Red flags to look for when hiring a contractor

contractor on the phone

Rob And Julia Campbell/Stocksy

This article originally published on Thumbtack and is syndicated by Cheapism.

Hiring a trusted contractor to help with your upcoming home project is no small undertaking. Whether it’s a renovation, a remodel, maintenance task, new construction or specialty work like a plumbing or drywall installation, it’s important to find a good contractor who will stay on time and within your budget.

This guide will help you find the right pros for your home repairs, improvements and maintenance needs. Click through to see which red flags to watch out for when hiring a contractor. Plus, get help requesting cost estimates and choosing the right contractor for your next project.

paperwork

Aila Images/Stocksy

If a contractor can’t provide their license number, be careful — they may not have one and if that’s the case: they shouldn’t be doing any work for you. You should also check with your state’s license board to see if your contractor has the right license for your project. Many agencies have online portals where you can verify a contractor’s license.

Here’s an example of California’s contractor online lookup.

Insurance is important, too. Verifying that your contractor has insurance will help protect you in case something unexpected happens.

open wallet with cash and credit card

© 2017 Twenty20 Stock

The Federal Trade Commission warns that a contractor who requires a cash payment may be scamming you. It’s always best practice to pay with a credit card or check so that you have the proof of payment.

If the contractor you’re considering is fully vetted and legitimate, paying with cash may be OK. Just make sure you get a signed receipt that also includes details about the project, how much it cost and the date.

blueprints

© Thumbtack 2020

Navigating building codes and permits can be complicated for the average homeowner. But for an experienced, legitimate contractor, it’s easy. Contractors have experience with this process and should be ready to help their clients get the required approvals before starting the projects.

man on cellphone

© Criene Images/Twenty20 Stock

If you can’t find any information about the contractor online or with your local or state government, that could be something to look into. Many contractors have some type of online presence or social media footprint that tells you more about their services, experience and specialities. You should also be able to read their customer reviews — which is pretty hard if they don’t have an online profile.

frowning at computer

fizkes/Shutterstock

Don’t gloss over bad reviews. Read through the reviews to determine if the contractor has consistently performed poorly. Find out if there’s a noticeable trend. For example, do customers always complain about their inability to finish the project on time? The quality of the work? Their professionalism? If the contractor keeps getting the same negative feedback, it’s a sign they may not be taking their clients’ reviews seriously in order to improve.

Of course, if a contractor has just a few bad reviews, that doesn’t mean they’re terrible at their job. The bad review might just be a one-off. If you notice that the bad outweighs the good, consider finding another pro.

price quote

G.Tbov/Shutterstock

Everyone loves a good deal. However, some deals are too good to be true. If the estimated cost for your project is much lower than you anticipated, get quotes from a few other contractors. If one contractor estimates the cost will be significantly lower, it might be a scam.

Related: How much do general contractors charge?

two men talking

© AMV/iStock

Before you choose a contractor, you should ask plenty of questions. Get more details about the materials they plan to use, how long the project will take, the itemized cost of the project and more.

If your contractor is unable to answer questions like these, they might not have enough experience for your project.

man thinking

fizkes/Shutterstock

Nobody likes to be rushed into making a big decision, especially if that decision involves your biggest financial investment: your home. A professional contractor should give you the time and space to think through your options before you hire anyone.

Just keep in mind that your contractor may have other clients or bids. If your project is timely, give them an answer before they book a job with someone else.

looking at watch

Doucefleur/Shutterstock

Whether you do your consultation over the phone or in person, a contractor should be punctual and show up on time for all appointments. If they’re late and don’t give you a heads up, it could be a sign that they’re unreliable. That’s the last thing you need when doing a large project.

team of people collaborating

iStock

It’s important to have a good, respectful working relationship with your contractor. If you don’t think you’ll get along early in the process, you might consider taking your business elsewhere.

woman fixing AC

sturti/iStock

Identifying red flags is one part of the process when hiring contractors. There are still a few more things you should do to ensure you’re hiring someone who has a great reputation, fair pricing and enough experience.

online portfolio

Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

When you search online, you’ll find plenty of crucial information that can help you identify the best contractor for your project. For example, always read their customer reviews and ratings. Reviews left by happy (and unhappy) clients will tell you a lot about a contractor’s professionalism, communication, pricing and work quality.

Many clients also post photos in their reviews. As you’re browsing through the reviews, look for photos of projects that resemble yours. These can help you get a better idea of a contractor’s craftsmanship. If you can’t find pictures of customers’ projects in their reviews, look for images the contractor may have posted on their online portfolio, social media accounts or website.

You should always make sure your contractor is licensed per your local and state jurisdictions. For example, they may need a specialty or general contractor license. Find out what the laws are where you live, and ask the contractor to provide proof of their license (especially if you can’t verify this information online).

If something goes wrong during your project, you should be covered. Make sure the contractor you hire has insurance and bonding if it’s required.

woman on laptop

© Lumina Images/Stocksy

Online reviews can help you decide if a contractor is reputable, but you can take several other steps to confirm. For example, consider visiting the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and look up the contractor. On the BBB website, you can read more reviews and dig into client complaints. You can also do a quick web search to uncover whether a potential contractor has been connected to any rip-offs, scams or legal cases.

women talking

Studio Firma/Stocksy

Contacting multiple contractors can be time-consuming — but you should be thorough and confident in your final decision. Think of this as insurance that protects you if there are expensive and unpleasant disputes down the road. Contact at least three to five contractors, but don’t hesitate to reach out to more if you’re having difficulty finding a good fit.

Here are a few key questions to ask contractors:

  • Do you have a license?

  • Do you belong to trade associations or institutions?

  • Do you have insurance, such as workers’ compensation and liability insurance?

  • What’s your specialty and area of expertise? Or, are you a general contractor?

  • Do you offer a warranty?

  • Have you ever been involved in a legal dispute?

  • How will I be billed?

  • Is there a down payment?

  • What is your fee schedule?

  • Can you handle permitting?

  • Who will I be communicating with throughout the project?

  • How long will it take to complete my home project?

  • What are some things that can throw the project off schedule or over budget?

  • How much are the materials?

  • Who is your supplier for materials?

  • What’s your process for creating a contract?

  • What materials do you recommend based on my budget and vision?

  • How much will installation, removal and general labor cost?

  • How much will my project cost in total?

  • Do you have a list of references I can contact?

These are just some of the questions you can ask. Don’t hesitate to ask more and be sure to write down the contractors’ answers. Later down the line, your notes can help you make sure vocal agreements are written down and included in the contract.

woman on computer

Guille Faingold/Stocksy

Ideally, you should hire a contractor who offers fair pricing and quality work. To find out which contractor provides the best value for your money, you need to gather price quotes from a handful of good contractors — and then compare them against one another.

Many factors can influence the cost of hiring a contractor, including the square footage of the space, the materials you need and the number of contractors it’ll take. To get the most accurate cost estimate, give the contractors as many details about your project as possible. For example, if you’re working on a kitchen renovation, let them know:

  • The kitchen’s size

  • If you plan to change the kitchen’s layout

  • Whether you want to install new fixtures and appliances

  • If your kitchen cabinets need to be repainted or refaced

  • What materials and paint you want for your counters, cabinets, walls and flooring

  • If you’re going to install new countertops or a backsplash

  • How soon you want the remodeling project to be completed

  • If you think you’ll require electrical and plumbing work

You can also give the contractors photos, plans or designs you already have. The more information you give the contractor, the more accurate your price quote will be. And the easier it will be to plan, save and budget for your project.

If you think a contractor’s prices are too high compared to their competitors but they’re still your top choice, you can let them know you received more reasonable bids from other local contractors. They might agree to match their rates — or they might not. If not, decide whether your favorite contractor’s high prices are worth it or if you should choose a more affordable candidate.

Remember: don’t sacrifice quality to secure the cheapest rates. Ultimately, hiring a more experienced, skilled, professional and reputable contractor is the best way to go if your primary concern is quality.

Pro tip: If you can’t negotiate to lower the total costs, you may be able to negotiate a payment plan that works for you.

handshake

Stocksy

Before any work begins, get everything in writing and draw up a contract. Your contract with your contractor needs to be explicitly detailed down to the finest points. For example, it should include the following:

  • The contractor’s contact and business information

  • The contractor’s required license number

  • Project timeline, including start and end dates

  • Financing and payment plan/schedule

  • Schedule of each phase of the project

  • Complete material list, supplier list and budget specifications

  • The contractor’s guarantee to handle all required permits

  • All potential time conflicts from concurrent projects

  • Change order provisions

  • Full worker list and daily schedule

  • Warranty and insurance information

  • Broom (clean-up) clause

  • Termination clause

Related: How much does a home remodel cost?