Contractor red flags

RedflagWhen you work with a contractor: things generally start out great and then go downhill.

As the job progresses you’ll likely get weary, overwhelmed, and angry. To help you survive this experience — which will drain you every which way imaginable — you need a contractor who is ethical, organized, financially fit, and tuned in to human nature.

There are lots of red flags that a contractor might not have the qualities you need. Here are a few:

• Doesn’t have a California contractor license. You can check this out here. If you are hiring a handyman to hang a picture on the wall, fine, no need for a license. But if someone is doing alteration work to your home in California, and that work is valued at more than $500, he or she is required by law to be licensed by the Contractors State License Board. If your contractor does not follow this simple law, how many other laws will he break? Will you get the right permits? Will your job be built to the right standards? Who knows?

• Doesn’t respond for several days after you’ve called the office. This is the tip of the iceberg. The biggest complaint homeowners have shared with me is that they can’t reach their contractor. If it starts out bad like this when they are trying to get your business, it will get worse during the job. You'll experience fewer episodes of high blood pressure if you choose someone who, by nature or company culture, returns calls in a timely manner.

Pushes you to sign a contract. In some ways, that’s what we all want, to be pushed, to be encouraged, to be wanted. But this is far too big a deal to make a rash decision. Choosing a contractor could take weeks of research — talking, pondering, calling references and seeing previous jobs. And here’s a tip: Never get a referral from people who are just starting their remodels. Spirits are high then, and nothing has yet gone wrong. Only consider references from people whose remodels are done. Then you’ll know the whole story of what it’s like to deal with this contractor.

• Shows up in a dirty, beat-up truck. This could be a sign of later problems where you feel the quality of the job should be higher than it is. Although you might not want to live with or marry a persnickety, picky, fussy person, that is who you want building your remodel. The truck will tell a tale. You want your contractor to be a successful business person, not someone who is struggling, careless or disorganized.

• Doesn’t listen to you. Again, this will be a constant problem as the job progresses. If you’re talking laminate and tile in the initial interview and he’s talking hardwood and granite, you’ve got a problem. Also, if you’re a woman and you fell disrespected during the initial conversation, don’t hire this guy. Chances are, in a bigger company, a project supervisor will be assigned to your job. This person might be called a lead carpenter, or a foreman, or a lead man. You need to meet this person to see if you can get along. In a large job, like an addition or whole-house remodel or even a major kitchen remodel, it will seem like this guy is living with you. Make sure he’s someone you want to have around.

What would you add to this list?

6 Comments on Contractor red flags

  1. William Ek

    Two big red flags 1) a contractor that wants to do the job without permits, 2) a contractor that wants large up-front payments.
    Contractors may want to skip permits because they delay the start of the job (and the start of payments) and inspectors will sometimes insist that work be done over to conform to code which will reduce the contractor’s margin (some contractors will try to put the squeeze on the customer to cover the cost of rework but if you can’t stand up to your contractor on this issue then buy a new house rather than remodel).
    A contractor that wants money in an amount not comersurate to the work performed is the same one that shows up in a broken down truck. They are constantly in money trouble and they’ll probably either disappear or try to renegotiate the contract amount once they have been paid substantially what is called for in your contract. Watch out for contractors that want you to sign a cost plus contract.

  2. Kathy Price-Robinson

    John, I’d love to post a list of your criteria for hiring a contractor. Yes, by all means. And include your professional history so I can see the depth of your experience. Again, it will be one man’s opinion. But in the blogosphere, that works!
    You can send it to me at and I’ll see about making it into a post so others can comment on it.

  3. JOhn Beaty

    Hi Kathy,
    Sorry, being a union lather won’t cut it for job experience in the remodelling trade. Get out there with a couple of independents (or even Toll bros. if you can) for a minimum of 6 months, and you will find a very different perspective. I’m not saying you don’t know commercial jobs, but this is a horse of a different color.
    AS far as getting info from ONE contractor, shame on you. At least have the good j-school skills to interview a cross-section of the trade before reporting.
    i would not have answered this in your blog, but there is no direct email link, Sorry. If you want I would be glad to give you a list of my criteria for hiring, but it’s not s small post.

  4. Kathy Price-Robinson

    Thanks for your insights, John. Much appreciated! The licensed general contractor I consulted to make this list obviously had a different take on it than you did. So it’s good to get a variety of viewpoints. As for my time on a jobsite, did I ever tell you I used to be a lather? I came by it honestly. My dad, brother, cousins, uncles, brother-in-law and his brother were or are all union lathers. So, yeah, been there, done that.

  5. John Beaty

    “Shows up in a beat-up truck” as a reason not to hire a contractor? I’ve been in and out of construction for over 30 years and this is one of he worst pieces of advice I can remember. Many contractors have the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, so why would they replace a favorite truck, after years of getting it “just right”? Maybe it’s the other way around: if they have a shiny new truck, they’ll overcharge you to make payments.
    Actually, neither one is a good way to decide. How about saying that they don’t ask for downpayments as a sign that they know how to manage their finances? How about asking what the last time they had a problem with a customer was, and how they resolved it?, HOw about asking for their sub’s lien releases.
    And many, if not most, carpenter leads are chosen for their work skills, not people skills. Make sure you don’t turn down someone because he/she isn’t ready to make friends, but is willing to make it right.
    I suggest the author spend 6 months on construction sites before she writes another word. See it from the other side, as it were. Then she might be giving different advice, and maybe about how not to hire a customer. Many of the problems customers report (no return phone calls, etc.) are valid, but many of them are reflections of an unrealistic expectation: I’m sorry, but contractors are not shrinks, and should not be expected to behave as one. Nor are they architects, child behavior specialists, economics professors, marital counselors, pet sitters, etc. etc. Most especially, they are not psychic.

  6. Lynne Tognoli

    How about a contractor who shows up to do the work with workers who are on workmans comp and they are working under the table and they are on an active workmans comp case while they are working at your house without any insurance while they do the job. You do not need a contractor who has the license but that is how he works his jobs