Nfld. & Labrador·The Lowdown

How to choose a contractor to renovate your home

Victoria Belbin of the Canadian Home Builders' Association - Newfoundland and Labrador says it's important to do your homework before letting a contractor take a hammer to your house.

The Canadian Home Builders' Association offers some tips on picking a professional

Victoria Belbin, the chief executive officer of the Canadian Home Builders' Association - Newfoundland and Labrador, said when choosing a contractor, it's important to do your homework, look for a professional, and get it in writing. (Darryl Murphy/CBC)

If you're looking at doing renovations, the Newfoundland and Labrador branch of the Canadian Home Builders' Association says it's important to do your homework before letting a contractor take a hammer to your house.

Here's The Lowdown from Victoria Belbin, chief executive officer of CHBA-NL, on home renovations.

"Do your homework, look for a professional, and get it in writing," she said. "Those are the top three tips that we tell people."

The federal Office of Consumer Affairs suggests you start by asking family, friends, neighbours, and even local business associations for recommendations. You can also check with the Better Business Bureau for contractor ratings and complaints.

It's important to contact and interview more than one contractor, and to ask for references — and then check to see that they're valid.

Consumers are also encouraged to get a written estimate of all the costs associated with a home renovation project, including labour and any extra charges.

When choosing a contractor, the federal Office of Consumer Affairs said you should check with family, friends, neighbours, and local business associations about who they would recommend. (CBC)

Belbin said consumers need to decide on the scope of their project, and that asking a professional can help with that process.

"A professional builder, renovator, contractor will have contacts with energy advisors, with designers, with engineers, and they can draw that expertise in for you," she said.

Belbin also suggested that consumers contact their insurance companies to talk about any extra requirements that might add to their bottom line.

Get it in writing

Belbin said the renovation sector is "buyer beware" — so it's important to get things in writing before the renovation begins.

"Your home is your biggest asset, and you need to protect your home. So if you're engaging in a conversation with an individual who you want to do work with, and they say, 'Ah, don't worry about a written contract. We'll work this out as we go.' Don't go down that road," she said.

"You need to have things set out in the contract. And you want to understand what the scope of work is, the materials that are being used, the timing schedule, [and] the payment schedule."

CBC Investigates speaks with Victoria Belbin from the Canadian Home Builders' Association - Newfoundland and Labrador about tips on how to pick a professional, and some advice on what to avoid. 2:34

Belbin said if the quoted price seems really low, that should set off some alarm bells.

"A deal is not always a deal when you're coming into a contract negotiation with a renovator," she said.

"There are fixed costs. The product costs should be relatively the same with a certain range, depending on what that contractor's relationship is with the supplier."

Belbin said when it comes to labour costs, you want to have professionals working on your home — and that comes with a price. 

"There is going to be a variance from one to the next, but you have to have peace of mind with the individual you're working with and the company you're working with."

Without a contract, you have nothing.- Victoria Belbin

Belbin said if you're doing a small renovation, a one-page contract works — but larger renovations require more paperwork.

"There's a lot of work that goes into these contracts, but it's well worth it in the end. You will have peace of mind, and if anything goes wrong, you do have it written. And if there's a legal issue, you have recourse to take," she said.

"Without a contract, you have nothing."

Find a legitimate businessperson

Belbin said there is an underground economy to the renovation sector, and that's why it's important to confirm that you're dealing with a legitimate businessperson.

"There are professional renovators in our marketplace that have long-standing reputations, and they provide very good quality work, and add value to your home," she said.

Belbin said you should also check to see if they have coverage under workplace health and safety.

"If they can't provide you with this information, you can phone or go online [to the Workplace NL website] and find out if they have a certificate of clearance," she said.

"That will ensure you, as a homeowner, that the workers that they're bringing on are covered if anything occurs while they're in your home."

She said professional renovators will also have a warranty for the work that's being completed and the products that they're using.

The importance of permits

Belbin said, in most cases, they will also take care of the municipal permits that are needed for a job.

"Permits are very important because then you know that if there's an inspection required, there's another party kind of monitoring the work that's being done on your home," she said.

"If the permit process is not in place, if you sell your home, and there's work done on your home, then the value added aspect of that renovation may not be taken into consideration, and there may be some questions at that point."

Belbin said if you're thinking about doing a renovation, the Canadian Home Builders' Association has more information on its website.

"It can help you through that process and understand what's inside a contract, what you should be looking for, [and] what are the questions that you should be asking," she said.

The Lowdown is a series from CBC NL Investigates about consumer news you can use. If you have a story idea, email us: cbcnlinvestigates@cbc.ca.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Jen White

CBC News

Jen White is a journalist with CBC News in St. John's.