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13 Signs You’re About to Hire a Bad Contractor

Glowing reviews on a home service website doesn't necessarily mean a contractor is good. These are the real signs you should look for before you sign on the dotted line.

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Electric grinder machine left on dusty wooden flooring with wood shavings

They give a bad first impression

You’re off to a great start finding a contractor after searching on a popular home service online directory. A few contractors are matched with your project and the calls start coming—from one contractor with the same voicemail recording several times in one hour. That’s persistent but also a sign the company is desperate for business says Michael Bordes, president, AA Jedson Company, LLC. Still, the contractor has great reviews so you set up a time to get an estimate. Then the contractor arrives two hours late and offers no apologies for the tardiness. “Punctuality in the construction business is extremely important and should be the main precedence on how your relationship begins with the client,” says Bordes. Here’s exactly what you need to do to find the right contractor for your project.

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Three Old Paint Can Lids
Pam Walker/Shutterstock

You’re being dismissed

“We got ya covered,” may seem like a reassuring comment but when you have legitimate concerns or questions that get dismissed for a padded answer like this, it should give you pause. Communication should be two-ways, says contractor, TV, and radio host, Adam Helfman of Hire it Done. “If your contractor is dismissing your concerns and not fully listening to you before the project even begins, what will the communication be like if an issue comes up during the project? It is important for the homeowner and contractor to have a good working relationship and be solution minded when and if issues arise.” These are the clear signs your contractor is really listening to you.

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13 Signs You're About to Hire a Bad Contractor

The contract is vague

Short and sweet is usually a good thing but not when it comes to a contract for home improvement. “Paint cabinets, install new sink and dishwasher,” isn’t detailed enough to cover the scope of a project and according to Bordes. “Every valid contractor should provide a license number, proper insurance, and enough verbiage in a contract or proposal that will detail what the clients’ needs are, the exact costs, payment schedule, and all items that are not included so the client has specific clarity and understanding of what to expect via a valid contract,” notes Bordes.

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Change of a light bulb. The man holds a light bulb in his hands and exchanges it in a glass. Screwing and unscrewing the burnt, used light bulb.
BOKEH STOCK/Shutterstock

They won’t provide an itemized list

“As a homeowner, you can’t possibly think of every contingency or item that should be on the scope of work,” says Helfman. There’s a myriad of details you may overlook or just assume the contractor is taking care of. For example, you may assume the contractor will remove all the demo debris or assume new light bulbs are included with the new recessed lights. If this is addressed before the project, there is less chance for conflict and miscommunication. “Good contractors have experience in jobs similar to the one you are hiring them for and should be much more familiar with potential friction points,” says Helfman. Renovating newbie? Here’s 11 secrets contractors want you to know.

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Rollers of different sizes for painting the walls and ceiling
Karyna Che/Shutterstock

The contractor is new to the biz

To be fair, there are reputable contractors new to the business, but according to Helfman, it’s common practice for bad contractors in residential home improvement to shut down when they’re involved in multiple lawsuits and start again under a new name. “It’s then back to business as usual, doing substandard work, or outright ripping people off,” says Helfman. Be vigilant when vetting these new contractors with less than three years experience. Ask for references and follow up on them. It’s certainly a plus if the finished product looks amazing, but make sure to inquire about the process and customer service when you chat with previous clients.

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A red screwdriver drills a hole in a wooden board. Making wooden products, the concept of manual labor.
BOKEH STOCK/Shutterstock

They use high-pressure sales tactics

“High-pressure tactics are not necessary in today’s market. There are plenty of service providers out there who will love your project,” says Helfman. Yet, some will put doubts in your head that your project is difficult and that they are one of the few contractors that will take it on. Or they may tell you this is a busy season for contractors and you should lock in your project with them because they can get it done right away. If you waver and the salesperson steps outside to call his manager, Helfman says to “shut the door behind them.” You don’t always need a pro. These are the 11 home projects you can definitely DIY.

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Man making draft plan using pencil on the table with tools
Zivica Kerkez/Shutterstock

They want more than a 30 percent deposit up front

“This means that they do not have enough cash flow to handle the project, or they are using your deposit to fund parts of a different project,” warns Helfman. “There are some exceptions, such as when there are large upfront materials costs, but the contractor should be transparent about the request and not defensive about it at all.” These 17 clever home improvements are easy on the budget.

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Roofer builder worker dismantling roof shingles
Olha Hutsuliuk/Shutterstock

Their status isn’t in good standing

Certification by a manufacturer typically provides an extra layer of warranty protection and means the contractor and his team have invested time and money to be certified in trades like roofing, siding, and HVAC. However, not all trades have manufacturer certifications. “In those cases, look for contractors who are active in your local community or in their respective trade organizations, and understand the value of a good rating with the BBB,” advises Helfman. Send an email to the organization to inquire about the criteria necessary for a contractor to be in “good standing” and if they are active in the organization. Find out the home improvements that will double the value of your home.

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Home improvement - handyman cut wood with jigsaw in workshop
CandyBox Images/Shutterstock

They don’t have a license

A well-liked handyman in your neighborhood may have a glowing reputation, but if he/she isn’t licensed, you won’t be protected from fraudulent activities. “A license would come from a local municipality or city and that license would normally indicate that the specific contractor has valid insurance and a record of past successful projects. Providing a physical license at initial meeting will help the owner from the onset of knowing they are dealing with a valid contractor,” says Bordes.

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Low section of man on ladder

You don’t verify they have insurance

While every contractor doesn’t need to be bonded, Bordes says every contractor needs to be insured. A spot of paint on the floor or a nick in the drywall isn’t catastrophic but if the contractor accidentally causes property damage or bodily injury to you, it becomes a liability nightmare. Be sure to request the most recent certificate of insurance from the contractor before you hire. These home-improvement fails will make you cringe!

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13 Signs You're About to Hire a Bad Contractor

You pick the cheapest contractor

What isn’t appealing about getting the job done for less money? Oh, maybe the buckling floor or the new door that sticks three months after the job is finished. There are a few reasons the estimate may seem too good to be true. It could be an honest mistake entering the costs, subcontractors not providing accurate bids—or something worse. “Sometimes contractors value the bidding process by using inferior products as alternates to what was actually specified,” says Bordes. If the bid seems low, find out why by asking about things such as the materials they will use, whether they factored in permit costs, debris removal, etc.

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repair, building and home concept - close up of male hands intalling wood flooring
Syda Productions/Shutterstock

You don’t follow up on referrals

You got what you asked for—a list of referrals from your top choices. So what do you do now? Contact each homeowner and go through your list of questions. Surely, the most important question on your mind is probably price and how the finished project turned out, but, other questions are equally important to ask the previous clients says Bordes. For example, how was his performance and quality of work? Was the budget met? Was the work delivered on schedule? Did the contractor have to return to do repairs or major punch list work after they left?

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blue prints at a work site with tools and gloves
Brian Goodman/Shutterstock

You don’t trust your gut

Even if a contractor comes with a glowing reputation if you don’t feel the contractor shares your vision or just feel uneasy during the initial visit, listen to your spidey senses. It’s not going to feel any better once the project begins and the whole crew is in your house every day. These are the 12 home improvements you should never tackle yourself.

Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, Family Handyman and Taste of Home, among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center.