What to Know Before Signing a Home Improvement Contract

It is important to be a very careful consumer when it comes to home improvement contractors. For instance, I had a case where my client, an elderly and blind woman, signed a contract and paid $30,000.00 to a home improvement company that disappeared with all of her money! Unfortunately, the company was a scam operation, my client lost her life’s savings and it will take some time in court before my client may ever see her money again however, her mistake will be a lesson to all of you because this article explains how to protect yourself from home improvement fraud.

Before signing any contract with a home improvement company, first ask that company for its license number and check it out with your State or County Consumer Affairs’ Business License Division. Find the License Division on the web or call information and get their number. You want to find out (1) the name and address of the company associated with the license number given to you, (2) if the company is currently licensed and the license expiration date and (3) whether any complaints have been made against that company. The answers to those questions will help you determine if you want to proceed with signing a contract. Make sure both the contractor and the company he works for are licensed to work in your State.

If your going to sign the contract then make sure certain things are included pursuant to your understanding and as required by your State’s Home Improvement Business Law. The contracting company’s name, address and phone number should be printed on the contract. Also, it is important that the contracting company’s home improvement license number is printed on the contract and that it is not different from the number you called and inquired about with Consumer Affairs. Lastly, make sure that all of the work to be performed is listed in the contract and that the approximate start and end dates of work are included. You should put a penalty clause in the contract regarding the contractor’s failure to timely complete the work because contractors are notorious for starting jobs and then leaving for a few days or weeks to do other jobs while you sit and wait in your dismantled kitchen for him to return. Once the contract terms are satisfactory then the contract should be signed by both you and the company’s representative.

An example of a consumer protection law is New York’s General Business Law §771 (“GBL”) requiring all home improvement contracts shall be in writing and contain certain terms of payment, fees for services and materials and start and completion dates, among other terms. GBL §771 is a consumer protection statute to prevent the misunderstandings between contractor had consumer and to protect the consumer from overreaching of the contractor, such as charging for work that was not agreed upon. GBL §771 limits the contractor who disregards its written contract requirements to satisfactorily proving to a court each and every item of work he did and the reasonable value of each item by detailed invoices, timesheets and proof of hourly rates, among other proofs. So, if the contractor who failed to put your home improvement work in writing attempts to collect $20,000.00 from you, he has to prove the value of his services in detail before scaring you into paying an amount you had no idea about. New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act and the Home Improvement Act protect the consumer even more by denying the contractor from recovering any monies if he violates any of the consumer laws AND he will pay three times the amount of damages (called treble damages) to the consumer for his failing to obtain proper permits or licenses or any other violation of those laws.

Lastly, protect yourself by not paying 100% upfront. Most contracting companies ask for a deposit upon your signing the contract. I suggest that you put down as little as possible and arrange a payment schedule with the company where you will pay a certain amount as certain work is completed. Of course, always get a receipt, signed by the company and stating the date and amount of any monies paid to the company if you pay anything in cash.

This article is certainly not all inclusive and is intended only as a brief explanation of the legal issue presented. Not all cases are alike and it is strongly recommended that you consult an attorney if you have any questions with respect to any legal matters.

Any questions and/or comments with respect to this topic or any other topic, contact:

Law Offices of Susan Chana Lask

853 Broadway, Suite 1516

New York, NY 10003

(212) 358-5762
Susan Chana Lask, Esq. c 2004

Home Improvement Marketing – What Works, What Doesn’t, What Might and Why

Home improvement companies large and small know that getting their message heard by homeowners in need isn’t easy. Home improvement contractors are everywhere, and each is vying for attention. Open any given value pack mailer or local coupon publication and you will see page after page of home improvement ads. From lawn services, landscapers, deck, pool & patio contractors to roofing, siding and windows, carpet, bathroom, sun room and basement remodelers, the list goes on and on.

So as a contractor, how do you get your message heard? What marketing works, what doesn’t, and what aren’t we sure about? The answers depend somewhat on your local market and your budget, but here I provide some sure things that can be done no matter what your market or budget, and some tips on making the most of all of your efforts.

What Works

When I say ‘What Works’, I am talking about items that I have personally used to market my clients that I wouldn’t hesitate to employ for any home improvement company. These are methods that have proven time and time again to be worth the investment. There are very few ‘sure things’ in home improvement marketing, but I’ll bet on these methods every time.

Website – Now more than ever, the standout method of marketing that continues to show solid return on investment (ROI) is your website. Day after day, night after night, your website – if done right – can generate lead after lead. I’ve seen home improvement companies that do ZERO cold-calling and canvassing, and still generate millions of dollars in revenue due in part to their investment in a well-done, highly-optimized website. The key, however, is the ‘well-done’ part. Frankly, any jackleg contractor can get a website – maybe even an attractive one. But without the proper construction and search engine optimization techniques, it will serve as little more than an online brochure. Do yourself a favor and find a search engine pro that can analyze your site and help make changes that will get it working to generate quality leads.

Pay-per-click (Google) Advertising – Your website, as well-optimized as it may be – can’t possibly achieve top ranking for all of the key words and phrases that you need to reach your audience. Today’s searchers in many cases are using broad terms like ‘lawn service’ to find what they need. And at last check, on Google the term ‘lawn service’ yielded 9,400,000 results. If you’re part of one of the large franchises, you have a chance of being found. But if you’re Joe’s local lawn service, fagettaboutit. Your only hope in that broad search is to have your site pop up in the Sponsored Listings, or pay-per-clicks. Setting up Google pay-per-click advertising takes a little know-how, but is certainly available to anyone.

Signage – Contractors are on the road and in neighborhoods far more than they are in any office. They are out and about, all over their covered area day after day. Outfit those trucks – whether they are pick-up trucks, step vans or large vehicles – with nicely done signs, and you have yourself a rolling billboard. Forget the subtle vinyl lettering or magnetic sign – spend a little more on a colorful wrap (no need to wrap the whole thing – doors, the back window, and/or tailgate will do) and you will surely get noticed. In addition to vehicle signs, be sure to put a yard sign at every single installment. A yard sign is as good as a personal referral. And in today’s busy society when time spent talking to your neighbors can be few a far between, it allows the opportunity to broadcast to an entire neighborhood that one of their own has put their trust in you for their latest project. I’ve even seen home improvement companies provide incentives to homeowners for keeping the signs in their yard for extended periods of time. Well worth it.

Ratings-based Organizations – Organizations like the Better Business Bureau and Angie’s List allow their members and/or the general public to rate their experiences with contractors. And while many contractors shy away from these organizations for fear of bad ratings, my experience has been positive with these services. That is, of course, if you are reputable contractor. If you’re a successful contractor who has built a business based on referrals and quality workmanship, these services will speak for themselves. And when you do get you’re A+ rating, use it. Post it on your website and in ads, and it too can serve as a virtual referral.

Social Media Marketing – While the jury is still out on exactly how to track the direct return on your social media marketing investment, I wouldn’t hesitate to set aside a small amount of time and marketing budget for social media marketing. Why? Well for one, it’s about as low-cost as you can get. It has the potential to be viral, and strong testimonial/referral benefits are there as well. It also tells the world that you are on top of things – you’re progressive and stand out as a leader in your field. I don’t recommend spending 2 hours a day tweeting, but spending 10 minutes a day to post an item or two to your Facebook business page and Twitter account can have great benefits.

PR – Getting into a regular routine of doing press releases about anything you can think of that might catch the attention of the local press is worthwhile. After a while, regular releases containing good information will catch the attention of the local media. You may even become their go-to people for home improvement information. Invest a little time in putting together a press-kit with your leaders’ biographies, a one-sheet about your company, and any articles, guides, or content you have is worth doing once a year. Then, be on the lookout for news worthy things to write about – significant new hires, a government regulation that affects your industry or homeowners, new products and services can all be spun into information that reporters will look out for.

Sales Support – One often overlooked area of home improvement marketing is sales support, however when done right, it can have an amazing return. Companies hire a guy, hand him some business card, send him on his way and expect great returns. Your sales team is the face of your business to customers, and you no doubt spend time agonizing over who to hire. So when you have a good team in place, do the right thing and arm them with the proper tools to make the sale quicker. Online presentations, e-mailable resource links, business cards, and leave-behinds should all be high on the list of items that your team has in their sales toolbox.

What Doesn’t Work

‘What Doesn’t Work’ is based on experience, and consists of items that you’d have to hold me down and force me to spend money on. That’s not to say that in some cases, some markets they don’t work, but at best, I consider these items to be hit or miss.

Large Phone Book Advertising – When I say ‘large phone book’ I am talking about the big yellow pages books. It’s no secret that these directories – in print – are dying. With internet availability everywhere and a strong push toward environmental responsibility, directory companies are scrambling to stay alive by offering online options. Unless you’re tracking your phone book response diligently and seeing a return, my advice would be to get out. Or at least reduce to in-column listings.

Pay-per-lead Services – For the contractor who has no other method of getting leads, this might be a source to get started, but in my experience, pay-per-lead services don’t work. Typically they are pricey, and they sell the leads they get to multiple contractors. Even the ones that promise exclusivity have turned out to be duds. Whether they are the major players or the smaller ones, all have had the same results. Very low quality leads and at a cost far too high.

Value Pack Mailers – Coupon-based value pack mailers are the definition of hit or miss. If you catch a home who opens the pack, and if he or she has an immediate need for what you’re selling and if he or she is attracted by the ad or offer, you might get some action. That’s a lot of if’s. In my experience, these packs are not cheap, and they are loaded with home improvement companies. In fact, during the writing of this article I received one in the mail. Out of the 45 ads in the pack, 22 of them – nearly 50% – were from home improvement companies. Can I possibly stand out in a crowd like this, and hit the homeowner at the exact right moment? Hmmmm…not really liking those odds.

Pricey Print Advertising – While some may argue that a flashy ad in a magazine has branding appeal, I have seen very little direct return on this type of investment. To get into the magazines, your money would be better spent doing PR that will get you a text mention or even an article.

What Might Work

The items that fall under the category of ‘What Might Work’ are items that are hit or miss, but have the added intangible value of branding. So while we can’t necessarily measure all of the effectiveness of these efforts, we have a sense that they do have some value. The recommendation on these would be to keep the dollars spent in check, but give the activities that fit your budget a shot.

Broadcast Advertising – Broadcast advertising is great for getting your name out there, but can be really expensive. A savvy marketer can find some diamonds in the rough – broadcast efforts that have a decent reach and a decent price tag – but they are hard to find. If broadcast is a part of your mix, try your best to track your efforts. Put landing page URL’s on your ads, whether they are radio or television ads, and a tracking phone number. Create an offer that is unique to the spot for additional tracking. And by all means, with this and every other marketing effort, talk to your customers about how they heard about you initially. If you hear ‘I heard/saw your commercial’ over and over, you will have a sense that it is working.

Event Marketing – Events range in size and price from affordable local events like street festivals and school-sponsored events to large home and garden shows, wine festivals, etc. The large shows can be tough to see a big return on – they are expensive to secure space, and expensive to haul your stuff and staff – and you can get lost in the noise of dozens of other companies just like yours. Smaller, more localized events, though, can have a nice return. While you won’t be getting a huge quantity of leads, you will likely have more time to spend with the people you do meet, and you won’t be competing with too many other companies like yours.

Direct Mail – The options for direct mail vary from mass mailers that can cost a fortune for printing and postage, to smaller, more cost-effective efforts. In my experience, stay away from mass mailings. The return is very low. However, neighborhood mailers from companies like Quantum Digital can have a decent return. When you are able to choose a select set of streets to mail to, you can keep your cost down by doing small runs, and you can piggyback on other efforts. For example, if Joe’s Roofing is doing a nice roof on Maple Street, Joe’s team knows when the install is happening. If they have their marketing efforts in sync, they can log into the mailer system, and choose Maple Street and its surrounding streets to mail to. Then, while his crew is there with their trucks (that have great signage) and there’s a nice job sign in the yard, the neighbors will receive a “We’re working in your neighborhood!” mailer. Bam! You have 3 solid hits to an entire neighborhood with very little cost.

Low-cost Print Advertising – It is tough to cut through the clutter with print advertising, but I have seen some success in choosing specialized, low-cost publications. School papers, and local papers with classified ads or event listings, can provide the benefit of showing community support, can showcase your branding, and may even get you a few leads.

OK, so now that you have an idea of what home improvement marketing can work for you, let me give you the single best piece of advice that I can give for making it all work. It’s the same advice I give to young parents who want their kids to stay in line. One little word with big consequences when not followed…consistency.

When you are inconsistent with your efforts, it’s advertising sabotage. When things look and sound different across each marketing effort, you are missing the opportunity to plant yourself in the brain of your target audience. I see contractors who use their logo five different ways. I see those who have really nicely designed ads in one location, and really lousy looking ones elsewhere. Invest the time and money into having a pro establish your brand’s look and feel. Whether you’re doing social media marketing, broadcast advertising, search engine optimization or total home improvement marketing from A-Z, stay consistent in your efforts. Everything from your logo, colors, style and your key marketing messages, to brand tone and personality should carry through all of your efforts.

Home Improvements

Home improvements, renovations and repairs require great amount of skill and getting a good agency or contractor or skilled labor is a huge task in itself. Entrusting the job to an unskilled person or hiring the wrong man for the job can be a nightmare you would do well to avoid. You will end up with more on your hands to manage and your home will be worse off than before.

The home improvement business has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years from the ‘simple handyman’ services earlier. Home improvement agencies provide assistance and support in a great many areas relating to home improvement, home repairs and home renovation, each of which requires highly skilled craftsmen and services of the highest quality. Businesses that provide such services not only have to possess a high degree of knowledge concerning home construction materials and their durability, house plans, building engineering & electrical details etc., but also have complete grasp of geographical locations, climate & weather affecting particular areas, factors like pests and pest-control and several other minutely related points.

Some of the areas that home improvement services undertake to renovate or repair in a home may fall in the main area of the house or kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, attic or the roof and could involve improvement services like repairs and renovations in:

• Basements
• Baseboards
• Crown molding
• Cabinets
• Carpentry
• Countertops installation
• Doors / door frames
• Faucets and sinks
• Floor installations
• Painting
• Tiling

Handyman or Handyperson

The term Handyman or Handyperson is used to refer to a person with a wide range of skills to do minor repairs and corrections around the home. These repair tasks include overall interior and exterior maintenance jobs that classify under electrical, plumbing and other fix-ups. To put it simply, a Handyman can be relied on to do those simple, sometimes a little complex home jobs that can be categorized as DIY.

Somewhere along the way, to improve their chances of getting more projects and contracts especially when job markets were seeing a downturn and putting many out of jobs, a Handyman’s profile altered subtly. Where earlier they were paid workers mainly attending to simple DIYs, they progressed to more complex or skilled jobs like painting, remodeling, carpentry, furniture assembly, reinforcing and many more. They figured that it needed only a little more knowledge and willingness to undertake projects and learn-on-the-job.

Generally, a Handyman’s job is viewed as semi-killed, a low status job ranking below specialists such as carpenters, electricians and plumbers. However, the emergence of ‘home improvement agencies’ that have on their rolls skilled Handymen, that general perception is fast changing and they are being viewed as the “go-to-men”, technicians with a lot of job knowledge and multiple skills to handle a variety of home repair and home improvement tasks. With changing attitudes, they are being treated with great professionalism, better wages and perks, and safer working conditions.

The usefulness of a Handyman’s tools are best illustrated with this example of an Australian doctor who in the absence of an appropriate neurological drill, used a Handyman’s Drill for an emergency surgery to save the life of a 13 year old boy who suffered brain trauma.

Do a Lot of Checking Prior to Hiring a Home Improvement Contractor

You’ve been planning all winter for the home improvements you want to make this spring, and you’re itching to get outside and take advantage of warmer temperatures. You’ve already figured out what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, and how to pay for the renovations, and you can’t wait to get started. Unless you have a contractor who you’ve worked with before, you’re going to want to use some caution and not pick the first one listed in the phone book. Too many stories abound telling of price gouging, false low quotes, contractors who don’t finish the jobs they start, and others who spend weeks prolonging simple jobs. There are several rules of thumb you need to pay attention to when choosing a new contractor.

Never hire an itinerant contractor who comes knocking at your door soliciting business or one who demands cash up front. No legitimate professional works that way. Instead, you need to look for someone who has been in business in your neighborhood long enough to have established a reputation. If you have to hire someone you know nothing about, do some checking on him before signing on the dotted line. Look for a contractor who specializes in the type of work you want done. For instance, if you want to have a gazebo built, don’t hire a plumber. Naturally, this only makes sense.

A contractor’s credentials can be checked online to make sure that he is operating with enough of a cash cushion to be able to buy the materials he will need to do your project. These sites will also provide you with other information, such as business address, license, bonding and insurance information, and the length of time the business has been in operation. A credit review will tell you if he has had any financial problems in past business dealings.

As in any profession, there are unscrupulous people working in home contracting jobs. The Federal Trade Commission warns homeowners to avoid any dealings that don’t seem quite right to you. For instance, don’t trust a door-to-door salesman who claims he will give you a discount if you allow him to use materials he had left over from a previous job. Another red flag would be if he fails to give you an address and telephone number. And don’t allow any contractor to put you to work. If he says it will be your responsibility to get the necessary permits or expects you to recommend him to your friends, show him the door immediately.