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Work on the Cheap

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Spring can be a great time to get a new roof,
but, one construction expert warns, projects
could be delayed by rain. He suggests choosing
quality rather than adhering to a strict timeline.

When it’s 30 degrees outside and you’re shivering in two sweaters, you probably aren’t thinking about buying a new air conditioning unit. But that might just be the best time to get the job done.

Homeowners can save time and money by having home improvements and repairs done off season, and they’ll likely get better service and faster scheduling, too.

“If you call us with a broken air conditioner on the first 90-degree day of the year, of course we’re going to be backed up,” says Brian Frederick, president of Wilmington-based Joseph Frederick & Sons, a family-owned heating and air conditioning company.

“But if you call in the early spring to get your AC checked out, we can schedule you quicker and maybe even catch a minor problem before it turns into a really expensive repair.”

Contractors can’t dig a pool when the ground is frozen or replace the roof when it’s raining. But with patience and planning, consumers can enjoy the benefits of optimal service, a choice of scheduling and off-season price breaks. Here’s a guide.

WINTER

Mid-November to mid-February is a prime period to schedule a variety of home-improvement projects. Because so many people are paying off post-holiday bills in January and February, contractors are slow.

“We have some jobs we do inside like stainings, floors, redoing basements,” says Matt Kirby of Kirby Stamped Concrete, a decorative concrete company in Wilmington. “And sure, we can give you a better price on it because we’re not doing anything else. Something coming in is better than nothing coming in.”

Winter is an especially good time to schedule non-seasonal work, such as interior plumbing and electrical. Most contractors would rather be working inside when it’s cold outside.

“Who wants to be fumbling out in the cold when you’re trying to work with your hands?” Frederick says. “If we can push off an outdoor job till spring so we can take an indoor job in January, we will.”

If the work can’t be done during the cold months, it’s a good idea to call contractors and get it scheduled for when the weather warms up, Kirby says.

Winter is also a great time to have interior painting done. Exterior painting has to be done when temperatures are 45 degrees or above, so many painting contractors slow down and offer discounts when it’s cold. At CertaPro Painters, the winter discount ranges from 10 percent to 15 percent.

Plus, during the off season, painters are more likely to be able to work when it’s convenient for you, and the quality of work may be better, says Anna Agostini of CertaPro in Newark.

“Normally, the scheduling in the spring and summer takes maybe three weeks to a month. During the winter you can sometimes get in as quickly as a week,” Agostini says. “And the best employees are kept on during the winter months, so you have your best guys doing the work, and the service does improve.”

Most people think about landscaping in the spring, but winter is also a terrific time to have landscaping done, says Andy Donaldson of ACE YardScaping.

Contractors can apply chemicals to protect trees and shrubs, even reduce the insect population in the coming spring. And as long as the ground isn’t frozen, they can dig and mulch flower beds.

“You get quicker availability and at least a 5 percent discount,” Donaldson says. “Then everything’s set up for spring.”

SPRING

When things begin to thaw and contractors’ phones start to ring more often, there’s still time to line up bargains.

Early spring—while it’s still cool enough to keep the windows open—is the best time to purchase a new air conditioner. Many manufacturers offer discounts, rebates and special financing, and contractors’ schedules won’t be jammed up yet, says Frederick.

“Plus, when you call in the spring, our technicians have more time to spend with each customer, talking about options and possibilities,” he adds. “And then you get to enjoy the cost savings and comfort of the new system for the whole season rather than paying too much for energy or suffering when the AC kicks out in August.”

For homeowners who are willing to be patient, spring can also be a great time to get a new roof, siding or cement patio. Because such projects can’t be done in the rain, the contractor might have to postpone scheduled work or complete it on dry days scattered over a few weeks. But if the project doesn’t have to be done on a strict timeline, a spring project might save you money and time.

“Just keep in mind that quality is more important than schedule when it comes to working outdoors,” says Michael Christopher of Bancroft Construction. “So you want to make sure whatever you do doesn’t compromise the quality of the product.

SUMMER

Summer is peak time for most projects, but savvy homeowners can still find deals on things like home heating systems, fireplaces and chimneys.

“We’ll give them like 10 percent to 15 percent off during the off-season,” says Michael Salemi, who owns Fireplace and Patio by Swift, as well as Swift Services, a chimney cleaning and repair company.

“And people who are really thinking ahead might get a stove that’s been used as a demo model for half price,” Salemi adds. “You go ahead and buy one in the spring of ’08, and you’ll be set for next year. You might save $2,000 or $3,000.”

It’s also a good idea to get the work done ahead of time as a safety measure, Salemi says. It might be uncomfortable to have a failing AC in July, but a broken-down stove or clogged chimney could be dangerous.

“People turn the heat on and find carbon monoxide coming into the house,” Salemi says. “The heater man says, ‘You’ve got to get a new chimney.’”

Late summer also is a good time to have home heating systems serviced or replaced.

“You really don’t want to wait until your in-laws are snowed in over Christmas to find out the furnace is kaput,” Frederick says. “No matter how busy we are fixing ACs, we find time to make sure your heat’s going to come on when temperatures drop.”

FALL

When fall rolls around, home improvement projects slow down a bit, but most contractors stay pretty busy through mid-November.

One exception is swimming pool companies. Most people are reluctant to have a pool installed in the fall since they won’t be able to use it until the next summer, so some pool companies are willing to deal.

“We’re scrounging around (in the fall), so there’s always a gift or something, maybe a larger pool for the same price or something like that,” says John Swift, owner of Swift Pools in Newark.

Also, because the weather is usually drier in fall than spring, pool installation tends to go much faster, Swift says.

Generally, though, fall is a good time to start gathering information and planning for winter projects. October is prime time for home improvement shows, and some contractors begin quoting their discounted winter prices around this time, too.

“It’s different when I have 10 jobs lined up versus two, and sometimes you do things a little cheaper,” says Jim Gildea, president of Cavalier Construction, based in Middletown. “Maybe I’d normally want to charge $10,000 for a job, but I might charge $9,000 because I don’t have as many jobs lined up.”

And early in the fall, manufacturers start offering rebates on heaters and air conditioners, which could save you $1,000 or more, Frederick says. “Buying a new furnace isn’t as much fun as buying a new pair of skis,” he says, “but they’re both good things to take care of before the first snowfall.”

No matter what time of year it is, says Wilmington contractor Charlie Miller, the smartest consumers will stick to the basics: Get at least three prices, be wary of a price that’s dramatically lower than other quotes, and ask a lot of questions.

“Yes, it’s true that companies will often take less profitable work to keep their guys working in the off-season so they don’t have to pay unemployment with nothing coming in,” says Miller, whose Milroc Inc. specializes in historic restoration.

“But you have to find out if they’re going to use the same materials, what’s going to be different. The basics underscore everything.”