Do an internet search on “residential contractor horror stories” and the results you get back may make you never want to hire someone to do work on your home again. Some common, frightening themes of woe you might see:
- Contractors that low-bid to get a job and then do shoddy work and use substandard materials
- Residential contractors that take their sweet time to finish a job, missing deadlines and becoming annoyed if asked when they are coming back
- “Extra” work that adds to the bill on top of the original estimate
- That friend or family member who was referred but turns out to be incompetent, thus leading to a broken friendship or awkward Thanksgiving dinner
- Subcontractors that are less competent than the incompetent contractor
- Contractors that go out of business in the middle of a job—and already with the homeowner’s money
- Individuals who demand money up front and show up in a shiny new truck after they’ve been paid but can’t seem to make a deadline or give a straight answer
- Contractors that ignore homeowner questions or requests
We’ve heard plenty of these residential contractor horror stories, and we’ve seen the after-effects in homes that have been diminished by the poor work of “professionals” whom homeowners trusted. Hiring the right contractor is important to make the most of your investment and be happy with the work and, ultimately, with your upgraded home. Here are five tips for avoiding bad residential contractors:
1. Get everything in writing
Many major home renovation projects—from a new roof to replacement windows to room additions—require a significant capital investment from the homeowner and a well-planned allocation of time and resources from the residential contractor. The possibility of something being overlooked, ignored, or simply misunderstood increases with big projects, which is why a document spelling out all the contractor’s responsibilities ultimately protects homeowners. If a contractor fails to deliver on an aspect of the job, you can point to the contract to show what’s expected.
2. Demand a timetable
Part of what you should get in writing from a residential contractor is when the work will start, how long the job will take, and what deadlines are in place (important for projects that require multiple steps, such as an addition in which electrical, plumbing, and HVAC work may be necessary). Besides a timetable, ask what contingency plans a contractor has in place in case an unexpected delay does occur. For example, bad weather may postpone roof work, but it shouldn’t mean you wait three extra weeks under sunny skies for the job to resume.
3. Document every cost
Another important requirement to protect yourself against a less-than-scrupulous residential contractor is a detailed explanation of each cost and a final number that you will pay. Ask questions on why something is priced the way it is. Especially ask questions if an initial estimate from the contractor varies widely from the final quote and don’t sign anything if something just doesn’t seem right.
4. Check for certifications, insurance, reviews, and BBB complaints
The best residential contractors are recognized as such from the manufacturers whose products they work with. For example, GAF offers its Master Elite certification program to the top tier of contractors it works with. The absence of any certifications could be a red flag.
In this digital age, plenty of online review sites, from Angie’s List to HomeAdvisor to even Google, can be consulted to check on the trustworthiness, or lack thereof, of a residential contractor. Some reviews might need to be taken with a grain of salt (because one really angry homeowner can amplify small problems into something much larger), but if you are seeing multiple bad reviews and the same issues keep coming up, steer clear of that contractor. Similarly, check with the Better Business Bureau to see if complaints have been lodged with a contractor (or, alternately, if a contractor is BBB-accredited).
Also, ask about a contractor’s insurance. A properly insured contractor not only covers damage to your house on the job but also protects you from liability if a worker is injured on your property.
5. Beware of the bargain price
Finally, proceed with extreme caution if a residential contractor comes in several thousand dollars less on its bid than other estimates you have received. Such a lowball offer can indicate a number of things, including:
- The contractor will need to work with substandard materials, unqualified labor, and poor-quality subcontractors just to make a profit on its low bid.
- The contractor hasn’t fully evaluated what the job will entail, which could lead to big problems down the line.
- The contractor is desperate for the job, and desperate people generally don’t deliver good work.
When you see a bargain bid, remember these two clichés: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is” and “You get what you pay for.” You always want to look for value in any business transaction, but too much value might be a sign of other problems. For your home, that often is too big a risk to take.
Do you have a residential contractor horror story to share?