Look twice at repair contracts

By , Real estate editor of The Christian Science Monitor

The breakup of winter ought to bring smiles to the face of the home-improvement industry.

Yet at the same time, it could spell dismay, or worse, for the unwary homeowner.

Many contractors are in trouble, reports Homer V. Lundberg, managing director of the Professional Remodelers Association (PRA) in Chicago.

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Thus, now is a good time to get estimates on home repairs or improvements because contractors are less busy at this time of year. Also, because of the severe dip in home building over the last several years, people in the business are looking for work.

Good. But make sure you know with whom you're dealing, urge people in the home-improvement industry.

While the industry insists it has done a good job in routing out the ''bad guys,'' the fast-talking fly-by-nighters and suede-shoe operators still exist, nonetheless. The home-improvement industry is very mobile, for example, and people drop in and out of it, depending on the times. Even some of the good professionals may drop out for a while.

The fact that it doesn't take a great deal of money to set up shop and cruise the neighborhoods should be a red flag to the homeowner.

But this is not always so. Many people ignore the flag or do not even see it.

While the industry insists it has done a good job in routing out the ''bad guys,'' the fast-talking fly-by-nighters and suede-shoe operators still exist, nonetheless. The home-improvement industry is very mobile and people drop in and out of it, depending on the times. Even some of the good professionals may drop out for a while till the economy improves.

The fact that it doesn't take a great deal of money to set up shop and cruise the should be a red flag to the homeowner.

But this is not always so: Many people ignore the flag or do not even see it.

With house prices scraping the sky and interest rates not far behind, large numbers of homeowners are inclined to stay put and fix up the old place. Whether they sign up with a professional or do the work themselves, they owe it to their pocketbook to know what they're doing - before they make a deal. ''The consumer should watch out before getting caught up in a bad deal,'' warns Jack Anderson, president of Alcoa Building Products Inc., Pittsburgh, and 1981 president of the National Home Improvement Council.

Mr. Lundberg's group, the Chicago-based PRA, lists 14 checkpoints on the back cover of its membership list. Each is designed to help people avoid an all-too-frequent pitfall in home improvement. Among them are these:

* Are guarantees clearly stated in the contract?

* Does the written contract include all the oral promises made by the contracting firm or its salesmen?

* Have you read the contract and do you understand it? Have you been told how much the entire job will cost? Is it so stated in the contract? Including ''extras''?

* When signing, will you get a complete, readable copy? Will it be signed by a responsible official of the contracting firm?

Each of the 14 points requires a ''yes'' response to protect the homeowner.

This winter some people have had frozen pipes in places where this has never happened before. Thus, among other things, they know the house needs more insulation, weatherstripping, or other winterization that will have to be done this year.

''This is something they cannot put off,'' Jack Anderson of Alcoa adds. ''Aesthetic alterations are something else again and can be put off indefinitely.''

Before setting out on any significant home-improvement or remodeling project, the White House Office of the Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs suggests:

* Get in touch with your city or county building department and ask if a building permit is required for your job and whether zoning regulations affect what you want to do to your home.

* Call for at least three estimates from licensed contractors before beginning the job.

* Ask for and then check out any business or bank references.

* Call for at least three estimates from licensed contractors before beginning the job.

* Ask for and then check out any business or bank references.

* Be sure that any required permits are issued by the local government building department and that a final inspection is made and approved for the job being done.

* Read the contract thoroughly before you sign.

* Make sure that the work is guaranteed in writing and that you understand what work is covered by the guarantee. The contract should include your full name, address, and phone number and the license number of the company or individual doing the work.

* Make sure that the work is guaranteed in writing and that you understand what work is covered by the guarantee. The contract should include your full name, address, andphone number and the license number of the company or individual doing the work.''The best way is to get a company to provide a list of its recent clients and then check them out,'' asserts Jack Anderson of Alcoa.That said, the home-improvement business is poised for a tremendous spurt in volume just as soon as the financial air clears, interest rates fall, and people win back their confidence in tomorrow.Home improvement is done either by the professionals, who usually do the big jobs, or by do-it-yourselfers.Do-it-yourself home improvement used to be the province of the blue-collar worker, who did the job himself because he couldn't afford to have someone else do it. Now, by contrast, a survey from Market Facts Inc. and Home Center Magazine says the typical do-it-yourselfer is middle-aged and earns almost $30,000 a year.It is not a matter of money alone, novice home improvers report. Doing the work yourself saves money - and it's fun.The keys words for the do-it-yourselfer are: Be professional! If a job is poorly done, it may take value away from a home instead of adding to it.Simply, do you have the time and the patience to do the job well?It isn't difficult to pick up many of the basic skills by visiting one of the many do-it-yourself centers all over the country. Very often there are clinics that may be conducted by representatives of the manufacturers of some of the materials you'll be using in the job anyway. You not only get the know-how you need, but the company gets the order.There also are numerous publications which take the novice do-it-yourselfer, step by step, through some of the most intricate jobs you can imagine.A professional can put in a window, hang a door, and put up sheetrock fast. If you're a beginner, it may be a job of monstrous proportions - one which will never look right unless you know what you're doing before you start.Many books are on the market these days, including series by Time-Life Books and Popular Science magazine, among others. Too, there is Family Handyman magazine, established in 1951 and put out 10 times a year by the Webb company in St. Paul, Minn.Talk with your neighbors, the people you work with, the fellow who runs the local hardware store.Home improvement is really big business.The Bureau of the Census puts the 1980 home-improvement volume at $46.3 billion, according to James Bowman of the bureau, including not only the work done by professionals but by the do-it-yourselfers as well. Through the third quarter of 1981, it was $35.2 billion, up about 2 percent over the first three quarters of 1980. But if you count inflation, the figure was down from the previous year.The National Home Improvement Council, a trade group, uses a figure of $31.2 billion for 1980, including additions to homes, alterations, and major replacements; in other words, the professionally installed work. It does not include jobs done by the home handyman.No matter how it's figured, the volume is huge and is expected to rise significantly throughout the 1980s.

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