Other Essentials
• A hazardous-waste clause that establishes who is responsible for testing for materials such as asbestos and lead-based paint and who will take care of removing anything that is found. Generally, contractors don't have expertise in this area, so it's often up to the homeowner to hire an environmental specialist. This provision protects both the homeowner and the contractor from the unexpected discovery of toxic substances after the job begins, which could cause delays and disagreements about who foots the bill.
• A guarantees section, which in most cases covers defects in materials and workmanship for a year after completion of the project. This should list the name and address of each company guaranteeing any portion of the job — subcontractors as well as manufacturers or distributors whose products were used. "This helps ensure the quality of the job while giving the homeowner some leverage if problems arise soon after the work is completed," says Elizabeth Gutman, an attorney in the Princeton, New Jersey, office of Saul Ewing LLP.
•The procedure for handling change orders, which are alterations in the project requested by the homeowner or the contractor after work begins. Because changes affect so many critical aspects of the project — including fees, materials, estimated time, and design — change orders should be very specific with regard to the scope of work and the additional cost, and be signed by the homeowner and the contractor.
•Miscellaneous points such as the approximate time workers will arrive and when they'll leave; how often the general contractor will provide a face-to-face progress report; how debris will be removed, and who will get all the necessary building permits (usually this is the contractor's responsibility). Also, frequently included in this section are more ticklish issues: whether the workmen can use bathrooms or phones in the house, if they're allowed to put their lunches in the refrigerator, or even if they can talk to the kids or pet the dog. However, be mindful of the impact these requests can have on the contractor?client relationship. "If someone asks me where my people are going to eat and what time they take their breaks and whether they are going to dust after every job, I'd probably pass up the opportunity to work for that customer," says Anthony J. LaPelusa Sr., president of LaPelusa Home Improvements, in Niles, Illinois. "We just about marry our clients for four months or more, and we don't want to get married to somebody who's going to want a divorce in three."
• A provision for how contract disputes will be resolved. Many states offer home-improvement arbitration, in which an independent third party hands down a legally binding decision. The process is cheaper and faster than taking a contractor to court, but in agreeing to arbitration, the homeowner in most cases waives the right to a trial or judicial appeal.
• Written confirmation of the homeowner's right to cancel the contract within three business days after signing it. That window might be a good time to show the contract to a construction lawyer if one wasn't involved in drafting it. "We trusted the contractor too much," says Costello, who now wishes she'd had a legal adviser review the document up front. "It's far better to spend a few hundred dollars now, rather than thousands of dollars later."
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