It’s Friday night and you are going out to dinner with your family. Driving down Route 9 you see two restaurants you’ve never been to. Feeling like trying something new, you need to decide quickly. While one restaurant’s parking lot is full, the other lot is almost empty. At that moment your decision becomes clear. Your first instinct is to go to the busy place, but the kids are hungry and you want to catch the next showing over at the Freehold Metroplex. So you go to the half empty place instead. That one decision sets off a chain reaction. The waitstaff is inattentive, the bread is stale, the soup is lukewarm, and the salad is so horrifically over-dressed, it makes your eye twitch. You keep hoping things will get better…but sadly, they don’t. When the entrée arrives it looks like it was prepared a week ago. You reluctantly pay the bill and leave.
So now you have damage to your home due to hurricane Sandy. You need to find a contractor. What will you do this time? Will you use the contractor who is sitting by the phone waiting for your call? Or will you hire the contractor who is booked up and has to put you on a list? Again, the decision seems like an easy one. Why is the first contractor not out working? Why is no one else hiring him? While you will have to wait for the second contractor, you know he is busy because he is good at what he does. Like the busy restaurant on Route 9...the second contractor is worth the wait.
But before you agree to have any work done, it pays to do a bit of research.
While licensing isn't necessarily a measure of competence, it does imply a high level of professionalism and suggests that the contractor is committed to his or her job. More significantly, licensing can protect you from a number of potential problems, such as the following:
Unlicensed usually means uninsured. If you use a contractor who is uninsured, it means the contractor has no way of reimbursing you for any property damage he or she causes. This means you end up paying the price. Likewise, if contractor carelessness leads to injury or damage to someone else's property, the problem is likely to become yours.
No coverage under homeowner's policy. Some homeowners believe it is safe to use an uninsured contractor, assuming that any damages incurred would be covered under their own insurance policies. However, this isn't the case. Most homeowner policies require that any work to the property be done by licensed contractors; coverage is often specifically excluded for damages caused by "bootleg" contractors.
Noncompliance with building codes. Most building projects, even minor ones, usually require permits and inspections. Unlicensed contractors are often unfamiliar with the applicable building codes and are unable to obtain permits. If your project isn't permitted or doesn't comply with building and zoning codes, you may - and probably will - be ordered to remove or repair the job. Even if a building inspector doesn't "catch" your code violation right away, you will almost certainly have to correct it if and when you try to sell your house.
Poor quality work. Not all unlicensed contractors do poor quality work. And not all poor quality work is done by unlicensed contractors. However, as a rule, if there's shoddy work to be done, it's usually done by unlicensed contractors. Because unlicensed contractors aren't subject to meeting specific standards, they are often untrained, less experienced, and unqualified to do certain types of work. Sloppy work by an unlicensed contractor could have serious ramifications. It's a safety hazard if the work isn't done accurately. If it's not structurally sound, if it's not wired properly, you could face major consequences at some point.
Con artists. Scams in the construction industry especially in the home improvement business have become almost legendary in the last few decades. Con artists posing as qualified contractors, and often targeting the elderly, have made national news any number of times. Even so, unwary homeowners continue to be taken in by these pseudo contractors, who often promise unrealistically low prices or use scare tactics to close the deal. In these cases, the homeowner typically ends up with either an incomplete or a low quality improvement project - and several hundred, or even thousands of dollars less in the bank account.
It is essentially up to you to protect yourself. Therefore, when evaluating potential contractors, you should be diligent in your screening process. There are a number of "red flags" you should watch for:
Unsolicited phone calls or visits. Although some reputable contractors market their services in this way, it is a tactic more often used by remodeling con artists. Be especially wary of a contractor who offers you a bargain price, claiming that he or she is doing a job in the neighborhood and has leftover materials.
High-pressure sales pitches or scare tactics. Don't be pushed into hiring a contractor by forceful sales techniques, special "today-only" deals, or the threat that some defect in your house is a safety hazard. Dishonest and disreputable contractors often prey on their victims' fears by warning them that their furnace is about to blow up, their roof is about to collapse, or some similar catastrophe is about to occur.
Large down payments. If a contractor asks for too much money up front - or insists you pay in cash - it can be a sign that he or she is going to take your money and run.
No verifiable address and phone number. Be cautious of contractors who give you a post office box with no street address, or who seem to use only an answering service. Most home improvement con artists operate without a traceable phone number.
Unwillingness to give you a price. A reputable contractor should be able to provide you with a bid before beginning work on your project. If the contractor says he or she can't do so, or skirts the issue of cost, you are at great risk of being taken advantage of.
Unwillingness to sign a written contract. Always get the terms of the construction agreement in writing. A complete contract should include: a description of the work done, materials used, labor cost, and payment schedule. It should also include the contractor's license number.
Insurance or licensing information you cannot verify. A qualified contractor should be able to provide you with proof of both licensing and insurance coverage. If the contractor can't give you a copy of his or her license and insurance policy, have him or her at least give you the license and policy numbers. Using the insurance policy number, call the contractor's carrier to make sure the policy is still in effect and that it covers projects such as yours. Also, call your state or local licensing board to verify the contractor's licensing information. The licensing agency should also be able to tell you if there have been any complaints registered against that contractor. It is also a good idea to ask for some other proof of identification at this time, so you can be sure you are actually dealing with the person whose name appears on the license.
Don't rely on a handshake
You can find contractor licensing information online at https://newjersey.mylicense.com/verification/. You can also call your local building or planning department to inquire about licensing requirements.
The bottom line
When you're shopping for contractors, using licensed contractors is a smart move because it encourages and supports the legitimate, law-abiding businesses in your community.