When hiring a contractor, your biggest risk isn’t having to pay twice. By far your biggest risk is lack of liability and worker’s comp insurance. These are major expenses for contractors (Alabama is a lawsuit-friendly state). So some contractors just don’t carry them, and then try to undercut their competition by passing the risk on to you.
If an uninsured contractor damages your home or car, or worse, injures you or your family, that cost falls on you. You can sue them, but since they probably don’t have any assets anyway, it’s small comfort.
You may not know that in Alabama your contractor’s employees can sue you if they get hurt on your property.
It really happens, and a big judgment can ruin you financially. You’re only protected if the contractor has sufficient worker’s comp insurance. Don’t let anyone tell you differently!
Good Contractors Will:
- Have liability insurance to protect you in case they damage your property.
- Have worker’s comp insurance to protect you if their employee gets hurt on your property.
- Have business licenses. If your contractor didn’t bother to meet this most basic requirement, how long do you think he’s planning to be around?
- Have a physical business address you can visit, not just a PO box. Any respectable contractor will have a fixed place of business, even if it’s his home.
- Be reachable after hours. It’s great you found a plumber who’d squeeze you in late Friday afternoon. But when he didn’t seal that joint and water’s spraying all over your kitchen at 2am Saturday, can you get him on the phone?
- Be around for the long-term. You want a company who will be around to stand behind their work.
- Show up when they say they will. Some contractors are disorganized; some just don’t care. Your contractor should show up on time, or if delayed by an emergency, let you know ahead of time.
- Maintain their equipment. You don’t want your contractor rattling up in your yard in a beat-up truck with hand-painted letters or a magnetic sign stuck on the door at a jaunty angle. Trucks, tools, and equipment should be well-maintained. After all, if they don’t take care of their own stuff…
- Have clean-cut, professional employees. You don’t want your family afraid of the people working in your home, or worried they’ll steal something, or stumble around and break something because they don’t appear to be entirely sober. They should have uniforms, manners, and most importantly, respect for your family and your belongings. These contractors do exist; don’t settle for less.
- Give you references. You want a contractor who can give you references from satisfied customers (not his friends and family). If they can’t or won’t do that, or if they even seem annoyed you asked, find someone else.
- Document their work.= For example, in 2009/2010 certain home improvements qualify for a tax credit up to $1,500. Many contractors say, “Oh yeah, this equipment qualifies!” but they’re just guessing (or worse, lying). When your tax credit is rejected, will they care? If they can’t document exactly how your project qualifies, they don’t know what they’re doing.
- Have the technical skills to do any job. HVAC technology has changed dramatically in the last decade. Some contractors don’t spend the time and money to keep up, and just don’t know what they’re doing any more.
- Belong to local organizations. A real company will be part of the community, belonging to local business and trade organizations. You can verify this by calling your local Better Business Bureau and Chamber of Commerce and asking if they’re a member in good standing, and if they have complaints about them.
Bad Contractors Will:
- Offer a low price up-front and charge more later. A common tactic is to give you a low-ball price up front, then add on costs in the middle of the project when it’s too late for you to change to someone else.
- Promise one thing, do another – talk is cheap, performance isn’t. Lots of references will help you find someone who lives up to their word and stands behind their work. You don’t want someone to charge you for a new fan motor when all you had was a loose wire.
- Not do the work to code. Building codes vary across north Alabama, but almost everyone is subject to some codes, laws, and requirements. The organizations that enforce those codes (the City of Huntsville, for example) do the best they can, but lack the resources to check every job. They often rely on honest contractors to do the work right. Dishonest contractors know this, and depend on homeowners not knowing the difference and taking advantage of them.
- Cut corners during the work. There are so many ways to do this, most of the time you’ll never know the work simply wasn’t done right to start with.
- Slipshod HVAC maintenance means shorter life and more repairs for your system. Cheap ductwork can cause improper air flow and uneven \ temperatures between rooms. Untrained techs lead to additional service charges. What makes this profitable for the contractors who do it is it’s very hard to pin any of these things on them later. Plus, they hope you’ll have to call them back in a couple of months and let them charge you again for more work.
- A corner-cutting plumber may use 1/2-inch pipe instead of 3/4-inch. In bathrooms with a shower, this means your toilet may not flush on the first try. They may use L or K grade copper piping, which lasts 5 to 10 years, instead of M, which lasts 15 to 20. Some plumbers use plastic pipe, which is less expensive, but noisier and less durable than metal.
- An electrician looking to shave costs may put the cheap 29-cent switches in your kitchen instead of the longer-lasting $2 ones. Cheaper grades like “utility” and the unfortunately-named “residential” won’t last in a high-use area like your kitchen, where you’re plugging and unplugging the can opener several times a day. Make sure your electrician is providing “specification grade or better” products, a standard set by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association.
- Replace things that aren’t broken. One of the biggest scams in mechanical work is also the hardest for you to catch: replacing parts that aren’t broken. Auto mechanics sometimes have a bad reputation for this sort of thing, but it happens in HVAC, electrical, and plumbing as well. A crooked plumber may find a cracked fixture and tell you the whole sink needs replacing. You don’t have the time, energy, or expertise to constantly be checking up on your contractor to make sure he’s not ripping you off. So find a reputable company and stick with them.
- Install old parts as new. Unethical contractors can take the used parts that didn’t need replacing at the last customer’s place, and install them as new parts at another customer’s house. While in some cases a used part may be fine, you should always be told before it’s installed if there are used parts going into your system.
Summary: A good contractor will have insurance. Their employees will be uniformed and drive a truck with a painted-on logo. They’ll be happy to write you an estimate on their printed letterhead. They’ll deliver what they promise. They’ll do work to code. They won’t cut corners or do unneeded repairs. They won’t mind at all giving you proof of insurance and licenses. They’ll be happy to give references. A good contractor won’t see this as a pain. They’ll see it as helping you feel more comfortable.