Updated: Nov 16
It is inevitable. You survive a hurricane, tornado, or what my hometown just went through, a rare Derecho, and the "contractors " appear in droves. You haven't even processed the damage yet, and there they are, touting their magical powers. I was standing with a fellow Winnsboro resident right after the storm went through, looking at his ruined historical home, when at least two roofers drove up to say, "I can fix that"! Were they legit, or were they storm-chasing scammers? Sometimes it can be hard to tell, but here are some ways to help you find a legitimate contractor and avoid getting scammed.
Ask to See an I.D
This may seem a little odd at first, but you can be very venerable during a disaster. Many scammers will be from out of State and will approach you instead of you looking for them. I would be cautious of anyone with an out of State I.D. or who may refuse to give you an I.D. at all. Although a legitimate contractor might drop a card off for you, I would second guess anyone approaching you unsolicited, saying they can do it all. Take the card and then go to the next step.
Check Them Out Online
A business card is great. It should have a Name, where they are based, a phone number, and preferably an email or website listed. This will also give you a head start in your online background check.
If you are considering hiring someone, you must know they are legitimate. You can do this in several ways, and I suggest you look at as many of these as possible.
Find their online Presence. Look them up by personal name and business name. Use Google or a free reverse lookup like Spokeo or True people search. Most good contractors will have a website. Today websites are an essential way to keep people looking for you and at you. The website need not be fancy, but it should at least have their information and, hopefully, a portfolio.
A portfolio is definitely something a good contractor needs. Who isn't proud to show off their work? You need to be able to see past work. Hopefully, any pictures they have are dated and State where the job was. These days anyone can steal photos off the internet. Therefore, Their portfolio should include before and after pics and pictures of the progress. The portfolio should be available in some form. A website, social media, or even a physical portfolio will work.
They should also have some form of social media. The more avenues they have to show their Presence, the better. Social media is one of the best ways to let clients see who you are and what you do. They do not have to use every form of media; at least one will do.
If they have a web page, they will likely have a Google page, which is a great way to get to know them.
Ask For References
Get Names and phone numbers of at least three past clients and follow up on them. Getting references does you no good if you do not check them. You can also ask for material suppliers as references, although they may not agree to give you that, nor are they required to. Also, many small companies do not use outside suppliers with credit but instead use big box stores, so they may not have supplier references. This is not in itself a red flag, just something to keep in mind. Material references show you that they pay suppliers, however, and it is an added peace of mind for you.
Ask for Proof of Insurance
ManyMany homeowners skip this, and it's one of the essential things a contractor should have. Liability and commercial insurance are a must to protect you and your property from damage. No insurance? Walk away!
Get Several Estimates
Three is a good average number, but you can get more. Compare the estimates carefully. They should all be pretty close but be wary of any that are super low. Super low estimates are usually meant to look attractive but are often used to pull you in. A super low estimate may cost you more in the long run. Somewhere in the middle is usually best.
Avoid Large Down Payments
A down payment is NOT in itself a red flag. In this day and age, most contractors ask for some form of down payment. I have seen contractors get burned when a homeowner doesn't pay at the end of a job. There should be a bit of trust on both ends. Although contractors have lien rights, they have to meet specific standards that are often difficult to meet, leaving the contractor with no recourse. NEVER pay for the entire job upfront. Texas has no limit, so they can ask what they want but NEVER pay more than half, and I'd be cautious at that point. Also, ask what kind of payment schedule they have and ensure it's detailed in the contract. A good contractor will be very busy, and one way they keep a schedule is to have a payment to secure your place in line.
Ask about signed material waivers and Progress Payment waivers as well. You do not want to be stuck paying suppliers twice or paying a subcontractor that didn't get paid. Ultimately, you are responsible for everyone getting paid; a waiver will be your proof.
If they don't use waivers, avoid the contractor or tell them you will require signed waivers from all suppliers and any subcontractor under them and have them ready with every payment you make to them. I have releases available in my store.
Never do business with anyone without a contract. Not even your own brother. Your contractor should have his own contract. It should not be a hastily handwritten one, either. I have seen people write an agreement on a napkin, and although such a contract may be admissible in court, I would never go for it. The contract protects both parties and should be thorough and detailed. If you do not understand something in your agreement, ask. You can also make changes to the contract, but only if both parties sign the changes. If you would like to see an example of a well-written contract, contact me or comment below.
License and bonding
General Contractors must have a license. Not all trades and subcontractors do. Research which ones do need one and make sure they have it if they are required to. A license for a contractor should be a no-brainer.
Bonding depends on your State. In Texas, Bonding is not required on residential buildings but is necessary for California. Do your research, find out the requirements for your State, and make your decisions from there.
Communication Skills are a must for any contractor, no matter how small they are. Communication is the lifeline between you and your contractor. It starts at the moment that the first communication ensues. Whether on the website chat, a phone call, or from Facebook, it should be easy to contact them and get an answer. They need a cell phone with voicemail and texting capabilities. The voice box should not be packed for the most part, and even if they do not answer right away, they should call or text back within a few hours. They also need an email address, and the contractor should consistently monitor it. If they have a website, they should have chat capabilities. Mine comes straight to my phone. The more forms of communication they have, the easier it is for you and them.
When they talk to you for the first time, watch and listen. Not everyone is great with communication, which is ok, but you can learn a lot from them. Do they speak to you or over you? Do they explain things in layperson's terms, or would you need a translator to understand the tradesman's lingo? Do they readily answer when you ask questions, or do they skirt around the questions? Are they easily and visibly irritated by your questions? Someone that is irritated answering your questions is either hiding something or will be annoyed at you for the entire project.
Safety is a priority. You already asked for insurance, now ask about the safety record for the company. Do they have safety meetings, and how often? How will they ensure the safety of employees on your project? How will they ensure your and your family's safety while they are there? Are they going to have minor children working? How will they ensure their safety? (In the State of Texas, If you are not in Texas, look up the minor working laws for your State, a minor as young as 14 can work 8 hours a day when school is not in session.)
If you or your pets will be there often, how will they ensure that you and your pets will be safe? Are they coming into your house? How will they ensure your pets are not let out? After they answer these questions, make the decision you are comfortable with.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it gives you a start to help you from getting scammed. Follow these points and do your due diligence, and hopefully, you will find a contractor you feel comfortable with.