Most people, including contractors, are honest and hardworking. They want happy customers. Your job in the contract process is to avoid the few contractors who are dishonest and to structure your contract so it is easy for the contractor you hire to do a good job and make you happy. The bad experiences you hear about do happen. In many cases it is the contractor’s fault, but in many other cases, it is the homeowner who has unrealistic expectations. Make sure you have reasonable expectations. You are spending your savings and building your dream home, but it is just another job to the people doing the work. They have good days and bad days. Also, remember that it is a house. It is not a work of art or a new car which is precision-fitted and near perfect. You want quality work, but probably don’t want to pay for (nor will you get) perfection. Put everything in perspective as you go through this process and remember it is just a house: the small imperfections may be disasters to you but will likely be unnoticeable to anyone else.

When you hire your contractor, he or she will likely have a standard contract for you to sign. Read it and understand it. Consider having an attorney review it. Most contracts are fine. You should have as many of your instructions and specifications in writing as possible. The specifications should include the tasks to be performed, material types, who supplies them, and when the project will start and stop. Ideally, segment the different sections of the contract so they conclude with an inspection by your local government and specify that the work has to pass inspection. This will give you a higher level of confidence that the work was performed adequately. Include notes on who is responsible for clean up and dump fees.

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Make sure all agreements and all changes are in writing and initialed by you and the contractor. Do this for even the trivial things. You probably won’t ever need to take legal action, but all of us remember things a lot better if we read them and sign a document than if we are just told. Therefore, to ensure your contractor has a good memory, get everything in writing.

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Consider the payment terms carefully. Any upfront payments should be for materials that are delivered to the worksite only. In many states, this is limited to 10 percent of the total project expense. Additional payments after each phase of the work is done are appropriate and needed by most small contractors who have weekly payrolls and materials to pay for. The final payment of at least 10 percent should not be made until all issues have been resolved. It will take several days to ensure everything was done to your satisfaction and to get the final inspection by the city. Don’t be rushed by the contractor, take your time and make sure things were done right and that all final releases of the lien and a copy of the final invoice showing that the contract has been paid in full are signed. After you pay the contractor and he or she has started a new project, it will be difficult to get the small problems repaired.