Choosing home improvement contractors carefully

Last week, Next Step Living (NSL), a former MassSave contractor was forced to close its doors amid a cash crisis and mounting questions about its business practices. Some of the company’s former customers have flooded the Massachusetts State Attorney General’s Office with complaints about the company’s work and resulting damages to private homes.

At one time, the company had about 800 employees and annual revenues that exceeded $100M annually. In its last incarnation, NSL provided home energy audits and insulation installment in local homes as a MassSave contractor. According to the estimates from participating utilities and MassSave, the closure has left about 2,000 customers who had scheduled work (or have work in progress) wondering what will happen to their homes.

The incident has called into question the amount of contractor oversight in the MassSave program. MassSave is a cooperative effort of the state’s public utilities, and the utilities actually manage the program. The program generally monitors the work of contractors, and local building inspectors are responsible for permitting and inspecting the work.

The final chapter of the NSL story hasn’t been written yet, but the incidents raise some good points about contractor selection and how consumers can protect themselves and their homes. For the most part, MassSave contractors do their own promotion and recruiting. Consumers select a contractor from the program’s list of participating firms.

Consumers should always check any contractor’s credentials, including licensing, insurance and references, before allowing a contractor to perform work on their homes. Some helpful local resources include:
• the State Attorney General’s Office (complaints and criminal investigations)
• the local building inspector (permits, building code requirements, complaints)
license lookups (trade license verification)

You can also check online reviews, but remember that online reviews aren’t always accurate, verified or trustworthy.

Make sure all of the paperwork is in order. Paperwork includes:
• building permits
• insurance certificate
• proof of licensure
• the contract

A building permit is a physical piece of paper that contains specific information about the work to be performed at your house. Your local building department issues it, and many municipalities require the permit to be displayed in plain view (e.g., on the door or a street-facing window) while work is ongoing. Most municipalities need a day or two to issue a building permit, so if your contractor shows up without one, do not let him or her start the job.

An overwhelming majority of home improvement projects require a building permit. If a contractor tells you that your job doesn’t require one, contact your local building department to verify that before you allow a contractor to begin to work on your home.

Do not seek a building permit on behalf of a contractor! The person (or company’s) name on the permit is responsible for the quality of the work. If your name is on the permit, you will be responsible for the cost of addressing any code violations created by a contractor’s work.

Once the project is finished, a building inspector must visit your home personally and sign off on the contractor’s work. Usually (but not always), the contractor who performed the work is also present. The inspector will give you a receipt, showing that the work was either approved, or if violations are found, what must be corrected before the permit can be closed.

When it comes to home improvements, ultimately you are your own best friend. Major home improvement projects have the ability to increase the value and enjoyment of your home, but poor quality work can lead to additional expenses and compromise the safety of your home and family. Taking some time to verify the qualifications of home improvement contractors will always pay big dividends.

Photo Credit: Marc Dorsett, via FreeImages.com