As homeowners, we know we need to do our due diligence when hiring a renovator, but the sudden closure of Orléans-based Highbridge Construction recently has many wondering exactly what due diligence entails.
The company, whose website claims over 20 years of experience, closed its doors abruptly Feb. 3, walking away from incomplete renovation and home-building projects. Highbridge’s assets have been frozen and the company is being investigated by Ottawa police, but that brings scant solace to the clients who handed over money — in one case, a $230,000 deposit — they may never recover.
On top of this local incident, a new report from the Better Business Bureau says home improvement scams in Canada topped the fraud list in 2022, beating out even cryptocurrency, with a median loss for homeowners of $1,900.
Ottawa abounds in excellent, ethical renovators, but homeowners need to know how to hire them.
Planning & preparing
Before contacting any renovators, do the groundwork so there are no misunderstandings about what you want.
Start by determining what you can afford. Renovation costs have spiked in the past few years thanks to inflation, supply chain convulsions and other factors. There are no standard costs for a reno, but a simple backyard deck can easily run $15,000, while six figures isn’t out of line for a major kitchen makeover.
Next, identify what you like and don’t like about your current space and how you want to use it in the future: intimate family gatherings? big parties? a nook for a home office?
Homeowners should also jot down their worries when it comes to renovating, says Herb Lagois of Lagois Design-Build-Renovate, items like cost and time overruns, what to do with pets, and the mess created during a construction project. A good renovator will clearly explain how they deal with these potential issues.
Finally, advise your insurance company that you are planning a renovation in case there are stipulations in your coverage relating to home improvements.
Identifying potential contractors
Start by asking acquaintances if they’ve dealt with a good contractor and then ask if you can see the completed project. Quiz them about both pros and cons of working with the renovator.
Check RenoMark, a national program with many local members. RenoMark renovators have signed a strict code of conduct that includes a two-year warranty. Membership doesn’t guarantee performance (Highbridge was a RenoMark member, although its registration has been revoked), but it is a significant layer of protection.
You should also check our business directory for local home improvement pros. We’ve given all of them at least a first-level vetting, although you still need to do your own checking.
And if someone raps on your door with a smile and a “special, time-limited price” on renos, bid them adieu pronto: reputable businesses don’t operate this way.
As always, shop around. That means face-to-face sessions with a minimum of three contractors so you can get detailed information and quotes and make the right choice.
“Ask questions (and) be comfortable asking,” says Lagois. “A professional renovator will respect and appreciate all questions.” In addition to asking how many projects like yours they have completed in the past year and other questions, he suggests inquiring about the renovator’s community involvement (“how caring they are”).
The Canadian Home Builders’ Association’s (CHBA) comprehensive homeowner information on renovations has helpful worksheets, including one on interviewing contractors.
Remember to ask for references and check them thoroughly.
“I feel that is where we as homeowners fail,” says Lagois. “We do ask for references, yet do we actually follow up with probing questions?”
His suggested questions range from whether the on-site crews were respectful, clean and knew what they were doing to whether the project was finished within the agreed-upon timeframe.
For more questions, check the CHBA’s reference worksheet.
Talking to clients whose renos were done some time ago will help you determine how well a contractor’s work holds up, according to Lindsay Nicol of Crossford Construction. As well, “Do a drive-by of some of the projects — see if the job even exists.”
When speaking with references, ask what went well and what went badly and how the contractor dealt with problems, recommends Greg Simpson, co-owner of Sunshine Build and Design.
“Every renovation isn’t 100 per cent smooth sailing; there’s always something that comes up. The good renovators will communicate and solve the issues (in a timely manner) and professionally.”
He also suggests ensuring the references are actual clients and not related to the renovator.
Finally, watch for red flags, cautions Lagois. A dirty or messy vehicle, taking phone calls during your appointment, talking over you or in circles: These and others are danger signs. “Listen to your instincts!” he says.
Contracts and deposits
A clear, detailed contract is essential in ensuring your project will meet your expectations. It’s so important that Ontario requires any home renovation contract worth more than $50 be in writing. Go through it with a fine-tooth comb and ensure all your questions are answered before signing.
Contracts vary from one renovator to the next, but all must include a clear description of work, warranty terms and other details.
And those descriptions of work must be clear, according to Lagois. “’Hardwood’ is not clear. Is it birch, maple, oak, factory-finished or not, engineered? … Now imagine all the components of a renovation, like windows, doors, door hardware, plumbing fixtures, mechanical: the more detail, the less disagreement.”
Make sure the contract also includes proof of the renovator’s liability insurance and workers’ compensation coverage: “You put yourself in a very dangerous position if your contractor doesn’t have (insurance),” says Nicol. “You could certainly be liable if anything happens to the person.”
Check the CHBA guide to contracts as well as Ontario’s contract requirements and remember you have a right to a 10-day cooling-off period. You may also want to have a lawyer review the contract, especially if it’s a large one.
Before signing up with a renovator, Nathan Dunlop of Amsted Design-Build says to have a ‘job showing’ with all the trades that will be taking on the job. “A ‘job showing’ is where all the potential trade partners are brought in to assess the job before accepting the work.”
He says this helps ensure everything from a realistic budget to fresh eyes examining the site for potential challenges or concerns.
The contract must include payment terms, including the deposit amount and interim payments linked to either milestones like commencement of framing and painting or to specific dates. Milestone-based payments generally offer good protection to the client because they reflect actual progress.
For deposits, the CHBA says they should not generally exceed 10 per cent of the total project cost. However, some good renovators ask for a higher deposit, especially on smaller jobs where a lot of material has to be ordered all at once, increasing the contractor’s initial outlay.
The deposit covers a contractor’s “upfront initial costs,” says Nicol, including subtrade contracts and deposits to suppliers.
And don’t forget about the “holdback.” It protects homeowners from liens against a contractor by allowing the owner to hold back 10 per cent of the total project cost for up 45 days after project completion.
Does all this sound onerous? It is. But, says Dunlop, “You must spend the time doing your due diligence. There is no quick fix in residential construction. You are placing trust in a company to spend your money wisely to deliver on their promise.”
More tips on hiring the right contractor
Don’t make decisions based solely on cost. A window recommended by one renovator can be quite different from a window suggested by another contractor, leading to variation in costs.
– Herb Lagois, Lagois Design-Build-Renovate
When checking out a renovator’s in-progress projects, ask the tradespeople how they feel about working for the contractor. Their answers can tell you a lot.
– Nathan Dunlop, Amsted Design-Build
Be suspicious if a renovator offers time-sensitive discounts. This can be a tactic to rush you into a decision before you’ve had a chance to do your due diligence.
– Greg Simpson, Sunshine Build and Design
Do your research and select the builder you trust. That sounds obvious, but people don’t always do that. These are big dollars at stake.
– Lindsay Nicol, Crossford Construction