Red Flags for Building Contractors

We have recently had the unpleasant experience of being abandoned by the construction crew we hired to handle the bulk of the work on our fixer upper. Apparently asking why the doors are crooked, the plaster isn’t smooth, and there are still open wires sticking out of our house all over the place made us “hostile”.

I would argue that bare wires are a pretty good indication the electrical work isn’t finished and don’t even get me started on the plaster and drywall. Every trades person that walks in our door since they abandoned us, has had something to say about that. And they didn’t even begin the whole house insulation we contracted, and paid for. The list of things they didn’t do is long. Far worse is the work that was done so badly we have no choice but to pay someone else to do the job over… correctly.

But all our pain and suffering aside, we are to blame for the fact that we paid far too much for far too little progress. We lost track of the larger picture and despite putting the brakes on as the three week remodel dragged into its fifth week, there’s no good reason for the checks we continued to write.

Their after-the-fact excuses about their lack of expertise did nothing to improve matters. In the beginning they were confident that they could handle everything we needed done. When their obvious lack of detailing skills could no longer be ignored they treated us to a litany of excuses including “you didn’t buy the right size doors”. This was pretty rich considering the fact that we spent another $550 to get them a custom door to fit the side opening where they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make a standard 36″ door work. (the tradesman we hired to fix the doors they messed up has since assured us he could have make the $200 door work)

The constant claims that they had done far more work than they contracted (and were paid) for, was one of the final red flags that they were about to cheat us and walk. I like to think I’m reasonably savvy about home improvement projects, but I wanted to give the boys the benefit of the doubt and to be successful at their trade. That’s no excuse for allowing things to proceed so long without having an accounting, and for allowing the head boy to get away with so much obvious bullshit, but it happens. If it happens to people who have done a lot of home improvement projects, it could happen to you.

So, let me walk you through the red flags you should look for when hiring people to work on your home. (NOTE: not all of the red flags listed below happened on this particular project)

RED FLAGS During the Bid/SELECTION Process

  • Late or a no show for the bid interview with no explanation. This is both rude and a sample of how they will approach the job.
  • They reschedule the bid interview multiple times. They’re too busy for you, or they lack scheduling skills. Either way it means you won’t ever get their best effort.
  • They don’t listen during the bid interview. This is demonstrated by talking over you, not taking notes, asking for the same information multiple times, and not being able to summarize the work you are asking them to do at the end of the interview.
  • Erratic demonstrations of interest in the job. This hot/cold shows up in a variety of ways but if your gut says they’re not really confident or interested in the work, trust it.
  • They don’t walk you through the entire job, explaining their approach and answering all your questions. If they’re not clear on how they’re going to do the work, it’s unlikely it will get done the way you want it done.
  • They get defensive, or start talking faster or louder when you ask questions.
  • They don’t put their bid in writing with details of the work to be done and the cost of that work.

Red Flags During the Work

  • They get defensive when you point out problems with quality.
  • They leave the job site for hours each day (this is a sure sign they’re working on other jobs). This delays your project, which is what you hired them to do.
  • They regularly have personal or family emergencies requiring them to leave the job site. (see above).
  • They have to keep running out to get materials. If you paid them half up front, that money goes to purchasing all the supplies they require for your job. If they don’t know what they need, they’re not very good at their job.
  • They don’t take care of the materials and tools they bring to the job site. If they leave a mess all over your house and yard, that shows you how good their final work will be.
  • They give you obviously bullshit excuses for why they can’t possibly do the work they originally agreed to do. Or worse, they find ways to blame you for their lack of quality or progress.
  • They ask for payment in full up front, or they take partial payment up front and then badger you for “progress payments“. Their finances are their problem. If they want to get paid, they need to finish the work properly.
  • They leave the job site a mess at the end of the day. This is your home and they should be sensitive to that fact.
  • They don’t protect your home from dust and construction debris.
  • They don’t tell you what they plan to accomplish the next work day.
  • They don’t tell you when to expect them, or they fail to appear when they say they will.

Sure they can be charming. You may establish what feels like a working rapport. They may tell jokes or cute stories, or share personal details with you. Unfortunately, that is all energy that isn’t going to doing the job.

The best tradespeople are generally quiet, focused on the work they are doing, and able to calmly explain what is happening and why… once.


  1. Check to see if they are bonded and licensed. (it’s usually on their business card) Then check their license # with the state Registrar of Contractors
  2. If they aren’t legally licensed to do the work, but you feel confident they know what they are doing, ask for references for similar work
  3. Try having them do a small job first so you can see the quality of their work and how they approach their trade
  4. Get the work agreement in writing, including possible additional costs for materials
  5. Pay no more than 50% prior to, or during the job

Finally, know when to cut bait. If I had followed my own advice and held the remaining 50% of the payment in reserve, we could have fired them when the red flags started flaring right and left and used the rest of the budget for better tradespeople. Instead we are stuck with over $10,000 worth of additional fixes to faulty work, diagnostics of wiring to confirm it’s been done correctly, and work that we simply cannot afford to do at this time.

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