Avoiding Fly-By-Night Contractors

Helper Cat
I have to include a picture of MiMi. She always like to help me when I’m using tools. Her sister is somewhere hiding under a bed.

Last week I tried to explain why a good contractor has to charge the prices they charge. On the other hand, there are not-so-good contractors out there, too. Dealing with a bad contractor is best handled like dealing with the flu – avoid it. Let’s consider why a contractor might be worth avoiding:

They don’t know what they are doing – Sadly, only a few of the trades actually have licensing requirements that address knowledge and experience. I was a licensed Home Improvement Contractor in Connecticut, and I could do everything except pour a foundation. If you had a foundation, I could build a house on it. My license required filling out a form and paying $50 a year to the State.

They don’t have the right equipment – A friend of mine had a concrete foundation poured for a garage. The contractor didn’t have those strip-like metal forms. He framed up some plywood and 2x4s and when the concrete went in, the walls bulged out. As the walls bulged out, the concrete sunk, leaving my friend with a very uneven and unlevel surface to build upon.

They are low cost operators – There are a lot of customers for whom price is the most important consideration. Contractors know this, and many play toward that market by cutting costs in ways that may not be visible. A roofing contractor may not install a self-sealing membrane to prevent ice dams. They may reuse the old flashing. Other contractors may cut costs on material too.

When I renovated the family room that had been added on by the previous home owner, I discovered that the contractor had used 3/8” sheetrock (1/2” is required by code) and 1 ½” insulation (3 ½” is required). To get the 4 ½” deep windows to sit flush in the opening, he put a strip of cardboard behind the outside jamb.

Thin Plasterboard
Trying to illustrate the problem caused by “saving money” on thin plasterboard. Air leaks are every window and door in the room.

They understand too well that time is money – When you do anything for a living, all you want to be is done. This is particularly true if continuing means coming back tomorrow. Tomorrow is the day you start the next job.

When I was shingling our gambrel roof, my wife asked: “what’s the angle on the steep portion?” I told her that it was 67 degrees. She showed me the manufacturer’s requirement for extra roofing cement under each tab on roofs over 60 degrees. This was a pain in the butt to comply with, but I did, ‘cuz, you know, wife.

A contractor visiting my neighbor happened to notice me with the caulking gun of roof cement. He asked me what I was doing. When I told him, he shook his head and said: “I would never waste that much time. I only guarantee a roof for one year. I would roll the dice and gamble that nothing would happen in that time frame.”

Avoiding these people and the long-term problems they bring you takes time, research, vigilance and, unfortunately, money. Here are a few things to consider:

Get smart – You don’t have to go back to school, but you can do a little research on what constitutes a proper job. You can Google, you can talk to people and, in some towns, you can talk to the Building Inspector. They usually won’t recommend people, but they can tell you what to look for. I also rely on local hardware stores and lumber yards. Local, not big-box stores with a cadre of “certified installers” from whom they are skimming a percentage and unto whom they often drop “special sale pricing” that gives the contractor more incentive to cut costs.

Check stuff – My license may have only cost $50 a year, but a lot of contractors didn’t have one. Almost nobody ever asked me if I did. It’s important! In Connecticut, if you use a licensed contractor, you are eligible to tap into a fund for incomplete or shoddy work. Also, make sure the contractor is insured – I was but most of my competition wasn’t. Finally, check references. Go and look at the work, talk to the people and ask: “Was the estimate accurate?” “Was the work completed on time?” “Would you use them again?

Pull a Permit – So many people told/tell me that they don’t want to pull a building permit because it costs money and/or it will raise their taxes. It also means the work your contractor does will comply with the Building code and be inspected by someone who knows the Code and local conditions. The fees are minimal, the Tax Assessor will find out eventually and if your deck doesn’t meet code, you might not be able to sell your house or collect insurance if someone falls through the railing.

One of the first projects I did after we bought our house was to build an elevated porch off the back. I specified 8” diameter concrete piers for supports on my plan. The Building Inspector suggested that I use 10” piers because surface frost can push 8” piers off at an angle in our sandy soil. It cost me about $50 more, but 20 years later, those posts are still plumb.

Sign a contract – Make the contractor specify the work that is going to be done, the material that is covered under the estimate and the types of things that will not be covered. For example, a roof replacement wouldn’t include the cost of replacing any rotted sheathing (that would be extra). Make him specify the timing of payments, the work that will be complete at the payment point and DON’T pay him if the work isn’t complete. Make sure that a final payment isn’t due until the job is complete.

I know this has been a long post, but I wanted to cover the important points. My friend Sharukh Bamboat, has written a similar post on avoiding fly-by-night freelance writers. You should have a look at his blog. Meanwhile, here’s a few more pictures from that renovation.

81 thoughts on “Avoiding Fly-By-Night Contractors

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      1. We have so many older retirees, they come to make quick money and take off. The same reason there’s a doctor on every corner (or building’ full of them), con men, etc.

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  1. Great post. I think it is a common human tendency to save every cent that we have, but in order to do that we often compromise on quality. Eventually, we end up dissatisfied and spend more money on repairs. Many around me consider me spendthrift, but I am ready to spend more, if I believe I am getting a good quality product or service. This way I not just save money, but my precious time as well, as I don’t have to spend my time on repairs or servicing.

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      1. Yeah, exactly. I’m very particular about quality, so I ensure I do some research before I buy any product/service. I do check my budget and go for the best deals that I can afford. If I feel my budget is low, I wait, build some cash and then buy it. Patience is my greatest strength.

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  2. Hiring a contractor is a gamble, as your neighbour’s man suggested. It’s tough enough getting contractors to return calls for RFQ’s in the first place. We had the roof done this spring and decided to go through the big box company since they hold the guarantee and *theoretically* they will still be around for a few more years.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Maggie. If you get good work and quality material, the roof should last a good long time. We arranged for an AC service through a large retail store that was having a special. When we handed the guy the coupon, he looked so sad. He had been there a long time and since we have this done every year, we knew that he did everything and some extras. He said that the coupon comes out of his fee 100%, the store still keeps the same portion. We ended up tipping him for the amount of the coupon. Maybe we’re the fools from whom money is soon parted, but we felt better about it.

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  3. If only we lived in the same town so I could consult you when looking for a contractor. :-) We do what DIY we are qualified to do, but when we need a contractor, I start asking people if they know someone because I really don’t want to just randomly pick someone. I need my two-story gutters cleaned and so far haven’t been able to get a reference, so I’m still looking. :-)

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    1. It is hard Judy. When I needed a mason, I asked around. The guy we ended up with did good work, but he left an awful mess behind. I’m leery of the services like Angie’s List too, because I’m sure there must be a way to scam that (a bit cynical here).

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  4. Having been through this with a neighbor (‘let’s use this one–he’s really cheap’), everything you say is true. You get what you pay for and with the unlicensed, what you get wasn’t even worth paying for. Such good advice, Dan. Down here in FL, we are warned to check on all the ‘contractors’ that suddenly appear to help all us poor homeowners with hurricane repairs. So not worth it.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Lois. We don’t get many hurricanes here. We had one when I had my shop and everybody got very busy, very fast. A guy called me to do repairs because I was listed as providing renovations. A large tree had landed on his roof. He had cracked roof rafters and the top plate of the first and second floor was cracked. I told him that he needed to consult an engineer and that this work was beyond my ability. He asked “can’t you just patch it up?” I couldn’t believe how easily I could have taken him and his insurance company for a ride. I explained what had happened and why he needed to call others and what he needed to tell them. In the end, he thanked me, but I don’t know if he had the work done right.

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  5. I love how Mimi is helping you! :) Great post as I enjoy learning something new and I did ~ stuff that I would have never known existed. I was taught, do it the right way the first time and obviously you were too. Good for you.

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  6. Great post, Dan! I really mean that! I KNOW exactly what you are talking about. Hubby and I were our own contractors when we built our home and we did all the research. This was before the computer and we had a LOT to cover. It took us 5 years in all to not only design and draw the blueprints (I designed hubby drew) but to educate ourselves on what was code and how contractors all the time went under code to cut costs. We had to find the right sub-contractors and even with our homework we had to KNOW what we were doing and make sure they did what we specified. There were a couple of walls we had to take down to get plum. (rough framing) I had to tell our rough framer that um gee, there is no wall where you just put studs up to make a wall …. that had to be taken down. This all was in the 80’s so I can just imagine how much worse it is now. We just had new windows and new sliding door put in, and the shoddy workmanship compared to our quality hands-on work (we designed and made all the custom made window sills) still today makes my heart ill. We have some floating sills, where when you put weight on them they move. Someone did not nail them in properly. Anyways …. LOVE Mimi and how she helps Dad. We have a few cats like that and it is SO cute. Hubby swears Rusty always helps him figure out how to do something when he gets stuck. :)
    And I good morning to you!!!! Love, Amy <3

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    1. Thanks so much Amy. Designing your own house and managing contractors is a full time job. I am so impressed that you were able to do that. We did a lot of research before the major renovation. The design was clearly up to code, but the guy at a local lumberyard talked me into two changes that were Code-plus that I am very glad I agreed to. Even with those changes, his bid was almost 25% under the big box quote. The hard part for me will be if I’m still around when our roof has to be replaced. I’ll be out there yelling at those guys :)

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      1. We went over code in a lot of areas, Dan. Our house was built 27 years ago, and the only thing that had to be replaced was the roof, and the windows, and that was because the company we choose LIED to us regarding the quality of their windows. There were many recalls and suits involved with this company but we missed it by a couple of years. Live and learn. I will NEVER build a house again. It just about killed the both of us and we were in our 20’s and 30’s at that time. No way could I do that again now. No, your roof is going to stay. You will make darn sure it does. :)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ultimately, getting what you wanted must have been worth the effort (at lesat I hope so). Our renovation was very hard for us, physically and mentally – so much stress. We were told by the previous home owner that the windows in the family room were Anderson Windows. When I took them out, we saw a totally different brand name. You don’t want to think that people are lying to you, but you have to check these things.

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          1. Been there. Done it. We now have Anderson windows in our house (not the original ones though) and it is not the window quality that lacks, it is how they were installed. And yes as for doing it yourself, it is very stressful. Hang in there. Don’t worry. Mimi will come to the rescue every time. >3

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  7. I discovered an air gap under the trim on our picture window, which I believe is what made our living room so chilly in the winter! The living room is an addition from the 60’s, but the windows are from the late 90’s and who knows what they did not do to resolve the issue. The standard windows are fine but we’ll be fixing that gap under the picture window before the cold comes again. I expect dramatic return on living room coziness and fewer furnace cycles :)

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    1. Also, do you ever think you’ve missed your calling to teach? If you asked me if I wanna read about windows, roofs, tools — I’d say no, but you make it very simple and easy to understand.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Aw, thanks Joey. I might have missed a bunch of callings. Maybe I can do some of those things after I retire. I could teach adult-ed on the stuff homeowner should know about that thing they just purchased for all their money.

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    2. We still struggle to heat and cool that room. I replaced everything but the floor, which is built over the old driveway without enough space to really crawl under. When we first moved in, I could shove myself about a third of the way in. These days, I might be able to poke my head in. We found so many blatant oversights, it just made me mad. There was a section of the all where the plywood didn’t reach the top of the framing and they just covered the gap with tar paper! Air gaps are very costly and they aren’t always easy to find. Good luck with your picture window.

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      1. Thanks — I think it will be simple enough.
        Funny you mention that, but even the most slender man cannot get into the crawlspace of this addition. Even Moo isn’t small enough to fit in the channel between old and new. One can only look.

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  8. I struggled for years with an old farm house; nothing was plumb nor square. It was obviously hand-built by a carpenter who worked off of experience and intuition. It wasn’t bad job, just an eccentric one. For instance, when I replaced the roof decking, I found bark on the edges of the planking. He must have had his own backyard sawmill.

    After years of this, we moved to a new townhouse development, Guess what? Nothing was plumb nor square.

    A few years after we moved, I told a running buddy about the bark on the planking. “Oh heck,” he said, “come over to my place.” His house was one of the first built in Minnesota, it’s a landmark. We went down into his cellar – and there it was, the posts that held up his house were whole logs and the lintels were split logs. Amazingly, the house has not sagged. You have to wonder what they used for footings under those posts.

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    1. Maybe they put a large flat rock under that post. I’ve seen houses in upstate NY that were two stories with a walk-in attic that were supported by posts like that. I can understand using the only material that you had. I can’t understand going out of your way to buy 3/8″ sheetrock to save a few cents per sheet. Nothing I’ve ever worked on, anywhere has been plump and square. I think if it’s stick-built and open to the weather during framing and then closed up and heated, it’s not going to stay straight.

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  9. One thing I insisted in the contract when I built my house was indemnity (with a proper bond) from subcontractor defaults or claims. In other words, the contractor handled all disputes between him and the subs. The subs were not allowed to levy liens as a result of contractor default. This is a hidden slippery slope when building with a contractor.

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  10. Thanks, Dan. I learned a lot and was reminded of a couple things. I’m on the Design Review Committee for our HOA and I always insist that our approval for any project is contingent on homeowners pulling a building permit. Most don’t even know what that means! But I would not have considered using the inspector’s office as a resource while choosing contractors, etc. It makes a lot of sense to do so. Licensing and insurance are key indicators as well. Thanks again. (Mimi needs a tool belt.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Sammy. We have talked about getting MiMi a tool belt. She steals tools from my bag. sometimes, she buries them under a carpet. Inspectors can be funny. You have to know what you’re doing; they don’t like giving DIY advice, but if you let them know that you want to make sure the job is done right, they can be pretty helpful. Ours is great.

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      1. Everybody in a ‘regulatory’ position likes their fiefdom of power (even if it’s just manning the front desk). You just have to figure out how to work within it. Sometimes I have the patience to figure it out; other times not so much!

        Now you’ve got me curious about our inspectors. 😼

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  11. Even if you don’t go for the cheapest bid, even if you research the contractor and he has great reviews, even if he’s licensed and insured, even if he can show you a number of other houses where he has done the same work – it’s still possible to get ripped off. My roofing guy came highly recommended, we looked at other houses he had done in our area, and he was not the absolute cheapest – but our roof still failed after only a year, and the contractor was nowhere to be found. Suddenly, a contractor who had been in business for 15 years just disappeared. I give up.

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  12. Thanks for this post, Dan. Not being handy, I got burned many times by contractors, especially when I listened to those who didn’t want to pull a permit. That should be a red flag to clients right there.

    Fondly,
    E

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  13. Another very informative post, Dan. I heard horror stories of contractors starting a job and then leaving without a word or trace. A few years ago, my husband hired a guy to renovate one of our bathrooms – I was out of town at the time and when I returned, I was appalled at what took place. The guy cut the ceramic tiles in my bedroom instead of outside on the patio. My husband was at work while the contractor was “working”. You can only imagine the mess! I’ve tired to block out that cleaning episode from my memory, but it surfaces whenever his name comes up. What a horrible way to conduct business.

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    1. Thanks Elaine. I was always surprised that people were so appreciative of the fact that I cleaned up at the end of the day. I didn’t realize how many contractors ignore that step. That’s unacceptable in my book.

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  14. Lots of wisdom here. It made me glad that, other than a new furnace and barring freak accidents like a tree falling on our house, my husband and I plan no more remodeling. Ever. Period. The end. We’re finished. And we’re old enough to mean it.

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  15. Great advise! We hired a well established company to do our remodel and have been happy with all the crews they’ve had over to do the job. We got a good/ picky city inspector thankfully. It’s been worth the cost to have it all done right.

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  16. I deal with contractors. All that you have said is right. They are very dubious people. Well, most of the ones that I have dealt with anyway. I don’t know how you do it over there, but here, for a construction project to run well, the client employs a team of consultants to give advice and check the contractor. There’s the architect, the structural engineer, the quantity surveyor, interior designer, the electrical and mechanical engineers. The interior designer is not compulsory, though. Some architects handle it too. With all these professionals against him, the contractor has to perform accordingly. I dealt with one who underquoted his costs in order to get the job. His mistake caught up with him later on when I rejected his cheap installations.

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    1. Thanks Peter. Commercial construction is very tightly controlled over here, calling for all the functions you list as well as OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) on larger jobs and union investigators on union jobs. It’s the residential construction industry that still runs wild over here, and it is a huge business. We still do have comercial failures, both financially and in terms of accidents, but they are usually thoroughly investigated,

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  17. This is such great information, Dan! And from a source I have grown to trust. My boyfriend is just about to move into a house he’s had built in the States and once I go home from Korea, we plan to do some upgrades, some of which will require contractors. These are all things we’ll need to consider. So glad you wrote this! Thanks!

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  18. We have something called “Angie’s List,” (Central Ohio) which has personal references for contractors, babysitters and many businesses. We once built a house, the ex and I. We put together our downstairs finishing it up with one elderly friend of mine pitching in with labor and advice. Our basement was so cool. Miss it. I like pets like Mimi :) and their curiosity, Dan. Our Toby was a mixed breed pound puppy lab and German shepherd. We would give him things to carry and until we said, “Okay, Toby DROP it, ” he would often walk around thinking he was helping us. :)

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    1. I need to teach Mimi to drop. She takes small tools but she buries them under a carpet or hides them under a desk. We have Angie’s list but I’m never certain that services like that are foolproof. Lab and shepherd seems like a good mix.

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