5 Signs a Contractor May Not Be Right For You

Find a good fit by looking out for red flags.
By: Alyson McNutt English

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Deciding on a contractor for your construction or remodeling project can be an intense process, and with so much money and time on the line, it’s important to find someone you can trust with your unique job. To make sure you have the most hassle-free, positive experience possible, be on the lookout for warning signs the contractor you’re considering might not be the right fit for you.

Here are five “red flags” you shouldn’t ignore when you’re searching for a contractor for your construction or remodeling job:

  1. Devilish Details
  2. High-Pressure Tactics
  3. Upfront Money
  4. Clashing Styles
  5. Your Gut Says No

They’re vague on those devilish details

When you’re handing so much money over to one person, you want to be able to confirm even small details about your job, the contractor’s business practices and the company’s previous job performance. Here are three ways to make sure your contractor is legit:

  • Get the lowdown from former clients. “Ask for a list of references from recent clients, and be sure to contact a few of them to get an idea of your contractor’s strengths and weaknesses,” says Ryan Pugh, owner of Handyman Matters of the Triad in High Point, N.C. Pugh says quizzing your potential contractors on things like their insurance certificate and whether they’ve done work similar to your project’s scope before is a good call.
  • Ask to tour current projects. “Web sites can be misleading and photographs can hide a lot of imperfections,” says Jamie C. Hsu, business development director at Lakeville Homes, a custom home builder in Bellevue, Wash. “There is no comparison to being up close to see the quality of work the contractor provides.” Make sure the contractor provides up-to-date legal documents and has specific information on previous jobs, as well. Vague answers to any of these requests is a red flag.
  • Get a detailed estimate. Finally, make sure your contractor is comfortable giving a detailed estimate, looking at all the intricacies of your job and factoring those into your quote, says Dean Bennett, president of Dean Bennett Design and Construction in Castle Rock, Co. “Beware of broad estimates,” he says. “Make sure the contractor will write down all the steps in the job, with figures, and can provide you with a full written schedule and timeline. Not being able to present this information in written form is a warning sign.”

They try high-pressure sales tactics

Another red flag when choosing a contractor is high-pressure sales tactics, like pushing a “temporary” low rate. “Often prices will change over the course of a month or so because material cost increases or general rate increases, but you should watch out for short-timeframe sales tactics,” Bennett says, noting that finding a contractor who offers market-value pricing with detailed analysis of the costs is going to be the most reliable hire.

Bennett also says to beware of contractors who badmouth their competition when trying to win your business, adding that they should be talking about the strength of their own service rather than trying to drag down others you may be considering.

Finally, beware of contractors who talk up the return on investment you’ll get for the project you’re considering. Bennett says some contractors will try to overstate this to get you to spend more. “Do your research,” he says. “If you live in an area where house prices per square foot exceed construction prices per square foot, many projects can be recouped. Otherwise, it often takes many years for a remodel or addition to add value to the market price of a home.”

They want your money... now

It’s the story that too often ends up on the evening news: an unsuspecting customer offers a down payment to a contractor for work to be done on a home, then the contractor disappears with the money, never doing the work. But Bennett says that while not every contractor who asks for money upfront is a swindler, it is nonetheless a sign you might not be working with the best candidate.

“The reality is not many people are trying to rip you off,” Bennett says, noting that it may be a sign they’re trying to pay other debts off with your project’s funds. “Many contractors don’t possess business or communications skills commensurate with their building and contracting skills.”

In fact, unless your project will take more than a week, Hsu says you should probably be billed after the work is completed. “Deposits to the GC upfront are a huge red flag,” he says. “We bill clients after work has been completed, and our vendors only bill us and get paid for what is complete.”

Hsu says there will be some exceptions, such as ordering something like custom cabinets, where a deposit will be required. “But there will be a lot of paperwork leading up to this and supporting the deposit. Our customers never get a blanket request for a check.”

Your personal styles just don’t mesh

It’s not always easy to tell if you’ll get along well with someone after one business meeting, but having a contractor whose personal work style will mesh well with the needs of your household is essential.

If you have children or pets, make sure you have a contractor who is comfortable working in an environment with them present. Ask about projects where they’ve worked in similar households and how that went, and get references from those projects and talk to the homeowners about how they liked the contractor’s style.

“You can prevent having a remodeling horror story by taking time to ask your contractor some basic questions,” says Pugh. “You might feel uncomfortable 'interviewing' your remodeler this way, but any reputable company will be happy you have done your homework.”

Also, be honest with yourself about what kind of client you are, says Bennett. “Are you low- or high-maintenance?” he says. “Are you going to need to talk to your contractor daily, weekly or hourly? Do you want the contractor to run the job, or do you really want to be in the contractor role?” Taking a hard look at your own personality and style will pay off when you find a contractor who works well with your needs.

Your gut says no

Finally, just listen to your gut. Even if you like the contractor’s work and the references are good, if you just have a nagging feeling it’s not a good fit, you should heed your subconscious warning.

Bennett says before making the final hiring decision, asking yourself questions like “is this a person you’d ask to dinner at your home” or “do you feel hesitant about handing over the keys to your house,” will give you good information about how you really feel about the person.

Pugh says looking at the contractor’s business skills as well as their personality is also key. “Look for a good presence within your contractor,” he says. “They should have a professionally designed logo and professionally printed marketing materials. When they pull up at your home, inspect their truck to see how clean and neat they keep it. Someone who doesn’t take good care of their truck and tools will probably take the same care with your project.”

Really, it comes down to hiring someone you feel good about, both personally and professionally. “A client should find a contractor whose work and craftsmanship they respect and admire,” says Hsu. “It’s difficult to get more personal than someone’s home.”

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