Earlier this month, I was called in to a home in Durham to provide an estimate for sealing a crawlspace. I was surprised when I found that the crawlspace showed signs of having been recently worked on. When I asked the homeowner about it, I was told that I was the second contractor they’d brought in to do the job and the first contractor hadn’t performed the work to the quality they’d hoped for.
Unfortunately, this kind of story is becoming a more common occurrence. The home efficiency and green living industry is still relatively new, and this has two effects:
One is that home owners are still becoming familiar with energy efficiency solutions and principles, and may not have the knowledge necessary to ask the right questions to ensure their contractor is well qualified and they’re getting a high quality service.
Two is that with any new industry, it takes time for companies to develop a track record (good or bad) for consumers to use as a baseline when choosing who to let into their homes.
With that in mind, I want to give homeowners some advice for choosing their next energy efficiency contractor, and avoiding paying for poor quality service and products.
Although the energy efficiency industry is less than 20 years old, there are a number of accrediting organizations and guidelines that have developed to ensure quality of work. As a homeowner, look for these credentials with your prospective contractors to ensure you’re hiring a professional organization.
The first is simply contractor licensing. Ask your contractor if he (and all employees that will be working on your home) has been licensed through the North Carolina Licensing Board for the work that he’s doing (either general contracting, plumbing, electrical or heating). You can confirm an active license through Contractors-License [http://www.contractors-license.org/nc/nc.htm]. Be sure that the license your contractor carries is relevant to the work that’s being done. If your contractor is licensed in pest control and he or she is quoting to insulate your attic, you may question if they have enough specific knowledge to do the job right.
The second thing to look for is memberships and accreditations relevant to the work being done. Some of the more common green building organizations in the area include Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED), The Building Performance Institute, Energy Star, The American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association, and the Green Home Builders of the Triangle. Most companies are proud to show these credentials on their website or literature, and if you don’t see them, be sure to ask. The absence of any accreditations should be a red flag for you.
Finally, one of the most important credentials is simply experience. How many years experience does your contractor have in the building industry in general, and the energy efficiency industry specifically? How many of the employees who will be working on your home are apprentices or recent graduates? While I’m all for education, you want to ensure that you’re hiring an experienced contractor and you’re not paying for them to learn from mistakes they may make on your home!
If you were hiring a new nanny for your children, you wouldn’t simply take the first person you interviewed at their word and turn over your child’s care immediately. And yet, so many homeowners do the exact same thing with companies they’re hiring to work on their homes!
The first source of references should be homeowners you know and trust. Ask your friends, family and neighbors if they’ve had similar work done on their home recently and if the chosen contractor performed quality work, on schedule and on budget. A helpful hint – simply posting on Facebook that you’re looking for a good home energy efficiency contractor is a quick and effective way to get references.
The second source of references might be the Better Business Bureau. This organization serves to track voluntary recommendations and complaints about businesses in the area, in an objective third party process, which makes it a valuable source of information for the common consumer. You can search for reports on the contractor and his company online through your local BBB website. While one bad report doesn’t necessarily mean a bad contractor, multiple negative reports from consumers should be a warning sign. Equally concerning is if the business isn’t listed on the BBB website at all; this could indicate that the company hasn’t been operating long enough to develop a track record or register with the BBB.
Finally, ask your contractor for the contact information for at least two customers who have recently had similar work done on their homes, so you can ask them some quick questions about the quality of work. Most contractors are happy to share their success stories with a prospective client and most happy consumers don’t mind sharing their feedback in a 2 minute phone call.
Get Detailed Quotes
There’s a common adage that says “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is”. While price is a factor in all home efficiency solutions, it shouldn’t be the only factor. Requesting a detailed quote is a good way to compare apples to apples when choosing amongst multiple contractors with varying prices.
A detailed quote should include:
- Reference material so you can research the products and systems being proposed.
- The payment terms and timeline. For example, you may pay 50% up front for materials and the remainder when work is complete.
- The name and contact information of the person who is in charge of your project onsite, to ensure that you know who you’re letting into your home, and who to get in touch with if things go wrong. If this isn’t provided with the quote, you should ask for this prior to work commencement.
- The detailed work that’s going to be completed, including the description or name of the products being used and how they’re going to be installed. If you don’t understand one of the products or services the contractor is recommending, ask for explanations and consider researching that item online to educate yourself before you sign the work order. For example, you may request they specify what R-value of insulation is going to be installed, and whether the installation includes air sealing of the insulating area.
- Work details which are important to you. For example, you may specify that that all work be completed between 8am and 4pm Monday through Friday, or that workers will return the work area to the current condition at the end of the work. I’ve talked to homeowners who neglected these items, and found themselves with contractors in the house while they were trying to put young children to bed, or a $200 carpet cleaning bill when contractors wore muddy boots through the home.
- Ask for a timeline of the work proposed so you can plan accordingly.
- Make sure you understand if you have any responsibilities to prepare job-site for the work to be done. Moving storage or personal items out of the work area is commonly requested.
Ultimately, your quote and final contract are your primary record of what you’ve agreed to pay for, and the terms under which the contractor must operate, so be sure you’re comfortable with what is written down. Be leery of any contractor who says “We don’t need to put that in writing; I’ll remember”. It’s your right as a homeowner to ask for clarification before work begins. There are no stupid questions when it comes to reviewing the proposed work. Make sure you have a firm grasp on what’s included and what’s not. The devil is always in the details and you shouldn’t make any assumptions about what’s included, especially if it’s not specifically listed on the quote.
Trust Your Gut
Finally, trust your instincts when it comes to your contractor. Your home is your most valuable asset and your place of residence. If you’re uncomfortable with the person or company who you’re going to let into your personal space, consider if you should continue your search for a better fit.