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.
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.