Six key questions to sniff out bad contractors
No matter how big or small the home remodeling project, you can find the perfect contractor by posing the right questions.
Rather than rushing to hire the first – or even cheapest – contractor you come across, asking the right questions upfront will help you filter out the bad apples and find a reputable contractor to meet your needs.
"I want my clients to feel 100 percent comfortable with me," says Shawn Kruse, president of the Remodeling Contractors Association of Connecticut and owner of Kruse Home Improvement, LLC. "And honestly, the more investigation they do about me and questions they ask me, the better it is for me. It helps me get the job."
As Kruse points out, a thorough investigation can benefit both parties in the end.
"Potential clients learn about your credentials, background and experience. They start to get to know you and see if your personalities can get along," Kruse acknowledges.
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You may know exactly what you want out of your remodel – from the fixtures to the flooring – but you should know what you want from your contractor, too. Don't settle for the first or cheapest bid. Your contractor will control the project – and probably your stress level – from start to finish, so it's important the two of you are a good match.
If you want to find a contractor who suits your needs, try asking these six questions during the interview.
Question #1: What's Your Business History (and Much More)?
You wouldn't hire a surgeon without knowing how many surgeries he or she has performed, would you? Well, your home is about to go under the knife, so you'll want to evaluate contractors with the same level of scrutiny.
Kruse suggests first asking questions about a company's business practices and experiences with the remodeling project you need. Find out what kind of procedures and rules this contractor would follow to meet your demands.
Here are a few other things Kruse thinks you should ask contractors:
- How long have you been in business?
- Are you licensed by the state?
- What percentage of your clientele is repeat or referral business?
- Are you a member of a national trade association?
- Do you have a list of references from past projects similar to mine?
- Have you or your employees been certified in remodeling or had any special training or education?
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Kruse also recommends contacting a client with whom they are currently working. "This way, you can see how things are conducted on a day to day basis," he says. "You can find out if there are problems or issues that have arisen, and ask how well they communicate throughout the project."
Question #2: Do You Provide a Detailed Written Contract?
Misunderstandings happen. People forget. Things change. But a contract helps both you and the contractor know what is expected from both parties.
Every job, no matter how small, should have a signed contract by the contractor and customer, Kruse says. Seems like a no-brainer, right? Not so fast – the devil is in the details.
"A contract should be very specific and point out step by step what will be going on throughout the project and before it even begins," he adds.
Some things that should be on a contract – all written in great detail – include:
- Names, addresses, and phone numbers of all parties involved in the project, including vendors
- Detailed list of the work to be completed
- List of each product along with its price and model number
- Who is responsible for pulling permits
- Where deliveries will go and where the dumpster will be placed
- What time the workers begin and end their day
- Project's start and completion dates plus payment schedule
- All work carried out by subcontractors
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Anything that changes along the way must be written and signed in a change order, which makes sure everyone is in agreement on the change, price, time, or anything else that is adjusted from the original contract.
Question #3: How Much Do I Need to Put Down?
If the contractor asks you to pay for all of the project's cost upfront, it's time to find another contractor. An unreasonable deposit is the first sign something is fishy, Kruse says.
The Better Business Bureau's website suggests going by the rule of thirds: Pay one third at the beginning of the project, one third when work is 50 percent complete, and one third after it is final and you are satisfied with the outcome.
But chances are your contractor will have a formula to determine how much money is needed to get the job started. "Most contractors go with a 15 percent down payment on larger projects," Kruse says. "My clients usually give me the 15 percent deposit at the same time they hand me the signed contract."
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Keep in mind that if the job is a small one, it's okay to provide money for the cost of materials – which might be 50 percent of the job or a little more, he says.
Question #4: Can I Get Itemized Price Estimates?
Some contractors like to hand you a bid with one price estimate for the entire project because it's less work on their end. Don't let them. You will need details on all the costs associated with the project and each item purchased.
Here's why an itemized estimate is essential: If midway through the project you decide to put in a less expensive countertop than the one originally discussed, you need to know the exact cost of the first countertop. Without it, you have no way of knowing how much of a credit you should receive.
An itemized price list should detail the cost of labor, demolition, materials, electrical, plumbing, permits, and more.
Kruse explains how an itemized estimate is better for client and contractor: "It just makes it easier to track work, and it's transparent to both the client and I of what is expected on the job. I also offer my preferred vendor list to our clients so they know who we are buying their products from."
Some contractors use their estimates as proposals, but these might be very inaccurate and could mislead the homeowner, Kruse says. Don't assume anything. Be certain that once you sign a contract, what you see on paper is what you will be paying.
Question #5: Who Will Be at the Site?
Just hiring your contractor doesn't ensure he or she will be the one hammering and sawing. They might only show up to sign the contract and present the finished product. It's important to know that certain contractors manage their companies by getting bids or supervising many job sites at once and are not hands-on people.
How do you find out which one you have? "Ask potential contractors who is going to be in charge of your project at all times," Kruse says. "You need to meet with that person, get a feel for what he/she is like and get acquainted a bit. Go check out that person at one of their current jobs."
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In their "Home Sweet Home Improvement" guide, the Federal Trade Commission urges homeowners to ask if subcontractors will be used on the project. If so, homeowners should ask to meet them to make sure they have insurance coverage and proper licenses.
When meeting the subcontractor, ask if the lead contractor pays them on time. Why is this little detail important? According to the Federal Trade Commission, "A 'mechanic's lien' could be placed on your home if your contractor fails to pay subcontractors or suppliers," who, in turn, could take you to court to retrieve their unpaid bills.
Question #6: Do You Think We Can Get Along?
Just like any good relationship, the one between you and your contractor should have harmony, communication, and collaboration. Some personalities and styles just don't mesh, so don't pick someone just because their bid is the lowest, says Kruse.
Your contractor will be part of your daily existence for quite some time. They will see how your children behave, how you don't water your plants, and how your breakfast dishes sit in the sink all day.
Hiring a contractor without much thought can be a big mistake, says Kruse. "Sometimes [homeowners] end up with work that is less than adequate, or they give these shady contractors a large chunk of money upfront and then they never show up again."
Protecting yourself from these nightmares means knowing exactly who your contractors are before you hire them. After all, it doesn't hurt to ask – but it sure could hurt if you don't.