October 5, 2015

The Contractor’s Exam

A contractor is generally defined as anyone who provides the labor and materials to a construction site. A contractor may oversee an entire construction project, and may in turn hire subcontractors, such as roofers, to take care of specific needs for the project. Contractors are often responsible for the budget of a construction project, and must draw up the documents detailing the project’s cost to their clients. Many contractors begin their careers as construction workers, then go on into the management side of construction and run their own companies as contractors. Contractors do not perform a great deal of hands-on construction work, but they need to have experience with and a good understanding of construction work in order to adequately assess their projects and manage their employees and subcontractors.

Each state has different regulations regarding licensure procedures for contractors. Many states require contractors to be licensed in order to perform work in that state. A few states only require certain specialized contractors to have licenses and allow other, more generalized contractors to perform work without a license. Some states have different licensing procedures for contractors specializing in different lines of work; for example, Illinois has a roofer-specific contractor’s license. Other states require contractors to complete continuing education credits in order to maintain their contractor’s license throughout the course of their careers. A few state licensing boards prefer that contractors obtain a bachelor’s degree in construction management or a similar field. You can obtain information about whether or not you need a license and how to obtain one through your state’s licensing board. The state licensing board is responsible for issuing licenses to contractors.
If you need a license to practice as a contractor in your state and you do not have one, the consequences can be extensive. You may face hefty fines, and will also lose some of the legal rights set forth in your contracts with your clients. For example, if you are practicing without a license and are not paid in a timely manner by one of your clients, you may not be able to follow up with legal proceedings to obtain your payment if you do not have a contractor’s license.

In order to obtain a contractor’s license, you must pass a contractor’s exam issued by your state licensing board. However, before you can take the exam, you must apply to take the exam. To be eligible to apply for the exam, you must be a United States citizen or permanent resident and a high school graduate. Your state may require you to furnish documentation of any other occupational licenses you have obtained within the state. You may also need to supply the state licensing board with documentation of any legal trouble you have had with contract work in the past if any contractual projects you were a part of were involved in any litigation.

Some states may also request that you supply letters of recommendation in order to apply to take the contractor’s licensing exam. These letters of recommendation may be written by architects, engineers, former employers, clients, real estate developers, or financial professionals you have worked with in the past. You may also be asked to prove that your contractor’s business is financially solvent and has the resources and assets to run successfully. Sometimes applicants for the contractor’s exam need to also show documentation of all of their relevant work experience.

Once your application to take the contractor’s licensing exam has been accepted by your state’s licensing board, you should familiarize yourself with the content of the contractor’s licensing exam. Contractor’s licensing exams will vary slightly from state to state and depending on whether you are taking an exam to specialize within a particular field. However, contractor’s exams generally cover three main subject areas. These subject areas are laws governing contractors in your state, knowledge of how to run a contracting business, and construction skills.

Applying to Take the Contractor’s Exam

In states that require a contractor’s license in order to work as a contractor, you need pass a state licensing exam. First, however, you need to apply to take the exam. The application process in and of itself can be a lengthy one. Individuals can apply for a contractor’s license, as can partnerships and corporations in most states. In the case of a partnership or corporation, one person must serve as the qualifier in order to obtain a contractor’s license, and that person must take and pass the contractor’s licensing exam.

If you, your corporation, or your partnership purchase a contracting business, the business’s contractor’s license will likely not transfer with your purchase, and you or a qualifier from your organization must take and pass the contractor’s exam in order to obtain a valid contractor’s license. Some states have reciprocity agreements which allow holders of valid contractor’s licenses in other states to go through an abbreviated license application process. Other states may require that your business meet a minimum amount of operating capital in order to prove business solvency in order to obtain a contractor’s license. However, each state’s laws and regulations are different, so check with the state licensing board in each state where you wish to do business as a contractor.

When you send in the application and application fee to take the contractor’s exam, you may need to provide documentation that you have the necessary level of work experience to take the exam. Some states require that you have at least four years of experience working as a journeyman, foreman, contractor, or owner-builder in order to be eligible to take the contractor’s licensing exam. A journeyman is a construction worker who has completed a training or apprenticeship program. A foreman is a supervisor of construction projects, and a contractor manages construction projects. Owner-builders may have completed construction work on property that they own. (In most cases, if you own property, you can perform construction work on your own property without having to obtain a contractor’s license.) Often, you will need someone to verify your work experience. This could be your employer or someone else you have worked with who can validate the authenticity of your experience.

Some state licensing boards will grant you credit for having work experience if you have educational experience in areas that would apply to working as a general contractor. In some states, an associate’s degree in construction management or a similar field will count for one and a half years of work experience towards the minimum work experience requirements in order to take the contractor’s licensing exam. A bachelor’s degree may be worth two years of credit if the degree is in an area that can relate to managing a construction site. Subject areas that relate to construction may include physics, math, business, economics, or construction management. A law degree may also grant you two years of credit towards experience for taking the contractor’s licensing exam.

If your application to take the contractor’s licensing exam is rejected, you may have a period of time in which you can resubmit your application with any additional information necessary without paying the application fee a second time. Check with your state’s licensing board about regulations for resubmitting a rejected application.

If your application to take the contractor’s licensing exam is accepted, you will receive notification of a test date and test center location. Your state licensing board will assign you to a test center location based on the address you used to apply to take the exam. If you cannot attend the exam for some reason at the date and time specified, notify your state licensing board by mail, phone, or fax. If you do so in a timely manner, you may be able to reschedule the exam without a fee. Otherwise, a rescheduling fee may apply.

Before You Take the Contractor’s Exam

Before You Take the Contractor's ExamOnce you have applied to take the contractor’s exam and your application has been accepted, you will receive a notification in the mail that gives you a test date, time, and location. The notification will come with instructions about what to expect on exam day and what to bring to the test site. If you are unable to take the exam on the day listed on your notification, you can likely reschedule without a fee if you get in touch with your state’s board of licensing as soon as possible. Failure to show up for the exam may result in the need for another application.

You should bring your notification of acceptance that lists your test date with you when you take the exam. You should also bring a piece of identification that includes a recent photograph, such as your driver’s license or passport. Most states have testing centers that will provide pencils, scratch paper, calculators, and rulers if necessary. Many state facilities will have an area for you to store your personal things while you take the exam, but this area may not be secure, so be sure to leave any electronic devices or valuable items at home. You will not be allowed to carry cell phones, iPods, personal organizers, your personal calculator, or other electronic devices into the testing room with you.

The contractor’s exam is administered on a computer, through a CAT (computer assisted testing) system. The exam will begin with a brief tutorial of how to use the CAT software. While some state licensing boards maintain that computer skills are not necessary to pass the contractor’s exam because the CAT program will teach you any necessary maneuvers on the computer, it is still a good idea to be sure you are familiar with basic computer functionalities such as using the mouse and what specific keys on the keyboard are used for. The exam should take about two and a half hours to complete.

If you require an English translator, some states will allow you to use one when you take the contractor’s exam. However, the testing facility or state board of licensing may not provide your translator, and you will have to furnish someone yourself. For specific information about using a translator or if you need other special accommodations to take the contractor’s exam, contact your state’s board of licensing.

Because the contractor’s exam is a computer-based test, your results will be available immediately. Scores are reported as either pass or fail in many states. If you pass the exam, you will be notified by the computer that you have passed once you finish the exam. You will likely not be given information on which questions you answered correctly or incorrectly or what your final score on the exam was. If you fail the exam, the computer will notify you that you failed and may also provide information on how well you performed on the different subject areas of the test. This information is intended to help those who fail the contractor’s licensing exam concentrate their studying on the areas in which they need the most improvement before they take the exam again.

If your contractor’s license requires you to pass multiple exams, your state’s board of licensing will usually specify a time frame in which you must pass all of the required exams. This will likely be at least a year, if not a few months longer.

All content on the contractor’s exam is confidential, and you will have to abide by a confidentiality agreement in order to be allowed to take the test. This means that you cannot share information from the exam, such as test questions and answers or other content-related material with anyone else. You cannot discuss the exam with other examinees, even after the exam is finished. Penalties for breaking the confidentiality agreement may include voiding your contractor’s licensing exam score.

Fingerprinting, Criminal Background Checks, and the Contractor’s Exam

Some states require applicants to take the contractor’s licensing exam to supply copies of their fingerprints and undergo a criminal background check when they are accepted to take the exam.

Fingerprinting, Criminal Background Checks, and the Contractor's ExamWhen you receive your exam acceptance notification in the mail that includes your test center locatation and exam date, you will also receive a fingerprinting packet in the mail. The fingerprinting packet explains what you need to do in order to obtain an acceptable copy of your fingerprints. Anyone who is going to be a qualifier for your business to have a contractor’s license will likely need to be fingerprinted, so this includes all partners of the business and could include several employees of a corporation.

You can get your fingerprints taken at most police stations. You will need to fill out the paperwork that was sent to you in the fingerprint packet and bring three copies. You will keep one copy, the agency issuing your fingerprints will keep one copy, and you will need to send one copy to the state licensing board. There is a fee for getting your fingerprints taken. The amount of this fee will vary based on where you have your fingerprints taken and could vary slightly from facility to facility.

If your fingerprints do not turn out properly, you will have to have them taken again in order to take the contractor’s examination and be awarded a contractor’s license. Occasionally a technical error leads to fingerprints printing incorrectly.

When you apply to take the contractor’s exam, you will be asked if you have ever been convicted of a crime. You must answer this question truthfully, even if the crime was trivial in nature and occurred years ago. If you live in a state that requires fingerprints in order to obtain a contractor’s license, a background check will be run on your fingerprints in order to verify your criminal record, so if you do not provide accurate information, your application could be denied.

If you need to report your criminal record, your state’s board of licensing should have a form that will help you ensure that you include all of the necessary information. This information could include court dates, case numbers, dates of any jail or prison time, and the time and location of the crime. You are also encouraged to supplement any descriptions of any convictions with other documents, such as police reports, court records, or probation reports. The application to take the contractor’s licensing exam will also include the opportunity for you to describe any criminal convictions in your own words and report any details of the crime that you feel are necessary to convey.

Providing as much information about a crime is usually in your best interest when you are applying for a contractor’s license. If the information about criminal convictions in your application is vague, this could delay processing time of your application or cause your application to be denied. You may then be asked to provide additional information discussing your conviction.

While reporting any criminal convictions sounds like a lengthy, daunting process in order to become a licensed contractor, do not fear that past criminal conviction will automatically disqualify you from being able to take the contractor’s licensing exam and receiving your license. Minor convictions that happened years ago or that have no bearing whatsoever on your ability to work as a competent and professional contractor will not cause your application to be denied.

You can also demonstrate rehabilitation on your contractor’s license application. For example, if you were convicted of a crime stemming from drug use, providing documentation that you successfully completed a drug rehabilitation program will aid the quick processing and acceptance of your application. Going through counseling after being convicted of a crime or being gainfully employed for a long period of time will also help prove your rehabilitation.

General Building Questions on the Contractor’s Exam

Law and Business Questions on the Contractor's ExamDepending on your state licensing board’s regulations, you may need to take a specified contractor’s exam for your particular trade. If not, you will likely need to take and pass a general building contractor’s exam in order to obtain your contractor’s license. Some states incorporate general building questions on one exam with law and business questions, and other states divide these categories into several exams, all of which you must pass within a specified amount of time in order to obtain your contractor’s license.

A general contractor’s exam will test your knowledge of both core and finishing trades. Core trades include roofing, electrical work, plumbing, concrete work, weatherproofing, insulating, heating, ventilating, and air conditioning work, acoustical work, earthwork, and surveying property. While your particular construction experience may be specific to one or several of these areas, you will need a broad understanding of how all of these particular trades function in order to succeed as a general contractor. All of these trades can account for part or all of contractual work, so even if you subcontract out for some of these trades, you will need to know what is appropriate for billing and what is necessary to get the job completed well.

Finishing trades encompass work that puts the finishing touches on a construction project in order to make a building livable. These include plaster, drywall, ceiling work, windows and doors, landscaping, and painting. Just as you will need a solid knowledge base of other construction trades in order to pass the contractor’s licensing exam, you will need a good understanding of how finishing trades relate to an overall project so that you can accurately assess the finishing trades needs of your clients.

The general contractor’s licensing exam will also include questions about workplace safety. These will include on the job safety as well as environmental safety. You will need to be able to answer questions about how to properly convey safety procedures and information to your employees and subcontractors as well as how to ensure that all safety regulations are being properly enforced.

You will also need a strong knowledge base of a construction project’s structural components in order to pass the general contractor’s licensing exam. Structural components that you must be familiar with include wall framing, sub-floor framing, and roof framing. You need to know what load requirements need which amounts of support. Depending on the state you work in and whether or not earthquakes are common, you will also need to be familiar with seismic load capacities. Also included in the structural components section of the contractor’s exam are decks, siding, and stucco.

The final category of content in the contractor’s licensing exam covers planning and estimating. As a contractor, you will need to be able to estimate the type and amount of work necessary to complete a project, as well as how long the project will likely take to complete. Questions falling under the planning and estimating category will include topics such as cost estimation, field inspection, project coordinating, complying with necessary codes, and preparing drawings and plans.

Most states present questions on the contractor’s exam in a multiple choice format. You will need to select the best answer. It is possible that more than one answer could conceivably be correct, but in each case only one answer will be the best choice. Questions are authored by contractors, so the material on the exam will be relevant to working as a contractor in today’s construction market and environment. If you do not know the answer to a particular question, you will not be penalized for guessing, even if you answer incorrectly. You will need to answer both qualitative and quantitative questions. You should review geometrical formulae specific to the construction field, as you may need to answer some basic geometry questions. You should also review standard measurements for common features of homes and other buildings.

Engineering Questions on the Contractor’s Exam

There will likely be some engineering questions on a general contractor’s exam, no matter what state you work in. While you do not need a degree in engineering to work as a contractor or to pass a state contractor’s licensing exam, some engineering background will be helpful both in the application of your work as well as in answering questions correctly on the contractor’s licensing exam. Since some states will grant you work experience credit for education you have completed with regard to contracting, you may want to look into taking some engineering courses. These could count towards some of your necessary work experience to apply for the contractor’s exam and also help you prepare for some of the engineering questions that will appear on the exam.

Questions that fall under the engineering category are similar to many questions related to general building. However, some engineering questions might be slightly more complicated or rely more heavily on mathematical concepts than general building questions.

Part of the engineering component of the contractor’s exam includes understanding the site of your construction project. You should be familiar with how the soil your building is situated on could affect the construction as well as how to survey the site and prepare it properly for the project. You will also be tested on planning and estimating the project. This includes knowledge of all applicable building codes, how to estimate the cost of all aspects of a project, how to read and use building plans, and mathematical formulae that relate to construction work. You should be able to answer basic engineering questions about the structure of a building and how to frame the walls and subflooring properly in order to ensure stability and structural soundness.

Other engineering questions on the contractor’s exam may test your knowledge of subsurface work. This includes utilities, drainage, sewers, sloping, pipes, and other water work. You may be asked about subjects such as masonry, demolition, electrical work, and plumbing. Of course, safety will be emphasized as well just as it is emphasized in every other category of questions on the contractor’s exam. You will need to know about how your construction projects affect environmental safety as well as the safety of your workers and subcontractors or any passers by.

Engineering questions on the contractor’s exam will include both qualitative and quantitative questions. Quantitative questions may include simple geometry that relates to construction. Qualitative questions may include information about various materials you will need to supply to your clients as a contractor. You also may be asked about how to properly use equipment during the construction process.

In most states, the engineering questions you receive on your contractor’s exam will be in a multiple choice format. It is possible that either one or more than one answer may technically be correct, but only one multiple choice option will be the best answer. Because the contractor’s exam is multiple choice, you may be able to pick up some extra points by guessing on questions you do not know the answer to. You will not be penalized for answering incorrectly. Whether you pass or fail the exam is only determined by the percentage of questions you answer correctly, and all questions are weighted equally. Furthermore, questions are written by contractors currently practicing in the field, so you can be sure that all engineering concepts mentioned in the exam are applicable to real-world situations working as a contractor. The specifics of each contractor’s exam will vary slightly depending on which state you take the exam in, so check with your state’s licensing board in order to determine the exact format of your exam and which areas of knowledge will be stressed the most. Your state licensing board’s website will likely include some study materials to help you determine where you need to concentrate your efforts while you prepare to take the contractor’s exam.

Law and Business Questions on the Contractor’s Exam

States that require contractors to pass a licensing exam will include questions about the state’s laws with regard to contracting as well as questions about sound contracting business practices. Some states may include these questions in one exam for general contractors, and other states may require contractors to take and pass a separate law and business exam as well as a contractor’s exam specific to their area of specialty.

Generally, law or business related questions on a contractor’s exam fall within several subcategories geared to test all aspects of successfully running a construction business. The largest subcategory contains questions based on business acumen. These questions are designed to test whether you can successfully manage the business aspects of a construction site. Content may include questions about budgeting for a project, managing cash flow, accounting, organizing a business, and filing taxes legally.

Many other questions on the business and law section of the contractor’s exam fall within the content area of state regulations. These include topics such as worker’s compensation insurance, other types of insurance, liens, bonds, how to execute a payroll system, and how to keep accurate financial records.

Another area tested with business and law questions on the contractor’s exam is, of course, contracts. Questions about contracts will include how to submit a bid, how to manage the cost of labor and supplies, specifications for contracts as documents, and accepting payments and ensuring that your workers and subcontractors are paid. You will also be tested on safety and public works. For safety questions, you should be familiar with regulations regarding hazardous materials, how to train your workers about safety, and how to lawfully report any safety incidents that occur. Public works include wages, insurance, and bonding.

Many of the law and business questions on the contractor’s exam will revolve around the timeliness in which you must complete certain procedures in order to abide by the law. For example, you may be asked about when your subcontractors can collect payment, or how often you need to discuss safety concerns with your employees.

While the specific content, format, and time allotted for your contractor’s exam will vary depending on what state you do business in, many exams will have some certain similarities. You can expect to answer multiple choice questions. These questions are designed to have only one correct, or best, answer. You may be presented with diagrams, charts, or blueprints and have to answer multiple choice questions that relate to them. The questions appearing on any state licensing board’s contractor’s exam are written by contractors themselves, so they will be up to date and appropriate for issues that could arise when you are working in the field.

All questions on the contractor’s licensing exam are weighted equally, so even if some questions appear more difficult for you to answer than others, you will get the same amount of credit for each question you answer correctly. Whether you pass or fail the contractor’s licensing exam is based on the percentage of questions you answer correctly. You will not be penalized for a wrong answer, so it is better to be sure you answer every question on the exam rather than leave some questions blank, even if you do not know the answer. If you guess, there is a chance you will answer the question correctly and receive credit.

Most state licensing boards have study guides available to download off of their websites. These study guides will cover more specific content for each state’s licensing exam. On state licensing board websites you can also learn whether or not you need to take a contractor’s exam specific to your trade or whether your trade will be covered under a general contractor’s licensing exam. You can also check whether your state includes law and business questions in each contractor’s exam or whether you need to take a separate law and business examination.