How to Pick a Contractor

Today we’re going to talk about how to pick a good contractor for your next outdoor home project and what possible red flags you should look for before hiring someone to fill that role.

To make sure we didn’t miss anything, we sat down with our supplier, Jacob, from Yorktown Materials. Jacob works closely with contractors and homeowners alike, so he has a unique view of the industry and had a lot of great information to share!​

Our goal is to educate others about what to look out for and what questions you should ask before hiring a contractor for your outdoor space. After all, you’re about to invest your hard earned money into a space that YOU have to live in, so you need to choose the right person to get the job done!


First, Let’s Talk About Efflorescence

Before we get into the nitty gritty, I want to mention an issue that has come up a lot over the years, and that’s efflorescence. What is efflorescence? It is the deposit of salt that settles on top of pavers, giving them that gritty white look on top. The way this happens is when moisture travels up through the base and then through the paver, it actually pulls out the calcium deposits that are in the pavers, leaving those salt deposits sitting on top.

The reason I bring this up first is because this is actually NOT a red flag or sign of poor quality when it comes to your contractor. However, it is something you could ask about because there are manufacturers you can pick that are more consistent, so efflorescence will be less of an issue. But it’s likely that it will still happen. Our best advice, which many contractors will tell you, is to wait some time before sealing your pavers. By giving them time to cure through exposure to weathering, hot and cold temperatures, and moisture, that efflorescence will bleed out and eventually go away. We recommend waiting three to six months to let the paver fully cure, clean it, and then go ahead and seal it!​

Now, let’s talk about four red flags you should be looking out for.

1.  Licensing and Workers’ Compensation

One of the very first things you should check when looking for a contractor is making sure that they are licensed and insured. You want to find somebody that you can completely trust to walk you through this project. From breaking ground to installation, all the way to maintenance, you need to be able to find someone who is reliable.

There are three things you need to confirm that this contractor has before you move any further in the process:

  • Contractor’s License
  • Business License
  • Workers Compensation for their employees

Contractor’s License
This one probably seems pretty straightforward. A contractor’s license is issued by the state and simply verifies that they are actually a contractor. This lets you know that they have taken a course, been certified, and are familiar with the methods and standards of contract law. If you live in Virginia, confirming the status of a contractor’s license is as simple as visiting the DPOR website, typing in their name, and verifying that everything is up to date. 

Business License
A business license allows contractors to actually operate their business. Go figure! For Class A Contractors, states can require that contractors have a business license in each municipality they are going to be working working in such as Gloucester, Virginia Beach, Yorktown, etc. All of these different places require a business license. 

Be sure to check that the contractor you choose has a valid and active license in your area before getting any work started. To do this you can simply call your county’s courthouse and they can verify the status of the business for you. 

Workers’ Compensation
Another important question to ask is whether the contractor provides workers’ compensation. This is so important that if the answer is no it should be a major red flag for you. The reason it’s so important is because if somebody gets hurt while working on your project, and they don’t have workers’ compensation, do you know who’s liable for that? You are! The homeowner is liable if the contractor isn’t covering it, so ask your potential contractor and verify that they have workers’ comp in place for everybody’s sake!

2. Base Preparation

Now that we’ve covered business and licensing, let’s talk about things to look for as you start discussing the details of your project. Jacob, our supplier from Yorktown Materials, says that one of the most important parts of any project is base preparation…ad we think he’s right!

The base may be one of the least expensive parts of the job, but it is definitely not the least important. Without a good, strong base, your backyard structure is susceptible to things like low spots, water puddling, paver joints failing, and the patio failing in the long run. So how do you avoid that? Here are some things you need to know. ​

First, you want to make sure that your contractor is following ICPI standards. Depending on whether you’re installing a pedestrian rated walkway, or a vehicular rated hot tub style pad, base thicknesses are different. Typically we want to see three to four inches of some sort of crushed stone with a leveling sand on top, before your pavers are installed. You want to make sure that the base they are using will hold up your investment in the long run! 

Second, beware of any contractor who talks about using stone dust as the base. This is another major red flag and something you definitely want to avoid. Stone dust holds a lot of moisture, and moisture is detrimental for the polymeric sand joints in the pavers. This can lead to problems like settling, creating a wave-like action across your patio, and ultimately leaving you with a space that you’re going to have to put a lot more money into just to get it fixed. 

To avoid this, look for a contractor who is planning to use clean, crushed stone as your base. Better yet, ask about using an open grade or geo-grid base for a durable and long lasting installation!

3. Identifying Potential Issues

When picking your contractor, another question to ask is how they plan to identify potential grade and drainage issues. 

Drainage Issues
One pitfall that I see often is when contractors install pavers perfectly level with the floor, leaving no way for water to drain off. We see this most frequently at doorways, where pavers are placed perfectly level as you step out the door, leaving any water with no place to go but towards the house. Over time,water and moisture get driven towards the house, leading to rot. 

To avoid this you want a contractor who is going to drop that patio down a couple of inches, that way the moisture has somewhere to drain off. 

Slope and Grade Issues
Another drainage issue to be aware of is installing a patio on a slope. It is all too common that homeowners and contractors will think it’s okay to do a patio on a small slope in the yard, without setting a retaining wall – but this is a big mistake! 

When the slope of a yard exceeds a drop of a quarter of an inch per foot, a properly installed retaining wall will ensure that your patio won’t fail. Without something retaining your patio base, the pavers are going to be compromised because your base can actually give out. A good contractor is going to excavate and set a base for a retaining wall. They will want to build that part of your property up, backfill, and then lay the pavers over top of that. 

Speaking of backfill, this is another crucial detail when it comes to the quality of your installation. I have seen a lot of contractors use soil for backfilling and building up the grade in a yard, and this is yet another red flag that you want to look out for. If you have a contractor that wants to move fresh soil, put grade on top of it, and then put your pavers on top of that you’re going to run into some serious issues down the road. It is not a question of if the patio will settle, but when. 

When you’re trying to backfill with a couple of feet of soil, the soil will actually compress, and eventually that patio will fail. Then YOU will end up spending more money to fix it than you would have spent if it had just been done right the first time!​

This brings us to our final word of warning: cheaper isn’t always better.

4. You Get What You Pay For

When it comes to hiring a contractor for your outdoor space, the saying “you get what you pay for” is definitely true. The price difference between some of these jobs can be pretty crazy. You could talk to one contractor who knows how to do something like building a retaining wall, compared to a contractor who has never built one, and the quoted cost could drop significantly. 

This is NOT because the more experienced contractor is trying to take advantage of you. His higher price comes from knowledge and experience, and you will benefit from that knowledge and experience by getting an accurate quote in the first place, avoiding a lot of unseen issues, and having a higher quality installation that will stand the test of time. 

If you are dealing with a contractor who is, let’s say, 40 percent cheaper than the other guy, don’t get too excited. I would start asking a LOT of questions. How much experience does he have? What base materials is she planning to use? Are there any potential issues that might come up later?

An experienced contractor is going to be much more equipped to spot potential problems and help you plan for them ahead of time, rather than coming to the middle of a job and having to change course or worse, coming to the end of a project and finding out that your $10K job is actually going to cost you $20k!

While no contractor is perfect, and everyone is going to miss things occasionally, you should at least be aware that the person giving you a higher quote is probably taking into account a lot of the details that an inexperienced contractor will miss. Nobody wants to be left with an incomplete installation, or to compromise on the yard of your dreams because the quote you received just wasn’t accurate for the scope of your project. ​

Instead, do the work ahead of time to make sure that the contractor you choose can deliver on every part of the process!

Now What?

So, now what? You now know what to look for and what questions to ask before choosing a contractor. You’re going to check that they have proper licensing and workers’ comp. You’re going to listen and ask questions about what type of base preparation they plan to use. You’re going to make sure that they have plenty of experience with issues like drainage and grading. And you’re going to be wary of anyone who is significantly cheaper than the rest of the competition.

But how else can you get a feel for these things, besides just asking them directly? We highly recommend heading to their website, looking at pictures and videos of their previous work, reading reviews, and even asking for personal referrals. You want to get a sense of the kind of work that you’re going to be getting. After all, this is your home and the contractor that you choose to make this big investment matters!

To hear more of our in-depth conversation, check out our video on YouTube!