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Hiring a Contractor Without Getting Ripped Off.

Updated: Aug 20, 2023

I originally  wrote this piece during the pandemic as everyone was nesting and sheltering in place. With the pandemic many of us wanted to make our homes as comfortable as possible. Now with the holidays upon us, many are trying to do a last minute addition or have work done so our homes look their Christmas Best. As a Process Server, in my early years I've located and served an elusive contractor here or there. Since the pandemic, those numbers have exploded. In the last 2.5 years, I have had 14 of the most unscrupulous "Contractors" one could imagine, including 5 repeat offenders. Even after being served and told what they were doing was illegal, have continued to remain unlicensed ( and can't get licensed due to serious criminal convictions) and continue to "take jobs" that they either complete jobs leaving dangerous conditions or take the money and run.  My clients were out of money and faced with the enormous task of repairing or replacing the mess they now have or even worse.. were just out of the money all together. While I always find these folks eventually,  it can take a month or two and my client not only has to pay me, but $149.50 in court filing costs, time lost from Work in addition to the money they're already out. Meanwhile, these " contractors" are out living their best lives, going on trips, buying significant others or themselves lavish presents, or funding their drug habits.  When I do find these pillars of the community,  they always have some excuse about how my serving them is all a big mistake, or how difficult my client was as their client.  I even had a Contractor Defendant deny he knew my client, and further was shocked I found him because he " changed his Company name because people were threatening to sue him." ( I laughed a little in my head and thought to myself, " Yep, my client, the one you don't remember, is one of them. ") Changing a company name is a common practice of these " contractors" after they have been sued, or negative reviews are posted on social media or Google.  While hiring a Contractor can be a little daunting, it doesn't have to become a situation where you get taken advantage of... By following some of my simple tips when hiring a Contractor, you can avoid having to hire me.. 

Choosing your Contractor: Word of Mouth is great but a company that may not have had financial issues when your friend used them for his deck may now have issues when you need to remodel your kitchen.. Choose Top Reviewed Contractors on Google, Yelp, or even on Facebook and then… make your list.  Check your neighborhood group pages for names of contractors that have done a good job. You will also normally find the ones not recommended as well.

Go to the Department of Commerce and Insurance and Secretary of State's Website and Check Credentials:.. Just because they say they are licensed doesn’t mean they actually are.. I recently had a Defendant that even had a fake Contractor's License Number on my Client's Receipt.  The first thing I did upon their retaining me was to see if he was licensed ( most folks with Professional Licenses may not update their Driver's License, but by gosh, they'll keep that Professional license up to date and good address on file.) Now you can eliminate any of the ones that don't have licensure or registration with the Secretary of State, and make your calls for estimates. To check your Contractor's License in Tennessee go to: VERIFY AND PUT YOUR CONTRACTOR' INFORMATION IN THE EMPTY FIELDS. Utilizing a contractor licensed through the state almost nearly ensures that you're also not letting a convicted criminal into your home. ALSO if your contractor plans to sub contract knowing the law is helpful. The law  which states; " A Tennessee contractor's license is required BEFORE bidding or offering a price, for projects $25,000 and up (includes materials and labor), as a prime (general) contractor; and also subcontractors performing electrical, mechanical, plumbing, HVAC, roofing and masonry are also required to be licensed as a contractor, when the total portion on the project is $25,000 or more; masonry, when $100,000 or more. In addition, a sub to a sub would need to be licensed whenever there are more than one (1) subcontractors on the project. Reciprocal agreements do NOT allow using another state's license in Tennessee, but provides a trade exam waiver, only.  License issuance takes 4 to 6 weeks. ( T.C.A. 62) I also recommend running background checks on anyone you are allowing into your home.

IF A COMPANY IS USING LLC in their name, they must be registered with the Tennessee Secretary of State

Rough Estimate The Cost of Your Job: .. If a gallon of paint covers 400 square feet, and you have 2000 square feet.. and a 5 gallon bucket of premium home interior paint is $170, a Painting Contractor telling you he can get your paint for half of that is probably full of beans especially given the current state of Inflation. While as a Contractor does more than likely get a discount, you can best believe he isn't getting much more than a 10- 15 % discount. Same with all other work materials too.

Beware of the Fast & Cheap Guy:

The old saying "you get what you pay for" is true when it comes to hiring a Contractor. If the really " honest sounding and sincere guy" says he can do it cheaper than the most expensive guy, chances are he is cutting corners or hiring sub- contractors that may or may not be getting paid themselves. Even worse, the " Contractor" may not be pulling permits that are required for a remodeling job. A good contractor also has a wait list. A great contractor is hard to find and when you do, if one says that they can "come take care of you immediately"; it's a HUGE RED FLAG. Hiring folks without proper documentation that you can verify through the Contractor's Board and Secretary of State makes it incredibly difficult in the event you do have to file suit to get your money back. Oftentimes these Contractor's own nothing that you can put a lien on, have no company to which you can send a garnishment, and are nearly next to impossible to prosecute criminally as unless it's a huge job will the authorities become involved in trying to help you get your money back.

Know the Difference Between Bonded and Insured:

I hear folks in my own industry use Bonded and Insured interchangeably.. and they are two very different things.

BONDED: means you are protected if the contractor fails to complete a job, doesn’t pay for permits, or fails to meet other financial obligations, such as paying for supplies or subcontractors or covering damage that workers cause to your property.

INSURED: means your Contractor has liability insurance if your property is damaged, and has insurance including Workers Comp if their people get hurt on the job.

I have absolutely served cases where a homeowner paid a Contractor to do something and something inadvertently got broken. One that stands out that was really costly was a Homeowner that had paid a Contractor who wasn't bonded to put in new fencing. The Contractor came out with a DitchWitch and cut the internet line for the whole neighborhood and subsequently was sued. The Homeowner was sued for the cost to replace the lines by the Cable Company. I have also served at least 3 cases where a Contractor was not insured. In another case, a subcontractor slipped on the edge of a new concrete pool. The subcontractor broke his neck, back, and jaw in the fall, and the Court decided that ultimately the Homeowner was responsible to pay his bills, lost wages, and the specter of a big judgment that will follow her until it's satisfied. The Court's opinion was that the onus was on the Homeowner to make sure the Contractor was insured. Most legitimate Contractors won't mind being asked to produce that documentation. If they are upset or annoyed go elsewhere.


Writing any job up is always a good idea. It makes clear to the Contractor what you expect in terms of job completion dates, conditions, how the area is to be kept during the job, rain delay policies etc.. As always if there is something you don't understand or you are being asked to sign something you're not comfortable with, contact an Attorney to review it for you. Don't fall for the " well this is how it's done throughout the industry line." A legitimate Contractor will want to create a paper trail as much as you do. Sometimes Contractors can't change the way something is done due to codes or safety. Others however will attempt to bully you just because they want it done their way or the highway.. an attorney can help you determine if that's true or not.

Payment: A lot of contractors claim they need money for materials. A good rule of thumb is a 1/3 of the cost to cover the purchase of materials , 1/3 when the materials hit your driveway, and 1/3 when the job is complete. BETTER YET.. to avoid that all together.. go with them to your local hardware and lumber purveyor and pay yourself. But, again, if you trust the contractor with money be sure to create a paper trail. Checks with what the funds are for in the memo line or Cashier's Checks from your bank, and credit cards are the way to go. Usually if there is a problem you have a way to get your money back. Paying in cash is a huge mistake. If I had a nickel for every time a client said " I wanted to give someone new a chance", or " they seemed so honest. ", I could quit hoping to win the Power Ball.

Chris Wilkinson is the owner of Smoky Mountain Process and Legal Services in Knoxville, Tennessee. Covering Process, Court Filing, Mobile Notary, I-9 Verification, and Loan Closings throughout most of East Tennessee, Chris lives with her partner, and dogs on the Southside and enjoys College Football in her spare time. If you have a Mobile Notary, or Legal matter that you need served whether its a bad Contractor, Eviction, Divorce, Child Custody, or General Law Suits, Chris can be reached at 865-347-7967.

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