Of course your contractor seemed civilized and competent when you first met with him. That's why you hired him. But sometimes a person can seem like Jekyll initially and then promptly start acting more like Hyde.
It's best you spot this Hyde-like behavior early on, when you haven't: a) shelled out a ton of money for incomplete or shoddy work; b) gotten far enough down the line with the contractor to make it difficult to get out; or, c) driven yourself nearly batty with frustration and/or rage.
A bad contractor can do anything from buy shoddy materials and pocket your extra dough to use drugs and alcohol on the job, endangering himself and others. How do you know when it's time to replace him with a better model?
Asks for Too Much Money Up Front
First and obviously, your contractor shouldn't ask for an unreasonable sum of money up front. Yes, he needs money to get the project started, but asking for more than 15 percent raises a red flag, and most states allow contractors to ask for a maximum of 33 percent of the total cost up front [source: Chicago Tribune]. Your contractor should have enough credit to pay the rest of the up-front costs. If she doesn't, it might be because she's messed up a previous job and had her credit revoked. That's not a contractor you want.
After the up-front costs, additional monies should be tied to major milestones -- for example, the end of excavation and foundation work, framing, plumbing, electricity, siding, roofing and finish work. Similarly, a contractor who tries to tie money to dates rather than construction milestones is going to do you wrong.
A low bid should also raise warning flags. Beware the common scam in which the contractor assures the homeowner that the home will be used as an example for advertising purposes and that's why he's able to bid so much lower than the competition. In fact, it's almost never worth it to lowball a bid for the payoff of a portfolio piece. Instead, a low bid almost always equals poor work. It's just that simple.
Keeps Strange Hours
What does the job site look like at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning or 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon? If the answer is "quiet," you need to reevaluate your contractor. Simply put, a contractor sets his or her own hours and these hours not only determine how quickly your project is completed, but they reflect a contractor's overall professionalism and his commitment to the project. A 30-hour week, shaved at both ends, doesn't imply professionalism.
That said, when you notice your contractor absent, it's your job to ask about it instead of silently stewing until you can't stand it anymore. There may be a perfectly legitimate reason your contractor never shows up on Mondays until noon. Is he buying materials? Is it standard for your contractor to take Monday mornings to tie up paperwork and permits? What looks like slacking to you may in fact be necessary work. So ask.
Uses Drugs or Alcohol on the Job
What your contractor does on a Friday night is his business. What your contractor does on the job site is yours. Specifically, you can't tolerate drug, alcohol or unreasonable prescription drug use on your site. Whether your contractor gets his drug of choice from the bottle, a street-corner dealer or from a doctor, if it impairs his ability to do the job well and safely, it might be time to find someone who can do the job right. And the same goes for your contractor's employees. If there's substance abuse on your job site, it's the contractor's fault.
Most large contracting firms have a zero-tolerance policy for drug and alcohol use on the job. If you hired your contractor through one of these firms, you may be able to replace your contractor without altering your contract too much.
Won't Sign a Contract
A contract is more than a bureauocratic hoop to jump through. In the case of dispute or even misunderstanding, it's the document that keeps both you and your contractor safe. Say your contractor lays linoleum where you wanted hardwood flooring, or lays insulation bats where you wanted it blown in. You agreed on a price for very specific work, and the contract should spell that all out. (Likewise, if you agreed on linoleum and are now demanding hardwood, it's the contract that protects your contractor.)
A contractor who doesn't want to sign a contract isn't one you want. In the same vein, a contractor who does good work should be able to get permits for reasonable work. And a contractor who tries to talk you out of the need for these permits is suspect. Is she lazy or is she trying to cut corners? Either way, you don't want any part in it.
Has Poor Communication Skills
You're no building expert. But as the homeowner, you have a right to know what's going on. It's your contractor's job to effectively communicate this information to you. A missed call is one thing, but failure to return a call promptly is another. If communication is vague, difficult to understand or delivered with ill temper, your contractor isn't doing an important part of his job.
In addition to timely and good-natured communication, your contractor should be able to convey exactly what's going on. In the same way you should be wary of a hard-to-contact contractor, you should beware the vague contractor. A good contractor should know everything about a job's progress. And he should be willing to tell you about that progress. An evasive or vague contractor is either incompetent or has something to hide.
Remember, your contractor works for you, and regular reports to his boss (you) is part of the job description.
Doesn't Follow the Guidelines in Your Contract
Remember that contract? It's a binding agreement between you and your contractor that spells out exactly the work to be done. If you notice that work specified in the contract is being done differently, shoddily, or not at all, it might be time to fire your contractor in favor of one who'll get the work done right.
This includes not only how things are made, but what they're made of. Your contract specifies the materials to be used, but you can bet there are cheaper alternatives. The price difference between the contracted materials and the knock-offs the contractor buys would go directly from your pocket to his. So consider non-contract, substandard materials a version of theft and treat it accordingly.
The same is true of cutting labor costs. If you've contracted for a certain amount of labor-intensive stonework, you should get exactly that amount. A contractor who slights the contract slights you.
Manages Subcontractors Poorly
If you have a wonderful contractor who hires horrible subcontractors, the sum of the work starts to look a little less rosy. Like a business manager, part of a contractor's skill should be in hiring good people, and the contractor who shrugs his shoulders in apology for bad subcontractors is passing blame that is really his.
Similarly, a good contractor should manage these subcontractors and other workers well. Screaming slave drivers rarely hire the right workers or get the best work from them. So, if you see your contractor acting cruelly to his crew, it's not only the right thing for the workers, but in the best interest of your project, to replace the contractor with a better people person.
Also, it's your contractor's job to hire people on the site that work well with you, the homeowner. If you can't get along with a contractor's employee, it's the contractor's job, not yours, to resolve the dispute. If your contractor can't get rid of a bad egg, you should consider getting rid of the contractor.
Steals From You
Like drug and alcohol use on the job site, theft is a no-brainer. But theft from the job site might be a little trickier to spot than a kid in a candy store with bulging pockets. Instead, your contractor might over-order supplies and then simply truck away the excess when that part of your job is done. Who'd ever know that a contractor was using "extra" supplies to remodel his own bathroom? Or using your extra supplies on a second job site and pocketing the funds from the other homeowners?
If you suspect this kind of theft, compare the Bill of Materials list included in your contract with receipts for the materials your contractor actually orders. In extreme cases, you might need to monitor the materials delivered to your site [source: HomeAdditionPlus.com]. But once you've reached the point of counting boards, you'll wish you'd fired your contractor long ago.
Doesn't Follow OSHA Guidelines
You're not digging the Panama Canal in 1911, so neither property nor people should be damaged in the course of construction. In fact, as you probably know, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has specific and strict rules governing safety in many workplaces, with special rules for construction sites [source: OSHA]. These standards cover everything from sprains and strains in construction laying bricks to the personal protective equipment required of construction workers. For example, workers should have fall protection for any work done above 6 feet (1.8 meters) off the ground, and all workers should wear appropriate footwear.
Your contractor should follow these guidelines and make sure his or her workers comply, as well. If you see unsafe behavior on the job site, it's almost certain your contractor has seen it, too. Or he should have. Whichever the case, unsafe behavior is your contractor's fault and is a red flag that perhaps your time together should end.
Can't Solve Problems
There's a reason you hired a contractor instead of overseeing the project yourself: competence. Your contractor should be perfectly able to do the work he said he would do (what's outlined on the contract). You don't need to put up with shoddy, haphazard or unsafe work.
That said, you can't and shouldn't expect everything in a build or remodel to go perfectly smoothly. Tools break, workers get sick, and the straight lines on your old house may not be so straight. Whatever the issues, there are likely to be some bumps and bruises along the way to your dream house or dream addition. It's not necessarily a complete lack of these bumps that indicates a competent contractor; it's whether your contractor is able to roll with the punches. There's always a way to make it work. If, time and time again, your contractor can't make it work, you may need to replace him.
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Author's Note: 10 Red Flags That Should Make You Fire Your Contractor Immediately
Just out of a master's program, I picked up a couple day's work with a friend who had somehow lucked into a contractor's license. I had no idea what I was doing and, truth be told, I don't think my friend had much idea, either. We stumbled around the nail-studded job site in our running shoes and hung out the upstairs windows to pry off siding. Sheesh, for a million reasons that I'm now aware of, we should've been fired immediately.
- DoItYourself.com. "How to Fire a Contractor." (April 26, 2012) http://www.doityourself.com/stry/contractorfireh2
- Donovan, Mark. "Prevent home remodeling jobsite theft." HomeAdditionPlus.com. (April 26, 2012) http://www.homeadditionplus.com/home-articles-info/Prevent_Home_Remodeling_Jobsite_Theft.htm
- Donovan, Mark. "When to fire a home building contractor." HomeAdditionPlus.com. (April 26, 2012) http://www.doityourself.com/stry/contractorfireh2
- National Association of the Remodeling Industry. "Warning signs." (April 26, 2012) http://www.nari.org/homeowners/warnings/
- Renovators Place. "Warning signs of a bad contractor." Oct. 8, 2009. (April 26, 2012) http://www.renovatorsplace.com/articles/warning-signs-of-a-bad-contractor.cfm
- Samuelson, Kristin and Jon Yates. "Avoid a contractor conundrum." Chicago Tribune. March 31, 2011. (May 1, 2012) http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-03-31/business/chi-avoid-a-contractor-conundrum-20110331_1_contractor-project-payment
- Staiti, Christopher Thomas. "Ten signs of a bad contractor." Avvo.com. (April 26, 2012) http://www.avvo.com/legal-guides/ugc/ten-signs-of-a-bad-contractor