Drip ... drip ... drip ... As the rainy season begins, the sound of a leaky roof is one every homeowner dreads, and with good reason. A roof replacement can...

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Drip … drip … drip …

As the rainy season begins, the sound of a leaky roof is one every homeowner dreads, and with good reason. A roof replacement can cost you thousands of dollars. And unless you contract carefully, you may spend thousands of dollars more than necessary and get less-than-satisfactory results.

Even when things don’t go incredibly badly, there are all too many minor annoyances — months of waiting (with pots catching drips) for contracted work to begin, work having to be redone, uneven rows of shingles, poor cleanup of nails and debris, or damaged landscaping. The key to success is to find a good roofing contractor, agree in writing exactly what you want done, and keep a close eye on the job as it progresses. Although the roofing business is one where costly mistakes are too common, fortunately, there are many excellent roofers in the area — and the highest-rated firms are as likely as any to do your work at a low price.

The nonprofit Puget Sound Consumers Checkbook (www.checkbook.org) rated 43 local roofing contractors from promptness to work quality to consumer complaints. We’ve published the top five in King County.

For a successful roofing project, follow these steps:

1. Get several bids for any major roofing job. Prices for the same work often vary by 100 percent, which may represent thousands of dollars of difference. Use estimators as your consultants, getting feedback on exactly what needs to be done. Then go back to each with the final description of what you want so each can bid on the same job.

2. Before using any firm, ask for proof that it is licensed and that it has liability and workers’ compensation insurance. The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries regulates contractors.

It’s also a good idea to write in a statement that you will be held harmless for any damages covered by general liability or workers’ compensation insurance.

3. Specify by picture or words exactly what you want done: whether old shingles are to be removed; what types of shingles to be used; the manufacturer’s warranty on the shingles; if the shingles are to be algae-resistant; and whether flashings (the material used under the shingles to prevent leaks) are to be replaced.

Also, specify if the contractor is responsible for a complete cleanup, including nails. Write in a requirement that the firm haul away all debris.

4. Check with your local building-inspection office to see if you need a permit for the roof work. If so, specify in the contract that the roofer must get a permit and that the work must be inspected and approved before final payment.

5. Specify in the contract when work is to begin and how long it will take. Given frequent customer dissatisfaction with delays, you will want to get out of a contract and find another roofer if your original contractor proves too slow.

6. Spell out a fixed price for the work and the formula for covering any contingencies. You should be able to get a binding contract with a firm for the same price as its estimate. Most contractors, though, will insist on a clause in case they find hidden damage under the old roof. Such clauses usually say that extra carpentry would be done on a per-foot or time-and-materials basis. A charge per square foot, or per linear foot, is typical.

7. Specify in the contract whether any subcontractors will be used, and who they will be. Say in the contract, “No subcontractors other than those listed are authorized to do work on homeowner’s premises.” Add, “Homeowner is not liable for payment to any other subcontractors.”

8. Arrange to pay for work only after you have evidence that subcontractors and suppliers have been paid. A subcontractor, supplier or worker may be able to get a lien on your house if the roofer does not pay them.

To protect yourself, write into the contract: “Contractor must provide homeowner lien releases covering work to which the payment applies.”

9. Press for a strong written guarantee. Get a copy of the warranty from the manufacturer of whatever roofing materials are used, and get a warranty on the roofer’s work as well. Roofers’ guarantees usually run from one to five years, but you may be able to get one for longer.

10. Arrange to pay for the work as late in the process as possible. Many contractors will allow customers to withhold all payments until work is complete. Try to arrange to withhold at least a portion of the price until your roof has been tested by some stormy weather.

Excerpt reprinted by permission from Puget Sound Consumers’ Checkbook, a nonprofit, nonadvertising magazine that rates many types of area service firms. For the full article or a copy of the magazine, call 206-332-9696 or visit www.checkbook.org.