December 17, 2014
by Albert Fontenot
"The man with insight enough to admit his limitations comes nearest to perfection."
~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer and statesman
In the December 11th blog, "When DIY Doesn't Work", I discussed the fact that although being a do-it-yourself landlord is usually the best course of action for a Charleston property owner who wants to save as much money as possible, there are times where the smartest thing to do is step aside and let professionally-qualified contractors take over.
If you recognize that a particular project or task is outside of your area of expertise, then you are to be congratulated. Knowing when to look for help proves that you are more than just a thrifty landlord; you are also a smart one.
But, if you are used to handling things on your own, the act of choosing a contractor may be outside of your expertise in and of itself. Likewise, if you are new to life as a property owner, you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed by the "To-Do List" of things your rental needs.
It can be very confusing to know where to start and what to do. If you Google the words "Contractor Charleston South Carolina", in less than half a second, you will receive about 837,000 results. That number is mind-boggling, considering there are only about 130,000 residents in the city.
Boom! The synapses in your brain have just been overloaded.
Luckily, there are a few common-sense guidelines that you can use when hiring any type of contractor – landscaper, painter, plumber, electrician, property manager, roofer, – you name it. If you follow these guidelines, you can be assured that you are hiring the right professional to tackle those projects that you can't do yourself.
Reputation is important. When choosing any outside contractor, you should first find out what others are saying about this. At the beginning, this means asking your friends, family members, and business associates the names of individuals or companies that they have used in the past. Specifically, ask what they liked and what they didn't like about their recommendation.
Then, you're going to want to check out any third-party information. This could mean the Charleston Chamber of Commerce, Angie's List, and both Charleston's and South Carolina's Better Business Bureau.
Depending upon the particular project you have in mind, some great local resources include the Charleston Homebuilders Association, the Homebuilders Association of South Carolina, and the Charleston Builders Guild. You can also look up online review sites such as Yahoo Business or Yelp.
Compare notes between the various sources, and be prepared to eliminate any companies or individuals that are popping up in negative ways.
History is important. According to several sources, the average home improvement contractor goes out of business in less than five years. For you as a customer, this means that you could lose out on warrantees and other important services. Look for a company that has some longevity and a proven track record of standing behind their work. You want to do business with professionals who will still be there when you have need.
Another benefit of doing business with a long-established contractor is they should have a number of and viewable examples of their work. For some, this will mean portfolios with "before and after" pictures of past projects. More valuable to you might be actual job sites that you can drive by and see in person. If the company has been in business long enough, it is entirely probable that they have multiple examples of their work in your neighborhood.
Compliance is important. By state, federal, and local law most contractors are required to hold certain licenses and certifications. For example:
- Any contractor working on homes older than 1978 are required to be certified by the Environmental Protection Agency that they are able to take certain "lead-safe" precautions. There are similar laws in effect for dealing with homes that contain asbestos.
- The South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation requires anyone performing construction-for-hire for over $5000 in certain classifications to obtain a General/Mechanical contractors license. The classifications include building, plumbing, electrical, and HVAC.
- There are also certain classifications that do not require licensing, but some less-than-scrupulous contractors will try to "Build themselves up" by claiming that they possess just such a license. This is dishonest and misleading, and should raise a red flag in your mind. These types of contractors do not require licensing – painters, siding installers, insulation installers, roofers, flooring specialists, masonry or concrete workers, drywall installers, wallpaper hangers, and general carpenters.
- In Charleston, it is very important that if your property is within the Historic District (see the boundaries here), that any renovations, alterations, or additions to property is first reviewed and approved by the City of Charleston.
- All businesses operating in the city of Charleston are required to have an annual business license.
- Anyone working on your home should maintain several types of insurance, including General Liability, Automobile Liability, Workers' Compensation, and Builder's Risk Property Insurance.
Immediately disqualify from consideration any companies or individuals that offer to supposedly save you money by "cutting corners "when it comes to legal compliance. Remember, if they are willing to break the law, they're also willing to cut those same corners when it comes to delivering quality work.
Any contractor that you are considering should be able to produce copies of all required licenses and certifications to your satisfaction.
There is one more thing to say about building permits. Some contractors will offer to handle obtaining all required permits for your project, but always insist on being given copies of these permits before any job commences. Ultimately, it is the legal responsibility of the property owner to ensure compliance, and it is the property owner who will have to pay any fines and bear the cost of reconstruction or demolition.
Ultimately, you will choose a local Charleston contractor because you feel that they can complete the project at a price you find acceptable. The most important thing to remember, however, is to not let your feeling or a low price be the reason why you hire someone. When it comes to doing a professional job that will protect your biggest investment, you can't accurately rely on either one of those. Use the guidelines above as a step-by-step process to eliminate those companies that you should never hire. After you've done the "weeding out", then you can move forward with confidence.