Dave and Magen McCrosky knew just what their house needed: a spacious backyard patio facing a quiet copse of trees at the property line. But finding a contractor to put this crowning touch on their two-year-old Upper Marlboro home became a surprisingly protracted exercise.
"I was surprised at the number of people that didn't call us back," Dave McCrosky said.
Their experience echoes those of thousands of other Washington area homeowners who have encountered similar difficulties in their quest to hire a contractor. It also highlights how much harder consumers must look in a busy market to find the right company for the job.
Homeowners themselves are the force behind the situation they find so frustrating. Consumer demand for home-repair and renovation services reached all-time highs during the past few years, thanks to low interest rates and rising real estate values. In 2003, homeowners poured an estimated $176.9 billion into home projects, according to Census Bureau data.
"It's hard to find anyone to do anything in your home right now, right from a little maintenance and repair job to extensive remodeling or addition jobs," said Gopal Ahluwalia, staff vice president of research at the National Association of Home Builders. "It's really a question of demand and supply, and quite evidently, the demand is exceeding the supply."
Contractors can barely keep up with consumer demand because they face a supply problem of their own: a shortage of skilled craftsmen.
"Labor is a very broad-based problem in the construction industry and a more serious problem in remodeling because remodeling is so labor intensive," said Kermit Baker of Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. "There are just a lot of alternatives for folks without getting into something cyclical like remodeling."
When it comes to cycles, spring is high season for home renovation. Joel Truitt, a general contractor based on Capitol Hill, said potential customers begin to call in mid-April, after tax return checks are cashed.
"The minute the warm weather strikes, everybody wants something done tomorrow," said Truitt, who has been in the business since 1972. "Right now, you go down to the permit office and it's jammed all the time."
The Washington region has been a particularly robust remodeling market, Baker said.
With little land left in the metropolitan area for new construction, people are choosing to stay in their homes and take advantage of low interest rates to add rooms or update aging fixtures.
"It does push a lot of housing energy into those older homes that are in more convenient locations," Baker said. "It pushes a lot of activity into remodeling rather than new construction."
Although every house eventually needs a new roof, Baker said, during the past few years the busy market has been fueled by a concentration of upper-bracket projects, such as remodeling kitchens and baths.
"It made sense to do those projects and ride that wave of household appreciation when there were few alternatives," he said.
Michael Running, a carpenter who founded his Kensington-based company, Running Remodeling Inc., 18 years ago, remembers when, before low interest rates, contractors would race back to customers with estimates. Today, consumers often must wait for the phone to ring.
"What I hear now is that there are a lot of firms who just don't call people back," said Running, whose company specializes in renovating older houses in Northwest Washington and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. "People are just too busy to take on any more work."
Running said he sees the signs of a busy market every day when he looks for a place to park the company truck at a job site. "There are some days when you can't even park where we're working because there are so many other contractors on the street."
Finding the right contractor requires patience, a resourceful approach and a bit of luck. The most common way to find a contractor remains personal referral, followed by return business, followed by the telephone book, according to industry research. Many contractors, such as Running Remodeling, deal almost exclusively with regular customers.
"I'm so busy with repeat customers, I haven't advertised in more than 10 years," Running said.
Consumer advocates and contractors suggest that homeowners cast a wide net when searching for a contractor. They should ask neighbors, friends, co-workers and real estate agents for the names of contractors with which they have had recent positive experience.
Some professional associations, such as the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), post on their Web pages geographically sorted lists of member companies. Homeowners regularly call NARI seeking guidance about which kind of firm they should hire, said Anita Lacy Boles, executive director of the organization's Washington area chapter.
"We get a lot of calls from people regarding very specialized jobs when they don't know which direction they should go," Boles said. "I don't think it's that difficult to find [companies] if you know where to look."
When Wade Norris decided it was time to expand his family's Great Falls house, he knew exactly where to look for a contractor: right next door. His neighbor, Josh Baker, is president of BOWA Builders Inc., which specializes in high-end residential remodeling and custom home construction.
Norris wanted to add a second, two-car garage, to make room for cars driven by his teenagers. He also wanted to add a spacious den to the back of the 6,000-square-foot house, a room that could double as a guest suite.
Hiring Baker's firm this spring was a decision informed by previous experience, Norris said. In 1994, BOWA finished the family's basement and extensively remodeled the kitchen. A few years later, when Baker was looking for land upon which he could build his family's home, Norris sold him a vacant two-acre lot adjacent to his own property.
"When we decided to do this work, we were so thrilled with the work they had done before and the home they built next door, there was nowhere else we were going to go," said Norris, a municipal bond lawyer.
With 75 full-time employees, BOWA was recently listed by a trade magazine as the largest whole-house remodeler in the nation. Its average project costs about $700,000, Baker said, and the company does not typically accept jobs worth less than $150,000.
While the company does not take on small projects, such as replacing kitchen cabinets and countertops, because of demand it has opened a separate division to handle jobs in the $75,000 to $150,000 range, Baker said.
"There is no one remodeler who is the right remodeler for everyone," Baker said.
Consumers should feel comfortable with the company they hire, Baker said. The company should have experience in the type and scale of project the homeowner has in mind because different projects require different skills.
"While we probably learn something on every job, you as a homeowner probably don't want to have a remodeler learning a lot on your particular job, which increases the potential for delays, mistakes and cost overruns."
Despite its predominance in many other business fields, the Internet may not be the best place to find the right contractor. When he went to look for someone to build his dream patio, McCrosky -- an information technology specialist with the federal government -- first tried online resources but found little of value.
"I had a hard time finding Web sites with good examples of patios," he said. "I do everything on the Web, and I was very surprised."
The construction industry has been one of the slowest to establish an Internet presence, said Terry Lynch, president of National Contractors.com, a Web site through which contractors, who pay a monthly subscription fee, bid on projects submitted by homeowners.
Other Web sites, such as ImproveNet and ServiceMagic, offer consumers access to contractors, whose licenses and insurance have been checked. Contractors on those sites typically pay a finder's fee for each project lead.
But just 3.8 percent of consumers seeking a contractor in 2003 looked online, according to a survey by the industry-funded Home Improvement Research Institute.
"Don't get me wrong, there are some savvy people that came on immediately, but generally the construction industry is still lagging behind," Lynch said.
McCrosky eventually found a handful of potential contractors at the Washington Home and Garden Show in March. McCrosky, an avid gardener, and his wife make it a point every year to attend. This year, he said, they went with the express purpose of finding someone to build their patio.
They brought to the show a detailed proposal, with a rough layout of the 480-square-foot patio and an estimate of the amount of materials required. It took about a week after the show for contractors to start calling back, McCrosky said. Several companies sent sales representatives to their house, leaving estimates of $15,000 to $31,000.
"I was surprised at the disparity between quotes," he said.
Experts generally recommend that consumers solicit several bids, as McCrosky did. After meeting with a contractor -- but before signing a contract -- homeowners should request references on recent projects of comparable size and using similar materials. It's worth the trouble to visit those projects to see the finished work and interview the customers.
References "should be absolutely glowing," Josh Baker said. "If they're not glowing, and these are the best references that they could come up with, that could indicate they have some clients who are not happy."
Check License, Insurance
Before signing a contract, homeowners should confirm that the firm they intend to hire has a current license and enough insurance, said Edward J. Johnson III, president and chief executive of the Better Business Bureau of Metro Washington.
Business licenses can be checked with state and local agencies, Johnson said. Some states, such as Maryland, have a database of home improvement contractors that can be searched online by license number or company name. Other governments provide licensing information by telephone.
Homeowners should also ask contractors for insurance information, including policy number and carrier. A phone call to the insurance company will confirm whether the firm has enough coverage for workers' compensation, personal liability and property damage, Johnson said.
Keys to Satisfaction
The surge in home remodeling has brought a corresponding increase in consumer complaints against contractors, Johnson said. In 2001, the local Better Business Bureau registered 1,005 complaints against home improvement firms; in 2003, that number had risen 88 percent, to 1,886.
"Contractors are incredibly busy, but that's no excuse for poor customer service or poor follow-through or poor workmanship," Johnson said.
Homeowners can check with government agencies or the Better Business Bureau to see if there are any complaints on file against a contractor. Consumers also should ask if the contractor is a member of a professional organization, such as NARI, which puts member companies through a vigorous background check before they're admitted, Boles said.
Many trade groups train contractors in various categories of home improvement, and issue certificates, such as National Association of Home Builders' Certified Graduate Remodelor, to members who have passed the required courses.
After settling on a home improvement firm, homeowners should make certain that every aspect of the project is covered in a written contract, consumer advocates said.
"It should all be in writing," Johnson said. "You should never sign a blank or partially blank contract."
Enjoying the Results
The contract should break down the project's cost between labor and materials. It should specify the types of materials to be used, even the fixture brands and paint colors. Starting and completion dates should also be set in the contract, as should a payment schedule. The agreement should stipulate how construction debris will be disposed.
Most of all, Johnson said, the contract should include a clause recognizing the customer's right to cancel the deal within three business days of signing.
"The contractor is required by law to tell you about your right to cancel," he said. "If they're not doing so, that should be a pretty good sign."
Dave McCrosky and his wife hired a firm in mid-April to install their dream patio, built with paver blocks and surrounding a quartet of carefully planted gardens.
They were eager to start the job, so they could enjoy the garden through the spring and summer.
The company they hired set a price of $18,000 and said it would take 10 days. Work began May 1, and by May 11, the patio was finished, McCrosky said.
"That Saturday evening, even before it was totally finished, we were out there, and it was just great," McCrosky said. "We really enjoyed it."