How To Hire a Contractor Without Any Problems

Federated Environmental’s experience suggests most contractors and environmental consultants are honest and forthright with their opinions and actions. However, as in most enterprises today, it’s a good idea to be mindful for any consultant or contractor whose agenda may not match your own. Using poker playing as an analogy, it takes some skill to keep one eye on your cards and one eye on your chips. We have provided below a short list of tips on when to hold them and when to fold them.


The Gambling Den, Jean-Eugene Buland (1852-1926).

Check Their Licenses and the Expiration Dates on Their Training Certificates

Many states include licensing boards that require certain individuals to maintain current licenses in order for them to conduct different kinds of environmental consulting, inspection, or remediation work. For example, many states require specific licenses to conduct asbestos surveys, lead paint surveys, and remove underground storage tanks. If your contractor or consultant does not possess the license needed to conduct the work, they should inform you of such and recommend a licensed individual or company. If the unlicensed individual performs the work anyhow, the project may cost you money later because under the law it’s not valid…or legal.

In addition, double check the expiration date(s) on your contractor or consultant’s training certificates. Most environmental inspection work requires annual refresher classes in order to keep their training…and licenses…current. A expired training certificate invalidates the contractor’s or consultant’s work.

Make Contact With References and Don’t Be Afraid to Ask the Tough Questions

There are several internet companies and websites that offer references or reviews for a fee on consultants and contractors. We believe it’s better (and more cost-effective) to collect references directly from the contractor. If you’re concerned they may just give you good references and conceal the bad references, ask for the contact information on the last project they completed. It takes some street smarts to navigate this area. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.

Accept No “Time and Materials” Quotations

Caution is advised contracting any company that seeks to bill you based on the time the project takes…they could be lightning fast or slow as molasses. Watching someone work at a snail’s pace or like a slow motion video is infuriating, The contractor or consultant should be able to…and should be required to… provide you with a reliable completion time.

Materials quotations are likewise not advised. There is an old house painter’s trick where they quote the project based on the number of paint buckets used. Before the project begins, they claim they might need multiple coats based on coverage aspects and other unknowns. Low and behold, and always when you’re not watching, empty paint buckets appear seemingly out of nowhere and end up on your bill. Don’t be fooled…your contractor has a very good idea what materials will be required.

Accept No “Open Ended” Quotations

Sometimes consultants and contractors take unfair advantage of a customer’s naiveté or lack of knowledge. For example, some consultants provide a “per ton” cost proposal to dispose of petroleum-contaminated soils. Most people grossly underestimate mentally the volume of soil that weights one ton (2,000-pounds).  For reference, a cubic yard of soil (3′ x 3′ x 3′) generally weighs 1.2 to 1.4-tons. This is not much when a giant backhoe bucket is excavating on a property for several hours. More than one unwitting customer has signed such a proposal and gotten a bill for tens of thousands of dollars more than they thought it would be. Trust us, they have a good idea how much soil will need to be removed. If they don’t, find another consultant.

Detail The Exact Scope of Work and the Materials To Be Used

There is an old saying that written contracts and agreements are for dishonest people. Well, Federated Environmental agrees except we add a another group: smart people. It is quite common for contractors or consultants and customers or clients to have honest misunderstandings or misgivings about what work is to be completed. Contracts are critical to ensure that both the contractor and the customer know what their duties and responsibilities are to each other. Assumptions are bad things when contracting a professional to complete a project. Anyone who underestimated the ingenuity of a plumber, electrician, or roofer never got a bill from one.

Be on The Lookout for The “Bait and Switch”

The “bait and switch” scheme is quite clever in its subtlety and is commonly used by retailers. Retailers will run an advertisement for a television set, for example, at a super attractive price. You get into your car and drive to the store. Low and behold, upon your arrival, the salesperson informs you they just sold the last sale model as seen in the advertisement. However, if you’re interested, they have several other televisions available right there in the store. Unfortunately, the available televisions are all much more expensive. It’s been a long day. You’re tired. You’ve already gone to the effort of driving to the store through traffic.  Ah heck…you buy what television they have and spend twice or more as much on the one that was in the store’s advertisement. Congratulations. You’ve been had.

Consultants and contractors can implement the same strategy. You will be enticed by a low ball offer on a service or material. However, some unforeseen problem will occur that is seemingly out of the control of the contractor and you end up spending more. You’re convinced the contractor did what they could on your behalf. Yeah, right. You’ve been duped.

Sorry, We’re Out of Onions…Or Pickles…Today Scam

One time we entered a fast food restaurant and ordered an offered menu item cheeseburger. This restaurant chain, like all such chains, offered standardized cheeseburgers with cheese, ketchup, mustard, onions, and a pickle. After ordering the cheeseburger (without any requested changes), we sat down at a table and took a bite of the cheeseburger. We noticed that the cheeseburger had no onions on it…a standard item that comes on the restaurant’s cheeseburger. We approached the counter to ask for onions. The cashier informed us, “Sorry, we are out of onions today.” We asked why we weren’t offered a discount on the sandwich. The cashier stated that they do not offer a discount if they are short an item or condiment. Evidently, they don’t bother to inform people of shortages when an order is placed.

The lesson here is that when you contract for a service or product that includes a “package” of some kind that all the service or product items in the “package” will be present and provided. Don’t make any assumptions. Does a company make more money off you by “being out of something from time to time” but still offered as part of your “package?” You bet they do. Why pay for something that in the end doesn’t exist? Invisible onions, anyone?

The “Too Late to Switch” Scam: Anticipate It Before It Happens

This is a favorite among roofers and any contractor working on a project for you with seemingly unknowable, unforeseen, and uncontrollable conditions that present themselves during the course of a project. Here’s a typical scenario. You contract a roofer to replace your asphalt shingle roof. After flipping through the books containing roof shingle colors, designs, and warranty periods, you make your choices, sign the contract, and await the day for the roof replacement. You’re feeling good about the project because the price is right, within budget, and the contractor is just a plain nice guy. Hahahahaha. Click your safety harness…your carnival roller coaster ride into financial oblivion has only just begun. And your contractor is the ride operator.

The roofing company arrives promptly at 7:30 a.m. and with a bang and clang quickly removes the old roofing shingles, underlying tar paper, and old nails. This is good because rain is predicted for the evening and the new roof should be completed by early afternoon. Then, out of the blue, your contractor approaches you with a concerned look and explains there is water damage to the wood sheathing under the roof and to the fascia boards as well. Replacement of the fascia boards will also require replacement of the storm gutters. Then your contractor loses his theatrical glum expression and assures you  you’re in luck. He just happens to have plywood sheeting and fascia boards leftover from an earlier job back at his shop, and he might be able to to pull a guy off another project to bend new aluminum gutters for you this afternoon…and get it all done before the storm forecast for the evening.

At this point it’s officially over for you. You and your wallet are about to part company. Having no roof and an oncoming storm, you have absolutely no choice but to agree to anything he says and at any cost he presents. There is no time to collect bids. No time to think. No time to act. Only enough time to sign this contractor’s change order contract for over twice as much at the original cost quotation. The ugly truth is that your roofing contractor knew long before that this was the course the project was going to take. Clever, huh? You’ve been lead down the yellow brick road of contracting gullibility. With some luck there’s enough money in your 401K to cover this bandit’s final bill.  This roofing scam and ones like it take places thousands of times daily across the U.S.  Be smart. Be ready.

The 5% or 10% Cost Overage “Oopsie”

Sometimes consultants or contractors will include a clause in their contract (printed in a ridiculously small font) that they reserve the right to charge a 5% or 10% surcharge or fee in the event if some unforeseen, unknown, or unpredictable project cost is incurred by the contractor during the course of the project. Of course, if the contractor anticipates that you will not be an ongoing customer, they will whack you with a 10% surcharge and gently remind you that it appears in the contract agreement you signed. They apologize in effusive terms that they could not avoid the extra cost…and gleefully drive off with your money. Wouldn’t it be dandy if we all could just throw 10% profit on top of everything we do?

Watch For The “Small, Medium, or Large” Word Meaning Play

This is a sort of verbal sleight of hand (or tongue) profit-garnering strategy that we’ve seen develop over the past several years where a vendor changes the meaning of a word to get you to spend more.  For example, while ordering lunch at an eatery joint at your local mall, the cashier asks you if you’d like a small, medium, or large drink. Generally speaking, a small is a child’s drink so not many order a small. Most people order a medium drink because a small is too small and a large is too large. Knowing this, the eatery joint gleefully accepts your order for a “medium” drink. However, they changed the meaning of the word “medium” and didn’t include you on the memo.

Your “medium” drink is hoisted onto the counter, and low and behold, it’s a whopping, jug-like, 24-ounces (not including the ice) and costs almost $3.00. There is no going back….you specifically ordered a medium and they poured you their medium-sized drink. An after the fact comparison of the cups shows that a “small” drink would have been more than adequate. Hence, by changing the meaning of the words small, medium, and large, the eatery duped you…the hapless customer….into spending more.  This little trick can increase a restaurant chain’s gross annual revenues by multiple millions of dollars. The lesson here is to specifically define the terms used between yourself and your environmental consultant or contractor before formal engagement.

Start and Stop Dates: Not All Jail Cells Have Bars

Some contractors play a cruel sort of trick after they’ve collected your project deposit. Knowing that by collecting your deposit you’ve effectively become a “captive customer,” they put your project on the schedule board where it proceeds to languish for week after week and sometimes month after month. They know that you won’t abandon the contract while your deposit is nestled comfortably in their bank account.  Relax, they’ll get to your project someday.

It is critically important for your contract to stipulate specific project start and completion dates and without wiggle room to spare. If you forget to include this information in the contract, be prepared to wait. And wait. And wait.

Get Proof of Insurance In Hand Before You Begin

Records presented by the Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles state that there are over 70,000 uninsured motor vehicle drivers on the road today (in 2014). Now, if people are willing to take a 4,000-pound chunk of iron down the road at 70-miles per hour without insurance, do you think a contractor would work on your property without insurance? You bet they would, and many do. The savings get passed onto the customer, right? Well, no.

Always check to ensure that your contractor carries appropriate insurance for the good or service they are providing and at the appropriate limits. Is the contractor insured for exactly what they do? Do they somehow limit their liability on the project? Is the policy claims made, true occurrence, or does it have a sunset clause? Has the policy expired? Although these insurance aspects may seem confusing or complicated at first, they can be learned and applied to your project. More than one contractor has made a major mistake, and when you try to contact them about it, their telephone number has been disconnected.

The Magical Disappearing Deposit: Prest-O, Change-O, Your Cash Is Gone

Obtain a level of certainty that your contractor has the financial stability and intent to complete your project before you give them a deposit. Some contractors claim they need your deposit for materials and other reasons before they begin work. Really? For materials? For the permit?

We’ve heard of the house painter who took a third down deposit for a project and disappeared completely. We heard of an exercise club that ran an impossibly good special on a year membership, feverishly collected deposits in cash and credit cards, and declared bankruptcy the following week without refunds. Here’s the best one. We heard of a summer camp that collected an entire summer’s worth of deposits and full payments for summer camp for underprivileged inner city children and declared bankruptcy. Nope, no refunds. Most thieves are actually pretty stupid. Proving it requires little effort.

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