13 Must-Ask Questions to Side-Step Contractor Scams

avoid scams with written contractor agreement

Updated May 2, 2023

Hiring a contractor is an investment, and the work they do often involves your biggest investment: your home. Plus, depending on the size of your project, you could be seeing a lot of your contractor. So why would you hire someone who doesn't know what they're doing or you don't get along with? To make sure you're hiring the best contractor for the job, learn the questions you should be asking to be sure you don't get scammed and instead hire the right contractor for your project.

Questions to Ask:

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must-ask questions to avoid contractor scams

1. How long have you been performing this type of work?

We always recommend working with a contractor that specializes in the specific kind of work you need done, not just a jack of all trades offering to handle the project on the cheap.

One of the first ways to gauge the experience of a contractor is to determine how long the contractor has been performing that specific work. If they don't have experience performing the type of work you need, it's safe to assume you should hire someone else. You wouldn't hire an attorney for an appendectomy, so why would you hire a roofer to perform demolition?

Ask each contractor you speak with—we recommend reaching out to at least three—how many projects like yours they have completed in the last year or two. Likewise, how long have they been doing this work in your specific area?

A contractor who's been doing work locally for 5-10 years will have solid relationships with suppliers and subcontractors in the area, along with a reputation to maintain. Also, the longer a contractor has been in business, the more likely it is that they've ironed out any of the kinks that come with new businesses.

A local, established contractor who quotes $1,000 for a project is almost always a safer bet than a new-to-the-business contractor who quotes $500 or a contractor who needs to commute a long way to get to your job site.

Ask each contractor for a business card or a link to their website, as well as a list of references. You'll want the references to go back a number of years, not just his most recent projects. Being able to hear from some of the contractors' earlier customers will help confirm how long the contractor has been successfully performing this work.

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2. Do you have a license to perform this work? What is your license number?

A contractor must be licensed to perform certain work in that state. Licensing laws vary from state-to-state but are designed to protect property owners from dishonest, negligent contractors. Find out what licensing a contractor is required to have to perform work in your state. In addition, with a contractor's license number in tow, you'll be able to confirm whether or not anyone has filed judgments or claims against them, and also whether or not they operated under a different name.

If a company has done business under a different name, it's possible their previous business was shut down for poor business practices. This isn't always the case, but ask them about it. If a business has operated under a different name, it's not likely they'll want to tell you, let alone discuss it, so pay close attention to how they answer this question.

We always recommend doing thorough research on the contractors you're considering and checking with the Better Business Bureau and your local Department of Public Safety to ensure the contractor hasn't had any complaints filed against them.

3. Do you have insurance? May I see your certificate of insurance?

Look for liability insurance and workers' compensation. Both types of insurance should apply to the specific type of work, so make sure you look at their insurance policy carefully to ensure you are protected. Simply asking a contractor if they're insured doesn't give you all the answers. You'll also want to determine how they are insured and what that insurance covers.

This is why it's always recommended that homeowners obtain a copy of the contractor's insurance policy. You want to be sure that their insurance covers your property as well as any accidents or injuries that may occur on the job site.

Learn more: The Difference Between a Contractor's Bond, License, and Insurance

4. Will you acquire all the necessary permits and schedule the inspections for this project?

Not all projects require permits or inspections, but most do, as it makes sure work is up to code. Your contractor should know what kind of permits and/or inspections are needed for your project and should also be willing to handle them for you. And while permits take a little time and cost to acquire, an honest and professional contractor should have no problem handling this for you, as it's assurance that the work will be done up to code. If they aren't willing to acquire the permits for you, this could be a sign they aren't licensed or properly qualified to perform the work.

We strongly recommended being present for the inspection to ensure...

  • It happens
  • You hear the findings of the inspection
  • You understand the specific work that needs to be done.

5. How much will the project cost?

get costs in writing

Always get costs in writing, and ask to have your quote/bill itemized. While some contractors may try giving you a single-digit, bottom-line estimate, you should avoid this whenever possible. This type of quote greatly impedes your ability to assess whether each aspect of the job is priced fairly and also from accurately comparing it with other contractors' prices. Itemized bids make the entire process more transparent, so if a contractor gives you a hard time about itemizing their bid, they should be avoided.

In addition, confirm whether the quote is an estimate or fixed price. For some projects, a contractor won't be able to provide a fixed price because there are too many unknowns. This is fair, as many projects do come with factors that sometimes can't be predicted.

In situations where a fixed price can't be established, have the quote written up for only the work the contractor knows will be done. If additional, unforeseen elements pop up, a change order can be written up.

Keep in mind that a good price shouldn't be the #1 consideration when it comes to hiring a contractor, although it is important. The best contractor will provide a balance of experience and positive customer relations with fair pricing.

Read on: How Much Does Demolition Cost per Square Foot?

6. What are the estimated start and completion date(s) for the project?

You'll want to have a clear understanding of when the contractor will be able to start your project, as well as an estimated date of completion. Of course, depending on the complexity of your project, there could be unforeseen circumstances that affect this timeline.

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7. What is the payment schedule?

It's common for contractors to ask for a down payment at the start of a project, but avoid paying more than 50% upfront. You should never pay for the work in full until the project is completed. A reputable contractor wouldn't ask this of you, so if a contractor does, find another one.

If the project is large or complex and is expected to take more than a couple weeks, you will want to be sure a clear-cut payment schedule is outlined in the written contract before any work begins. 

To protect yourself, we recommend always paying contractors in a way that leaves a paper trail, such as personal check. Avoid paying in cash if possible. If paying with cash is unavoidable, make sure you get receipts for each of your payments.

8. If there are any additional charges, how will they be handled?

Home improvement projects can be hard to predict at times, and prices can be hard to nail down when there are various unknown factors that could affect it.

Talk with your contractor before work begins to confirm that he will not spend a single dime over your written estimate without getting the go-ahead from you first. (This stipulation should be included in your written contract.)

9. At the end of the project, will you provide me a written lien waiver?

id="construction"A lien waiver is essentially a receipt. It states that you have paid the contractor/sub-contractor(s) what is owed, they have accepted that payment in full, and they have waived the right to put a lien on your property.

Your contractor should have no problem providing you with a written lien waiver upon final payment.

10. What are your start and stop times for construction days?

If you need a quick turnaround on your project (or you simply want it completed in a timely fashion), be sure to hire a company that has time for your project.

When will the workers show up each day, and when will they clock out? Make sure the contractor you hire can commit to meeting your timeline.

11. Who will be working on my home each day?

contractor team

You don't want a different crew coming in and out of your site each day; you want a consistent team who works on your project day after day, so make sure you determine who will be physically working on your project each day and who the job foreman is.

If your project is extensive, or you like being thorough, ask the contractor if you can meet the foreman who will be working on your project and visit a project he's currently overseeing. If his current project is running smoothly, that's an excellent sign.

12. What is the best way to contact you?

It’s important to get a physical business address along with the business and cell phone numbers of the contractor you’re working with. Also, pay close attention to your first interaction with the company. Are they easy to get a hold of? Are they happy to answer any questions you have? If they're not willing to give you adequate contact information, or they're hard to get in contact with, it's a warning sign that this contractor could be hard to reach, and you may want to consider finding another contractor.

In addition to having a designated point of contact, you also will want to know the best way to get in touch with them (i.e. what time of day, by phone, text, or email). As you reach out to contractors, ask them for an estimated timeline of when they'll get back with you (if they can't discuss the project in detail at that time).

13. Will the site be kept clean at the end of the day?

clean work site

If your project is expected to extend more than a day, you'll want to discuss the end-of-the-day cleanup protocol. Discuss where trash will be thrown and what will be done with any debris, dust, or litter on-site at the end of each workday.

Be an advocate for yourself. If your gut is telling you that something is off about a contractor or that they're not being completely honest with you, do your research to protect yourself and ask as many questions as needed to get the answers you're looking for. Or you could always choose another contractor entirely! A trustworthy, dependable contractor will have absolutely no problem answering any of these questions.

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