The best way to avoid problems in your basement finishing project is to follow these ten steps, and to cover all details in your contract.

  1. During Construction; Permits, Plans and Specifications
    Your contract should call for the work to be performed in accordance with all applicable building codes. Keep in mind that building codes only set minimum safety standards for construction; they do not protect you against poor quality work.As a general rule, a building permit is required whenever structural work is involved or when the basic living area of a home is to be changed. For example, if you have a home with an unfinished basement, and would like to finish off a portion of it for a family room, you would need a building permit in most jurisdictions because you have changed the basic amount of living space in your house by converting storage space to “livable” space. In some cases, separate permits for electrical, heating and plumbing may be required.The contractor should obtain the necessary building permits. This should be spelled out in your contract; otherwise you may be held legally responsible for failure to obtain the required permits. Zoning regulations differ from place to place, so if you are planning any alterations or additions to your home, your contractor should check with the zoning authorities to determine what permits or permission you need to proceed with your project.

    Make sure that you have copies of the signed contract and of the plans and specifications for your project. Resist the temptation to verbally make any changes to the contract or to the plans and specifications. Make sure all changes are in writing and are signed by you and your contractor.

    The permit for your job, along with the project plans and specifications must be posted on the job before the work begins. Check to make sure that they are.

  2. Inspections
    Make sure your contractor gets all necessary building permits from your local building department. Homeowners are not required to sign building permits unless they are performing their own work personally. A frequent practice of unlicensed contractors is to have the homeowner secure an “owner-builder” building permit, erroneously implying that the property owner is providing his or her own labor and materials personally.The building department will inspect the work when it has reached a certain stage and again when it is completed to make sure it complies with various codes and regulations. The contractor is responsible for arranging for these inspections. The main reason for building permits and inspections is to ensure the health and safety of the occupants of buildings. They are not made to determine the quality of work.You should, if at all possible, be present when inspections are made, ask questions, and make frequent inspections yourself.When a project is completed, the building department will make a final inspection, so don’t make the final payment to the contractor until the building department inspector has signed off on the job. You may also make a final inspection, or “walk-through,” with your contractor, to be certain there is nothing you or the contractor have overlooked.
  3. A Word of Warning
    Anyone who talks you into being your own general contractor, or “owner/builder,” may be doing you no favor. “Owner/builder” describes a situation in which the homeowner becomes the general contractor. As an owner/builder, you (not the person you hire) assume responsibility for the overall job, which may include such things as state and federal taxes, workers’ compensation, building permits and other legal liabilities. Unless you are very experienced in construction, it is best to leave these matters to your licensed contractor.

Read part 5 “Legal Considerations & Avoiding Complaints”