Here are 10 ways to avoid crooked contractors

  • By Sarah Jackson / Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, April 18, 2007 9:00pm
  • Life

Hiring a contractor is, in many ways, a homeowner’s dream, a chance to leave the do-it-yourself lifestyle behind and pay professionals to take over.

Unfortunately, not all homeowner-contractor relationships end with a wonderful, completed project.

Some turn into nightmares.

Dodgy contractors with a lack of experience or ethics have disappointed more than a few homeowners in Washington, said Shari Purves-Reiter, outreach and education manager for the Washington State Department Labor and Industries.

“There’s no test to become a contractor in the state of Washington, except for plumbing and electrical,” she said. “So when a homeowner’s hiring somebody, they really need to do reference checks.”

While there are about 58,000 contractors registered with the state, another 10 percent of contractors in the state are not.

“There are lots of scam artists out there that aren’t registered and they just want to get their deposit,” Purves-Reiter said, adding that serious complaints about contractors are common. “It’s probably a daily occurrence around the state in some form or another.”

Purves-Reiter will be at the Everett Home and Garden Show this week to help consumers be contractor-savvy.

She’ll guide them to the state’s indispensable “Homeowner’s Guide to Hiring a Contractor,” a step-by-step online manual for all phases of a contractor-homeowner relationship, complete with handy translations of technical and legal terms of a contract.

Here are 10 top tips in mind when hiring and working with contractors.

1. Hire a licensed professional. Contractors in Washington must provide a $12,000 to $6,000 surety bond – either with their own cash or with help from an insurance company – as well as general liability insurance. They are then assigned a number that must be included in all advertisements, including business cards and phone-book listings.

You can see if a contractor is operating legally for free on the Labor and Industries Web site at or by calling L&I’s hot line at 800-647-0982.

This check will tell you if any legal action has been taken by a consumer or supplier against a contractor’s bond.

2. Check references. That’s only a first step for a background check, of course. You can also check with the Better Business Bureau at or 206-431-2222.

“Just because they’ve checked to make sure they’re registered doesn’t mean they’re qualified,” she said. “You want to check to make sure you’re hiring somebody with experience and background in the type of work that they’re doing.”

Go see one or two projects in progress by the contractor you want to hire. What is a quality job to one person, may not be a quality job to you.

“Verify,” Purves-Reiter said. “Do they keep the place tidy? Talk to the homeowner. Ask around. Talk to their suppliers.”

3. Shop around. Interview several qualified contractors and solicit written bids. Bids that are significantly lower than all others should be questioned. Extremely low bids can indicate that corners are being cut, rules are being broken and potential problems are on the horizon.

4. Make a connection. Social compatibility is another important factor to consider during the hiring process.

“If you don’t think you could make it through a social situation with them, two hours, a nice dinner, then you probably don’t want to work with them,” Purves-Reiter said. “Communication is the biggest thing. It’s really important.”

Dick Pope with Creative Kitchen and Bath in Lynnwood agrees that client compatibility is key for success.

“To me, that’s crucial. It’s just as important on our side,” he said. “You’re working in personal spaces of their house.”

5. Know your rights. Ask for the “Notice to Customer” disclosure from your contractor. It’s legally required for projects that cost more than $1,000. This notice explains your rights and responsibilities as a homeowner and can help you protect your property from liens.

6. Don’t buy your own permits. Be wary of contractors who ask you to buy building permits. Property owners can purchase a permit for work they do on their own property, but only a registered contractor can buy a permit for work on someone else’s property. Also, make sure that all inspections required under the permit are conducted.

7. Read the fine print. Do not sign anything you don’t understand or contracts with blank spaces. Get everything in writing, including change orders. Avoid verbal contracts as your project evolves. If your project is particularly large, you may want to hire a lawyer to look over your contract before you sign it to make sure your assets and rights are protected against a worst-case scenario.

“Even if they’re a good guy, things happen,” Purves-Reiter said. “Everything in the contract is negotiable.”

8. Pay in due time. Do not pay for work that has not been completed. Most contractors will ask for 10 percent to 20 percent of the cost of the project as a down payment or deposit, followed by other payments as the project progresses, including a final payment upon completion of the project. Be extremely cautious of large deposit requirements such as payment in full. Before making final payment on a project, request a completed lien release from all major subcontractors and suppliers.

9. Set up regular meetings with your contractor to discuss progress of the project, problems, payments and any other issues.

10. Plan your project carefully. If you know what you want done and can clearly explain it, you’re less likely to misunderstand instructions or encounter cost overruns.

Reporter Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037 or sjackson@

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