By Paolo Benedetti
Far too often, consumers approach construction projects in and around their homes as though they were buying television sets at a local mall. Nothing could be farther from reality!
Let’s take a swimming pool as a case in point: Unlike an off-the-shelf commodity, a pool is a personal item that should be designed around the buyers, their lifestyle, how they entertain and – very important! – the nature of the building site. Also unlike most consumer commodities, the excellence of quality, design and performance is known to vary dramatically from designer to designer or contractor to contractor.
In construction, it’s all the buried components – things the homeowner almost never sees – that determine the long-term performance of the product and its cost of operation. To keep up with the process of having them installed, a homeowner needs to walk in with a fairly complete education on what to expect and open eyes about the companies among which choices are being made.
This is why hunting for a pool company on the Internet or in the Yellow Pages is the wrong idea: It makes no sense at all to base such a critical decision – even to get the process started – on either a pretty website or a large advertisement. Lots of the most impressive sites and ads will be for volume-based companies with teams of salespeople whose job it is to sell you a pool. These folks are motivated to ring the bell, not to educate consumers on the fine points of proper pool design and construction.
A better path involves doing research before anyone is called. Just as you shouldn’t be fooled by a big Yellow Pages ad, you need to avoid being seduced by a beautiful web site: Instead, you need to develop a list of criteria to use in selecting a designer or contractor.
Doing good homework means resisting the temptation to short-cut the process and call a bunch of pool companies in to give you “free quotes.” Trouble is, each one will come in, size up what you don’t know and place a bid that bears no relationship to any other bids that might be received from other salespeople. And then there are the testimonials they’ll parade in front of you – all of which may be legitimate as far as they go, but have you ever seen a negative one on the sheet?
The only way to circumvent this competitive sales process is to dig in and give your possibilities a good once-over before picking up the phone or writing an e-mail inquiry:
[ ] Check with the local Better Business Bureau. They won’t give you references, but the records may speak volumes about the way a business operates or at least represent a trend you can use to thin the herd. Remember, where there’s smoke, you’ll often find fire.
[ ] Examine local court records, many of which are now available for online review. A company you’re considering may have been a plaintiff (suing to get paid) or a defendant (sued by an upset customer); all you need to do is contact the other party, learn what went wrong and, taking everything with grains of salt because the company and your contact are engaged in or have resolved a dispute, see if you start recognizing any patterns in the way the company works with its clients.
[ ] Contact the Contractors Licensing Board (if your state has one). They have records, often online, that indicate a company’s current status. And search other states’ records, too: Some builders work in a state up to the point where they get their licenses revoked, then move on to more welcoming climes. If a contractor has had any complaints or actions against his or her license, it’s another point that helps you see whether they tend to resolve issues smoothly – or let them get out of hand.
[ ] Check out on-line reference websites, including The Franklin Report, Yelp, Angie’s List and any other local services that might operate in your community. Again, take what you read with grains of salt, because people are much more willing to complain than they are to praise: Just file the facts away as you gather information. You’re aim is to reveal patterns that might reflect the character of a potential contractor.
[ ] Review building permits issued in surrounding communities. Most building departments have searchable online databases, and I’d recommend looking through the last four or even five years of permits. This will give you a sense of the extent and solidity of the contractor’s business; it will also enable you to follow up with pool owners to get comments that may go well beyond any testimonials a company volunteered for inspection.
Again, there’s no single piece of information you’ll obtain that should be a determining factor – unless, of course, you run into something truly distressing. Rather, what you’re doing is building a knowledge base that will help you make the important decisions still ahead.
Next: A look at the design and bidding processes and some tips that will help you in comparing apples to apples.