In Over Your Head? : How to Pick a Roofer


Pete McKenney’s experience was ghastly--but not all that unusual. He hired a roofer he thought he could trust. The man arrived in “a new car” and “was neat, clean and professional looking.” He gave McKenney a good bid and three references.

“Trusting the contractor, I left for work,” McKenney recalled. “The neighbors tell me the workers arrived in the worst-looking dump truck with the sides falling out, bald tires, smoking tailpipe and the four guys looked like refugees from hell.”

The efforts of the work crew “from hell” give McKenney a perfect score in the “project from hell” category.


Debris from the job rained down on attic, yard, ceiling fixtures and even his kitchen floor. McKenney wound up with a fire hazard in the attic, damaged insulation, a broken kitchen vent, a heat pump filled with dirt and rocks and several other messy and costly aggravations.

But that wasn’t the worst part. In the very next storm, rain poured into McKenney’s Manhattan Beach home.

The following summer he had his “new” roof replaced. And still suffered leaks because of improper installation.

Next time? McKenney said he would be on site all day and know what to insist on for every detail of the job. “I’ll be the homeowner from hell!” he vowed.

You don’t have to be the homeowner from hell to get a roofing job done properly. But it wouldn’t hurt to know a thing or two about hiring a roofing contractor.

It’s also useful to know something about the nature of the roofing business.

“It’s typically an industry that’s based on price,” said Mark Vanderslice, president of Roofing Forensics of Yorba Linda, an independent consulting firm. “You have contractors who don’t make much money, the way they get jobs in a competitive environment, so they’re always thinking how to get the price lower. And what that does is bring everything to a low level of quality.”

And since roofing isn’t an improvement most people can get excited about, homeowners often play their own part in this low-budget, low-quality game. “They’ll pay more for the tile man, for a couch with a different fabric or even a good paint job,” said Richard Silverman of Silverman Roofing in Santa Monica. “But for roofing they think everyone does the same thing and they can get it for less,” he said, adding: “They get what they pay for.”


Which is not to say that you should simply hire the most expensive roofer you can find. But the caution about choosing the low-ball bid was echoed by nearly everyone interviewed for this story. From roofers to homeowners to consumer agencies, the most frequently offered piece of wisdom is this: Cheapest is not always a good idea. In the long run, it’s not even always cheapest.

“Homeowners often don’t want to work with most top-notch roofers because they think they are too expensive.” said Richard Boon, deputy director of the Roofing Industry Education Institute in Englewood, Colo.

John Carter of West Covina was one such homeowner. “We shopped price,” he said ruefully. The people sent by the roofing company were sloppy workers. In attaching the plywood sheathing to the roof, they missed rafters with many of their nails. His garden and attic are still littered with debris from the job.

Sadder but wiser, Carter admits he made another critical error. He never checked up on the roofer’s credentials. “I assumed he had a license, but I didn’t really know what that meant.”

It means a lot. A license doesn’t guarantee that the roofer is good at his job. But it does guarantee that you have some recourse in case there are problems. Also, if you hire an unlicensed contractor, you could be liable for injuries or damage that occur on your property.

Because Tam Lipson of Long Beach used a licensed contractor, she had leverage in dealing with her roofer when her roof started leaking and the roofer failed to showed up.


“He gave me a personal grief story,” Lipson said. “He told me there were a lot of things worse to live with than a leaky roof! I suggested losing his license would be a lot more difficult to live with than repairing my leaky roof!” And she promptly filed a complaint with the state Office of Consumer Affairs.

Soon afterward, she received a copy of the warning letter sent to the roofer by the Contractors’ State License Board. Three days later, the roofer appeared and patched the leaks. “So far, so good,” she said.

According to Everett Lawson, assistant licensing deputy at the licensing board, Lipson’s experience is typical. “The largest majority of contractors, when they find out a complaint has been filed, will fix the problem--regardless of fault,” he said.

Lawson said his office receives about 30,000 complaints annually on various types of contractors. Roofers are among the most frequently complained about. They generate 14% of all complaints, although they make up only 5% of all contractors licensed by the state.

How can you find a roofer you won’t wind up complaining about?

It isn’t as easy as “letting your fingers do the walking.” But neither is it complicated. It takes time, common sense--and a little detective work.

Starting with a referral is your best bet. If you followed last week’s advice and visited a roofing supply showroom, you’re off to a good start.


Besides having some idea of the material you’d like to use for the job, you’ll also have the names of some roofers recommended by the material supplier.

Don’t forget that friends and neighbors who have recently had roof jobs done can also be a good source for referrals. “If you see a good roofing job in your area,” said Laurance Chafe, assistant regional deputy for the contractors licensing board, “don’t be afraid to go up to a neighbor and ask about it.”

Of course, no recommendation--no matter how hearty, whether it be from the material supplier or your brother-in-law--is a substitute for doing some basic checking.

For starters, here’s what you need to find out.

1--Is the roofer a licensed roofing contractor in California?

In California, any job that costs $300 or more must be done by a licensed contractor. Ask to see a pocket license and another form of identification. When you call to see if the license is current, be sure the contractor’s business name matches the name that goes with the license number.

Millie Gordon of Westlake Village learned the hard way about doing a license check. “He really seemed like such a nice, honest, guy,” she said recalling an ordeal with a leaking roof that stretched over three years. When she finally got curious and called the licensing board, she found out that the license number her roofer had given her actually belonged to someone else--and had expired in 1987. Without a valid license number, Gordon is at a loss for filing a complaint on her roofer when and if she locates him.

2--Is the roofer bonded?

Bonding is a legal requirement in California.

If your contractor goes bankrupt or disappears before the job is done, you can be compensated up to the amount of the bond. Note that bonds are often for $5,000--less that the cost of many roof jobs. Still, it’s a start. And it’s also one more indicator about the reliability of your contractor--if the roofer’s cutting corners on legal requirements for business, is this who you want installing your roof?

3--Are there any outstanding judgments (unsatisfied complaints) against the roofer?

The licensing board will tell you if there are current complaints against a roofer. It will not tell you if there have been several dozen complaints in the past, as long as these complaints have been dealt with.


Neither does the board keep a list of contractors who draw the most complains. Know what the board can and cannot do for you. It can be helpful, but a “clean bill of health” from the board is not a substitute for getting several references and really checking them.

4--Does the roofer have worker’s compensation insurance in case employees are injured on your job?

State law requires that the roofer carry it. Worker’s comp costs roofing contractors about 44 cents for every payroll dollar they spend. It’s one big reason why you’ll pay more for a better roofer.

“Competition is stiff among roofers,” said Rick Bravo of Commercial Roofing & Waterproofing in Artesia. “The unlicensed types don’t have to get insurance, don’t pay taxes, they blow us right out of the water, we can’t compete.”

5--Does the roofer have general liability insurance?

State law does not compel your roofer to carry it. But if the roofer beans the mail carrier with falling tiles or backs a truck into your patio wall, you’ll be glad he does.

The way to check both insurance questions is to ask your contractor to have certificates of insurance mailed directly to you by the insurance carrier. Don’t be shy--a good roofer will be used to doing this for clients.


6--How long has the roofer been in business?

Mark Vanderslice of Roofing Forensics advises looking for a contractor with several years’ experience. “I’d say less than five years is risky,” he said. “In this day and market, the longer the better.”

7--Can the roofer give you at least three references?

Check them and question them closely about how the job went.

“The true tale of a good roofing contractor,” said James Fohrman, president of Fairway Roofing Inc. in Mission Viejo, “is not how good or easy his job went, but how he handled any problems that occurred.”

Get bids on your job from at least three roofers you have checked on and are satisfied with. And make sure that you’re comparing “apples and apples.” The roofing material should be the same as should all details about what is to be installed, replaced or repaired (drip edges, flashings, gutters, etc.).

Of course, all of the above is based on the assumption that you’ll have a handful of roofers to choose from. Depending on what month we’re in, that may or may not be the case. Just before the rainy season is roofers’ busiest time. “Anticipation of winter and as soon as we have the first rain, people start calling,” said Richard Silverman of Silverman Roofing in Santa Monica. “When we have a big rain, it will be a nightmare.”

Homeowner Frank Lucido in Studio City can vouch for that. Lucido said he spent a long time doing preliminary research on roofers and found he was able to talk to many roofing companies during the summer. “By the time the rainy season started, I couldn’t get anyone to return my calls.”

If you do wind up with a roof job in process during the rainy season, watch out.

Jay Thibault of El Segundo can relate chilling tales of wrestling heavy plastic sheeting onto his exposed roof during a wind and rainstorm. His roofer, stretched thin with other jobs, barely arrived in time to help. It was only their combined “panic-driven energy” that averted major damage.


As it was, Thibault’s ceilings bore the marks of considerable leaking. “Until they were repaired,” he recalled, “the ceilings above my bed caused me to think about this adventure every night as I slept.”

He sums up his roofing wisdom this way:

“My only advice is to put on a new roof last summer.”

Tips for Dealing With Your Roofer

Here are a few tips that will make your life easier as the job progresses--and possibly save you money and headaches when it’s finished.

Keep a job file. Set up a Manila folder where you’ll stash all related paperwork. Of course, you’ll have the contract in here--plus any written changes, but don’t forget also to keep a copy of the material manufacturer’s instructions for application and warranty.

Inspect the work as it progresses. That copy of the manufacturer’s instructions and warranty will come in handy here. If the manufacturer calls for six nails per shingle and your contractor is only using three, you’ll want to point that out. And, of course, closely inspect the work before you write that final check.

Be sure your contractor gets the required permit from your city. Do not let him talk you into doing it. The person who pulls the permits on a job becomes the “Owner/Builder.” The person designated by this term is responsible for the overall job, which may include such things as code compliance and other legal liabilities. You definitely want your roofing contractor to be the “Owner/Builder.”

Plan for the disruption. Know that even under the best circumstances, the work you’re having done will be noisy and messy and will cause some inconvenience to you and your family. Ask your roofing contractor to tell you what to expect. Then prepare your family and make your plans accordingly.


Be reachable. If you will be away from home while the work is being done, be sure to give your contractor a phone number where you can be reached in case he needs to consult with you about the work.

Get a handle on liens and lien waivers. What are they and why should you care? Say you’ve paid your contractor the full amount you owe him for labor and material. But, let’s say your roofer’s had a little cash flow problem and hasn’t paid his workers or the material supplier. Unless you have a signed “lien waiver,” you could be forced to pay that amount all over again to keep from losing your home. The way to protect yourself is to specify that your contractor is responsible for obtaining and providing you with lien releases from any subcontractors and material suppliers involved in your job. Call the material supplier directly to verify that all material has been paid for.

Never let your payments get ahead of the work completed. Your payment schedule should be contingent upon the contractor’s completed work. You should also provide for a retention of at least 10% of the amount owed until the job is fully complete--to your satisfaction.