The High Cost of a Cheap Contractor and Tips to Prevent Problems

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By the author of the FREE online course Growing Self-Sufficiency: The Whole Picture

 

I could fill ten articles with horror stories of how a bad contractor can run up costs on a project, build, or repair. Some of these stories are my own, and some are from friends and family and local friends. However, in the spirit of wanting to actually help a situation, I am going to share a few ways that costs can be run up through three common pitfalls, and then I will share my own, three best tips for how to avoid these all-too-common pitfalls.

#1) You Want it Yesterday

Yep, being in a rush is the best way to lose money and run up costs on a project that I have found. Anytime you want to get someone right away for a project, you’d better watch out if someone’s free tomorrow. Although it’s a truism in the contracting world, it is true: the guy or gal that can come out tomorrow is probably not the one that you want for the job. Sadly, it’s the guy or gal who is booked until this September that you want for the job. 

#2) You’re Chasing the Last Dollar

Yep, guilty as charged. I was on a budget for my build and did chase every last dollar. And, it led to my making some regrettable choices. As my friend, who is a top roofing contractor put it, “Ya, they don’t wanna pay my estimate, but then they still call me to fix the work of the other one they did hire [for way cheaper].” If you do the math on hiring two for the job…one to screw it up and one to fix it…yep….it’s more in the end!

#3) No Paper Trail

You may think it’s great to save the tax on a big project. (See #2 above) The contractor talks a good game and his initial site visit went well. What will happen, however, if there is a problem? Without a written estimate, you are now literally at his or her mercy. Materials costs “not what she thought?” There goes another $5,000. Taking longer than expected? Add on a few more grand. The contractor can claim they he didn’t understand what was required for the project and charge and charge and charge. 

In my province of Ontario, a written estimate protects you. The final cost can be no more than 10% above it. The details on that estimate will also protect you in the situation where there is a disagreement around what is or isn’t included with the work. Trust me, you do NOT want to be in this situation!

So, what’s a homeowner to do? Here are my three best tips, after working as a general contractor for four years and building a house that required around a dozen different contractors. 

Solution #1 – Word of Mouth, Plus a Selection!

Depending on what you want to get done, especially the size of the job, you can adjust what you do. If I were now to hire for any big job, say in the $10,000 range again, I would start with word of mouth to get me three contenders and then use my initial site visits and interviews to take it from there and choose. 

One question I would ask every contractor from now on is this: “How do you deal with situations where there is a disagreement between the homeowner and yourself.” Don’t ask this over the phone. Ask it in person. Focus more on their body language, than perhaps what they actually say.  

Mistakes happen and disagreements also can happen around what was included. A contractor who claims there are “never” any disagreements or gets very uncomfortable or defensive is off my list. Trust me on this one, do you suddenly want to be dealing with someone who won’t return your phone calls when an adult discussion and/or negotiation needs to happen? 

Solution #2 Be Patient and Plan Ahead

The guy that can be here today is often the guy who wants to be paid cash and is often the guy who doesn’t want to offer a written estimate. You don’t want to hire that guy! The guy or gal who is booked eight months out (ya, that’s how it is around here) offers written estimates and is busy like that because his or her work is good.  Especially for larger projects, this means being patient. In the long run, waiting that time could save you a ton of cash. And yes, you are probably going to pay more for these premium contractors who are in demand.

Also, don’t wait until an urgent problem arises. (See pitfall #1 above). Just bought a house? Get word of mouth going to find your plumber right away. Some people get this process started with a 10-second post on their favorite social media outlet. 

Do some initial phone calls and possibly on-site interviews to select your candidate. Perhaps there are a couple of things you would like an estimate for. You can learn a lot going through that process with at least three contractors. If that costs some money for a bit of his time, so be it. You do not want to be making calls from a phone book (if they even still exist!) when a water pipe is frozen. That’ll cost ya!

Solution #3 Communication Matters

Throughout the long build process, some mistakes happened. I share this because some folks might then be tempted to pitch that contractor. Yes, there would be some cases where that would be so. However, in my experience, humans are…well, pretty human most of the time. And busy contractors are often extremely busy and sometimes in a rush! In the case where a great contractor made a mistake, it was dealt with promptly and at no additional cost to me. 

I have found that positive and proactive communication has gone a long way in those cases. I didn’t call in a rage. I didn’t blame or name call. No, I simply called and described what I thought was the problem in a calm voice. If there was something I could do over the phone to help diagnose it, I was happy to do it. In the end, I have clear communication to be one of the most important ways to both prevent and deal with issues that arise. 

I think, as a final thought, it’s important to remember that you are hiring this person, and you also need to advocate for, and represent your interests. It is not the contractor’s job to do that. Asking a lot of questions and being polite, respectful, and heck, even appreciating all of their hard work go a long way to building a relationship with a contractor that you want to keep!

Don’t Let your Project Become a Local Horror Story!

There are many good, reputable contractors out there. Could you see yourself trying any of the tips offered here to hire a good one? Do you have one you can share with us? Please tell us in the comments below.

About Colette

Colette is passionate about sharing her knowledge of thrifty living and self-sufficiency. She has developed her skills in self-reliance living in the suburbs, the city, and more recently, on her own Half-Acre Homestead. Colette lived five years completely off-grid and without running water in an eight by 24 foot tiny home while designing and building her own 18 by 24-foot eco-cabin. Her website, Half Acre Homestead is attracting followers from around the world who want to become more self-sufficient.  Colette invites you to stop by the Homestead and check out all of the great resources including the practical How To Guides, A Tiny Home Resource Center and her organic gardening stories on her blog. She shares her wholistic model (body/mind/spirit) for achieving self-sufficiency in her Free Course, “Growing Self-Sufficiency: The Whole Picture.” Stop by the Homestead today to register free of charge!

Colette

Colette

Colette is passionate about sharing her knowledge of thrifty living and self-sufficiency. She has developed her skills in self-reliance living in the suburbs, the city, and more recently, on her own Half-Acre Homestead. Colette lived five years completely off-grid and without running water in an eight by 24 foot tiny home while designing and building her own 18 by 24-foot eco-cabin. Her website, Half Acre Homestead is attracting followers from around the world who want to become more self-sufficient.  Colette invites you to stop by the Homestead and check out all of the great resources including the practical How To Guides, A Tiny Home Resource Center and her organic gardening stories on her blog. She shares her wholistic model (body/mind/spirit) for achieving self-sufficiency in her Free Course, "Growing Self-Sufficiency: The Whole Picture." Stop by the Homestead today to register free of charge!

12 thoughts on “The High Cost of a Cheap Contractor and Tips to Prevent Problems”

  1. I know all about the horrors of cheap lying contractors. My nephew is one. Also it’s hard to find contractors here in Texas Hill Country where I live, reliable ones that don’t charge a fortune and actually do the job and don’t take off with the money. My husband is a journeyman carpenter but he’s also 69 years old with ailments. He tries his best. He started a front porch last year, says he will try to get done this month. He’s been helping the other elderly neighbors with their projects and so they keep him busy and he charges way under what he was charging when he had his company in Houston. Our oldest sons got screwed over by fly by night contractors just recently and had to call their dad for advice. Sons projects were way to big and would require a crew so my husband was unable to do them. It’s better to get referrals. We have a good septic guy, and a good pest control guy but they both live in our neighborhood. We had to hire a guy driving down the street to put in our water softener and miraculously that worked out well.

    1. Hi TexasAntigone, Thank you for your comment, which particularly captures the challenging to even locate contractors in some areas. That is so great that your husband helps where he can, but he’s right to avoid those big projects. That so nice that he helps others where he can. I know I would be so grateful for help like that! Wishing you the best, with your year and any contractors that you need!

  2. We had a contractor come out and give an estimate. We asked about his warranty. He said it was a taillight warranty. If you saw his taillights going out the drive that was the end of his warranty. We did not hire him.

    1. Hi Dala, Ha ha! That gave me a good laugh. “Taillight warranty” I’m glad you didn’t hire him! and good for you for asking! Wishing you the best this year with any contractors that you need! Thanks so much.

  3. I love how you talk about communication with your contractor. It’s truly amazing how much you can get done by keeping a cool head and being polite. Besides – a person can always STOP being polite but it’s hard to walk back rudeness. I can’t tell you how many problems I’ve prevented or fixed by taking that approach, in pretty much all areas of life, and I’ve always regretted when I didn’t. Great tips on hiring contractors, especially the one about not picking the person who can be there tomorrow. Patience is indeed a virtue if you can afford it, and will save you heartache!

    1. Hi Redbranch, Thank you so much for your comment about the benefits of keeping a cool head. Yes, I do think that this is applicable to all areas of life, too. Wishing you the best with all contractors you might need in 2024!

  4. Verify the license ( on the county and state level) and check for violations. Contractor scammers are predators and are counting on you not to do your due diligence.

    1. Hi Corsaire, This is good advice. Where I am, only certain trades would have these. Certainly, where there are grey areas, many take advantage. An example of this would be carpentry, where the regulations are sparse, compared to electrical, or even plumbing. However, checking the Better Business Bureau would be a good idea when hiring. Thanks for raising this important issue. Much appreciated!

  5. We had good luck with contractors that we knew personally or whose family we knew. I taught two members of one contractors family and mentioned it as he wrote his estimate. He dropped his estimate by 5 percent. He had an excellent reputation as well as the connection and did great work. When a huge hailstorm did widespread damage, we had a fast, efficient roof replacement by a company whose owner was in a prayer group with my husband. The prayer group also produced the contractor who replaced our old windows with double pane windows without damaging any of the trim—multiple people who used other contractors had to completely replace the trim. If you live in a community long enough, you learn what contractors are best and give value for money.

    1. Hi Mary, These are great examples of using your local network to great advantage in locating an honourable contractor. The skill used to replace those windows. So impressive! The proof is sure in the pudding there. Thanks for sharing these! Wishing you the best with your contractors, if any are needed, in 2024!!!

  6. Also got one plumber who had a good reputation who we contacted through a love of ‘50s Fords. When he retired none of our friends could make any suggestions. I remembered a man who had been in classes that I had done long term substitutions in and remembered him as hard working and honest in his work. He employed several other plumbers, but when I called he came himself. He was still hardworking and honest. I was able to recommend him to others, all of whom in term continued the train of recommendations.

    1. Hi Mary, Another great story! Your good memory certainly paid off there. I’m glad these stories had good endings for you. Wishing you the best!

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