Contractor Contracts and Agreements

The Contractor Bond: When a Handshake Isn’t Enough Assurance

“Word is bond,” the saying goes, but with home improvements, the contractor bond should be in writing.

A surety bond is an agreement that enables you to report a contractor to a surety company if he doesn't fulfill the terms of your contract. Image: David Sacks/Lifesize/Getty Images

Not knowing how to hire a contractor can result in headache after headache. A contractor bond is an insurance policy contractors carry to protect you if they screw up.

But the mere fact that they’re “bonded” doesn’t guarantee your protection. One contractor bond can differ from another in what it covers, just as your homeowner’s policy differs from your neighbor’s.

What’s a Contractor Bond?

When a contracting company tells you it’s bonded, that means it’s purchased a product, typically from an insurance company, called a “surety bond.” This is a three-part agreement between:

  • You, the customer, called the “obligee.”
  • Your contractor, called the “principal.”
  • The surety company that issues the bond.

The surety bond is a guarantee that contractors will offer certain services to you, as outlined in the remodeling contract. If they don’t, you can report the problems to the surety company and get a cash payment.

Different Kinds of Contractor Bonds

Surety bonds have wide application in the business world, but only a few types are relevant when dealing with home improvement contractors:

  • Performance and completion bonds. These ensure the work will be performed and completed to your satisfaction, as outlined in the contract. As attorney Jack Harari of Weidenbaum and Harari in New York says, if the contractor bungles the job, just walks away from a half-finished job, or even goes belly-up right in the middle, you’re covered. Insist on these bonds for any building job.
  • Payment bonds. These protect you against claims from subcontractors. If the contractor you hired to build a garage doesn’t pay the supplier who sold him the cinder blocks, the supplier will have recourse against the contractor. Why should you even care? Because a stiffed subcontractor could come after you, even if there wasn’t a direct contract with you. These bonds are only necessary if your contractor is making major outlays to other suppliers and contractors.
  • License and permit bonds. If state authorities require licenses or permits to do business, they may require contractors to purchase these bonds. Provisions may vary from one location to another.

It can be comforting to know that a license automatically means a bond, but don’t assume that these bonds will be enough: They may not have a high enough financial ceiling to cover your job, and they might not include a payment bond for subcontractors.

Related: What to Do If You Get in a Dispute With Your Contractor

Read the Bond’s Fine Print

Since each bond’s provisions may vary, you have to sweat the details:

  • Before any contractors start work, find out who has bonded them and exactly what for.
  • Find out what the contractor bond specifically covers and what is outlined in your contract.
  • Make sure they show you a certification providing they have the bond.

If bonding comes with a state or local license, make sure the contractor’s license is up-to-date. Your town or county may have an online list of local contractors who are licensed, and the builders themselves should have proof.

Never assume, says Wayne B. Heicklen, co-chair of the Real Estate Group at New York law firm Pryor Cashman. He advises you to read the financial details of the bond so you know what you’re going to get and under what circumstances.

Good Advice: Pay the Premium for a Bond

Don’t skimp! It’s true that premiums for bonds are expensive and as a result, a bonded contractor may charge 1%-3% more for a project than a non-bonded one. But if you go with a non-bonded contractor to save a few bucks, you may regret it later. The non-bonded contractor may have been unable to get a bond because of past mistakes, just as a driver with multiple moving violations has trouble getting car insurance.

Related: New Insurance Product Goes Beyond the Standard Bond