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While we all anticipate that something will go wrong right after the contractor packs up his tools (or at least the more pessimistic of us do), it's still a tough pill to swallow when it actually happens.

Doors can stick, pipes can spring leaks, refrigerators can stop refrigerating, or (gasp!) boilers can go bust. Any contractor, plumber, or electrician worth his salt will provide a clear-cut contractual warranty for service before he even buys his first supply. Usually, he'll agree to come back and fix any problems that should arise for free, within one year of the date of your last payment. "That's basically what you're paying a contractor for: The security and peace of mind that come along with having a one-year warranty," says Washington-based contractor Donna Shirey, CGR, CAPS, CGP.

So what's the best way to ensure you don't suffer a remodeling nightmare after signing on the dotted line? Here are a few tips to help you interpret your contractor's warranty.

Contractors offer two basic types of warranties: Coverage against material defects and coverage against workmanship errors. "Contractors are liable for all the work they do, including labor. Everything [tools, supplies] a contractor pays for is covered in the warranty, excluding any parts the homeowner supplies," says Shirey.

A leaky faucet is a common example of a material defect. Getty Images

Some examples of material defects are a gas stove that quickly develops an igniter problem, or a bathroom faucet that suddenly springs a leak. The manufacturer defines a product guarantee, which can vary greatly from brand to brand. Product coverage can last anywhere from a few months to a few years, and restitution (usually in the form of repair or replacement) comes from the company. That's why it's so important to go with a reputable brand. "If [clients] choose a cheap part that I know has a high failure rate, I'll recommend [something] better. If you still want it and it fails after I install it, I'll take it back and get a new one. But then I have to charge you for the new part and $150 an hour for installation," says Christopher "Boo" White, owner of a Mr. Rooter plumbing franchise in Bozeman, Montana.

Workmanship errors are problems resulting from work the contractor or his team executed incorrectly, such as drilling into your septic system or failing to ground outdoor electricity. Of course, deciding where blame lies can be tricky. "If you hire a reputable businessman, he'll notice any slipshod work, notify the homeowner, and fix it for free. But if a pipe bursts and he and his men never touched it, it's probably not their fault," says White.

But White says there's another side to the culpability issue, "As soon as I drain the water out of a boiler, for example, I always have to make more repairs as a result. Since that's just the nature of boilers, I expect to eat the cost of labor by repairing problems I didn't create." Although it's not always easy to know when damage is the contractor's fault (given his experience is likely much greater than yours), hire someone you trust in the first place; that makes all the difference. It also helps tremendously to know exactly what's being done on your home before a project is started. Talk with him about where he thinks a problem originated. Communication is key, so don't be afraid to ask questions.

Any deterioration and damage caused by normal wear-and-tear is always your responsibility. Some examples would be deep gouges in your new composite decking caused by dragging outdoor furniture across it, little Billy throwing spaghetti marinara all over the newly painted walls, and anything else a contractor can't foresee. Contractors also aren't liable for losses incurred because you didn't properly maintain something, though. For example, if you didn't regulate your basement's humidity, which resulted in shrinkage of wood detailing. That's not the contractor's responsibility; it's yours. And if you decided to hold off on reporting that faulty garbage disposal until more than six months after realizing it wasn't grinding, you'll take it on the nose for that one, too.

Although it's human nature to want to play handyman (why hound your contractor about a broken light bulb?), once you start messing with anything electrical-, plumbing-, or HVAC-related (even if the contractor made the mistake you're trying to fix), you'll void the contractor's and the manufacturer's warranty. Likewise, if you buy something yourself, even if your contractor installs it, you're still on your own.

As for "acts of god"? No dice. These mishaps are defined as damage incurred from flooding, earthquakes, fires, and windstorms, among a huge laundry list of other climatic phenomena your contractor can't control.

If it's been nearly a year since you remodeled or repaired and nothing's gone awry, count your blessings. But try to reexamine everything one month before your warranty's set to expire. Review each line item in the original contract. If something's amiss and you need to make a claim, do so ASAP or you may be stuck.

It's up to you to understand what's buried in the fine print of your warranty. Unfortunately, most contractor warranties are filled with enough legal jargon to make your eyes glaze over, but it's worth your while to decipher it all. Find a construction lawyer in your area who'll translate your contact into layman's terms.

Since your original contract usually has you covered for a year, submit a written request for a repair of any work that was included therein; you should be okay as long as 365 days haven't passed. After that, the contractor has the right to move on.
If you have more than one issue, send the contractor an itemized list. Ask him to respond to your request within one week and give him 30 days to fix problems. Chances are, he'll be working on another home and isn't able to drop everything to get to yours.

Give new building materials time to settle. Wood warps, adhesive unsticks, and sheetrock cracks. Again, that's life -- and it doesn't necessarily mean your contractor bungled the job. You and he should both anticipate minor complications, and it's normal for you to request -- and expect -- complimentary repairs.

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  • A Gregg

    Might be nice to interview some contractors to hear the flipside of all of this. Everyone is not a victim of a contractor. Some clients aren't great either and a little education on knowing when to not DIY could be helpful.

  • 1 Comments / 1 Pages

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