If you're on the hunt for a contractor there are some important things to keep in mind.
You want someone trustworthy, communicative, and skilled to work on your home. Online searches can point you in the right direction, but it can be hard to determine which company to choose for your fence or driveway project.
Thankfully, there are some tried and true red flags to watch out for during your search.
No license, no deal. If a potential contractor does not have a valid active license in your state for the specific services you want completed, you should remove them from consideration. If someone who is unlicensed works on your property you will bear the cost of any damages. Home projects like fence repair or fence installation are complex and can lead to unsafe conditions like busted gas lines and extensive property damage if someone unqualified is doing the work. Contractors are regulated via the State License Board but keep in mind that many businesses use a different trade name than their corporate name. Be sure to ask the potential contractor for their license number.
Verified contractors on Yelp will have a blue shield icon beside the business name. Click on the icon to check their license details. Read more about the importance of having a licensed contractor here.
Seeing a low price quote may be enticing- but be wary of contractors who intentionally provide incomplete or "low ball" quotes just to secure your business. It's always smart to research different contractors and obtain a few different quotes for your project. This helps you get an idea of what your project should cost as a baseline. If a quote you receive from a potential contractor seems "too good to be true" (in other words, significantly lower than others) it may be a red flag.
The best quotes are ones that itemize each component of your project so you can see exactly what's included. If a contractor shows you just a total amount- it can be hard to determine if things like extra labor or special materials are included. If you need a starting place, Ergeon's fence quoting tool lets you build a 3D rendering of your fence for free online and generates a custom quote. Transparency in pricing is of critical importance with contractor-provided services so that you don't end up with surprises on your final bill.
Why do business with a contractor who doesn't provide a contract? It's critical to get the approved quote, the scope of work, and all of the terms of your project in writing before the work is started. Not only does this ensure you're on the same page (and provide documentation of that) but it also serves as legal protection for you if the contractor fails to provide the services that were agreed upon. In California, a contract isn't legally required for jobs with total costs of less than $500, but it is always wise to get at least something in writing even for smaller home improvement projects.
Also make sure the payment details and schedule are explained in your contract. Policies for payment type and payment schedules differ from contractor to contractor. Be aware: requiring cash payment can be a major red flag. Cash payments leave almost no paper trail- so it can be hard to recover your money if something goes awry with your project. Requiring cash payments can also be an indicator that the contractor isn't conducting business in an above-board manner or is avoiding tax responsibilities. Importantly, many reputable and trustworthy contractors will accept cash as a form of payment; the difference is that they don't require it. Also, reputable contractors should provide you a physical or digital 'proof of payment' for your records (and for theirs!)
Ask if the contractor requires a deposit up front, and if you will have the chance to inspect the finished project before rendering payment-in-full. Some companies even offer payment plans or financing options to help you with your project.
Online reviews and ratings are a great way to read about other customers' experiences with your potential contractor. Review sites like Yelp can be a great tool to help you find the right contractor; however, there's more than meets the eye when it comes to assessing reviews.
A contracting company with a low aggregate score should give you some pause. If others didn't have a pleasant experience with the contractor, there's a good chance you won't either. That said, a higher aggregate score won't always paint an accurate picture unless you dig a bit deeper.
Here's an example of how Yelp aggregate scores can be misleading. The company above shows an average rating of 4 out of 5 stars. However, if you click 'details' you can pull up charts which show their ratings over time. This company had steady positive reviews for a few years, but then there is a noticeable change. In 2019, the average score fluctuates drastically and in 2020 the average score is a 3/5.
A common stereotype about contractors is that the communication process is unpleasant. It can be hard to get in touch with someone in the first place, there can be long delays between responses, and questions that you have along the way can go unanswered. However, there are plenty of contractors out there who have worked hard to overcome this stereotype and provide responsive and transparent communications. Beyond just eliminating the headache of having to chase someone down for a reply, being responsive shows respect for your time on the part of the contractor. If you're not getting timely responses from a potential contractor, you should ask yourself if you're willing to put up with it for the duration of your project.
This list of red flags is helpful, but not exhaustive. There are a number of personal factors that might influence who you ultimately choose to hire as your project contractor. Today, there are many resources you can utilize (like the ones mentioned in this article) so that you don't need to rely on gut instinct or word-of-mouth referrals alone during your contractor search. If you have questions for your potential contractor, don't be afraid to ask. Your home is an important piece of your life, and you should be selective about who you choose to work on it.