Why Home Remodeling Contractors make me crazy

The contractor or subcontractor you choose for your home remodeling project will have a large impact on the success or failure of your project. Check to see if they have the right type of license, their prior work and talk to the people they worked for.

Many of you have no doubt heard rumors and tales of home remodeling problems from neighbors, friends and perfect strangers. Unfortunately most are not exaggerated. We have had our share. Just remember no one is immune from this. Not even Donald Trump who deals with construction and contractors every day for his various real estate projects.

NARI contractors at work Here are some insights to help you choose a general contractor and subcontractor wisely.

This will not solve all of your problems, but we think it may help you avoid a bad contractor. This is especially relevant if you are acting as a general contractor.

If you elect the latter, you need to be knowledgeable about general construction practices and the building code in your area.

The Good Contractors
Good general contractors and subcontractors have the following characteristics:
  • Very willing to Show off their credentials- license, insurance, and references,
  • Always have steady work,
  • Finish the job pretty much on time,
  • Build according to the constructions plans and specifications in the contract,
  • Actively supervise their workers and subcontractors,
  • Don't require any money up front to start or only a small sum, and
  • Don't mind questions from the home owner, architect, or general contractor if applicable.
The above list is nothing out of the ordinary. It just takes a lot of work to find good contractors and subcontractors. In addition, the best contractors command higher prices and often are booked well ahead of time. You may be willing to pay them, but you may not be able to wait for them. This poses a dilemma.

Buidling a driveway drain

Bad and/or Incompetent Contractors
Bad contractors are usually characterized by the very opposite of good contractors. The one thing that overshadows everything they do is that they are liars. They will try to cheat you if you let them.

I always think of Donald Trump when I am dealing with contractors. In one of the Apprentice Episodes, the apprentices had to hire contractors to renovate a house. The Donald thought that dealing with building contractors would show what the apprentices were made of. He was right. He mentioned that the contractors who were constructing his huge projects were constantly trying to over charge him. He laughed and told them that he was not buying their story, because he knew the costs of lighting fixtures, etc. Take a lesson from Donald Trump and do your homework. He who doesn't is going to pay dearly for it.

Bad contractors are very likeable. They promise you very reasonable prices. When pressed though, they can not deliver. Do yourself a favor and send them packing before they take your money.

You'll find that you have to ask for their credentials and usually don't get a straight answer when you do. Even when are given documents, a closer inspection will reveal that they are not current.

In fact you will be lied to. We were dealing with a contractor who really was not qualified to do the work and in fact did not have the right license. He claimed and we believed (shame on us) that he could deliver. It was not until several thousand dollars later that we learned that he had even less knowledge then we did. In fact, he was highly dependent on a few friends to guide him in executing the job. Turns out he constructed decks for a living and was trying to convince us that our family room could be supported like a deck. He did not last long.

Here's how to recognize bad contractors and subcontractors
  1. Generally don't like to write things down in a contract or make light of it,
  2. Try to talk you out of certain specifications or industry wide standards
  3. When on the job constantly trying to substitute cheaper materials for what is specified in the contract,
  4. Threatens to walk off the job when you supervise them,
  5. Requires constant supervision or else they will substitute different materials without your knowledge,
  6. Claims they made a mistake in the estimate and ask you to give them more money,
  7. Doesn't supervise subcontractors or workers, and
  8. Always want to begin another aspect of the project before finishing the existing one.
We have had our share of these kinds of contractors, especially subcontractors. It is shear misery to work with these folks. If you end up with them you will have to tough it out, hold your ground, or fire them. If the work has not started and you have not given them money, give serious consideration to firing them. It's often easier to find someone else then getting someone to come in and complete work started by other contractors. Some contractors won't touch such jobs.

More often, bad or incompetent contractors will try to get you to substitute other materials for what you and they specified in the contract. There usual story is that their recommended material is better than what you specified. Believe me it usually isn't but it is often less expensive for the contractor. Just say know to these kinds of changes and hold your ground.

Bad contractors excel at demolishing existing structures. They are often in a hurry to do this so that they will lock you in and draw on funds. Don't allow this to happen. Get them to complete existing work first before they proceed. Also tie payments to passing building inspections.

Problems with Reputable Contractors and Subcontractors
Even reputable subcontractors can be problematic. For example, we hired a masonry company to do our brick work on the gable over the garage and new addition based on the wonderful job they did on a house in a neighborhood. This company assigned their least experienced mason to our job and the work suffered as a result. We had to insist on job quality every step of the way. Some work had to be redone. We learned that the company was assigning its most experienced masons to bigger jobs or builders in the area. This is an industry-wide problem especially when home-owners hire the subcontractor.

The nature of general contracting is changing. Usually a general contractor has their own carpenters at a minimum and subcontracts out HVAC, Plumbing, electrical and masonry. Not anymore. In an age of specialization, many general contractors are even subcontracting out the framing to carpentry firms that only do that. There's nothing wrong with that as long as the general contractor has the knowledge and supervises the framing subcontractor and others to ensure the work is appropriate and according to plan.

When you get a good contractor
We managed to find some excellent subcontractors, notably plumbers and stone masons. These folks were great and unfortunately in the minority. Here is what set them apart from others:
  1. All were willing to work with us on price to a certain extent,
  2. Never wanted money to start the job,
  3. Built everything to specification in the contract,
  4. When certain things were pointed out to them, they made the changes without argument,
  5. Really wanted to do an excellent job, and
  6. Welcomed questions and our presence on the job.
Not wanting money is a tell tale sign that the contractor knows what he's doing. It sends a signal that the contractor is going to perform and has confidence in his work. Usually there is little or no argument or discussion over job specifications. In the case of our stone subcontractor, some of the stones he brought were not 1.5 inches but instead 1.125 inches specified in the contract. He gladly promised to replace these and did. He explained that with flagstone, a 1.5 inch stone can vary between 1.125 to 2.0 inches. Nevertheless he did get us 1.5 inch stones.

Is there a better Alternative to Selecting a Contractor?
Some people suggest that the solution to selecting a contractor certified by the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI). That may be appropriate, but you will still have to do you homework. Our contractor was NARI certified and we still had issues with them. This is unavoidable. However, we always felt like they knew what they were doing and our discussions centered on timeliness and quality of some of the work.

No matter what you do, we suggest that at a minimum:
  • Check out your States licensing requirements and lookup what license the prospective contractor has using the Contractor's License Reference website,
  • Get three to five recent references for the kind of work you are contemplating,
  • Call every reference and try to meet directly with the owners. Ask them about their experience, and
  • Go visit the places and look at the finished product.
You should also visit the NARI website and download Warning Signs of a Bad Contractor and How to Select a Remodeling Contractor [PDF]

We'll cover construction contracts in a future article.