Ready to remodel? Make sure you sign a fair contract.


Whether you have a shabby 1970s kitchen, a dilapidated 1920s bathroom, want to add a room to your cramped Craftsman bungalow, or plan to tear down the entire joint and start from scratch, renovations require to make multiple decisions and careful hiring.

To, you’ll find advice on selecting potential home improvement contractors, as well as unbiased reviews of local businesses. Until October 1, Washington Post readers can access Checkbook ratings of local general contractors for free via

Even if you find an excellent home improvement company, you must obtain a firm agreement in writing that specifies several conditions.

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Don’t assume that even an airtight contract will protect you from the misery of working with a lousy contractor. No legal document can snatch good work from bad faith actors and unskilled workers. But by putting all the details of your job in writing, along with a few other clauses, you can eliminate common sources of disputes.

Here are the points to include in a contract for a medium or large scale project; but even if your project is small, many of these points also apply.

⋅ Obtain contact information for all parties involved, including names, addresses, and phone numbers, as well as the company’s license number.

⋅ Indicate who will do what. Specify who will perform the various aspects of the work and that the company is solely responsible for managing subcontractors.

⋅ Get a detailed job description. Include a task list or refer to plans and drawings. If you engage an architect or designer to oversee all or part of the project, this relationship should be described.

stipulate that all construction products and materials must be new; comply with all relevant laws, regulations and codes; and are covered by applicable manufacturers’ warranties. If you supply household appliances or certain materials, indicate them. For millwork, hardware and other finishes, require the renovator to provide samples for your review and approval before purchasing or fabricating the items.

⋅ Include price and payment terms. Get fixed, itemized pricing for all elements of the job.

Try to minimize the down payment and maximize the final payment. The longer you can hold off, the more leverage you will have to ensure the job is done right and to your agreement. Avoid companies that require large initial deposits.

For most major renovations, payment is made in stages as the work is completed or before large orders are placed. For example, a contract might require five payments: an initial 10% down payment, a 30% payment after demolition and framing; 30% payment after installation of drywall, windows, doors and subfloor; a payment of 20% after the end of the works; and a final payment of 10% once all facets of the job are completed. If you’re financing the work through a home equity loan, most lenders won’t release funds until they know a milestone has been satisfactorily completed.

Try including wording in the contract that withholds a percentage of the total price, called a “deposit,” until you are sure the job has been done right. A 10% holdback is common.

If the company accepts credit cards, consider charging for all or part of your work. If there is a problem, you can dispute the transaction with your credit card company.

⋅ Insist on quality standards. To protect against obviously substandard work, include a catch-all phrase that the contractor will complete the project in a professional manner and that the work will comply with applicable building codes and regulations.

⋅ Include warranties and warranties. Provide a clause stating that the workmanship and materials used by the renovator will be free from defects for a certain period after the work is completed, and that repairs or other work to correct the defects will be carried out free of charge. One- or two-year warranties are common, but push for the longest warranty possible.

⋅ Explain how you can make changes. Include provisions for handling unforeseen or unexpected changes – and that you and the contractor will accurately describe the change, agree on a price, and incorporate the change into the overall contract.

⋅ Include start and end dates. Ask for a firm start date. The completion date will likely be an estimate. To protect your right to cancel the contract in the event of unreasonably long delays, include this sentence: “The start and end dates are essential to the contract.”

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⋅ Require work to be continuous. Some contractors start with a bang and bring a full team that swarms the work area – for the first day or two. Then, for all sorts of reasons (mainly juggling other jobs), there can be days with little or no on-site activity. Minimize these delays by making it clear who will be at work and that, time permitting, work will be continuous.

⋅ Dealing with lead paint testing and reduction. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires contractors working in pre-1978 homes to be certified lead-free. Even very small projects are covered by the law. If your home was built before 1978, include this statement: “The contractor and all subcontractors will follow EPA regulations to test for lead-based paint and, if detected, take appropriate action to contain the work area and minimize the generation of lead paint dust.

⋅ Include indemnification and waiver of client liability. Your contract should “release you from liability” and protect you from claims, costs and attorney’s fees arising from the work of the contractor.

⋅ Insist that permits and approvals are taken care of. The contractor must determine the necessary permits, apply for and pay for them, and arrange for government inspections, if necessary. The contractor should also obtain approvals from a homeowners association or historic district, if required.

⋅ Include lien releases and lien waivers. In the renovation industry, privileges are a kind of currency. They are routinely taken against landowners by contractors, building materials dealers, and even individual laborers to protect against non-payment.

Add this clause: “Prior to each payment, the contractor shall provide the owner with a lien release covering the work to which the payment applies. Each release must state the name of the company or person making the release; the address of the releasing party, the materials or services provided; the amount the contractor paid for these supplies or materials; and the owner’s address.

⋅ Definition of site rules. Get a definition of the workday: when it starts, when it ends. Contractors must agree to clean up all debris from the site and leave all appliances and fixtures in good working order at the end of each day (except for items that are actually part of the project, and these must be noted ). Stipulate that noisy or otherwise disruptive work should be limited to certain hours.

Note that you can tell when the job is done.

Kevin Brasler is editor of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and, a non-profit organization whose mission is to help consumers get the best service and the lowest prices. It is consumer backed and does not take any money from the service providers it reviews. You can access Checkbook’s unbiased reviews of local general contractors for free until October 1 at

Edward N. Arrington