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The Boston Globe

Business

Consumer Alert

The right way to hire a contractor

Q. I need advice on how to deal with a contractor who changed job descriptions and charges and delayed the contract until the job was almost completed. I did not sign any contract. I thought we had a verbal agreement on charges to start work, which he has now finished. He denies we had an agreement, and sent an invoice with unacceptable charges. What should I do?

A. This is but one example of what can happen when you don’t go about hiring a contractor the right way. It’s relatively simple to hire a contractor in Massachusetts and get the state protections that come with it — including the ability to make claims to the state Guaranty Fund, which provides reimbursements of up to $10,000 to consumers who have no other option to recover losses from a contractor.

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Plan to interview and request estimates from at least three contractors and make sure each is registered on the Home Improvement Contractor database maintained by the Office of Consumer Affairs (mass.gov/homeimprovement). Ask them for proof of liability and workers’ compensation insurance. Consumer Affairs also recommends asking about their most recent jobs and contacting homeowners for whom they did work.

Request a detailed written estimate of the job, including specifics about materials and projections for how long the work will take. The lowest price may not necessarily be the best deal. When the job exceeds $1,000, state law requires a detailed contract that includes what was in the estimate and when payments are expected. The final payment should be held until the job is completed to your satisfaction.

A contractor also cannot request a deposit that exceeds one-third of the total cost of the job unless that money is needed for special-order materials.

If you have a beef with a registered contractor, Consumer Affairs offers an arbitration program and can sanction contractors who don’t follow the rules. That’s also the place to complain about unregistered contractors.

On the bright side, the work is done. It’s usually the other way around — the consumer pays and the work isn’t done.

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for the past two decades. He lives in Worcester and can be reached at consumernews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.
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