Courting Contractors

Hands down, I was sold on the house when I stepped onto the deck and saw the beautiful meadow and creek,” recalls Alvin Adell. And there was one other huge incentive: The 3,200-square-foot Center Hall Colonial-style house in Colts Neck, New Jersey, was a 60-minute train ride from New York City and Atlantic City and 35 minutes from Newark International Airport. “I travel a lot, so convenient access was a major selling point,” says the 46-year-old attending anesthesiologist with Liberty Anesthesia and Pain Management PC. But the house itself, Adell says, “needed some love.”

In April 2000, Adell hired interior designer Beau Boger and began his remodeling project. He had four priorities: create the feeling of a luxe spa in the master bath, build a secondary level atop the two-car garage for the master suite (complete with a fireplace, walk-in closets, and patio), modernize the kitchen with a heated flooring system, and open up the kitchen to the dining room and deck. “I love to grill, sometimes in the winter, so easy access to the deck is important,” admits Adell.

Select a contractor. Through referrals, Adell found three contractors to interview. He requested references and visited one site worked on by each contractor he was screening. He checked the Better Business Bureau for any complaints about the contractors and visited hardware stores to gauge material prices. “One contractor was low-balling,” Adell says. “I knew it was impossible to do the job with his bid; he was eliminated. Low-ballers eventually add costs or skimp to get by.”

Adell established an account at Route 18 Lumber, so his contractor “wouldn’t have to [shell out] up-front money on materials and wait to be reimbursed,” he says. “And I wouldn’t have to worry about him overcharging me for inferior materials. Invoices came directly to me and I qualified for a contractor’s price on materials.”

Develop a plan B. Even with repeated prescreening, you may not avoid costly misjudgments. If you’re dissatisfied with the work and decide to fire a contractor midway, it may cause a number of complications. “It delays [project completion and] contractors hate to come behind another contractor to correct work. In their mind you’re vulnerable, so a $10,000 job could cost $50,000.” Adell decided to check with his attorney on the grounds for replacement — changing design decisions, hiring substandard subcontractors, doing shoddy workmanship, and being grossly behind schedule, though the contract lacked a timeline stipulation.

David Jaffe, staff vice president of legal affairs for the National Association of Home Builders, advises including a “time is of the essence” clause, which elevates the value the homeowner places on the time it will take to complete the job: “The contract can be terminated on the grounds of breach if the timeline is missed, but you may choose to include a clause that pardons the contractor if the delay is due to reasons beyond his control.”

Research resources, project guidelines, and educational seminars are available through the National Association of Home Builders (

By November 2001, one year after the