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Insight from the West Fargo PD: Working with contractors, do your research

The boom in construction in North Dakota has made it increasingly difficult to locate contractors to complete small projects around the home. Homeowners may be tempted to use the first available contractor they locate. Avoid the temptation and do your research. It may save you money, frustration and prevent potential damage to your home caused by unqualified workers.

The North Dakota Attorney General’s Office provides the following tips to consumers.

Look for warning signs. Recognize the tip-offs to ‘fly-by-night’ home repair or improvement swindlers. They include: use of an unmarked vehicle; high pressure sales tactics or very low bids; requiring advance non-refundable payments or payment in full before the work is completed; refusal or failure to give written estimates and contracts, or to provide references, proof of insurance, or required licenses; refusal to obtain local building permits. Consider local, reputable contractors.

If the contractor is not a local business or has just set up an office, ask when the company first located to North Dakota, check the phone directory for a local business listing to see if the company has previously been a local business, and don’t rely on promises that the company intends to stay in North Dakota. Check with the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office to see if a consumer complaint has been previously filed against the company. Go on-line to the Better Business Bureau or search for on-line postings that may have been made about the company.

Make sure your potential contractor is properly licensed. Contractors engaging in contracts exceeding $2,000 must be licensed by the North Dakota Secretary of State. Check with the Secretary of State’s Licensing Division to determine if those contractors are licensed by calling 701-328-3665 or 1-800-352-0867, ext. 8-3665.

If the contractor is not a local business or has just set up an office, check with the Attorney General’s Licensing Section at 701-328-2329 or online to determine if the contractor needs a “transient merchant’s license.” This requirement protects the homeowner, and includes a bond that may be available for a consumer complaint about the product or service.

Before selecting a contractor, research the project so you will be knowledgeable about what the job involves.

Get bids from several contractors. Friends and neighbors who have undertaken similar projects may give you the names of contractors they recommend. Trade associations, hardware, building supply, and home improvement stores also may be good sources for reputable contractors.

Get at least two or three written bids for your project. Never accept a verbal estimate. Prepare a detailed list of work that needs to be done and the materials required. Meet with each contractor about the bid. In order to protect yourself, ask the contractor some background questions: is the business locally owned; how long has the business been established in the community; what is the permanent business address? Ask the contractor to provide references from past customers; get a list of names and phone numbers and call them.

Carefully compare the written bids. Be sure each includes everything you want.

Make sure your contractor has liability insurance; otherwise, you may be liable for injuries to workers or others on your property, including damages to their personal property. Contact your insurance agent for more information.

The identification of the contractor, including name, business location and telephone numbers should be written into the contract. Set a time line: when will the work begin; how long will it take. Determine the ground rules: what will the work involve; what type, grade and quality of material will be used; how much will it cost; who is responsible to obtain the necessary licenses and permits?. Determine who will do the work, will subcontractors be used; if so, who-and how will they be paid. Finally, determine what are the guarantees and warranties for the products and services.

If a problem develops first try to resolve the issue with the contractor. It is possible an agreement can be reached that is satisfactory to you. Shoddy or incomplete work and even damage to your property is normally viewed under law as a civil matter. The resolution of a civil matter involves having to hire an attorney or you filing a complaint in small claims court. It may be a criminal act if the contractor purposefully attempts to defraud you by taking payment without providing the goods or services promised. If you feel you are a victim of fraud contact your local law enforcement agency.

If you are dissatisfied with the performance of the contractor you can report the contractor to the Better Business Bureau. You may also wish to lodge a complaint with the Consumer Protection Office with the Attorney General’s Office and with your local government office responsible for issuing permit