Archive for Monday, January 3, 2011

Home front: Who you gonna call?

January 3, 2011

It is not uncommon for basement repair contractors to oversell their services. I have seen this happen many times with companies that, through intent or ignorance, promote much more repair than a home really needs. With more than 75 foundation repair advertisements in the Yellow Pages, how does one make the right choice?

Remember this: There are no perfect houses. Simple plaster flaws or a seasonally sticking door are no cause for panic. However, damage that includes a break in the wallboard, leaning or split basement walls, springy floors, doors that won’t open, or recurring wall leaks require attention and should be evaluated.

You may know someone who has training or experience in home construction; if so, ask him to look at the damage. Even if he isn’t sufficiently schooled in codes and practices to appraise your damage, he may be able to refer you to a colleague who is.

It should surprise no one to learn that I favor using a structural engineer for damage assessment. Licensed engineers and architects are empowered by the state to evaluate and certify buildings for safe habitation. No other disciplines have this authority. Engineers are also bound by a code of ethics to restrain side-stream business deals that return money for referrals. In short, engineers who have nothing to sell but their know-how only recommend what is essential for the stability and safety of a home.

My business partner, Bill, was asked to look at a home described by the caller as “severely damaged.” She referred to her house as “a disaster.” Bill used a surveyor’s level to define basement wall elevations and found that the back wall, center I-beam, and side wall all measured within a half inch of each other— well within accepted limits. When he measured the front wall, though, it varied over 2 inches in one corner and this condition was broadcasting damage symptoms throughout the house. When Bill left, the owner had a clear picture of where the problem was and, equally important, where it wasn’t. He gave her a drawing and a written repair plan that were focused and specific to her needs. When all the bids have been received, we can review them to make sure they address the exact problem and nothing more.

Here are some key things to consider:

Do not have your primary damage assessment done by someone who also sells repairs. Ask about that before you set an appointment. It is not unusual for an advertised “inspector” to have silent affiliations or financial interests in a repair company.

Ask for referrals, and call them. I know of a client who was given three referrals that were out-of-town numbers. Presumably the contractor felt she wouldn’t call, but she did, and got negative feedback from two of the three.

Check with the Better Business Bureau and read company profiles on Web sites before you call.

Do not pay up-front fees. Agree to a payment schedule that starts with delivery of materials and has final payment only after work is satisfactorily completed.

Many Yellow Pages contractors were not in the book two years ago, and some will not be there two years from now. Warranties are only as good as the company that stands behind them. Ask how long the contractor has been in business under the present name.

Most areas have some very competent and trustworthy foundation repair contractors. Finding and directing them is fairly easy when you do your homework. Evaluate first, and then make your repair selection from a position of knowledge. The better informed you are, the more gratifying your results will be.

Don Carter is a licensed structural engineer and managing general partner of Foundation Engineering Specialists LLC, a company specializing in residential design and assessments: don@fdnengineering.com.

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