Finding a Responsible Contractor is like Finding Gold.
If you know a few things to look for and avoid, you may be spared the acid re-flux in your stomach.
There are a number of reasons a relationship with a contractor goes south. Unrealistic expectations find homeowners assuming their builder can snap his fingers and — poof! — their dream remodel appears. Keep in mind very few contractors have the wherewithal to hire administrative employees, meaning they end up doing most of the scheduling and paperwork while trying to get your kitchen remodel done. So cut these guys some slack.
And then there are the Craigslist con artists who see a trusting, vulnerable homeowner with little-to-no knowledge about their home’s inner workings and bells go off. Here are a few danger signs — how to sniff one out before they turn your dream home into a nightmare.
Their credentials aren’t handy when you ask for them. Be a detective. In most states, skilled work, like the jobs performed by electricians and plumbers, must be completed by a licensed contractor. So don’t be afraid to ask to see a copy of your contractor’s license—a pro won’t be offended. Be sure and jot down their full name and contractor number. States have databases you can access online through your local state contractor licensing board to verify they are legit. You can also check up on any challenges made to their license as well.
There is no shame in calling past clients and asking if they would hire the contractor your considering again. Always, always ask to review their proof of insurance as well as a list of references. Even if you had a guy come into your home and suede shoe you into believing he was the best guy for the job, if he gets cagey or can’t produce credentials like these, set him loose.
The public has a bully pulpit these days with online consumer reviews. You can look contractors up on HomeAdvisor, Yelp!, or AngiesList to read about other homeowners’ experience with them. If you see tons of 55-star reviews of them with only a few exceptions, usually the contractor can explain what might have gone wrong with those few jobs. If all he does is badmouth the homeowner, however, you may not want him on your team.
If your contractor hands you a bill before he gets started, don’t panic. It’s not uncommon for pros to ask for a portion of their initial quote up front—but typically, it’s no more than 30 to 50% of the quote. He uses this money to purchase the building supplies without dipping into his own pocket to get the job started. You can always ask him for receipts for the materials purchased. However, what he should not do is ask for the entire estimate amount on the spot. It makes it way too easy for him to cut and run. Anyone worth his salt knows better than to ask for 100%.
There is no longer an excuse for not being able to reach your contractor. His mobile phone is his best friend, and texting should have become an art form to him by now. So if he is tough to reach, it may be time to say bye. Of course, you can’t expect him to answer the phone every time it rings, but he should make an effort to get back to you promptly.
If he doesn’t have your back, confront him. Trust is king here, and if you find it faltering, your good feelings may turn into stomach acid. There's no shame in firing a contractor and looking for another one well into the project, either. Just expect a few headaches until you can find another one.
As for bidding the job, if it seems too good to be true it usually is. A deal is a deal, except when it comes at the cost of quality, materials, or skill. Make sure you collect at least 3 separate bids for a home remodeling project. You may love something different about each contractor, but it’s still a necessary exercise to get a feel for the average price of this kind of work. It will also give you a sense of your contractors’ trustworthiness, creativity, and his desire to keep things as cost-effective as possible so you might hire him for future projects as well. If a bid seems uncharacteristically low, it may be a sign something is wrong. It may indicate his using recalled materials, hiring a less-than-skilled crew or his intention to do the work as quickly—and shoddily—as possible. Whatever the reason, you’ll probably wind up paying for it later, so it’s best to avoid these kinds of unrealistic quotes even if they tell you their overhead is lower than everyone else’s. Note: working exclusively out of a pick-up truck means they can disappear like a stench in the wind.
Delays do happen in the construction business. Estimates are off, materials need to be reordered, and unpredictable weather happens. It’s always wise to think of that completion date more of a goal than a promise. However, a contractor who keeps missing deadlines without explanation is not one you want working on your home. Do yourself a favor and give him the boot. Even though your memories of your remodel might be less than pleasant, in the long run, your bank account will thank you.