While the majority of contractors are honest and capable, there are plenty of duds out there, a problem that trade associations acknowledge readily and are always working to correct.
Consumers tend to do a lot of finger-pointing, but they’d be much better off if they instead tried to get a handle on the basics of what a contractor does.
Let’s take a look at electrical contractors, with the help of the folks at the Leviton Institute, the education arm of the manufacturer of electrical supplies.
When you seek bids for work, you need to keep in mind that electrical contractors don’t necessarily handle all kinds of jobs. Some only do construction or remodeling work. Some do only minor repairs, such as installing a new light fixture or replacing an outlet or switch. So tell the electrician about the job you have in mind first.
In most municipalities, electricians need to obtain permits for larger projects, especially if a new circuit is being installed or an existing one is to be extended one. A permit isn’t needed for simple repairs, such as replacing an outlet or light or ceiling fan fixture.
Consider a permit your protection. Before the electrician can finish his work, an inspector from the city or town has to check and approve the work. The electrical contractor should always obtain the permit under his name, not yours, and post the permit on the job site. The cost of the permit is always included in the price of the job, and is, in most cases, based on a percentage of the cost of the work.
For insurance reasons, it's always best to hire a licensed electrician, especially when a permit is required. Knowing how skittish homeowners’ insurance companies are about consumer claims, it is important to make sure that the electrician can pay the damage in case he starts a fire.
The last thing you want when you hire an electrical contractor is to be sued if a worker is injured while working in your home. Before you hire a contractor for a large project, ask to see proof that he carries worker’s compensation. For a typical remodeling job, an electrician should carry a minimum of $500,000 in liability insurance and worker's compensation coverage.
Before you hire a contractor for a large project, ask to see proof of current license, whether it is issued by the municipality, the state or both. Electrical contractors don't mind coming out to give you an estimate, but on a small job, they may lose money just driving to your home. Instead, the electrician may give you his minimum charge, or a fixed price for the job you have described.
On larger jobs, ask for an hourly rate. The average rate for a licensed electrician around the country varies from $45 to $65 an hour. Expect to pay more if a helper is needed on the job. You should also call two or three contractors and ask them to come to your home to give you an estimate.
You may think you'll save money by buying the materials yourself, but the Leviton Institute has found that it is better for the electrician to make all the purchases. If the electrician buys the materials, he's responsible for warranty issues, defective products, and broken or missing parts.
For example, if you bought a light fixture and the electrician finds a part missing during installation, it's up to you to go back to the store and get the missing part. Meanwhile, the electrician sits around and charges you by the hour. If the electrician buys the fixture and a part is missing, it's his responsibility -- and his time.
To install a new circuit, an electrician may need to drill or cut holes in the walls. Repairs aren’t generally done by the electrician. The same is true if you're having landscaping lights installed outside and the contractor needs to dig trenches in the lawn and uproot shrubbery.
On small jobs, the contractor expects payment when the job is completed. On larger jobs, the contractor will typically ask for 10 to 30 percent of the total job before work begins, with additional payments upon completion of certain stages. Don’t make the final payment until you've received a waiver stating that all suppliers and other workers on the job have been paid by the electrical contractor. Without this waiver, you may be responsible for these charges if the electrician doesn't pay them.