The Austin Chronicle

So, Who's Your Contractor?

Resources for Finding the Perfect home-Project Manager

By Richard Whittaker, August 3, 2007, Features

There it sits. The pile of rubble that used to be your kitchen. You've stood atop what the contractor told you was going to be Italian pink marble but looks suspiciously like concrete paving slabs. There's the space for the sink that the plumber swore was going to be installed by the time you got back from vacation. And why does the new remote for the under-the-cabinet stereo turn the microwave on? What's worse, the friend who recommended these home-wrecking, dream-destroying Cro-Magnons keeps telling you they did such a great job on their house.

When looking for a contractor, most people usually will ask family, friends, and colleagues for someone they trust. But word of mouth is not always the best way to protect yourself and your home, sweet home, from crooks, con artists, and shoddy work.

First, check any contractor's credentials. The state of Texas doesn't require all builders to be licensed, but it does mandate that builders must be registered with the Texas Residential Construction Commission. This means all their work is guaranteed for at least one year and the building has to be habitable for 10. The registration also means if you've got a complaint about the work done, the commission will provide you with a neutral report that you can take to arbitration or court. If they're not registered, then steer clear. There's even the Texas Star Builder Program, in which builders voluntarily agree to meet higher standards. Just check for the star builder logo next to their name on the commission's website. Don't worry about someone applying once and staying on the list forever: Builders have to reapply every year to prove their commitment to meeting those higher standards.

There are some specialty trades, such as plumbing or wiring, that cannot be practiced without a license. It's not just a matter of slapping down some bucks and getting a card saying you can rip someone's house apart. A licensed master electrician has to pass the state's exam, and they only can take that after two years as a licensed journeyman and 12,000 hours of on-the-job training under a qualified master electrician.

While checking for state-approved credentials is important, it does not answer all questions, such as: Do you know the difference between a class A air-conditioning and refrigeration license and a class B? Can a plumber install a gas oven? Is a plumber allowed to install a gas oven? Will an out-of-state license do? Simple answer: Ask the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. This official governing body for all statewide licensing gives a handy guide to which license does what. You even can check on their website if the card being carried by that contractor eyeing up your property is still valid.

So you've checked if they're legal, but are they any good? There are plenty of third parties out there ready to give you their opinions. The Better Business Bureau keeps records on all members, plus nonmembers who have complaints against them, for three years. Although they don't provide any details on individual complaints, they'll tell you if a firm made good on any problems or if it ended up in arbitration. Plus, if you're using an architect or project manager, ask them for recommendations. Or you might look online to public review sites like Angie's List to hear the good and the bad. Maybe you're looking for something special, like an eco-friendly builder: You might want to check out our very own Austin Chronicle Green Guide, which will point you to contractors who know what sustainable means.

Now you've got your short list. Here comes the toughest part: Talk to your potential contractors. After all, you might be letting them into your house for months and paying them a lot for the privilege. Make sure they understand what you're looking for. Ask for references, and follow up on them. Try to get a rough quote. If they're serious about getting the contract, they'll be willing to talk to you.

Useful websites

Texas Residential Construction Commission,

Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation,

Better Business Bureau of Central and South Central Texas,

Angie's List,

Austin Chronicle Green Guide,

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