Bianca Tarleton and her husband sensed their kitchen designer wasn’t a good match for them shortly after the preliminary plans were completed and signed on. They’d noticed a few suspicious flags, but nothing that made them put the brakes to the project.
Troubles arose when they started to do their diligence.
“We had made it clear that we’d like to do our own research and find the best prices on items like door hardware,” says Tarleton. “I picked out my favorite pulls and started researching the best price online. My best price came in over $2 less per pull than [our contractor’s] ‘wholesale pricing.'”
The Tarletons opted to purchase their own pulls, obviously. But when they shared these money-saving plans with their contractor, he accused them of not trusting him. Things went downhill from there, Tarleton says—design issues, miscommunications, poor judgement. And looking back, she sees that those initial flags were red—precursors to the project’s problems.
In the end, the kitchen got finished, and the Tarletons weren’t completely scarred by the kitchen remodel as they undertook a second home renovation in a different home a few years later. But that time around, they had learned their lesson when it came to dealing with sketchy contractors.
Before you begin a home project, take these not-so-obvious red flags into account. You might be able to tolerate one, but if multiple stack up, it just might be time to terminate that contract.
Check the clock.
Time is money when it comes to building and remodeling homes. So if your contractor doesn’t show up on time for meetings or doesn’t return phone calls promptly, do you really think the timeline of your project will be honored?
Ian Anderson, a contractor with over 35 years of experience, says that it’s worth assessing how your contractor is spending his time.
“Is the contractor always on his phone?” Anderson asks. “When you’re on the phone, you can’t be working. Who’s paying for the time, you or him? A properly organized contractor plans ahead and arranges deliveries in advance and gets on with the job.”
So even before your contractor is on the clock, make sure you they know how to manage their time—and therefore, your money.
Know your job. Know theirs.
Home projects are a partnership between you and your contractor. There are things that are your responsibility, and there are things they need to take ownership of.
“A contractor who wants you to pull your own permits may be trying to dodge licensing requirements or responsibility for your project or both,” says Andy Lindus, COO of Lindus Construction.
“If a contractor asks you to get the required building permits,” reads the Better Business Bureau’s resource on the matter, “it could be a sign they are not licensed or registered with proper county or state agencies. A competent contractor will obtain all necessary permits before starting work on a project.”
So beware what falls on your to-do list. If you sense you’re doing your contractor’s job, that might be a red flag.
Know their history.
Good businesses have a track record. Before hiring a contractor, make sure you can see a sequence of local projects and long-term commitment to a particular area.
“Local references allow you to see the contractor’s work first-hand. It can be difficult to determine if a reference from outside your area is actually legitimate simply by speaking with someone on the phone that claims to be a past client,” says Lindus.
Similarly, one red flag is having a PO box mailing address, says Lindus. A PO box makes it difficult to follow up with the contractor if something needs to be repaired after the project is technically complete.
Know their qualifications.
Your contractor should be licensed, bonded, and insured. Bonding and insurance, in short, help ensure the contractor will pay for shoddy work. If they lack either bonding or insurance, this might be because they aren’t licensed. “States often require specific licenses for particular trades, such as electrician, plumber or HVAC,” wrote Angie Hicks, founder of home services website Angie’s List.
If you run into someone who isn’t bonded, insured, and licensed (or tries to explain why it’s not important), it’s best to run the other way. The hidden red flag here? If your contractor says they’re appropriately covered but can’t show proof.
“A contractor without adequate insurance leaves the homeowner liable for damages to the home made by the contractor or injuries to their crew,” says Lindus. Tell your contractor to show the proof or hit the road: Excuses like “It’s in the mail,” or “I’ll bring it to the next meeting,” are not acceptable.
Stand your ground.
Everything about a home remodel or build feels like it’s under pressure, but if your contractor is the one applying said pressure…you guessed it, red flag.
“It’s best practice to get bids from three contractors,” Lindus told Urbo, “This allows you to compare scope of work, materials, and warranties. … A contractor that states that the bid will go up if you don’t sign the same day has something to hide.”
Flip that pressure on them and use your walkaway power to evade a potentially shady business deal.
Call them up.
This is important for the those building a home, but it applies to anybody hiring a contractor: Once you sign a contract, you become one of your contractor’s priorities. If that’s not apparent, expect trouble ahead.
If it’s a Monday at 10 a.m. and you stop by your plot, they and their crew should normally be there plugging away and making progress. Same goes with a Thursday at 3 p.m.—any time during normal working hours on the days the say they’ll be working on the project.
You are one of their priorities, remember, so there will be days that your plot of land—or backyard—is unoccupied. What’s key throughout the process, though, is communication.
Now, occasional delays will happen, but if days or weeks go by without communication, it might mean it’s time to fire your contractor.
Know what to put down.
The majority of contractors require a down payment of some kind. In the state of California, no more than 10 percent can be asked for; some states don’t have a maximum, but it’s best to double-check. Normally, these funds are used to purchase initial supplies and get the project started. If they ask for too much, they’re most likely trying to fund another project they are behind on.
The biggest red flag in regard to money is when a contractor asks that an insurance settlement check is made out to them before work begins. When you do that, Lindus says, “leverage for them to complete the work correctly and on time has been forfeited.”
Money is fuel for finishing a project and finishing it well; keep some until your contractor hits milestones that you have mutually agreed upon in your contract.
Signs You’re with the Good Guys
I always appreciate it when contractors are able to interpret their expertise into something I can understand. Like all fields, the building industry is full of jargon and specific “code words” that I, as a regular consumer, am not well-versed in. A contractor who truly cares about their customer will take the time to explain the process so you can ask educated questions and make an educated decision. It means they want the end result to be what you love, not what they think you should love. If they listen and act on what they hear, you’re in good hands.
On that note, Anderson adds, “Consider the way your contractor communicates with you. Are they respectful and courteous? Do they answer your questions with understanding and patience? Are they considerate when talking to you?”
Also, reviews, reviews, reviews! Read them. Study your contractor before signing anything and not just what they’ve publishing on their site and in their brochures. Happy customers will boast about quality work across social media and review sites. Even more, unhappy customers share their horror stories for you to see too.
Oh, and if you want to fill out a review yourself, be careful.
Here’s the deal: The good guys aren’t going to be the cheapest, but their professionalism is worth paying for. Your goal in choosing a contractor should be to find a realistically priced one—someone who understands the market, their product, and their customer.
You don’t want to partner with someone who is willing to scrimp where they shouldn’t; you also don’t want them being a loose goose with your checkbook. That means a middle of the road price tag on your project is a good sign.
Last but not least, go with a contractor who provides a clear and concise contract. It should include pricing details and a pretty specific timeline. A contract is a commitment, and you and your contractor must be on the same page to reduce stress and miscommunication.
Whether you are building a home or undertaking a remodel, you are venturing into a sizable project. Your contractor is your guide, and choosing a good one is essential to not only your sanity, but the end result of something you care dearly about: your home! Although your adrenaline is most likely running on overdrive thanks to excitement, unchecked to-do lists, and the financial investment, take your time vetting a good contractor.
After all, you want it to embody the “home sweet home” mantra when it’s complete rather than be surrounded by remnants of stressful circumstances and shoddy work.