How to Hire a Contractor Without Getting Conned

crossed fingers broken promises

Home renovations are the most expensive investment you can make in your biggest investment. Get it done right. Hire good people. Here’s how.


Every time I see another person swindled by a contractor, I feel terrible for them, but often it always turns out the same — they hired someone without doing research on them.

Here’s the thing. Don’t do that.

Research is the only thing protecting you from what could be among the costliest mistakes you ever make, and that’s no exaggeration.

Knowing that, it makes perfect sense that hiring a contractor is intimidating and daunting. Fortunately, it’s easier than it’s ever been to get the low-down on folks. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Too available? Not a good sign

Quality tradesmen are in short supply. They’ll often have a waiting list for jobs. I know one Venetian plaster tradesman who’s booked for work for the next two years, but he does high-end work and that’s how it rolls.

But even your average construction guy should have some trouble finding time at present for you. This is good. It shows they’re actually working for a living. If you’ve got a guy who’s magically suddenly got an opening, it might be legit, or it could very well be a warning sign. You’ll have to trust your gut — or do more research. For that, read on!

Awesome price? Alarm bells!

The old saying “You get what you pay for” is never more true than with things like construction. What’s coming with that price? Poor quality parts? Shortcuts? Skipping permits?

Same goes if they promise to get it done faster than the competition. Another old saying is that there’s good, fast, and cheap — you can have it good and fast, but it won’t be cheap. You can have it cheap and fast, but it won’t be good. You can even have it cheap and good, but it won’t be fast. If you’re ever promised all three, you better be thinking twice, ‘cos you’re in unicorns-and-rainbows territory there.

Gotta do due diligence

You really need to look people up, and thoroughly. Unfortunately, the “Better Business Bureau” is arguably not what it used to be as there are reports that people can pay to get on/off lists, that sort of thing, but it’s still a great place to take a look. Any red flags? Make note.

There’s also the local Chamber of Commerce. They’ll often know if there have been complaints. If you’re in the States, the Bureau of Consumer Protection will sometimes have red-flagged service providers listed too. The Office of Consumer Affairs offers the same for Canadians. Newspaper archives and libraries could also shed light on folks for you, and then there’s always the deep-Google searching option.

Which is best? Um, all of them. There is nothing to lose from going overboard on research. If nothing else, you’ll learn you’re making an awesome choice.

Get savvy before you get quotes

Where a lot of people make mistakes with anything from buying a car or renovating a home is that they’re not informed before they get the quote. Know what you’re after and what you want, and you can negotiate like a fiend.

For example, with a contractor, you should be calling your local City Hall’s building permits and licenses division. Tell them the kind of work you’re doing, and ask them what sort of licenses and permits a local contractor would require to a) do work in your area, and b) do the tasks specific for your renovation. Now you’re armed and ready to go!

general contractor

No permit? No go!

Now that you know there’s a permit required for the electrical, an inspection required before completion, and all that jazz, it’s time to get your quote.

If your prospective contractor is telling you there’s no permit required, you can confront them with “Well, City Hall says so.” Maybe they’re making an honest mistake, or maybe they’re dishonest. Either way, do you want someone tearing apart your home who happens to be fuzzy on details? Good luck with that.

Permits are huge. They are not just some bureaucratic hassle. They’re there to save your butt and protect your money. They are WORTH the hassle and the wait. Why? Because work done without permits and inspections can actually make your house sale fall apart when you’re selling down the line. Conversely, if you were buying a home but you found out none of the renovations — though they look good — were done to code and signed off on by the city, wouldn’t you be hesitant about it? You should be.

References count, but not as much as you think

The problem with references is, anyone can write one, anyone can speak on a contractor’s behalf. Maybe it’s a beer buddy, an old friend, or a family member trying to “help them” get work. This should be what you put the least amount of credence in, I think.

One thing I do when checking out references for anyone I know is I look them up on Facebook. Do the names of the references come up under “friends”? Maybe they’re a little biased.

You could always go and look at jobs completed by the person, and if you do, ask if you can see paperwork from the inspections. That’s how you know it was done right. Looking pretty isn’t enough. They don’t have any paperwork? No permits, nada? Then how do you know actual work was done? Well, you don’t.

Insurance: word of mouth doesn’t cut it

Any proper contractor isn’t just insured, they’re over-insured. They know they’re tinkering with people’s lives on a daily basis, and insurance isn’t just an incidental. You have every right to know how covered they are, and you should be demanding proof.

Ask about their employees and who will perform most of the work. It’s not uncommon for a general contractor to bring on trades to assist in all aspects of the job. If so, see who they’ll be working with and do some poking around on those folks too.

Research you won’t regret

This is a lot of work, I know, but your home should be worth the effort. Don’t you think it is?

Do your research, get your paperwork, oversee what’s going on, and maybe you’ll find a great contractor and get value-adding work done that pays off for years to come.

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