Blog10 Mistakes You Can Make when Hiring a Home Improvement Contractor, and How to Avoid Them
Posted about 2 years ago

10 Mistakes You Can Make when Hiring a Home Improvement Contractor, and How to Avoid Them

Home Improvement Contractor

As homeowners we will at one time or another have repairs, upgrades or changes to our houses. While some of us like to do the work ourselves, we always need to find someone to help with the projects that are beyond our competence or our time constraints. Enter the home improvement contractor.

To get the best job for a reasonable cost we need to avoid the following mistakes.

#1 Don’t hire a contractor that comes to your door. The quality contractors are busy; too busy to go door to door. Ask your family, friends and neighbors for a reputable contractor that they would recommend. Look for local advertisements that repeat, showing that a contractor has been around for a while, then check online or the phonebook (though most phone listings are online now) for verification. Go online and look for contractors in directories such as Manta, Kudzu, YP, etc. Realize while reviews for a contractor are great, they can be false. You really do want a local, experienced contractor not a door to door potential fly by night outfit. Also know that some directories (like Home Advisor) charge their contractors for your contact information. Don’t be frivolous with your requests for contractor contacts.

#2 Don’t be vague about what you want a contractor to complete. Be sure you have a clear concept of what it is you want a contractor to accomplish for you. It’s one thing to say “I want to change my bathroom” and another to say “I hate the bathtub, paint color and the leaky faucet”. Write down what you want to change and do some research at home centers and online ahead of time and share that with a potential contractor. Certainly be open to a contractor’s suggestions; they have seen a lot of different finished projects. Use their knowledge to satisfy your needs. You aren’t required to use their ideas; of course, it’s your bathroom, but use the eye of experience to your benefit. Knowing the end in the beginning is critical to your satisfaction.

#3 Get no more three estimates. Don’t waste everybody’s time with more. You may be surprised how the cost for your project varies from one contractor to the next. One can be the deal of the century and then there is one that is so high you wonder which planet it came from. First compare oranges to oranges. If a detail is in one proposal and not in the next, ask why it is missing. Make a list because it can get confusing, especially with different estimating approaches. Be sure each contractor is aware of all the details. Rarely should you take the low-priced contractor unless he or she charges less for the same orange. One reason you may get a low-ball offer is that the contractor may be willing to work just for wages instead of covering any overhead (i.e. insurance, safety equipment, licensing, etc.) or they didn’t understand the scope of the work, which means they will try and charge you more as the project proceeds. Both are no-no’s for you. If the price is sky-high, it may be that the contractor has included items others haven’t; included items you don’t want or need; or really doesn’t need the work (but could fit you in with the extra incentive to hire more help); or they don’t particularly like you or the job and foresee serious issues, hence the increased price for the “aggravation” factor. Another no-no for you. If you have done work before with a particular contractor, were pleased with their work and you are confident the same contractor can complete the new work, hire them! As always, have a written contract, but skip the brain damage! Most contractor work is referral for a reason. It is about communication and satisfaction.

#4 Many homeowners hire contractors just because of the price or a good sales pitch. Get references, insurance, and license information from potential contractors and check them. If they have testimonials on their website, ask to speak with those particular folks. This double checks the contractors work and honesty in their testimonials and reviews. True, you won’t usually get the problem clients the contractor had, but you will see that the contractor does have success stories. If they have fake reviews or testimonials, time to move on as this means you have a dishonest contractor. Make sure the insurance certificates are current and apply to your work (i.e. roofing insurance does not cover remodeling, etc.). Have your contractor send you their insurance certificates. It involves one phone call to their insurance agent with your contact information and if your contractor balks, you have a problem. It’s funny, the good contractors know the value of insurance and want someone to actually notice! The contractors without insurance don’t want attention. Require liability insurance and Workmen’s Comp for contractors with employees, for each contractor. Licensing is a bit more complicated. Many municipalities require specific licensing for contractors and are required for permitting (a very few require none at all except plumbing and electrical). As most contractors, from foundation to roofing, work in many different areas, they need to pay for individual licensing for where you live and they rarely pay for all the local towns. Expect to pay for this in their pricing. Even plumbers and electricians who are licensed by and for the state, sometimes need to pay a fee for a local municipality license. Not to worry too much, your general and their major subcontractors are required to be licensed to obtain the overall and the individual permits, otherwise they are not allowed to complete the work and have it inspected. Require that your general contractor is licensed, or will be, and that the main subcontractors are as well.

#5 Do not hire anyone you can’t easily talk with. Be sure you like and can communicate well with your contractor. This is critical. You will be dealing with this person and their organization for an extended period of time and you want to make sure you can trust them to take care of you. This item makes project cost a secondary issue. A contractor with good avenues of communication whether via email, text or phone, who listens to you and who you can talk to, can make the project go down greased rails or become a train wreck. If your contractor is not the onsite project manager, be sure you meet and talk to the person who will be onsite prior to signing a contract. You will be dealing the project manager every day. Evaluate whether you communicate well together and if you like this person well enough to do business with them. Don’t be afraid to say adios to a contractor you aren’t comfortable with. Don’t be afraid to bid them farewell because they have great pricing and can get started yesterday. It’s not worth that if you just don’t feel right with them. Say no and find someone who fits your style better. Be patient and get the right contractor. Respect and great communication on both sides builds a good working relationship while the opposite most often ends in misery.

#6 Do not allow any minor or major work to be completed without a written contract. Have as much detailed in writing as possible and have a written contract. Do not hire someone to conduct work verbally unless it’s a kid to cut your lawn. A contract protects both the homeowner and the contractor. The contract is a wonderful guide. While not foolproof, a well-specified contract defines the project, itemized costs, the materials to be used, payment timing, time schedule to start and finish, work changes (and there will be changes along the way) and the warranty. Have as many of the project specifications written down and part of the contract up front as this saves time, money and relationships. The warranty should be for at least 1 year or more depending on the work. The lawn-cutting warranty is usually good for the day the kid cut it, painting is longer, roofing more, structural components even longer.

#7 Don’t pay a large down payment initially for work to be completed. A legitimate company has accounts to buy materials and some reserves to pay labor. In the contract the payment schedule should be laid out. Your money is the leverage for work to be completed as contracted, on-time and in-budget. At the same time, most contractors will require anywhere from 5-25% down to make sure you are committed to completing your project. Be sure to pay on-time with bills or “draws” as they are presented to keep the job moving forward. Make sure you are paying for the work completed and for the materials on-site only or ordered. Some contractors over-bill to help with cash flow (i.e. for work promised but not completed and materials not yet acquired). The contractor then becomes cash strapped at the end of the project which is not good for you, the client. Talk about “retainage” which is money held back to guarantee the final completion of your project and include it in the payment schedule. This is a very powerful incentive for your contractor to finish all the details. Slow or non-existent payment is not in your best interest. You will get substandard work, work stoppage, liens and angry folks. This is highly stressful for all involved. One final thought on this; be sure you have adequate funds to finance your project and be sure to have at least a 10% overage reserve (15-20% is better). I have never seen a major project that the client didn’t have to pay for surprises, add or change the specifications. Remodeling existing work vs. new construction is more prone to additional costs because a quality contractor has one or more contract clauses concerning unknown conditions uncovered during remodeling. There are simply unforeseen issues that can’t be seen until the work is begun. Know it, expect it and deal with it as it arrives.

#8 Don’t let contractors waste your time and money. You should expect accountability. This means showing up on time (+/- 15 minutes) or calling if any party is going to be late, for both client and contractor. No shows without calling are inexcusable. Respect is lost and gone forever. In this connected world, there are very, very few excuses for not telling someone you can’t make it or that you are going to be late. This also means that the contractor completes what they say they are going to complete. If there is a mistake or misunderstandings (and they will happen) the quality contractor will apologize and then explain when they actually will complete said job or job portion. Heck, nobody’s perfect but you should expect accountability. Tell your contractor this. Discuss the communication avenues so there is no confusion. This also means you as the client need to follow the same rules. You lose respect if you don’t, which creates uncertainty, which leads to stress and less satisfaction. Set up the rules and play fair.

#9 Impatient clients; clients with unrealistic expectations; clients that don’t pay on time; and confrontational clients all create the potential for a job train wreck. Lower the already heightened stress levels by being friendly and calm, yet firm. Donuts or food to the crew have amazing benefits, as do asking the contractors about their lives outside of your job at break time or end of the day. As you already know, friends do more for you than strangers. At the same time, allow your contractor and his/her subcontractors to do their work without looking over their shoulders. If you see a problem, talk to the project manager or your general contractor. Don’t interrupt the workers, they know far more than you do about what they do and they have systems to work efficiently.

#10 Don’t expect you know what and how your job is going to proceed. Be sure to ask your contractor how they are going to proceed with the work, the times and days they will work, access to your house, the rules for items like dogs, children, alcohol or drugs on the job, parking, trash container locations, daily or weekly meetings, change order procedures, etc.

The more you understand what is going to happen, the more your comfort zone increases. If you avoid the 10 mistakes above, the chances are very good that you will have a quality experience and an excellent end result. And isn’t that the whole purpose? If you do it well you will also make some great long-term relationships which you can lean on next time you have a home improvement project. Good luck and enjoy the ride!

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