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Checking out contractors before you hire them

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If you’re thinking of hiring a contractor to do some work for you, there are several ways to avoid ending up with a bad one.

Contractor's toolbox with tools
  • Ask people you know. But remember: just because someone’s a really great soccer coach to your kids does not mean he knows how to tell a good contractor from a bad one. Probe for details: was the work done in a timely fashion? Were costs reasonable? Did the contractor suddenly need him to spend more on materials every time it was almost done? I also recommend not asking for a referral from someone who’s likely to take it personally if you don’t use the one he or she suggested.
  • Ask for references. If they give you any attitude about your request to see completed work they’ve done or talk to their satisfied customers, that’s not a good sign.
  • Check out their license. This varies from state to state, but at the very least you should be able to get the contractor’s license number from him/her, then look up your state licensing book in the phonebook and call them to confirm that license number is a real one, and belongs to the contractor claiming it. Yes, scam artists will lie convincingly that they have a license when they don’t. (In California – and probably other states – it’s all online. Go right to the Contractors State Licensing Board and put in the license number. Don’t have it? Use the Name Request version.)
    • What to look for on the license. So it’s a real license, and the name matches the name the contractor is using (DBAs are okay). You also want to check the expiration date of the license and make sure it’s active. Ask (if you’re calling) or read (if you’re looking online) whether their Worker’s Comp is up to date. Contractors sometimes escape lawsuits and insurance claims by getting new licenses, so a license that’s a few years old is a good sign. If anything seems hinky, it could definitely be a bad sign.
  • Ask for proof of insurance. They should have general liability and auto insurance in addition to Worker’s Comp coverage. If they’re for real, they’ll have no issue with forwarding you this information. (If they say they’re having trouble getting updated certificates from their insurance company, this may be true; just say you’ll be patient and wait for them.)
    • Anything to do with asbestos or methane? If there’s any chance your property sits on methane land or has asbestos in the construction, your state may require the contractor to carry “pollution insurance”. The contractor should be able to make an educated guess whether there could be methane or asbestos based on the age of your structure and the location. If there’s a good chance, make sure they carry some sort of insurance to cover it.
  • Get a contract. You have every right to expect a contract that specifies exact pricing, start and completion dates, the work to be done and the materials to be used. This doesn’t have to be a fancy document, just one that states everything clearly and is signed by you and the contractor. If the contractor runs into additional repairs that must be made, the contract can be renegotiated. Or, if the possibility of additional repairs is likely from the outset, you can write an “Alternate” item into the contract, which states what that work will entail, when it will be done, and how much it will add to the price.
  • Don’t pay it all up front. A deposit or some payment on materials up front is not necessarily unreasonable. Paying the entire estimate up front is not reasonable.
  • Google such phrases as “how to check out contractors in Maine” where “Maine” is the name of the state you’re having work done in. Different states have different requirements according to the sort of weather issues property faces in your region. You should be able to find some helpful local tips that will be more specific than what this article provides.

Got some more tips for finding good contractors, or at least eliminating the bad ones? Put ’em in the comments.

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