Not everybody plays fair! That’s a lesson you learn in elementary school. But when it comes to spending hard-earned money to build or remodel your home, unless you know what to watch out for, it’s difficult to identify when a contractor is breaking rules at your expense. Don’t assume your contractor isn’t cheating at the home improvement game because everything appears in good order on the surface. These are common ways contractors secretly cheat you:
1. Cutting Corners: Contractors save themselves labor time by skimping in small ways that add up. Homes hit by hurricanes suffer the most damage from improperly secured roofing and poor framing. Roofing installers may use a minimal number of fasteners on shingles, which allows a contractor to put together a home in record time, and reduces the expense of materials included in a basic building package. Over time, shingles will buckle and may lift and separate under windy conditions, increasing the risk of roof leaks in stormy weather.
Remodeling contractors practice this on a smaller scale, by not placing an adequate number of nails in subflooring or minimally attaching sheetrock to save time on plastering. Eventually, seams show through poorly installed walls, while screws hastily placed will work their way to the surface and appear as small bumps. Floors squeak from poor subfloor installation and at worst, wood flooring will warp and tile will crack after being installed on a loose subfloor.
2. “Bait and Switch”: Unscrupulous contractors sometimes offer a package plan, then wait until the project is well underway before advising a product is “discontinued” and offering more expensive upgrades. Likewise, contractors may promise high-end materials and switch to lower grades without clients realizing it.
For instance, they may install cedar shingles with galvanized nails rather than stainless steel; it’s difficult to distinguish the difference when you look at the top of a small nail head embedded in the surface of the shingle. Another example is switching out an aluminum drip edge with a sheet metal drip edge – a product average homeowners won't recognize. The contractor walks away with a high-grade profit for a low-grade product.
3. Omitting the Prep: A contractor can omit prep work to reduce labor time and increase profit margins. Common infractions involve painting projects as well as roofing or installation of doors and windows. Painters skip out on priming new walls by painting only newer seams with primer (or in worst case, don’t prime at all). In a short period of time, walls appear dull, colors fade and you begin to notice inconsistencies in surface appearance.
Roofers fail to flash properly, applying tar that dries out in a year or so and provides little to no protection from leaks. Exterior doors and windows are installed but not properly insulated – a “cheat” that goes undetected once trim is applied to framing. Holes and gaps in doors and windows cost homeowners thousands of dollars in heating and cooling costs annually and greatly reduce the comfort of a home.
4. Materials Overcharge: Familiarize yourself with pricing on materials, especially big ticket items like doors and windows bought in bulk. Find out what suppliers your contractor is dealing with and inquire directly about retail and wholesale pricing. Ask your contractor if he intends to mark up his materials and set a cap in your contract; otherwise, you run the risk of over-paying and he gets more profit than he should to offset his overhead. Ask for receipts for purchases and credit for returned items.
How You Can Protect Yourself from Unfair Practices
Hire a licensed contractor who is fully insured. Check his (or her) references, reviews, and standing with the Better Business Bureau.
Be sure you sign a contract that protects you from a “bait and switch” by stating if a product included in your package become unavailable, a comparable product will be provided. If a comparable product cannot be found, ask for an upgrade at no extra cost.
Make yourself available to inspect your project regularly, daily if possible. The best protection (after a good contract) is a good set of eyes.
For small projects, tap into the expertise of a family member or friend with more experience, or find people who have done similar projects on a site like Hometalk.
Don’t be shy about asking your contractor questions, especially if something strikes as you as incorrect or "off."
Look at details like spacing and the number of fasteners used in framing or flooring. Note whether construction looks neat or sloppy, a telltale sign of good or bad workmanship.
Ask for “inspection” meetings at specific completion points. Good contractors will take pride in their work at every stage of the project.
If you don’t have time to act as an informal inspector, use an independent professional as your watchdog. Blaine Illingworth, senior home inspector, technical consultant, and active board member of the American Society of Home Inspectors since 1992, recommends hiring a home inspector to monitor building projects because “they have a pool of knowledge in every trade and know how they should interface and are fully equipped to recognize substandard work.”
Laura Foster-Bobroff writes for Networx.
Updated January 23, 2018.