Does That Contractor Really Want Your Business? How to Tell

Finding contractors who actually want to work with you is no small feat, it turns out.

It took me three months of stop-and-start negotiations to line up a construction company for the demo, framing, and sheathing portion of our upstairs renovation. During that time, I asked eleven different building contractors to bid on the project.

Ten walked through the space and put together preliminary bids.

Only two of those bids were realistic in terms of cost and start time.

The rest were either way overbudget or conditioned on starting four, five, six, or in one case nine months out.

What gave? Most of the contractors who bid on the project didn’t actually want to win. The project was either too big or too small for them, or they were super booked up already, or they didn’t think they’d turn a profit on our admittedly weird job.

But they didn’t want to ghost me because they were scared I’d leave them a bad review.

Had I known how to spot a contractor who doesn’t want the job, I’d have saved a lot of time and aggravation. See what my bidding process taught me about reluctant contractors and how you can avoid my mistakes.

How to Tell If a Contractor Wants Your Business

Figuring out if a contractor wants your business is partly about fit and partly about cues.

Sometimes, it’s clear that a contractor-client relationship isn’t a good fit. They don’t specialize in the type of work you need done, or they rub you the wrong way on a personal level. You can write these folks off quickly.

In other cases, the contractor should say “no” but doesn’t for one reason or another. You have to to read between the lines and interpret the subtle cues they’re sending.

They might ghost an estimate appointment or let texts and calls go unanswered for weeks, suggesting they’re overworked. Or they might quote you a crazy high price, which is a common way to say “no” without uttering the word.

Stop guessing and answer these questions to decide if a builder really wants to work with you.

What does their past work look like?

Check the contractor’s website, Angi listing, or Facebook page for examples of past work. Scan their Google and Yelp reviews too, looking for detailed descriptions beyond just “They did a great job!”

You want to see recent projects that look similar to yours in scope and quality.

Dismiss contractors that:

  • Don’t have much recent work at all. Say, fewer than ~five reviews or example projects from the past three years.
  • Seem too fancy or not fancy enough. Pay attention to the home type and size and finish quality the contractor seems to specialize in. Rule out those who seem too upscale or downscale for you.
  • Don’t specialize in the type of work you need done. If you’re looking to pop the top on your 1.5 story bungalow, don’t hire a framing company that specializes in floating decks.

Contractors like to pretend they’re generalists even when they’re specialists. So look at what they actually do, not what they say they do.

Are they responsive?

Clock how long it takes each contractor to get back to you after you first reach out to them.

If they really want your business, they’ll get back to you within hours of receiving your text, call, email, or Angi lead. Most of our contractors preferred to communicate in the evening. A few got back to us in the evening of the day we first reached out.

Follow up on your initial message at least twice. Being busy or a bit disorganized doesn’t mean that a contractor doesn’t want your business or won’t do a good job.

Space your follow-ups two to three business days apart. Friday and weekend follow-ups tend to have lower response rates, so maybe take a break between Thursday and Sunday evening.

Once you’ve heard back from the contractor, note how responsive they are to further communications. We’ve had several people ghost us over the course of our projects. They got back to us quickly, seemed interested in the work, and maybe even sent an estimate, but then stopped responding at some point before agreeing to take the job.

Who is your point of contact?

With many smaller building and home services contractors, the owner handles all communication with prospective clients. They put together all estimates too.

Bigger, busier contractors may have part-time or full-time estimators who handle communications with prospective clients.

It’s a good sign if your call goes directly to the owner, or an office manager or assistant immediately refers you to the owner or estimator.

It’s a bad sign if it goes the other way. If you reach the owner at first, but they then refer you to an office manager or assistant.

Nothing against office managers and assistants. Many contractors rely on them for scheduling and general organizational support. But if you can’t get someone responsible for bidding your project on the phone, it’s a clear sign that the contractor is too busy for you.

Are they respectful?

Our neighborhood has a rough reputation. Most of the contractors we considered for the construction portion of our upstairs renovation didn’t make mention of this, but one did. His first question after hearing our address was, “How’s the neighborhood?”

Playing dumb, I asked him what he meant, and he mumbled something about “that crap” he sees on the news. That should have been a red flag that he didn’t really want the job, but at that point we needed to line up bids fast. So I told him — honestly — that our block was leafy, had a few big houses, and was close to a park.

He drove out to give an estimate, but we never met face to face. He sat in his car for 15 minutes on the street outside, then drove away. When I asked him why, he blamed our budget and the exposures on a tight lot — information he already had. We could only conclude that he wasn’t comfortable working in our neighborhood.

Point is, some contractors are more direct than others. Some are downright standoffish. You don’t have to like the person you hire to fix your roof or finish your basement.

But you do need to read between the lines. Contractors who don’t respect you, your home, or your neighborhood don’t deserve the job. Often, they’re disrespectful because they don’t want it.

How long does the estimate take?

When a contractor really wants a job, they’ll bid on it quickly, no matter how busy they are or how soon they can start.

For a simple job, an estimate should take just a few business days for a professional estimator to put together. For jobs with more moving parts, seven to ten days is reasonable. Longer headways suggest the project isn’t a big priority for the contractor for one reason or another.

Beware contractors that “want” to bid sooner but “can’t.” They might blame a subcontractor’s estimator going AWOL, or fluctuating materials prices, or general busyness, but these are all excuses. We had one contractor blame all three, one after the other.

The bottom line is, they’d make time for you if they really wanted the job.

Is the estimate realistic?

Bigger building contractors with full-time estimators tend to turn bids around quickly, but don’t confuse speed with quality. Because it doesn’t cost them much to bid, they can be quick to toss out estimates that they don’t expect to be taken seriously.

Why bother? Because they’re less likely to get a bad review for an overbudget bid than no bid at all. If you go with someone else, it’s no sweat off their back, as long as you don’t badmouth them afterward.

Spotting an unrealistic estimate gets easier as you gather more bids.

Of the ten bids we got for the heavy construction portion of our upstairs renovation, five or six were within our budget, and thus realistic in terms of cost. But only two were realistic in terms of cost and timetable. The other three or four couldn’t start for at least four months, which we’d made clear was a dealbreaker.

Contractors generally know what’s reasonable to charge for a given project, so it’s easy to be the low bid or close to it. (If they want to be.)

It’s also easy for them to tuck a poison pill into the bid. This could be an expected start date many months in the future or a way overbudget price tag.

Again, they don’t refuse the job outright because they’re weird about turning down work or don’t want a bad review from a would-be customer.

Are they being straight with you?

Your BS detector gets a lot of work when you solicit bids for a big home improvement project. We asked for and/or got bids from several contractors who, in hindsight, were not straight with us.

One guy was the one who made multiple excuses for why his estimate wasn’t ready when he said it would be. He made and broke at least three bid deadlines for himself (we lost count) and trying to pin him down was impossible. We got the sense that he was overwhelmed with bids and jobs, but was constitutionally incapable of saying “no.”

Another BSer was one of our “can’t start until forever” contractors. He also put off our estimate multiple times and never followed through. But he was consistent from the beginning about when he could start, which made us trust him at first.

It wasn’t until I asked him directly — “Hey, when can you get us that bid?” — that he admitted he wasn’t going to work on it until the start date got closer. He and the other “can’t start until forever” folks wasted a lot of time — for them and us — by not telling us to call them in three months.

How to Get the Contractor to Commit

I spent a lot of time chasing contractors who probably had no intention of taking the construction portion of our upstairs renovation job.

The upshot is that, by the end, I’d learned some tricks to get contractors to follow through and give a firm answer.

Give them a bid deadline

I was too nervous to do this at first. But after the first few bids trickled in and it became clear we’d be able to get the job done on schedule, I felt like I had more leverage.

From them on, I asked every contractor I spoke with when they thought they could get our bid in. I asked for a specific date. I told them that if I didn’t have the bid by then, I’d take them off the list.

This put them on the spot. Some hedged, but most said something to the effect of, “I should have your estimate ready by next Friday.” And maybe we got lucky, but all but one contractor who agreed to a specific deadline made it.

Ask when they can start

A contractor who wants the job will tell you they can start soon, even if that’s not true. They know that once you accept their bid and make your first payment, you’re hooked.

A contractor who doesn’t really want the job will be more honest about how busy they are and when they can start. They might even stretch the truth in the other direction, telling you they can’t start for three months when they have room in their schedule six weeks from now.

You need to figure out which contractors both a) want the job, and b) are being honest about when they can start.

Your BS detector will get some work here.

If you’re hiring for a construction job, ask each candidate if they employ their own framing crews. Many smaller building contractors work with independent framing crews who act as subcontractors. During busy periods, these framing subs are in high demand. Their availability often determines when a project can start.

If a candidate tells you they don’t have their own framers but that they can get framers on the job next week, be skeptical. Either they’re lying, or they’re hiring inexperienced framers that you shouldn’t trust on your job.

The building contractor we ultimately chose for our upstairs renovation had in-house framing crews. They were still super busy, but it was much easier for them to pull a crew for a few days. And because they were fitting us into a lull between bigger jobs — framing houses in a new subdivision — they were more likely to hold themselves accountable for hitting the start date. If they let it slip, they’d upset a more important client than us.

Ask how long it’ll take

Ask every candidate how long they expect the job to take.

On bigger jobs, the answer could vary depending on how much labor the contractor has and whether they’ll have different crews or subcontractors doing the work.

But experienced owners or estimators should know how about how long their crews take to finish similar jobs. If they’re evasive or give an unrealistically long timeframe, it’s a sign they don’t want the job.

Give them your top dollar

You’ve probably been told not to reveal your top dollar in negotiations, but hear me out.

This isn’t your real top dollar. It’s lower, but high enough to be realistic. One or two bidders might meet it, and a few others might get within 10% or 15%. You’ll negotiate with each from there.

This strategy helps weed out contractors who’ll bid unrealistically high in the hopes that you’ll turn them down or singlehandedly hand them the down payment on a Cabo condo. Either way, they win, so don’t play.

Reveal other quotes, strategically

Once you have a few bids within or close to your revealed budget, the real negotiations begin.

I revealed our low bid to each finalist (except the low bidder, of course) and asked them if they could match it. None did, but all came back with a second, lower bid. I took that as a sign that all wanted the job.

How to Make Choosing a Contractor As Painless As Possible

We ended up choosing the low bidder for the demo, framing, and sheathing part of our upstairs renovation.

It helped that they were the low bid, but that wasn’t the only reason we chose them.

First, it was also important that we felt confident they’d do a good job based on the references they provided and our own research. I’ll explain about how to do that research on your own in a future post.

Second, all evidence suggested they really wanted to take the job. They:

  • Picked up my first call and immediately put me in touch with the lead estimator, who followed up within a day
  • Visited the site within the week
  • Gave us a firm estimate five days after the site visit
  • Gave us a firm start date with the estimate
  • Were transparent about the timetable and that they would fit us in between bigger jobs

None of the other candidates did all that.

Your contractor selection process might go more or less smoothly than ours. Some of it depends on factors beyond your control, like the type of work you need done, how busy contractors are in your area, and whether they’re able to staff for demand.

But you can make it easier on yourself, and avoid making a bad hire, by:

  • Looking at examples of past work to make sure the contractor is comfortable taking their job (and isn’t just saying they are)
  • Ruling out candidates who aren’t responsive or respectful
  • Ruling out candidates whose estimates and start/completion timeframes aren’t realistic
  • Turning on your BS detector
  • Negotiating with candidates in good faith

The bigger the job, the higher the stakes. So take your time, consider your options carefully, and make the right call.