(Money Magazine) -- One upside to the popped real estate bubble is that
hiring contractors has suddenly become a lot easier. A couple of years
ago, it seemed like you had to be an A-list celebrity or a hedge fund
tycoon to get one to so much as call you back. But with homeowners
increasingly hesitant to plow big bucks into home improvement, even the
best contractors might pick up your call before the second ring.
Still, just because he's responsive now doesn't mean he will be when
you're in the middle of a project - or that he'll do quality work that's
on time and on budget. So here are nine telltale signs, both good and bad,
that you can watch for when you're interviewing any home improvement
contractors, from roofers to foundation repairers.
While these indicators don't guarantee that you've found the next Norm
Abram, they should give you confidence.
He has a good rep in the industry. You already ask friends and
neighbors to recommend good contractors, but a more reliable source of
referrals is other people in the trades: a plumber you love who raves
about a general contractor, for example, or a great tile shop that
suggests a tile setter.
They've done business with him, they know how well he plies his craft,
and if they're willing to put their professional reputations on the line
by vouching for him, they must like what they see.
His business card includes a local address. A tradesman who
provides a physical address that's in your community is far less likely to
disappear on you than someone whose true locale is hidden behind a post
His list of references is a mile long. Even terrible contractors
have had a few happy clients along the way - or have family members who
can play the part when you call. The longer the list of references, the
less likely it's rigged.
"Call a handful of them, skipping around the list," says Angie Hicks,
the founder of angieslist.com, where (for a monthly fee of $4.50 to
$8.75, depending on where you live) customers can praise or pan people
they've worked with - and read one another's reviews.
There are some good-but-quirky tradesmen who exhibit the following
traits. Think twice about hiring them unless every other indicator looks
He drives a rusted-out jalopy. A bucket of bolts that leaves an
oil slick in your driveway doesn't bode well for the attention to detail
or fiscal stability of the person driving it.
"That's not to say everyone has to ride around in a gleaming new
truck," says Dick Mitchell, president of the New Orleans branch of the
Better Business Bureau, the national nonprofit that lends its logo to
participating companies meeting its standards (you can find a searchable
list of member contractors at bbb.org). "But it should be clean and well maintained."
Painted-on signs are better than magnetic ones, which are cheap and
He wants cash. Even if you don't care that he's shirking his
taxes by taking cash (or a check made out to cash), consider what other
costs he may be cutting - like licensing fees, insurance bills and skilled
To investigate a potential contractor's finances, look him up at contractorcheck.com, where (for $13) you can find
information about his licensing, insurance and financial stability, as
well as any legal actions against him.
He doesn't provide a cell number. Sure, you might find the rare
contractor who has someone (probably his wife) manning his business line.
But for the most part, the only way to quickly get hold of a tradesman is
by cell phone. If he doesn't want to give out that number, it isn't
because he's conserving his minutes - he doesn't want to be reachable.
If you see any of these signs, don't hire the guy - even if you've had
good luck working with him before.
He wants to skip the permit - or have you apply for it. Any
major improvement project legally requires a building permit, which means
that inspectors will check the work. If a contractor wants to go without a
permit, it means he'd rather not have anyone looking over his shoulder
(other than you, but let's face it, you don't know what to look for).
If he wants you to apply for the permit yourself, it could be because
he doesn't have the necessary state licensing - and it means you'd be the
middleman between the inspector and contractor instead of letting them
work things out directly.
He solicits business door to door. A paving contractor rings
your bell to say he just did a job in the neighborhood, has extra
materials and will cut you a rock-bottom deal if he can work on yours that
afternoon. Sounds great, right?
Trouble is, you have no idea who he is or if he's going to do the job
right. And if that new pavement starts cracking three weeks later, you'll
never get him back to repair the damage.
He seems sleazy. Ultimately, you have to feel comfortable
letting this person into your home. Clearly, you're not going to hand your
house keys to someone who flips a cigarette butt into your azaleas or
leers at your 16-year-old daughter.
But if he doesn't look you straight in the eye or you just have a gut
feeling that something might be amiss, go ahead and cross him off your
list. Nowadays, thankfully, there are plenty of contractors available to
do the job.