Your deck contractor is your friend, right? You can trust them to give you the best deal, for the best price, with the best work possible in the least amount of time. Right? Well, not really. Contractors are a service provider running a business. There are things they do to keep their prices low and profits high. It’s business. Unfortunately there are some less than honest or ethical contractors out there doing bad business, giving good contractors a bad name. The problem is, you can’t always tell who’s a good guy, and who’s not. You can, however, protect yourself by what you do and say to your contractor.
To get what you want, at a fair and reasonable price there are things you should never, ever say to your contractor:
1. Don’t tell a contractor what your budget is.
Don’t tell a contractor how much you have to spend or they’ll find a way to help you spend exactly that, and maybe even a little more. Even if the job doesn’t cost what you’ve budgeted, you’ll end up spending exactly that amount whether you need to or not if your contract has a number from you to begin with. Instead of divulging your budget, have your contractor come up with the actual costs for labor, materials, and other services and give you a bid for the work you need done. You can adjust your budget and negotiate size and prices after you’ve compared costs with several contractors.
2. Never tell a contractor they are the only one bidding on the job.
Even if they’ve come highly recommended, or are your wife’s third cousins, or whatever, never ever let them be the only bid you get. When they believe you are considering several contractors and comparing bids and costs, they’re more likely to (1) take you seriously (2) give you a competitive bid, (3) be accountable for their bid.
Get a minimum of three bids, and if possible, get as many detailed bids as you can (yes, even up to 10). Don’t just say, “Give me your bid on building a 20×40 foot deck.” You can’t compare apples to apples unless each contractor is bidding on specific items.
First off, ask for a detailed bid. This means break the bid down into the cost of materials, any lighting or heating elements, pouring foundations, etc. and most importantly, the cost of labor. Make sure each contractor is bidding on the same items – like “cedar decking,” This will help you tremendously when comparing each contractor. If a contractor thinks they’re the only company you’re considering they’re free to run up costs, labor etc. When they know you’ll be looking at four or five other contractors they’re more likely to keep costs real.
3. Don’t tell your contractor they can buy the materials.
Many contractors will upcharge you for the cost of materials. They will then upgrade the cost, or call it a surcharge. They may tell you you’re getting part of their “contractor’s discount.” The fact is, you can buy your own materials and have them delivered and get the same or better discount even if you’re not a contractor. For instance, at Lowes, if your purchase is at least $1,500, stop by the ProServices desk before you check out and request a quote. A ProServices specialist will process your order and supply you with a customized quote within minutes (for most purchases). Volume Discount Pricing quotes are good for 30 days.
Get involved in the purchase. That way you know what you’re getting and what it actually cost. Always verify costs. When you buy the materials yourself there are, mysteriously, fewer instances of “product on backorder,” or delayed shipping. Some contractors will take the money and place a partial order and use the remaining money for another job. They juggle funds and materials, but blame delays on “delivery.” When you buy the materials you deal directly with the manufacturer or lumberyard and know exactly what’s happening with the materials, where they are, when you’ll have them. You can order and pay for the materials and the contractor can pick them up, or you can have them delivered.
However you choose to do it, make sure you get the receipts for everything so you know what you paid for. It happens. Contractors can and do use materials from other jobs, or buy the cheapest grade lumber while charging you for the best grades and pocketing the difference. Material purchases are important. This is the wood and structure that you’ll be living on for the next 20-30 years – but only if it’s quality stuff!
4. Never pay everything up front and ask a contractor for a discount.
If you don’t get a lot of contracted work done to your home, you may not be aware it is incredibly risky, dangerous, and unwise to ever offer to pay a contractor the entire amount owed upfront. If a contractor demands payment in full before starting a job, find another contractor. That’s not how legitimate contractors work. Not only can a contractor end up not doing a good job, they can leave you with no leverage to force them to correct the issues if they have their money. Some contractors will even take your money and disappear, leaving you with no deck, no money, and little to no legal recourse.
Ignore all the Youtube videos from “experts” telling you that if you pay upfront in full you can save money. You’re more apt to lose all your money if you do that. Okay, you may have to pay some money upfront to cover the cost of materials, but try to work out an arrangement where you buy the materials instead. You’ll know you’re getting good materials, not leftovers from another job, or cheap materials bought from an iffy lumberyard.
No matter what the contractor says, you have the right to buy your own materials. If they get huffy and miffed, well, that’s their problem.
5. Never offer to pay your contractor “the balance” before the job is done.
Just as you should never pay your contractor in full upfront, never pay your contractor the balance until the job is actually done. It’s tempting to pay that last installment to “motivate” the contractor, but he’ll be more motivated if he’s not paid until the job is done. Do pay the contractors and any subcontractors once their portion of the job is completed.
By paying a little bit of money upfront, and then the balance in full once the deck is completed you protect yourself from being scammed or cheated, or having the job not completed. Save your final payment for after the job is finished and after the deck has passed code.
If you pay somebody upfront, there is never a guarantee that they will finish the job. Dealing with honest, reputable contractors helps, but once contractors are paid, they’re much less motivated to stick around to finish the last few phases of the job.
6. Pay subcontractors yourself and make this part of your contract
If you pay only the general contractor there is no guarantee he is, or will pay his subcontractors. Many delay payment. If that happens, subcontractors don’t go after the contractor, they go after you for payment – to the point of getting liens on your home. Yes, you can end up paying both the contractor and the subcontractor! Avoid that problem by insisting you will pay the subcontractors directly.
7. Even if you’re not in a hurry, don’t tell a contractor there’s no rush.
When you tell a contractor, “There’s no rush,” your project immediately gets dropped to the lowest priority job on their list. They will take on rush jobs and more urgent jobs to make money while the sun shines and your deck languishes. Why not? You told them there was no rush! They’ll spend their time doing everything but getting your job done. You’ll experience more delays, and may never see your deck finished this season.
Before signing a contract, you need timelines, dates, and penalties for missing those deadlines. You need a firm completion date, and the contractor needs to know that they will lose money if the job isn’t finished on time and on budget.
8. Never agree to hire any contractor or subcontractor illegally.
The few thousand dollars you can save by “looking the other way,” and letting your contractor bring in workers who aren’t legally licensed or legal citizens, isn’t worth the risk. It’s not the contractor who’s taking the risk – it’s you. You’re the one who will be saddled with a huge liability if illegal workers are injured on the job site. Make sure that the contractor you hire is licensed and insured, and has evidence of an insurance policy. Don’t take their word for it. Ask for a copy and then contact the insurance agency or state to make sure the paperwork is legitimate. It’s not just the contractor’s people you have to look out for. Any subcontractors your contractor uses should be covered under their policy as well. Treat subcontractors as firmly as you do a general contractor, including having a contract of deliverables, dates and timelines, and a payment schedule.
9. Do not let a contractor choose the materials.
It is very important that you make the decisions on the exact materials you use for your project. With every type of material, there is a high end product, a low end product, and something in the middle. Educate yourself on the pros and cons, and the differences among each type of material. Then choose the best product for you, based on your needs and budget. When contractors make those choices they make them based on their needs and budgets, not yours. They could use materials from other jobs, choose materials that are too expensive, or even too cheap and still charge you premium prices.
If a contractor picks the wrong materials, the project is bound to go wrong as well. Even if you know nothing about lumber or decking, contact a salesperson who does and buy the materials yourself. If you’re not comfortable doing that, then be specific on what materials they purchase, where they purchase it, and the price they pay for it. Request receipts for everything they buy – down to the screws, bolts, and railings. Unethical contractors will overorder supplies, then return the overage and pocket the money, or use the material on other client’s jobs, and charge them as well.
10. Don’t agree to a handshake deal.
It doesn’t matter if you’re friends, or know the guy, or think the contractor “seems honest,” always, always, always put your agreement with a contractor in writing. This isn’t about “trusting” the person, and having things in writing shouldn’t offend any legitimate contractor. It’s just business and that’s how good business is done. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
A written contract, even something as simple as a one or two page contract you download off the Internet, or buy at an office supply store will work. A written agreement spelling out the details of your agreed upon terms, costs, deliver schedule, etc. is the best way to ensure nothing gets “forgotten” or “overlooked,” or misinterpreted during the project. By having everything in an agreement there are no arguments down the road to what you both agreed to.
Write out very detailed contracts, with your exact expectations, dates, timelines, costs, payment schedules, deliverables, and a list of all expenses. Your contractor should also agree to provide receipts for any materials or expenses they incur – especially if you agree to let them purchase the materials for the job. All this may seem like a lot of work, but remember, in the end you want to enjoy your deck for decades to come and doing it right from the beginning is the best way to ensure that happens!