How to Pick a Home Contractor who will actually (um) DO the work

Enjoy the grass, but fix that fence

Along with the natural feelings that springtime brings: relief that we can put our snow shovel away for another year; surprise that our yard is a color other than white; an even GREATER desire to whistle; and the realization that some things on the house are looking tired.  The driveway could use whatever they put into the cracks to stop things from growing out of it, something poked a hole in the sidewalk (and don’t get me started on how bad the fence looks)  All of these lead to the inescapable conclusion that we’re going to have to hire someone to do all of this work.  But, who do you pick?  And how on earth do you make sure that you’re not paying some scam artist who is good at cashing checks, but not actually doing the work?  We’ve already told folks how to handle a repairman who comes to your house and what to expect.  Here’s our take on how you should approach the need to bring a contractor in to do a big job. (a new bathroom; a bigger garage; a new roof, etc.)

What to watch for

We think that folks have such a hard time picking the right home improvement contractor for the job because every aspect of the task is going to be annoying.  You’re about to let someone into your house to do work that – not only can’t you do it – you’d be hard pressed to look at the job when it’s half-done and figure out whether it’s going good or if there’s a major problem. It’s going to cost more money than you budgeted; each update will come at you in a language that could be English; there’s a point at which your house will feel as though it’s been turned upside down; and at least once during the whole fiasco you will swear that the contractor that you picked has gone on vacation.  The best way to not have this job turn into a scene from the Movie “The Money Pit,”  is to watch out for the following phrases & factoids, which are sure signs of trouble: 

“We don’t need a contract. It’s too small of a job.”  This is a no-brainer red flag. Any contractor who tries to get round any formal step that you want them to take is bad news.  Contracts, Work permits, Proof of insurance (or a bond) and references ALL help the homeowner.  Yes, they might be a pain for a contractor to produce. But, if they can’t (or won’t) it probably means that there’s trouble around the corner.  Each one of these will give you help if the job goes south. Don’t buy the excuse that it’s “cheaper to do this without all of that useless paperwork.”  Cheaper for them…..worse for you.

“If you pay the whole balance up front, it’ll go a lot quicker.”  The only thing that’ll go quicker if you pay the entire balance before the work is done is their car – away from your house.  Your mantra should be “Pay as you go.”  The contract should have dates and payment amounts written into it.  If the contractor wants a down payment, be careful about paying any more than 25%.  True, they have to buy supplies.  But, the only leverage you have will be the fact that they want to get paid.  Pay the balance and you might be waiting a long time for them to come back and finish.  Remember: there’s a reason why the mouse doesn’t get the cheese until he FINISHES the maze.

“I don’t have a bond or insurance.  That’s how I keep my costs so low.”  This zinger is also used as the reason not to get: the proper municipal work permits, the proper equipment, or many other things that are designed to keep the contractor honest.  The words “Bonded & Insured” should be on most of the pieces of paper that the contractor gives you (his business card, the contract you sign, the written estimates you demand from him, the side of his truck). Bonded & insured mean that a company with money is guaranteeing that if he messes up, you’ll be protected.  If they puncture a gas line and burn half of the house down, you’re gonna want much more from the contractor than a really genuine sad look. 

We’ve seen what to stay away from.  Let’s talk about what you demand

Three estimates – You should always have more than one contractor look at the job and give you an estimate.  You don’t always have to pick the lower price. But, you should be able to compare the contractor that you like with somebody else.  Sometimes how they talk to you is as important as what they have to say.  Once you say yes, you need to have someone who you feel comfortable approaching and who will listen to your concerns.  Did the guy seem dismissive or misunderstand simple question during the walk-through for the estimate?  That’s only going to get worse, once you pay him to do the work.

Insurance – This is a must and very easy for them to prove.  Just ask them to give you a copy of the proof that they are ‘Bonded & Insured’.  If they don’t show you a letter from an insurance company right away….call someone else!

City Permission – You should never let a home improvement contractor start work on your house, until your City has issued a permit. This does two very important things.  First: it means that any work that is done will have to be performed according to the standards that the City has created.  Second: it will mean that someone else will inspect the work, before you make the final payment. (one of the last milestone payment dates in the contract should always say something like “final payment pending city approval”) Ask to see a copy of the permit before the contractor starts and call the Building Department yourself to ask questions and verify when any inspections will happen.

Reputation – You should check up on the contractor.  Are they as good as they say?….or are their past customers still upset about the work that was done?; Will they do good work?…or do they have a ton of complaints against them?  Make some phone calls to these places to see what kind of work the contractor really does. You may be surprised at what you find. Places to check:

    • Secretary of State – see whether the business is registered with the Secretary of State.  If they are using a business name that is not registered, that’s a problem.
    • Better Business Bureau – the BBB grades each business. An ‘A’ grade does not automatically mean that they behave.  How do you know there’s a problem? If they say they’re “BBB approved” and they’re not, or if the BBB gave them an ‘F’ you need another contractor.
    • The Ohio Attorney General’s Office – call them and say “Can you please send me any complaints that you have received for [insert the name of the company AND the name of the individual who owns the company].”  Those complaints are considered public record and the AG’s office is required (by law) to send copies to you.
    • Google the company name – and add the word “ripoff” or “scam”

Promises spelled out in writing – Ohio law says that if it is not written in the contract, it doesn’t exist. Has the contractor made a promise to you? If you don’t write it into the contract, no Court in this state will make them stick to it. If there isn’t room in the contract to write in every term that you want spelled out……Too bad! Tell them to write it into the margins and initial it.  If they refuse to put an important term in the contract, what are the odds that they admit that it was even a term after the work is done and you are arguing about it?  Memories fade – contract terms do not.

Dates for payments to be made –  Every contract should specify what percentage of the total amount you are going to pay the contractor and when.  For example, a contract for a new bathroom might say:

    • 20% on the date the contract is signed by both parties;
    • 20% after the tear-out;
    • 20% after the framing for the bathroom is done and the new fixtures are in;
    • 20% after the city inspector approves the remainder of the work;
    • 20% after homeowner is satisfied that the job is complete. 

Where’s my money going? – If you’re making any payments that will go to buy materials, appliances or to pay a subcontractor, demand a signed receipt within a week of making those payments. (if you’re a stickler, call the person/company listed on the receipt and ask if they got the money) We have a client who is very well-educated and very careful with his money.  His contractor bilked him out of nearly $40,000 by saying stuff like “we need money to buy the cabinets.  They’re designed.  The vendor needs a little more so they can be finished.”  In fact, none of the money went to the cabinet place.  (we wish we were making this up) 

Good contract vs. Bad contract

Details, details, details – Every home-improvement contract should have a complete written description of all of the work that you are paying for.   If a Court has to decide later on what work was supposed to be done on your home, the contract is the only thing that they will look to.  Vague language won’t cut it.  Do you want to protect yourself?  Make the contractor show you where each of the parts of the job is written in the contract before you sign.

Contract terms that do NOT protect the homeowner Contract terms that help the homeowner slightly     Contract terms that REALLY help the homeowner    
 “Put in new bathroom” “Tear out bathroom, put in new tub, sink and vanity” “Tear out bathroom. Replace with X brand tub; Y brank sink; Z brand tile floor. Fixtures to be approved by homeowner before installation”
 “Re-do Kitchen “Tear-out and replace Kitchen cabinets, counters and sink; replace dishwasher; replace backsplash on counter to the left of sink” “Tear-out and replace Kitchen cabinets with new XYZ Brand cabinets and Hardware (hardware to be approved by customer before installation). Replace dishwasher with a new XYZ Brand washer – model # XXX.  Replace countertops with XYZ Brand counters. Replace Backsplash with XYZ tiles. Color and styles to be approved by customer prior to installation”
 “Do Driveway”” “Remove 16 feet of driveway; grade, measure and re-pour concrete. Seal remaining drive” “Remove existing driveway, install gravel base, install concrete with wire-mesh reinforcement. Apply broom/trowel finish (owner to choose).  Install XYZ sack mix concrete”


 “Replace 8 downstairs windows with ‘replacement’ windows.” “Install 8 replacement windows with XYZ glass with/without Argon (owner to choose); cap existing exterior finish with matching coil stock aluminum” 
 “Fix Furnace” “Replace furnace with Brand X furnace.” “Replace furnace with Brand X furnace that is sized properly to the home with manual J calculations”

The common theme to all of these is that since you’re paying a lot of money to have the work done, you should be willing to spend some time doing research and putting yourself in the best position to pick a good contractor.  Better you should think about charcoal and beverages as you enjoy the summer picnic season, instead of worrying about picking a second contractor (since the first one didn’t work out so well)

Posted by: Mark Wiseman (who at 8 years old, removed the contractor’s sign from in front of his house, because they went on vacation, whilst saying to his Mum “No work – No sign.”)