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Working with a Contractor: Legal Requirements Beyond the Contract

In addition to the contract for the construction project itself, homeowners undertaking a renovation should be familiar with these legal requirements.

Change orders

When a project does not go as expected due to a “surprise” found behind the walls or some other unexpected condition, a change order is needed. This is a separate contract that spells out the additional work to be done. This should always be a written document—never a verbal agreement only.

Building permits

The contractor is responsible for obtaining a building permit from the city or town. By signing the permit application, the contractor assumes responsibility for making sure that the work is done according to the building code. The contractor’s professional license is on the line if the work is done poorly, and the homeowner has the protection of the Massachusetts Home Improvement Contractor Guaranty Fund. Sometimes, a contractor asks the homeowner to obtain the permit, but this is not advisable. That means the homeowner is responsible for making sure that the work is up to code, is the contact person for the inspections, which can be time-consuming to schedule, and does not have access to the Guaranty Fund.

Variances

Occasionally, a renovation will exceed the limits of zoning, such as setback from the property line or floor area ratio. A variance will be needed from the local zoning authority for these projects, which can include changing the house’s footprint, adding height, and even adding a dormer. Obtaining a variance can take three to six months and involves notifying the neighbors so they have a chance to voice objections. The best bet is to work with your architect to navigate this process.

A variance must be obtained before a building permit can be issued. In Boston, general questions about zoning can be posed at the weekly zoning clinic offered by the city’s inspectional services department.

Other requirements

Before beginning the project, have the contractor’s insurance agent send a certificate of insurance directly to you, listing you as an additionally insured. It should show coverage of at least $2 million for general liability, as well as at least $500,000­ to $1 million for workers compensation. Look closely at the document to make sure coverage is adequate and will not expire before the project is completed.

If you have an older home that contains materials with lead content that will be disturbed by the work, the contractor will need lead certification from Environmental Protection Agency and must take protective measures to prevent contamination.

Common renovation traps to avoid

Fear

Tackling a renovation project can be intimidating, and there is a temptation to avoid the scary parts, such as evaluating contractors and checking references and credentials. Facing these issues head on is the best way to avoid major problems later.

The lure of a low price

A bargain price is always attractive. But if a contractor’s low price is due to not having insurance or cutting corners, that’s no bargain. Be prepared to pay a reasonable price for good quality work.

Not knowing what you want to spend

Many people have no concept of what it will cost to do a renovation and may make bad decisions based on an unrealistic budget. You should go into the project knowing exactly how much you’re willing to spend, and with a realistic understanding about how far that money can get you.

Not getting it in writing

A “handshake” agreement is an opportunity for misunderstanding, or worse, deception. A written contract ensures that everyone understands what is expected: the scope of work to be done, deadlines, and who is paying for materials. Always get it in writing.

A renovation, especially a major one, is a complex process. There’s a lot to know and a lot to learn, even for those who have been doing it for many years. Happily, it is a process that, when done right, can be very rewarding, yielding benefits that will last a lifetime.

This information is based on BBR's "Working with a Contractor, Part 2" workshop.