In the wake of Tropical Storm Ida, thousands of New Jersey homeowners will need to hire contractors to repair their homes. For many, the damage is devastating.
But before you hire a contractor to work on your home, beware. New Jersey does not require the profession to have a license, spotlighted in a recent report by NJ Advance Media. Contractors in New Jersey don’t have to prove they can hammer a nail.
Instead, they only need a Home Improvement Contractor (HIC) registration, which only requires a $110 fee and a liability insurance policy.
Convicted criminals can even get an HIC registration. The statute that created the registration specifically does not allow the Division of Consumer Affairs to run background checks on applicants, and there is no dedicated board that disciplines contractors, unlike the plumbing and electrical trades.
Other states require applicants to have training, take skills tests and undergo criminal background checks and credit checks.
And in New Jersey, you need more training and testing to give a $15 haircut or a manicure.
The lackluster registration requirements leave homeowners faced with making what could be a very expensive, if not dangerous, mistake. Without a more robust qualification program, it’s not easy to know if a contractor is skilled or if they will do substandard work on what’s probably a homeowner’s biggest investment.
Before you invite a contractor into your home, here’s what you need to know.
HOW TO CHOOSE A CONTRACTOR
To find a reputable contractor, start by asking for recommendations from friends and family and neighbors. If someone you trust had a good experience with a contractor, it’s a good sign.
When you have some names, it’s time for some research.
You can see if the contractor has an HIC registration on the Consumer Affairs website or you can call (973) 504-6200. When you call, you can also ask if the agency has any complaints against the contractor.
Next, see if there are complaints against the company on the Better Business Bureau’s website.
One caveat: While the BBB can be a resource for consumers, it’s not a definitive reflection of trustworthiness. That’s because contractors who respond to complaints can still maintain an A-plus rating, even if consumers are unsatisfied with the responses.
Next, type the contractor’s name and the company name into a web browser. Try the names with the word “complaint.” You never know what will come up.
If the contractors seem to pass muster, get at least three estimates for the job. Be suspicious of very low bids.
Be sure to ask for references and photos of jobs they’ve already completed.
If you think you’re ready to hire the person, check a few items on the contract. By law, all jobs costing more than $500 require a written contract. It must include the legal name and business address of the contractor, the start date, the completion date, a detailed description of the work and the total price. The document also must list the contractor’s registration number, and you must be supplied with a copy of the contractor’s general liability insurance policy and the insurance company’s phone number.
Make sure the guarantees and warranties are listed in the contract, along with details about brand names of materials, permits and who cleans up when the job is done.
In New Jersey, you have a three-day “right of rescission,” which means you can cancel a contract for any reason before midnight on the third business day. If you cancel, put it in writing and use registered or certified mail, return receipt requested.
Be wary of contractors who solicit door-to-door, offer discounts for finding other customers, accept only cash or pressure you to sign a contract immediately.
Also note what kind of deposit the contractor asks for. It’s customary to pay a third when you sign the contract, a third at the midway point and the balance upon completion. If someone wants you to pay for a whole job up front, you may want to find another contractor.
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Karin Price Mueller may be reached at [email protected].