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Hiring a Barn Building Contractor

Building one's own barn is a horse owner's dream. But more than a few unlucky souls wake up to a nightmare soon after handing over that first big check to the contractor, and spend their time and their money fruitlessly attempting to recoup money and time that can't be retrieved. Here are a few hints and tips gained from the battleground of litigation and practice on these issues which can help make the experience of building a barn mostly trouble free, though not necessarily easy.

Know Who You're Hiring
This doesn't mean reading the name painted on the side of the truck. Find out if the contractor is insured and get the full, legal, corporate name of the business entity that will be performing the work, or the full, legal, and correctly spelled name of the man (or woman) himself if it is a sole proprietor. Then, go to your state's Website of office of public safety or secretary of state and find out if the contractor is licensed.

A contractor MUST be licensed under the laws of most states in order to supervise construction or demolition work. Armed with the license number and the name, you can then check to see if anyone has filed any complaints against the contractor at the Attorney General's Office and the Better Business Bureau. This elementary step will save untold grief. As one western Massachusetts barn owner found out too late, their down payment was taken by a "contractor" who had no contractor's license or even a driver's license, though he did have the aforementioned truck with logo on the side.

Find Out if This Contractor is Both Legitimate and Experienced
Does the contractor have general liability insurance that also covers subcontractors, as well as workman's compensation insurance? Insist on seeing proof of both. Does the contractor insist on YOU doing the necessary permitting? If so, that's a red flag, and this contractor should be avoided at all costs. Does the contractor have a list of previously satisfied, local customers that he will share as a reference?

Get this list and take an afternoon to drive around and inspect the work. If possible, also chat with the previous customers to see how the job went. Ask questions, like whether the contractor was professional in his work ethic, such as meeting deadlines. Did he clean up after the job? And did he accept the inevitable changes with equanimity and a calm demeanor? If a barn architect had been hired, did the contractor work well with the architect or not?

Of critical importance to you is the contractor's previous experience in building barns. Barns are a specialty construction because horses have specific needs that can't be met by just building a box out of plywood, as one Cape Cod barn owner found out when their plywood box was erected and then dissolved after several driving rainstorms. Depending on municipality, there may be special permitting required, and you may need to alter pasture arrangements as well as building the barn itself as part of the process. If the barn is a commercial establishment and clients or customers are on site during the building process, the contractor will need to be aware of state laws regarding latent defects and be willing to take the precautions necessary to protect the clients and customers.

The point is, you simply cannot educate the contractor on the equine-friendly aspects of the job, nor do you want him to earn his education at your (and your horse's or boarder's) expense.

Details in the Written Contract Do Matter
All legitimate contractors will use a written contract that spells out the work to be performed, the materials that will be used, the deadlines that will be met, and the payment schedule to be followed. Do not pay for the entire job up front; most contractors will follow a payment schedule that corresponds to the job's completion, such as in thirds. State law also requires that complaints about a building's construction be lodged within a limited time frame after the completion of the job, so do not allow the contractor to leave or make final payment to him until you're satisfied that the work contracted for has been completed and done appropriately.

There is No Free Lunch, and the Low Bidder Should be Avoided
Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a free lunch. That is, a markedly low bid should be eyed with suspicion for that very fact; more customers have come to grief on the shoals of the "low bid" than from any other cause.

With a little common sense and these tips, barn building should be the culmination of your dreams, and not the unfolding of a new nightmare.

Kathleen A. Reagan, Esq. is an equine attorney practicing in Braintree, MA, available at www.kathleenreaganlaw.com, has developed a course in equine law at www.concordlawschool.com, and is co-founder and Vice President of QueryHorse, the largest horse information resource on the Internet.

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