10 Things Your Contractor Doesn't Want You to Know

The plans seem pretty straightforward, but is there something he's not telling you? See more home construction pictures.

When it comes to home repairs, you can't always count on your contractor. Sure, most of them are honest and dependable, and plenty of them provide quality work. But odds are that the home improvement process isn't going to go according to plan. You can point fingers at your contractor, but the consumer is partly to blame, too. Besides choosing the right contractor (always go with one who's been in business for at least three years), you've got to educate yourself about the project at hand so you know what to look (and look out) for when fixing up your home.

We've been knocking down walls to bring you the all facts your contractor doesn't want you to know. We'll show you how to prevent a thief from entering your home and why working with a door-to-door contractor is never a good idea.


Click over to the next page to find out why accepting the lowest bid could end up costing you.

10: You Get What You Pay For

It might seem like a good idea for those on a budget, but accepting the lowest contracting bid is like shopping for fine china at a discount store. You might find something that'll work temporarily, but you'll end up saving money in the long run by spending more for quality now. Contractors have to make a profit one way or another, so it's not surprising that extremely low bids often involve cheap materials and unskilled or poorly trained workers.

The initial bid could also be a ruse to get in the door. Some wily contractors will even point out the subpar materials they're using to lure you into paying for overpriced premium upgrades. And low bids can turn into expensive jobs after the contractor discovers unforeseen complications.


Don't take out a second mortgage to pay for a job that was supposed to save you money. Seek multiple bids and choose one that's in the middle. Go for something reasonable, but not cheap.

9: Prepaying Isn't the Best Option

You've prepaid, but an emergency has left your contractor unable to complete or even start the job. The worst part? Your contract says nothing about a start or end date, so you're forced to wait until it's convenient for him to finish up. (Hint: He'll probably prioritize the jobs he hasn't received payment for yet.)

Even if you didn't prepay, some contractors will set up payment schedules that force you to pay in installments before the work is completed. So, you may find yourself paying for 75 percent of a job that's just 50 percent complete. Because you have a contract, he's going to finish the work, but it'll be on his time, not yours.


8: It's Worth Getting a Background Check

There are criminals in every profession, and contractors are no exception. Play it safe by getting a background check before you let any workmen into your home. Personal background checks are affordable (usually around $50), and they're only an Internet search away.

A good background check should tell you everything you need to know about your prospective contractor. It'll reveal any complaints that may have been filed against him and will look into his criminal history, sex offender status, credit rating, bankruptcy status and number of years in business. The report will also provide a civil records check (including lawsuits, tax liens and judgments), a scan for aliases, and a license and insurance check. While the background check can't guarantee that you're hiring an honest, reliable or competent contractor, it may very well provide the information you need to keep a criminal from entering your home.


7: Good Contractors Can Hire Bad Subs

Meet your young and inexperienced subcontractor!
Polka Dot/Thinkstock

A good contractor is in constant demand, and many homeowners believe it's worth putting up with odd hours and extended projects to make sure the job is done right.

However, even if your contractor does good work, there's no guarantee that his subcontractors are equally well-trained. In fact, many horrified homeowners have hired reputable contractors who sub out their jobs to a novice workforce that changes on a daily basis. The contractor will still stop by for a few hours here and there, but he might not be providing the kind of guidance you expected and paid for.


To prevent this from happening, ask your contractor if he'll be subbing out any of the work. If he plans to, find out if you can expect to see the same people working on your home every day.

If your job requires an on-site supervisor, you should ask to see some of that person's work -- he will most influence the labor that goes into your home.

6: You Should Stick to the Plan

Everyone is entitled to change his or her mind now and again, but if your contractor has already started the job, it's best to keep your ideas to yourself.

Adding an additional level to your under-construction deck may seem like a good idea, but changing directions in the middle of a job can really cost you. Not only will you have to pay for the additional labor and supplies, you're also going to have to shell out for adjustments to the work you already paid for. For example, that deck will have to be torn down and rebuilt to hold the additional weight. Before you sign the contract, make sure you're getting what you really want (or at least something you can live with); otherwise, you'll be banging your head against a newly rebuilt brick wall when you get the bill.


If you decide to move forward with a new plan, ask your contractor for an estimate. Once you've got a written document detailing what changes need to be made, how long they'll take, and what the entire process will end up costing, you might decide to forgo any of those spur-of-the-moment revisions. And if you do decide to renovate your renovations, at least there won't be any surprises.

5: You Could Lose Your Home

Don't lose your home in the renovations process!

Yes, you read that right -- you could be out of luck even if all goes according to plan, and you've paid for everything in full. If you can't cover your contractor's monetary malfeasance, you could lose your home. Say that you paid to extend your living room by 500 square feet. You're technically responsible for the payment of all goods and services, from the lumber supplier who provided the wood to the carpenter who did the work. Any of these parties can file a lien against your home if your contractor neglects to pay them. And if you don't have the money, the state holds the right to sell your house at auction to cover those debts.

So, how can you avoid losing your home to stiffed subcontractors? Instead of paying your principal handyman in several large payments, write numerous smaller checks to the contractor, supplier and subcontractor providing the goods or services. You should also touch base with all parties before making the final payment, just to make sure they've been paid in full and have no grievances with your contractor.


4: He's a Traveling Man with a Hammer

If you hear a knock at your door, you don't even need to ask who's there. With door-to-door contractors, there's no punch line -- just a bad deal. This variety of contractor is notoriously untrustworthy. Door-to-door contractors are often seasoned scam artists offering unbelievable deals to hapless homeowners looking for cheap repairs. He may tell you he just happened to be driving by and noticed your house could use some work, or he has some leftover materials from another job he needs to get rid of, so he'll cut you a deal.

The truth is that if you agree to any of his offers, he'll almost certainly provide quick, shoddy work with cheap materials that will leave your property in a more serious state of disrepair than it was before he came knocking.


3: He's Using the Cheap Stuff

You paid for top-of-the-line materials, but he's using the cheap stuff, thinking you won't notice the difference. And the truth is you probably won't. Unless you're a contractor yourself, it's doubtful that you're going to know much about the disparity between oak hardwood floors and cheaper, particle-infused wood.

To make sure you're getting exactly what you paid for, educate yourself. You don't have to become an understudy at your local hardware store, but you might want to learn about the materials you've selected for the project before you start accepting bids from contractors. If you know how oak actually looks and feels, you'll know it's time to send your contractor packing when he shows up with fabricated pulp.


2: You've Got a Supply Surplus

Where did all those extra rolls of insulation go?

Regardless if it's an overtly dishonest attempt to pocket unused supplies or an honest oversight, many homeowners don't get everything they paid for when their contractor says the job is done.

Unless you're watching over him like a prison warden, there'll be no way to tell if you're getting the right amount of insulation -- it's easy to make the stuff look abundant, even when there's not much there -- or if he used enough expansion joints (which allow cement to expand and contract without cracking) when he paved your driveway. By the time you figure out what you're missing, your contractor and your money will be long gone.


One way to prevent any accidental or intentional oversights is to insist on a detailed line-item contract, which provides a line by line breakdown of the necessary supplies and expected expenditures of the entire project. That way, if you should see your trusty contractor covertly stuffing extra rolls of insulation into the back of his truck, you'll know you've got a problem.

1: You Should Always Check His References

A man is only as good as his word, right? When you're dealing with a contractor, he's as good as his former clients say he is. Sure, there are plenty of skilled, honest and dependable contractors out there, but you having a better chance of finding one if you check his references. And we're not talking about calling a random name on the list to make sure he's provided you with real numbers. Try calling recent and repeat clients and asking what they think of him. Ask general questions and ones specific to your project. What kind of work did he do? How long did it take? Was he able to come in at (or even under) budget? Would they consider using him again? You'll only need to speak to a few references to nail down the quality of work a contractor provides.

Lots More Information

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  • Dahl, Jonathan. "1,001 Things They Won't Tell You: An Insider's Guide to Spending, Saving, and Living Wisely." (Aug. 8, 2010).http://books.google.com/books?id=s4aDwZ9RZTMC&pg=PA145&lpg=PA145&dq="Close+to+95+percent+of+home-improvement+contractors"&source=bl&ots=6Dx4eIqN9H&sig=vIs_cHBabOwLNE3lyjjixOmEqao&hl=en&ei=alRoTJ-RJoG0lQemp_mfBQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CCAQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=%E2%80%9CClose%20to%2095%20percent%20of%20home-improvement%20contractors%22&f=false
  • Home Reports. "Consumer Tips." 2010. (Aug. 9, 2010).http://www.homereports.com/Content/6/Consumer-Tips
  • Lipford, Danny. "Avoiding Contractor Scams." 2010. (Aug. 9, 2010).http://www.dannylipford.com/diy-home-improvement/financial/avoiding-contractor-scams/
  • Lombardi, Kate Stone. "A Contractor Horror Story? Join the Crowd." New York Times. July 1, 2007. (Aug. 9, 2010).http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/01/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/01colwe.html?_r=1
  • Marks, Oliver. "The Top 5 Contractor Scams and How to Avoid Them." Houselogic. Jan. 7, 2010. (Aug 9, 2010).http://www.houselogic.com/articles/top-5-contractor-scams-and-how-avoid-them/
  • Nolo.com. "Home Improvement: How to Avoid Paying Twice" 2010. (Aug. 8, 2010).http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/article-30220.html
  • Oregon.gov. "Construction Contractors Board: Consumer Help." 2010. (Aug. 8, 2010).http://www.oregon.gov/CCB/consumer_help.shtml
  • Yahoo! "Avoid Common Home Repair Rip-offs." 2010. (Aug. 8, 2010).http://loan.yahoo.com/m/living2.html
  • Yahoo! "10 Things Your Contractor Won't Tell You." 2010. (Aug. 8, 2010).http://loan.yahoo.com/m/living1.html