avoid hiring a bad contractor: look out for these 20 red flags

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Finding the right contractor can be a massive roadblock on the way to a successful project. While there are plenty of contractors and subs willing to take a contract, they’re not always the most reliable or qualified for the job. Luckily, there are some signs of a bad contractor that you can look out for in order to avoid an issue.

There are many ways that working with a bad contractor can make your life a nightmare. Their mistakes can cost far more than the contract’s value in the end — with your bank account and sanity writing the checks. Here are some of the most common red flags to look out for.

They’re unprofessional

Construction can be a rough-and-tumble industry, but good contractors know how to be professional with customers and hiring parties. If a contractor’s first impression includes a dirty beer-branded T-shirt and they look like they haven’t showered in days, or they leave a truck-sized oil stain in your driveway, you need to question their professionalism. 

Your job matters. If a contractor doesn’t care enough to change their shirt and comb their hair before they meet with you, they’re unlikely to show your project more respect.

They’ve changed their company name several times

Contractors who have changed their company names several times should be an immediate red flag. While they might explain away the change as a marketing decision, it could also likely be due to lawsuits and a bad reputation.

Asking prospective contractors how long they’ve been in business, and then doing some digging into how long the company name has been active will explain a lot. Calling the county clerk or secretary of state’s office to see how long the business has been on the books should be all it takes to figure it out.

Their reviews are less-than-shining

People review everything these days, and established contractors are likely to have plenty of reviews available online to compare.

Checking sites like the Better Business Bureau, Angi, and Home Advisor should provide some insights. Don’t forget to check Google as well, as its rating system is becoming a popular place to leave reviews.

They don’t have a portfolio

Before hiring a contractor or sub, you should have a good idea of whether or not they can handle your project. One of the best ways that a contractor can assure you they’re capable is by providing a portfolio. If they don’t have any portfolio, that can be a problem.

A portfolio can mean different things to different contractors. Landscaping contractors might have pages and pages full of pictures of patios and gardens, while plumbers might only have a few shots of a finished system, some manufacturer certifications, and some testimonials on their website. The point is: You need something to verify that they’re capable. 

They’re too busy

All good contractors are busy, but being too busy can have serious implications. When a contractor is too busy or trying to grow too quickly, they’ll often spread themselves thin, and it takes a toll on every job they’re running. Or, sometimes they focus on the most profitable jobs instead of doing the right thing by established customers.

Being too busy can also cause a contractor to overextend their finances. If they’re using your upfront payment to cover the materials on another project, there might not be enough to go around when it comes time to order your materials.

They’re not busy at all

As mentioned above, all good contractors are busy. If a contractor submits a bid or a quote and tells you they can start next week, it could be a sign that they’re not the hottest show in town.

Expect to wait a few weeks or a month or two before a contractor can start. They’ve got other customers to take care of and projects to finish. You can’t expect them to drop everything for your job, but you also don’t want someone who can’t line up work because their reputation or inexperience precedes them.

They’re too ‘salesy’

Construction sales include some excellent people, but it also includes some used-car-salesman types that push salesy tactics. Don’t ignore that red flag — you’re looking for a contractor, not buying an Oldsmobile.

Contractors that try things like “we’ll knock 15 percent off the price if you sign now,” or “give me a few minutes, let me talk to my manager,” might be tipping their hand as a bad contractor. You need an honest, straight-shooting salesperson or business owner that recognizes that the relationship has to be mutually beneficial — not someone who wants to close your sale so they can get their hands on the Glengarry leads.

Getting a hold of them is difficult

Bad contractors are notoriously difficult to reach. They don’t answer emails, they don’t answer their phones, and they don’t call back. And there are a lot of reasons why this could be:

  • They’re dodging unhappy customers
  • They owe money to creditors
  • They’re too busy
  • They’re generally unreliable

If a contractor doesn’t make speaking with potential customers a priority, they either don’t need the work or they don’t know how to run a business. Neither circumstance is a good sign for your job.

You’re not their priority

This point goes hand in hand with communication. If a contractor doesn’t take the time to meet with you, discuss your concerns, answer questions, and show up on your project to check on their crew, you’re not their priority.

It’s unfair to expect a contractor to show a $200,000 project the same attention as a $5,000,000 job, but part of being a good contractor is finding the right balance and ensuring your customers are happy. 

Their contract is weak

The whole contracting profession relies on one concept: A well-written contract. If a contractor presents a poorly written contract with foggy terms, you can bet they don’t have a lot of experience in the industry, and that could be a sign of a bad contractor. 

The contract should contain some common parts, including all of the contractor’s identifying information (including a physical address), a clear scope of work, a list of what’s not included (if applicable), an easily understood payment schedule, resolution terms, and even hold harmless clauses that apply to both parties. And, most importantly, the contractor’s signature on both your copy and theirs.

Also, remember that a contract is a negotiation. Nothing’s set in stone, and everything is negotiable. If you don’t like the terms laid out in the contract, you can kick them back and forth until you do.

They don’t want to pull permits

Realistically, most construction work requires a permit of some type. Even areas with relaxed building codes require at least checking in with the local municipality before the project begins. Good contractors know this — and bad ones avoid it.

Some contractors might even offer you a discount if you allow them to proceed without a permit. The reason this is so desirable for them is the lack of accountability and the room to maximize profits. While you might save money at first, you can pay for it with shoddy workmanship or an inspector catching wind and forcing you to tear down the work. 

They want a huge upfront payment

Down payments are normal. They secure your place in the contractor’s backlog and provide enough cash to float the materials for the job (at least to start). But excessive down payments are a sign of a bad contractor.

Most contractors will ask for 25 to 30 percent of the job cost upfront. This is usually enough to cover permits and materials. Anything more than that, and you could be paying a contractor for work they haven’t even started yet. Make 30 percent the maximum amount that you’re comfortable putting down.

They’re the cheapest option

Before you hire a contractor, you should get at least a few bids or quotes. Going with the cheapest option, especially if it’s significantly less than the other bids, can cost you in the long run.

Significantly low bids are a sign of desperation, inexperience, and underhanded bidding techniques, and they’re also a sign of a bad contractor. Regardless of what’s occurring, none of those circumstances is anything you’d want on your project.

They don’t like written contracts

If you’ve ever heard the saying “get it in writing,” bad contractors might be the whole reason it exists. If you and your contractor come to an agreement on something, it needs to be written down. 

Bad contractors are notorious for promising something and then not delivering on it. They’ll say or agree to anything to get the job, but when push comes to shove, they avoid the paper trail.

Their references don’t pan out

Word-of-mouth marketing has been a staple in the construction industry for as long as it’s existed. A contractor’s references are hand-picked sources that you can consult to find out a little more about their work. If these specifically chosen spokespeople don’t pan out, it could be a sign of a bad contractor. 

And not all unhappy customers will be forthright with their displeasure. Some might ignore your inquiries altogether. That’s what we call a “clue.”

They’re condescending

When you decide to hire a contractor, understand that you’re going to be dealing with them quite often. If they’re condescending and speak down to you, that relationship is going to hit rocky times really quickly.

Some bad contractors have a way of minimizing their customers’ concerns, using a lot of industry-specific jargon, and making their customers feel like they’re below them. These tactics allow the contractor to steer the job, and they’re also a sign of a bad contractor. 

They’re full of excuses

Even the smoothest projects hit their share of hurdles along the way. There are a lot of moving parts and plenty of time from bid submission to CO for things to go wrong. These issues are expected, so it’s how the contractor deals with them that matters. Excuses have no place on the job site.

Instead of excuses, you want clear explanations and solutions. Responsible contractors know this and will work hard to provide them. Excuses, blaming others, and a general lack of responsibility are signs of a bad contractor.

They won’t provide a copy of their license or insurance

Don’t let this point’s position on the list fool you; it’s one of the most telltale signs of a bad contractor.

In the construction industry, licenses, bonds, and insurance documents are known as “compliances,” and all GCs expect the other contractors and subs on the project to supply them. For this reason, all good contractors should have them readily available upon request. If they don’t provide a copy, they either don’t take your job seriously, or they don’t carry (or possess) them at all. 

Read more: Do Contractors Need Liability Insurance?

They want to move too quickly

One sign of a bad contractor is someone who wants to rush your signature on a contract or upfront payment check. While each circumstance is different, don’t let the contractor rush you. Nothing happens overnight in the construction industry, so there’s no reason to jump the gun. 

Rushing the contract signing or getting a check is often a sign of desperation. They either need that check to bankroll another project or need that contract for something other than your benefit. Neither reason is your problem, so don’t let them rush you.

They don’t use the appropriate notices

When a contractor doesn’t utilize notices, regardless of whether the state mandates them, they could be showing you a bad sign. While it might seem strange to encourage documents that protect a contractor’s lien rights, these documents do more than just that.

For instance, a contractor that knows what they’re doing will collect preliminary notices and lien waivers from everyone on the job, as well as supply you with their own. This not only ensures everyone on the job is getting paid and operating in relative harmony, but it also keeps you informed of who’s on-site and what they’re doing.

These documents are also a sign of general professionalism and know-how in the industry. 

Read more: Construction Industry Communication Is Weak. Use Notices to Fix It

How to choose a good contractor

Now that you know what to look out for, some background on how to choose a good contractor might be helpful. There are a few tried-and-true methods, and some additional tools you might not be familiar with yet, that will help you find and choose the best contractor.

Word-of-mouth

Word of mouth is one of the most effective ways to find a good contractor. Asking your circle of trusted friends and family who they’ve been using for their projects can yield some excellent results. 

Just be sure you really trust and respect the opinion of whoever you’re asking. People have a tendency to want to make you feel like they have all the answers, and they can suggest their contractor simply to bolster their self-esteem, even if it’s not in your best interest.

Social media

Even better than word of mouth, shopping for a contractor on social media can be a wise decision. Every business has a social media presence these days, and each of their pages typically contains photos, reviews, testimonials,  and the names of other customers that you can speak to. 

And here’s the best part: The contractor’s social media presence can be a window into the type of company they run. It’s not hard to create a professional page — if they can’t pull together a company banner and a few attractive images, they probably aren’t the contractor for you.

Consult their Contractor Profile

One of the most effective ways to find a good contractor is by consulting their Contractor Profile. These profiles contain helpful data about a contractor’s payment practices, reviews from other contractors and subs, and a window into their past disputes.

All of the data available through a Contractor Profile paints a picture of what hiring the contractor might look like. Will they take your job seriously? Do they value their subs and pay them on time? Do they have a history of entangling project owners in drawn-out and expensive payment disputes? You can find all of those answers by researching their Contractor Profile.

Likewise, you can find out similar information on subcontractors and specialty trade companies as well. Utilizing the Subcontractor Profiles, you can find reliable electricians, plumbers, carpenters, flooring contractors, and other types of contractors. You’ll be able to check reviews, Payment Scores, and information on their past disputes just as you would with a contractor. 

The right contractor can make or break your project

Taking your time and choosing the right contractor while recognizing the signs of a bad contractor can be one of the most important steps when starting a construction project. Good contractors will ensure they handle the job correctly, treat their subcontractors well, and pull the appropriate permits. 

Most importantly, a good contractor will keep your project free of payment disputes and mechanics liens. Payment disputes and liens can bring a project to a halt, make the property less liquid, and make it difficult for project owners to secure further financing to finish the project. With a good contractor at the helm, they’ll make sure everyone’s paid appropriately and the project goes as smoothly as possible. 

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