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.”)  


Paint my kitchen, but don’t paint me a fool (what to do before you pay that handyman)

Consumer Courage has a friend who wanted to have her kitchen painted and had settled on a handyman to do the job.  After a quick look-see at the inside of the home, he pronounced the job do-able and provided an estimate of just over $400.00.  Our friend, let’s call her ‘Kate Middleton’ (not her real name) thought herself fortunate.  Although she had to buy the paint, herself, she was going to have her kitchen painted for around five hundred dollars.  It seemed like an incredibly sweet deal.  As we will see, the sweetness didn’t last too long.

After the handyman picked a start date, she bought the paint, got her walls ready and removed the excess items from her counters.   When the date arrived, Kate took time off of work to show him into the house and get him started.   While he was unfolding his drop-cloths and eyeballing the work area, he told her that it would cost a little more, because he ‘didn’t see the molding around the cabinets.’  Since there was so much molding, he told her, it would actually be $800.00 for the whole job.  Before we learn what happened next, let’s try to put ourselves in Kate’s shoes.  She had waited months to get her kitchen painted.  She hired somebody to do the job because she either doesn’t have the time or the know-how to do it – or both.  Ever since the original estimate, she had looked forward to having the kitchen done, trying hard to see the new color every time she walked into the room.  She bought the paint and got the room ready for action.  In her mind, the job was done.  Sure, it had yet to be painted, but she had done everything she needed to do. 

Consumer Courage thinks that the handyman knew what was going through Kate’s mind and was using that against her.  It’s way too easy to say ‘Yes’ to a price-change with the guy in your kitchen on the day the job is going to start. (If the Handyman called her a week beforehand and said that the price would be doubled, she would probably have hung up the phone)  But, since he was in her house and she was missing work time, she began to consider agreeing, just to get it over with.   Now, her sweet deal is turning into a bitter pill.  What the heck happened?

Let’s start with what the painter is supposed to do

The consumer laws that were created by the Federal Government are found either in a particular statute (somewhere in the United States Code) or in rules that were created by one of the Federal Regulatory agencies.  In Ohio, the system works much the same way.  The Ohio Legislature enacts most of the laws that affect Ohio’s consumers.     But, many times the legislature creates a consumer statute and then gives the Attorney General the authority to create rules to make what does (or does not) violate a consumer’s rights more clear.  The so-called OAG Substantive Rules cover many subjects and are meant to add to the laws passed by the State Legislators.  There is one such rule that governs the house painter from our story, the ‘Repair or Services’ rule  

This rule has many benefits.  If someone is performing a repair or service for you (whether it’s at their shop, or at your house) they HAVE TO:

    • Tell you that you have the right to ask for an estimate;
    • Give you the estimate in writing, if you ask;
    • Give you the estimate, BEFORE they start the work;
    • Get your permission IN WRITING, to perform any work that will jack up the price of the job by more than 10% of the original estimate;
    • Give you an itemized list of what they did, when they are done;
    • Give you the part that they replaced;
    • Give you a copy of ANYTHING that you sign or initial, when you sign it;
    • Tell you if anyone other than them or their employee will be doing the work.

They are not allowed to:

    • Lie, by telling you that if you don’t fix something, it will put you in danger, when it’s not true;
    • Lie, by telling you that something is broken, when it’s not;
    • Understate the price of a job in ‘material’ fashion;

The easy part

The easy part here is to figure out what the repairman did wrong.  He ‘Materially understated or misstated the estimated cost of the repair or service,’ (which is subsection (D)(11) of Rule 109:4-3-05  ) The rule, itself, doesn’t define what it means to ‘materially understate’ what a repair or service might cost, when you estimate a job.  But, it’s a good bet that when a repairman announces that he has to double the price of a job ($400 to $800, as it happened here) because of a condition that he most certainly saw when he came to look at the job (molding on the cabinets for a kitchen paint job), Consumer Courage thinks he has ‘materially understated’ the cost of the job.

The hard part

The tough thing here isn’t figuring out that the repairman is playing a game with the cost of the job – it’s feeling comfortable enough to tell him not to start in the first place.  Like our friend Kate, who spent weeks preparing and wants only that her kitchen has a new coat of paint, it’s not so easy to stand up to the guy inside your house – ready to start working.  You can almost hear the conversation going on in the Kate’s head:

“I figured that $400 was pretty low…….He does come recommended, so I know he does good work…. At least I’ll be done…..I’ve got to get back to work……If I start looking for someone else now, it’ll take a few weeks to start and I’ll probably pay around $800, anyway…..OK, yes, go ahead and start”

But, it’s not that simple.   This little hiccup in the cost of the job raises a few other questions in Kate’s mind (or should…):

    • Did he really ‘miss the molding’ like he said, or is he sand-bagging?

Skeptic’s Note: Consumer Courage isn’t a professional painter.  But, even I know that the molding is going to get painted, too.  

    • How do you know that this is the last time he will try to increase the price?
    • How can you trust him to do a good job, if you couldn’t even trust him to honor the estimate that he gave you to get the job in the first place? 
    • If you had a hard time telling him not to start, how easy do you think it’s gonna be to tell him to stop, once he has spent a few days there and has done actual work? 
    • What could I have done differently to prevent this from happening? 

Get at least TWO estimates 

This is one of the most offered (and most ignored) pieces of advice there is.  Any time you hire somebody to perform a service for you, try as hard as you can to get at least two estimates.  That’s one of the quickest ways to see if the price you get is reasonable or too high or too low. (Remember: a low-ball offer can be as much of a red flag as an offer that’s too high) Sometimes, the repairman that you feel more comfortable with will agree to honor the price that a competitor gives you.  If not, he might be willing to tell you why the low offer is too low

“Isn’t it time-consuming to get two estimates?” Yes it is.  You know what else is time-consuming?  Making the handyman leave your house when he is only halfway through with the job, because he keeps jacking up the price.  And then trying to find a SECOND repairman to come in and finish the job that the other guy started! 

Get something in writing from them – YOUR work is just beginning

We have already seen that you can demand a written estimate from them, before you let them start the work.  But, YOUR work is just starting, when you get the estimate.   One of the most important aspects of any home-repair job is how you use the time between when they give you the estimate and when you actually hire them to do the work.  In any case, it is important to make sure that they give you SOMETHING that contains a company name, address, phone number and (hopefully) something about how they are ‘bonded’ or ‘insured’, so you can figure out if they are legit and whether they have messed with anybody else, before they got to your house.  When they leave, you can use whatever they gave you to START your research on the company. 

Too many people think that getting an estimate is the only bit of work that they need to do, before they agree to start paying. 

    • What does Google have to say about them?   (Try typing in the company name and the word ‘Scam’ or ‘Ripoff’ or ‘lawsuit’);
    • What about the Ohio Secretary of State?  (Are they registered with the Secretary of State as an actual corporation?);  
    • What about the  Better Business Bureau? (they have a search function to let you check out a business or charity); 
    • The Ohio Attorney General has a search function that lets you check out other consumer complaints about a particular company; 

All of these are very important sources of information for you.  When you start your research (or if the whole thing goes bad) it’ll be much easier to research (or complain about) a business if you are able to look up Van Delay Industries Latex sales’ instead of ‘I think his first name was Art’

 Don’t fall in love…..

….with the job or the repairman that is.  (If you fall in love with a regular person, by all means, go be in love….who am I to judge?)  But, don’t become infatuated with the guy who comes to give you an estimate or with the idea of ‘just getting done’ with the job.  That can cause you to lose your objectivity.  You are hiring somebody for a business transaction, not to be your friend.  Sometimes, the repairmen who are uber-friendly are that way so you’ll miss an obvious red flag about the situation.  They want you to think “Hey, I could be friends with this guy.  He’s going to paint my house.  I’m having a friend paint my house.” Instead of “Hey, this guy is trying to charge me double.  I should be thinking about whether I should even let him start working.  Maybe this little ‘change’ in the price of the job is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Buyer’s/Homeowners’ remorse

What do you do, if you agree to get some work done on your house and THEN read Consumer Courage and decide that it’s probably not a good idea?   Don’t worry.  There are a few laws on the books that give Consumers the right to cancel contracts signed while they were at home, on the phone or at a so-called ‘temporary’ site, when the seller doesn’t have a principal place of business in your city (hotel rooms, seminars, etc.)…..but, that’s the subject for another post. In the meantime, do the research, get a couple of estimates and be ready to say NO. 

Posted by: Mark Wiseman, who once painted his entire kitchen, and the molding, BRIGHT ORANGE! (take my advice, don’t try that at home)