How Not To Get Snookered with Home Improvements

By Bill Primavera

The Home Guru

As this column goes to press, I’m preparing to appear as The Home Guru at the Examiner’s booth at the Home Show at the Westchester County Center, the weekend of October 30 and 31. Because there will be many contractors there offering their services to homeowners, I thought this might be a good time to write about the best way to choose a contractor.

I was reminded of this topic last week while visiting new clients who want to make improvements on their home before listing it. In the course of our discussion, the husband hesitated, then said to me, “We’ve never have a good experience with a contractor. In fact, sometimes, the experience was just terrible and we had no way for getting it right.”  I promised to make some recommendations that I know would work for them in finding reliable home improvement contractors.

Upfront, I’ll say that the contractors who appear at the Home Show are likely to be the best bets in terms of professionalism and reliability. They are established, marketed, and have only their good reputations to keep them in business.

But who among us has not been tempted by the thought that we could pursue a less expensive route by choosing a contractor who is not as well established and marketed? Or worse, may be dishonest?  It happened to me early on when I first moved to the country. I was short of cash but one renovation job just had to be done, specifically the re-construction of the mudroom that was literally falling off our antique house.

Another young couple from the city with whom we were friends had moved to Westchester just before us and had used a contractor they recommended highly for the job. They even escorted him to our house to meet us.  He seemed like the most amiable kind of guy so we agreed on a deal. He asked for a $500 check in advance to “cover the cost of materials,” and I wrote the check without thinking. In those early days, $500 was a lot of money for me. Long story short, the contractor didn’t show on the appointed day, and when I called the number he gave me, I found that it had been disconnected.

Yes, I had been snookered and was miserable about it. And, as human nature would have it, I even felt resentful toward my friends who recommended him!

However, of all the suppliers I’ve used since, I would say that more than 95 percent of them have been honest, talented, and reliable, maybe because I learned after that first experience how to choose them.  But, the roughly five percent who didn’t work out are particularly painful to think about. Nobody likes getting ripped off, especially when it involves a home improvement that you see every day, reminding you of a bad experience.

Sometimes a contractor can be subtle in deceptive practice. For instance, I have interviewed contractors who would only commit to an hourly rate without estimating how many hours a job would take. Beware this open-ended technique for padding the cost for a project.

At the same time, be wary of bids that seem too good to be true. They probably are. Be realistic in your own mind about what a job should cost to get it done well.

Overall, most contractors are hard working and knowledgeable pros who want to do a good job. But, protect yourself from the possibility of disappointment by checking the additional points below:

* Never, no never give cash in advance for materials before any service is provided.

* Ask for referrals from people who have had similar jobs done satisfactorily by a contractor, and ask if you can see the job that was done.

*Ask for at least three proposals and bids, and review them carefully.

*Make sure that you have a written contract with all the details of the job and materials to be used included.

*Check to see that contractors are licensed by the county in which you live. If something goes wrong or if there is a misunderstanding, you have some recourse. Also, ask if there have been any serious complaints against the contractor you want to use.

* Ask if they are insured.

*And finally, remember that this is also a personal relationship you’re entering. If the contractor is qualified but seems surly (yes! it happens), move on to someone with whom you’ll enjoy interacting.

 There was a time when the credo for selecting contractors was simply “buyer beware.” But for more than 20 years, we who live in Westchester or Putnam Counties have had an excellent cushion against fraud in that both counties have established consumer protection programs which require contractors to be licensed. Also the counties serve as arbiters for complaints.

For complete information in Westchester, visit or call 914-995-2164.   According to John Gaccione, acting director of consumer protection, the county cracks down on unlicensed contractors, enforcing a law that allows the county police to seize the assets of renegade contractors. “We’ve had fewer complaints in the past couple of years,” he said, “in part because of better education for consumers and, perhaps because there is less home renovation work being done in this housing market.”

For Putnam information, visit or call 845-808-1617. Joe LaBarbera, director of the consumer protection department, says that the system works well in licensing contractors and following up complaints. “We’re all about serving the consumer,” he said.

Just in remodeling my own home in the past year, I’ve met and used several contractors that I now consider business friends and would always recommend them. Call me and I’ll pass on the information. Or, if you’re at the Home Show, come visit me at Booth 91. Ask any questions about contractors for renovating your home, and I’ll be happy to supply recommendations.

To know more about the Home Show, visit:

Bill Primavera is a licensed Realtor® (, affiliated with Coldwell Banker, and a marketing practitioner ( Anyone considering selling or buying a home can reach him directly at 914-522-2076