Background Early recurrence after resection of colorectal liver metastases (CLM) is common. Patients at risk of early recurrence may be candidates for enhanced preoperative staging and/or earlier postoperative imaging. The aim of this study was to determine if there are any risk factors that specifically predict early liver-only and systemic recurrence. Methods Retrospective analysis of prospective database of patients undergoing liver resection (LR) for CLM from 2004 to 2006 was undertaken. Early recurrence was defined as occurring within 18 months of LR. Patients were classified into three groups: early liver-only recurrence, early systemic recurrence and recurrence-free. Preoperative factors were compared between patients with and without early recurrence. Results Two hundred and forty-three consecutive patients underwent LR for CLM. Twenty-seven patients (11%) developed early liver-only recurrence. Dukes C stage and male sex were significantly associated with early liver-only recurrence (P < 0.05). Sixty-six patients (27%) developed early systemic recurrence. Tumour size ≥3.6 cm and tumour number (>2) were significantly associated with early systemic recurrence (P < 0.001). Conclusions It is possible to stratify patients according to the risk of early liver-only or systemic recurrence after resection of CLM. High-risk patients may be candidates for preoperative MRI and/or computed tomography-positron emission tomography (CT-PET) scan and should receive intensive postoperative surveillance.