Hindsight is 20/20
October 18, 2014 3:41 PM   Subscribe

Please help me deal with the aftermath of a disastrous remodeling job.

Back in May I decided to sell my SF Bay Area studio condo. In order to do so, I needed to remodel the original 70s kitchen and bathroom. The kitchen is a 90" wide galley kitchen that basically just needed cabinets and appliances and the bathroom is 6' x 8' and just needed retiling and a standalone vanity. I got a recommendation for a contractor from my trusted insurance company and invited the owner "Chuck" to give me an estimate on my job. I've never hired anyone to do work of this scope and had no idea what to expect.

[I'm very aware that I've handled the whole process badly - I wasn't proactive enough, I didn't research my contractor's reputation, I didn't initiate communication as much as I could have and if I had this to do over again it would have been done very differently. Now I'm just looking for a sanity check on my expectations and advice on how to express my disappointment.]

Chuck assured me that my job would be "quick," "easy," and that it should take about "six weeks" and would cost around $14K. I met with him on May 29th and signed a contract with an expected completion date of July 9. As I understand it, the expected completion date isn't a deadline but a projected date when all the materials would have been ordered and plans complete. We also went to Lowe's and I picked out kitchen cabinets and tile for my shower. I also paid around $3K as a deposit.

Chuck emailed me a plan drawn up by Lowe's for the cabinet and asked me for feedback. I had some questions so I emailed back with no reply. I called his office and left messages and got no response for a couple weeks.

Eventually "Buck" called me from Chuck's office and said that he was handling my job. By this time I had a million questions and started to ask them. Buck's response was "I'll have to check with Chuck, let me get back to you, in the meantime let's start working on your bathroom."

June 25 workers came in to demolish my bathroom and Buck was supposed to come by and introduce himself at 10am. Buck didn't show up, didn't call. The next day I called him and he said he would come by at 10am. I called at 2pm and asked where he was and the office said he would come by in half an hour - eventually he showed up at 3pm with no apology.

Slowly, slowly, the bathroom work dragged on through the summer. Workers would come in for a few hours, work and then leave and I wouldn't see anyone for a few days then Buck would call and say workers were coming in the next day. Did I mention it was slow? I spent fifteen consecutive days in July without a working shower or bath. I offered to go out of town for a couple days so they could remove my toilet to tile the floor - Buck assured me it would be back when I returned. It wasn't and I was forced to spend a third night in a hotel.

I was frustrated but figured that since the cabinets had been ordered that they would be here soon and we could get this wrapped up by the end of August so I could sell my place and get on with my life.

Around the first of July there was a miscommunication which they claim led them to believe that I wanted them to delay the work while I waited for some financing and consequently they didn't collect a scheduled payment from me. I told them verbally - and reiterated in email on July 7 - that I did not want to hold up the work for any reason and that if there was going to be any delay to tell me and I would pay them immediately. Again this was a case of Buck saying, I need to check with Chuck and I'll get back to you if there's a problem. I didn't hear back so assumed there was no problem.

The cabinets weren't even ordered until August 10th. When I asked why I was told that it was because I had asked them to hold the payment. At this point I had given them ~$10K and had an untouched kitchen and only a tiled shower and bathroom floor to show.

The bathroom work dragged on through August. Now I'm beginning to get annoyed and realizing that this is not going well at all. I keep asking Buck when are the cabinets coming in and just getting the "well I need to check and will get back to you," answer. This happened 3-4 times. Finally I went to Lowe's myself and was told that the cabinets weren't even going to be delivered until September 10.

At the end of August I get another invoice from Chuck. I send an email saying I'm not going to pay this because I've given you so much money already and I have no faith that you're going to finish my job. I tell him that I've contacted the mediators listed in the contract in hopes that we can resolve this in a way that meets both of our needs.

Chuck doesn't respond. Work stops.

In the first week of September I meet with an attorney. He reads Chuck's contract and points out several things that Chuck has failed to do like give me any schedule of when the work will be accomplished. He also notes that I should not have paid for work until it's complete. He tells me what to send in an email to Chuck and then vets the email for me. The main things I ask from Chuck are specific dates that the various components of the job will be done. I also point out that I'm not legally required to pay him until the job is finished.

Chuck responds to the email saying that all of the bathroom tasks will be completed the next day (Friday). Surprise! No one shows up Friday and there's no explanation! I email Chuck on Friday and am told that they will come on Monday to complete all the bathroom tasks.

Monday a worker shows up and completes one of the bathroom tasks.

September 16th the kitchen cabinets finally get delivered and installation begins on the 19th.

Now here is where I'm really getting irritated. Remember how my questions about the kitchen plan never got answered? I kept thinking that Buck would sit down with me so we could nail down all the specs for the job and there would be a final plan that we'd all agreed to but that didn't happen. So here's where it stands:

- The size of the appliances was wrong so one of the base cabinets didn't fit - I have a spare 12" wide drawer unit that I paid for and have no use for
- There was never any plan for under cabinet lighting so it's been tacked on as an afterthought. There's an ugly white highly-visible plastic power box mounted to the wall underneath the cabinets for the lights. Miscellaneous electrical question: since installing this plastic box Buck has said "we're not going to have the electrical inspectors look at the kitchen." Should this worry me?
- There's a gap of a couple inches between the back of the stove and the wall. Buck said, "oh we can just put a shelf there"
- Nothing is lined up - appliances are off-center under the cabinets, sink is off-center
- Since there was no discussion of things like backsplash tile I don't have the time now to waste pre-ordering the tile I want and am using something that I think is wrong for the space
- I discussed with Chuck having the granite countertop continue a few inches up the wall - this is pretty standard and I told him I did want that. It hasn't been done that way. This is a perfect example of the details that hadn't occurred to me but I think I should have been asked about in the planning phase.

The whole kitchen just feels jury-rigged and tacky to me and if I were planning to stay here it would be a constant annoyance.

Now it's October 18th and there's still work to be done in the kitchen and the bathroom. I've lost hope of selling my condo for the same amount I could have sold it for back in August, I haven't been able to do any of the travelling I've wanted to do these past few months because I've been babysitting this stupid job and I just want to move on with my life. I've got a Brand New Day planned for when this thing is finished and while I'm trying to stay zen about this I can't help flashes of rage about it.


1. Is this how contractors normally act? Was the total lack of communication and planning usual? I'm having a hard time understanding how this is viable.

2. It's been obvious that the contractors have made my small job a very low priority compared to the "million dollar jobs" Buck tells me they're working on. I guess this makes financial sense for them and I'm not their target demographic but WOW is that infuriating.

3. I plan to write very critical reviews of them on Angie's List and Yelp (any other ideas for similar review sites?) but I want to focus on facts rather than emotion and I want to get some insight on whether this has been an unusually bad experience. Which aspects of my frustration should I focus on?
posted by bendy to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: 1. That's how the bad ones act. It is for the bad ones. Its viable for the contractor because there's usually another client. And the insurance company who recommended him almost certainly pays better than you do.

2. Yes it certainly is infuriating - but certainly not the worst experience anyone's ever had with a contractor. Sounds like he's irresponsible and shoddy, but not an actual crook.

3. Instead of time on yelp and al, why not inform - in writing - the reputable insurance company that recommended "Chuck" that they screwed up. And not just the individual who recommended him, but that person's supervisor. Its not impossible that there's a bit of a quid pro quo there.

You didn't ask, but it actually doesn't sound like there's any actual structural damage, and probably nothing that a better contractor couldn't at least fix up cosmetically. People generally buy condos for location and more substantial factors than what you're describing here. The buyers will probably rip it all out anyway.

TL;DR: You're out time but not much money. Sell the condo and move on.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 4:29 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm very aware that I've handled the whole process badly

You're being way too hard on yourself. You're a customer who got shafted, horribly. This is not normal; everyone's heard contractor horror stories but yours certainly stands out. Regardless of whatever "million dollar jobs" he's talking about, you agreed to pay for services rendered by a certain date - and those services were not delivered (to say the least).

Skip Angie's List and look into legal action; I'd think breach of contract, for starters.

I'm sorry you went through all of this.
posted by falldownpaul at 4:29 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Talk to whoever you are going to list the condo with. Depending on who does the financing for your prospective buyer you might have to get the work done before closing. (YMMV, which is why talking to your friendly neighborhood real estate agent is what I recommend.)

I would have a little chat with the company that recommended these people. This is ridiculous. However, not uncommon, sadly.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:58 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've had an eerily similar experience, except the cost on my project was over $50k. I was foolish enough to pay the final installment before everything was done (months after the originally agreed upon date), and I had to hire someone else at even more expense to come finish, and then to fix a bunch of stuff the previous contractor had done wrong, including code violations in brand new plumbing and electrical work. I wouldn't say it's normal, but it's a lot more common than it should be. I chalked it up to an expensive lesson, and have obviously been much more careful with selecting contractors for subsequent projects.
posted by primethyme at 6:39 PM on October 18, 2014

Best answer: A complaint to the licensing board should light a fire under them.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 8:49 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a property manager in the Bay Area, I'd love all the specifics of this guy's business so I can promptly file away under DO NOT CALL, EVER. Sorry you're having to go through this but it sounds like you've learned the valuable lesson. I'd also recommend having your lawyer draft up a strongly worded letter on his or her letterhead stating what you feel would be a fair outcome to whole situation, whether that is him fixing everything immediately or just a refund of the money you've already paid him, with the threat of taking him to court over the matter if you don't get your desires met quickly and without further incident. Sometimes the threat of legal action is enough to do the trick, especially in a case like this where it seems so clear that he was the one in the wrong.
posted by hangingbyathread at 9:57 AM on October 19, 2014

Best answer: Everything RandlePatrickMcMurphy said rings true to me. This is how bad contractors act. Some of it is even how otherwise-good contractors act when overwhelmed with large projects - not being there when promised, sending a second in command who needs to constantly check with the boss. It has gone on for a rather long time, however, more than long enough to start firing these guys and moving on. If you take one thing from this comment, my advice is that as quickly as possible, you find someone else to finish this job. You'll be amazed at how much better things go.

Speaking as someone whose first step in my own contractor dispute was to contact a lawyer, in the end, I would've done better to focus more on just getting the job done. I thought I was doing both, but the legal side became a major distraction. You have the upper hand, right -- money still unpaid? Read the contract you have, and take reasonable, defensible steps to get them to rectify the wrongs and finish the job. And if they don't perform, do what you need to do to finish. Then, after all this is done, you can consider ways to recoup the money their behavior has cost you. (But I would still suggest you NOT file a lawsuit unless you have $10-20k just lying around and tons of spare time.) That said, it is great you have talked to a lawyer, so you can run a plan past them for firing these guys. But try to avoid thinking (not that you necessarily are) that legal steps alone will get your cabinets installed properly; these people sound potentally incompetent, so move on from them ASAP.

Depending on the contract, I'd email them that you are past the due date on the contract; that, as they know, there are flaws with the work already done; and that you would like them to contact you with a plan that meets your approval to correct the mistakes and finish the job. Let them know that if they have not provided you with this plan by ABC date, (one to two weeks out?), you will contract with others to finish the job and subtract this from the amount due or even need to request a partial refund. After sending this (here comes a statement that might sound paranoid, but it's the voice of experience), if they have had independent access to the site, change the locks or add a new lock. They may try to just slap things together and claim that you now owe them. You don't want that; you want them to run an actual plan past you that fixes things. Then don't approve a plan unless it is solid. Most likely, your general insistence on doing things right will cause them to stop responding. Once the date passes (or once they go silent for awhile), have someone good begin work immediately.

The issues you spot could be just the tip of the iceberg, sorry to say, so have someone reputable look at it during that waiting period. Use their thoughts to inform your questions to the contractor.

But just based on what you said, it sounds like you may be able to get back on track fairly easily. Here are my thoughts:
- Does the stove stick out because the gas hookup bumps into the back of the stove? A plumber could fix that. I question whether the city would approve the shelf solution, but I don't know. If the issue is that the base cabinets were installed so poorly that they form a wedge too narrow for the stove, it could be more tricky to fix.
- You can probably still go back to the countertop supplier and request the 4" backsplash that matches your counters. They generally come as separate pieces anyway, so nothing has been lost; the contractor was just trying to save that $30 or whatever. The granite supplier itself probably has people who can install that for you.
- You can try to return the 12" base to Lowe's. (But special-order cabinets might be an exception to their generally great return policy, I don't know.) If they don't take it, don't sweat it; the cost is probably minor given the dollars involved here. (Add it to the record of what you believe they owe you, however.) Then use it in the basement for tool storage or something.
- Once you have a normal carpenter to work with, ask them about rearranging the upper cabinets to center over the appliances if it really looks bad to you. An outside eye can help you judge if that's necessary, but the cost may be sufficiently minor as to be worth it. You probably can't easily move the sink if the granite counter is already installed.
- While you are waiting for them to get back to you, order the tile you actually want, or find something locally that you can live with. Or consider having no tile backsplash -- that's better than an ugly one, IMO. That way, the next person doesn't have to remove the bad tile before installing something good.

Once you have the project running smoothly, you can return to your efforts to penalize and call attention to their incompetence. To make these succeed, do keep good photos and good notes on your concerns along the way. ("Contractor X visited the site and stated that if he accepted the job, he would need to reinstall the faucet at a cost of $aaa.") There are options that fall midway on the spectrum between "bad Yelp review" and "full-blown lawsuit." You can file a complaint with the state license bureau, if they're licensed. If they are bonded, you could try to file a claim against their bond directly. It also sounds like the damages might be small enough that you could go to small claims court. It sounds like your contract may require mediation instead. Since you are already talking to a lawyer, I'd run your plan by him/her -- and get clear on the statute of limitations for each (for us, access to their bond expired first).

Good luck. I've very much been there. Don't blame yourself. It's not like you go to the dentist telling them exactly how to do the job and then inspect the filling closely before paying them. You'll get through this. I'm in the East Bay if you want to talk specifics and would also love to know this crew's name! YMMV - I'm just speaking from one very long house remodeling project, and IANAL.
posted by slidell at 11:55 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all for the advice and perspective. I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only one who thinks this has been a bad situation.

The job is a couple days away from being done and I'm eager to sell and move on. I'm telling myself that even if the kitchen is a little sloppy I'm leaving it in better shape than when I found it.

I will be filing a complaint with the licensing board too - my attorney mentioned that as well.

slidell and hangingbyathread I'll MeMail you the name of the company to avoid.
posted by bendy at 11:56 AM on October 20, 2014

Response by poster: Of course when I said "the job is a couple days away from being done," what I really meant was "the job will not be completed for another 15 days." But yes, yesterday was the end, and the work is good enough and it's time to move on.
posted by bendy at 2:36 PM on November 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Final note: I put the place on the market in November and it sold the next day for cash. I've relocated and left it - and that awful company - far behind. Thanks again for all the commiseration and advice. Next time will be better.
posted by bendy at 7:28 PM on May 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

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