. Sub-contractors in certain trades are not required to be certified by the Province. In this is the case, ask the contractor for references so you can talk to other customers about their satisfaction level. You should also make sure that sub-contractors such as bricklayers, electricians, plumbers and oil burner mechanics are certified by the Province of Nova Scotia. Check with the Department of Education's Apprenticeship and Training Division to see if the contractor you're thinking of hiring is certified.
  • Compare prices. Narrow the list down to three possible contractors and get written estimates. Provide each with a list of the work you want done, show them the site and walk through the project with them. Make sure all quotes are based on exactly the same job. Along with the technical part of the job, discuss start and completion dates, as well as acceptable work hours.
  • Choose one contractor and negotiate a written contract. A specific, well-written contract should make clear who is responsible for what and can protect both you and the contractor. It should include:
    • how much you will pay in advance;
    • the total cost and the method of payment;
    • the start and completion dates;
    • a monetary penalty for each day the contractor works after the ending date (optional);
    • the materials you want used;
    • all of the work that is to be included in the price;
    • who will get any necessary building permits;
    • insurance coverage; and
    • who is in charge of clean-up.

Many contractors have developed a contract for this purpose, however, it can be amended to include any of the above items. If one doesn't exist, you can develop it yourself. If appropriate, you may wish to have your lawyer review the contract before carefully reviewing it yourself and signing. Once your contractor signs the contract, you should both keep a copy.

Contracts for large jobs should involve installment payments to be made as each phase of work is completed. Do not make the final payment until all work is completed. Hold back 10 percent of the total value of labour plus materials for 60 days after the work is finished. This hold-back allows you to protect yourself in case your contractor runs into financial difficulty. Under the Builder's Lien Act, you have a responsibility to the sub-contractors and suppliers who provide labour and materials. If these people have not been paid (either by you or the contractor) they may place a lien on your home. If you hold back 10 percent, this will be the limit of your liability to unpaid sub-contractors. Sub-contractors can place liens without notifying you, so before paying any money, check the Land Registration Office for liens against your home.

Changes will most certainly be made before the job is finished. These changes should never be made without the written approval of the homeowner and the contractor. The precise changes and the cost increase or decrease as well as any additional time added to the job should also be outlined.

Following this advice may not deter all potential problems—a repair or renovation can be an amazingly complex undertaking. However, you reduce the risk of encountering a serious problem with your contractor when you research and plan your project through to completion.