Am I In General Contractor Hell (or not?)
February 3, 2017 12:48 PM   Subscribe

I have heard horror stories about building projects done wrong or projects that drag out forever, they seem frighteningly common. I have never used a GC before, so I don't know what to expect. I have concerns that our contractor is not very good, but perhaps this is sort of par for the course and I am just not very realistic in my expectations?

First of all I apologize for the length of this question.

This was me a little over a week ago. In your answers some of you suggested you might fire this contractor. I have some other issues with her work and as things progress (?) more mistakes are made. We paid the contractor about a third of the project money so far and we still don't even have a foundation poured so I am leary about firing the contractor and having to fight with her to get a good chunk of money back. Especially if its me that's over reacting and any other contractor would likely have similar issues.

Some of my issues are as follows.

We hired this contractor last August to replace the fence along the front of our property, to put in two gates and to build a garage with a connected workshop. The fence went up right away, but it took 3 months for the gates to be made, during which time our property was unsecured and I had no way to contain my dogs. This was very stressful for me and sort of set me off on the wrong foot with the contractor, because while I was asking questions about why the gates were delayed she was, in my reading, totally unconcerned. She also mistakenly (she said) forgot my request that we cut the gate using a water jet CNC machine rather than a plasma cutter. When the mistake was discovered it turned out that the bid she did was for a plasma cutter and to use a water jet cutter was prohibitively expensive, so I was forced to go with a poorer quality cut and the project still came in more than what she originally bid it by about 20%.

There were further complications with the permitting of the buildings. We had a whole set of plans drawn up and steel beams manufactured before the contractor realized that there was a mistake made and the plans would not pass the county permitting process. We then had to wait two more months for the plans to be corrected. This resulted in the building process finally commencing during the coldest, wettest week of this winter so far. On the first week the large equipment churned our driveway to sea of mud that was nearly un-passable for my small car. Our internet cable was mistakenly cut despite having been marked ahead of time and our new gates were both broken in the comings and goings. The contractor seemed completely unconcerned about any of this. Her response to my concerns was basically, "Well, we broke the gate, we'll get it fixed, the internet wasn't our fault, and rain and mud happen." Now, while that is technically true, and they did fix the one gate, she was just not very nice about any of it. Then the road maintenance agreement thing happened (see my previous question) and it seemed she was basically threatening me to sign or she would delay my project indefinitely. This week the builders have been showing up to our property earlier than they are supposed to (its in our contract that they aren't supposed to show up before 8 AM) and they cut power to part of our house and then just left the property, we had no idea what was going on or why we had lost power. My husband works from home, the internet and power are essential to his being able to do business. We told the contractor this from the very beginning. She did respond to our calls about the power going out, and she did say that she would keep us better informed when things need to be shut off, so at least there's that. Finally, just before the concrete trucks were about to come pour the foundation, we failed the permitting inspection because they discovered that the whole structure had been dug and built one foot too close to the property line. The contractor says the foreman used old plans. To me it seems she often shifts the blame for mistakes or takes a "why are you so over-reacting to this?" attitude with me.

I am uncertain though, because its completely possible I may be over-reacting. My husband seems to think so. He certainly isn't on board with firing the contractor. If I'm the one that's out of line, I am very willing to step back and try to start over, take deep breaths, and walk away when I find myself getting frustrated. I don't like to be the one who is causing problems for everyone, but right now I feel like if I don't advocate for us something bad will happen.

I would love to hear from people who have had contractors do work on their private property. Is this pretty normal stuff? Par for the course?
posted by WalkerWestridge to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
We are currently in the final weeks of a smaller, interior project. I cannot adequately convey how much I loathe my contractor.

We signed the contract in February (of last year) - and I gave him 50% of the project budget. No work took place until October, and we are now ending week 16 of a project he said would take 4 weeks. Most recently we have had to have two department of buildings inspections, and are still not cleared to go, because he no-showed the first one, and the inspector found two code compliance issues that were out of scope on his most recent inspection. Oh, and, like you our communication with the contractor has been undeniably terrible/inadequate at every step along the way.

I could go on longer but it probably isn't good for my blood pressure.

tl;dr - this is pretty typical - we have never once felt like our contractor shared our sense of urgency or really gave any consideration at all to our experience or preferences throughout the process, everything he and his staff says is about as true as if kellyanne Conway was his chief customer service rep, and I think we share the feeling that everyone who has ever undertaken a large project like this has, which is that we just cannot wait for it to be over and not to have to deal with him again.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 1:11 PM on February 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I had a project manager and handyman/finish carpenter team as the leads on a big remodel and those two were awesome. Great communicators, high standards, creative. We still went way over budget and had code and construction setbacks, but they made us feel like they were hustling with us to fix things. Pretty much every other contractor we have worked with since have seemed almost secretive in their approach. For goodness sakes, talk to us when things go wrong! It sets up a terrible dynamic, where they hide and we overreact. Or they blow us off and we get more and more angry and suspicious. In other words, things go wrong on all house projects, but poor communication really makes it seem much worse.
posted by Malla at 1:31 PM on February 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have a friend who constantly tells me the USA could never fight another conventional war because our citizens simply cannot follow basic directions. I think this is only partly hyperbole. I don't think either of you is out of line. Outside of these mistakes in organization, how was the actual work on the fence? Posts in correctly? Fence is sturdy, plum, level, etc? In terms of the foundation, I do think that the contractor should have taken a quick measure before the inspector came and the cement was ordered, but, she didn't and now she pays for that mistake. (She is covering the cost of the mistake, right?) At this point, to me, the important thing would be the quality of the actual work. You are days away from pouring a foundation and building the structure. I would not change contractors to another unknown at this point. I would demand that they keep you apprised of what is going on though.
posted by AugustWest at 1:34 PM on February 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I also hated my contractor by the time we were done. Given these stories though, I guess he was pretty good. He also did that thing where he'd hide when things went wrong like he hoped we wouldn't notice and it drove me nuts and made me really suspicious. But I think it's a people-pleasing/conflict-averse tactic that's just common in this industry. At one point, I couldn't get him to answer my phone calls so I called from my work phone (a number he didn't know) and what do you know, he picked up on the second ring! (Steam came out my ears, yeah.)

In the end though, the work was done well enough. I swear, you basically have to manage most gc's. I kept my own checklist and dropped by to check out work and asked them questions and reminded them of things that needed to get done all the time. It was time-consuming, but worth it. I'm sure it drove him nuts sometimes, but whatever.

Your contractor should definitely pay for the mistake in the placement of the foundation. If the quality of the work they've done is good so far, I wouldn't bail on them now.

On the empathetic side, I think GC's have to balance a lot of projects at once in order to make a steady income and half the time when something doesn't happen when they say it will it's because the drywall guys or whoever either a) flaked or b) got held up on someone else's project that went over. And it has a domino effect. (The maddening part is when the GC just says, "oh well I guess we'll have to do that next week," in a voicemail with no details, etc.)
posted by purple_bird at 1:53 PM on February 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

How detailed is your agreement with the contractor? I would expect around 40-100 pages with seperate schedules for each element. If she deviates from the agreement (such as digging one foot over) than the cost to rectify that is on her. If you make a change (NOT because she has made a mistake) then it is a change order and you pay for it. Part of your agreement should be a five minute meeting at the start of the day with the plan for the day mapped out (where if she says "hey, no internet for the day!" you can say no) and at the end of the day the site is broomswept clean. Fixing the gates she broke should have been done that day by seperate crew she pays for out of pocket. The contract should have financial rewards if she completes ahead of time with a quality product, and penalties for her if she is late. So it sounds to me like the scope was not clearly defined (and as the professional she should have been proactive about letting you know the lack) and she is not acting or communicating professionally.

So, that is the past and you can learn from it. What does the 30% cover? Will the job actually be almost over when she comes for the next instalment? Do you have a hold-back, or is your agreement that she gets the full 100% the day she decides it is "done"? Due to the problems you have encountered you may want to amend the contract with all your "verbal agreements" written down. Ideally, you want to keep working with her if she is able stick to the budget and do the work to the quality your contract states. Getting a replacement GM can be difficult and expensive (basically, they get shit on for the previous GM's mistakes in the design/permitting/foundation part because correcting those mistakes takes time and money, so GM's don't take the job unless it pays well above their regular rate) But if she is just going to end up costing you a lot more money than you budgeted for what ends up to be an inferior product you may not want to continue with her. Regardless, I would not make the next payment be 30% (so 60% of the total) unless the construction was essentially done and only a few small things needed to be completed. If your contract says something different about the payments I would see a lawyer for advice.
posted by saucysault at 2:03 PM on February 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I would have dropped this GC as soon as she handed you a way too broad road maintenance agreement and told you you had to sign it, forcing you to interact with the county on your own, where you found out that the agreement wasn't required as written. Total B.S. This person sees you as nothing more than billable hours.
posted by humboldt32 at 2:06 PM on February 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Personally, I would film the pouring of the foundation, just in case something goes wrong. If you end up hiring another GM they would want to investigate the foundation and more information for them is better.
posted by saucysault at 2:09 PM on February 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hmm I guess I'm in the minority, but yes I think you are overreacting. My ex-partner of several years was a very successful contractor. He was college educated and well spoken so he appealed to the upper class people in our area and oversaw a wide range of projects. He was on-point, organized and had a great reputation. BUT he had to deal with issues similar to yours (customer requesting a specific technique which he did not honor for some reason I'm forgetting, damaging previous construction without fixing it ASAP and the customer complaining).

It sounds like the gates were specialized, in which case 3 months doesn't sound totally unreasonable, depending on the size. And, they are working on multiple projects so I bet they are squeezing you in early in the morning because otherwise they'd be someplace where they COULD start work early and you guys wouldn't get labor until after lunch.
posted by pintapicasso at 3:06 PM on February 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Between contractor Hell (0) and Heaven (10) I'd give this about a 6.
We've had a lot of contract/remodel work done, and the best GCs always communicate well.
Communication is one of the most important issues (equal to experience, in my book), and I agree with saucysault about having an initial talk each day (and more if warranted).
There are contractors who are just not happy or good at doing this.
posted by artdrectr at 3:46 PM on February 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm in therapy because of my building project. We renovated an old house and built an extension on the back. It's finally over, and the house is amazing, but it took 4 years, way more money than we wanted, and 2 lawsuits, one of which still is ongoing. I'm located in Germany (so viel zu deutscher Qualit├Ąt), so your mileage may vary, but after conversations with friends in the US, the problems and challenges are the same.

The tips I give to people who are building or working with contractors/tradespeople:

Inform yourself. Ask questions. Look at builder and home improvement forums. Don't hesitate to get multiple offers. It's another way to gather info. Trust your gut.

You get what you pay for. If you get a few offers and one guy comes in way below the others, get suspicious.

Before you enter into an agreement with a contractor, ask them to see projects they worked on. Go look at them, knock on the door, and ask about their experience with the contractor.

Get a contract/written agreement for everything that includes a payment schedule, a timeline with milestones, and penalties if those milestones aren't met. If a contractor doesn't want to do that, look for another.

If you can, get owner builder's insurance. It is the one thing that saved our ass.

Keep a construction diary. Date, who was on the site, how many hours, what work was done, missed appointments & milestones and the reasons given.

I could go on, but I feel the bile coming up in my throat.
posted by chillmost at 4:24 PM on February 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

Your explanation goes a long way to better understanding your current situation.

Your approach is more of a collaborative contracting effort versus one where the contractor is soley responsible for the building of the new garage, fence and workshop.

This is a mess from top to bottom and it doesn't seem like you had a decent written agreement that covered some of the "requests or terms that builders don't show up before 8:00 am", and that you believe the contractor is responsible for items you took part in ordering, ie. the metal beams that didn't meet code. Your architect/engineer is the one who is in charge of meeting building code and the requirements of your municipality and when your plans were dropped off for permits, who was in charge of getting permits?, the city or town would have identified that your plans weren't certified by an engineer and would not have passed them. Metal should not have been cut before you had qualified people determine their usefullness. Contractors organize the assembly and execution of building plans.

Without further details your fence sounds like it was assembled from ready to go parts and the gates were a custom design. At least custom enough to require a precision that would require one of the most expensive cutting techniques for metal. Assuming there wasn't a fastening system that was also created only for you a temporary gate should have been installed in the meantime. But this should have been part of the agreement.Much like a custom entry door perhaps the gate should have been installed after all construction was complete to prevent damage.

The issue siting the building too close to the property line should have been resolved before the pouring of concrete as well. The permits would identify the location of the building on the plan and in relation to the other property lines. For what seems like a costly project a site plan or a survey should have been completed to stake out property lines and in most cases the corners of the building prior to digging. This also addresses orientation of the building relative to the exisitng buildings on the property. Old plans or new plans the property line doesn't change and the set backs laid out by the permit and by-law folks stay the same.

Who's fault is that? If the contractor was responsible for the whole construction then it would be hers. If you were taking part in the permits, ordering materials, determining where the building would go or felt that a survey, which can be costly, wasn't necessary and hoped the contractor would "know better," lesson learned.

You could have a terrible contractor in which case you should fire them. From the details you gave us, and perhaps more importantly the ones you didn't, you either did not have a clear agreement to start with and this is the result or your contractor is terrible and has no idea what she is doing.

Some folks are looking for a turn-key relationship with the contractor. This person has control over the project and sees you for update and if you need a changes.

Other people are looking for a partner in building their dream. It involves working together and making changes along the way that you determine could improve the end result.

Take a deep breath and sit down with her and discuss what the plan is to move forward. Solidify the components you are responsible for and determine what she is responsible for. Your plans need to be executed and the contract needs to be fulfilled you shouldn't need to feel you are in an adversarial relationship.

You are both trying to reach the same goal. It seems like you just need to understand what that goal is.
posted by ashtray elvis at 6:37 AM on February 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

To clarify...

We do none of the ordering of materials, obtaining of permits, drawing of plans etc. etc. etc. (when I said we ordered beams I meant we paid for it, not we ordered it) The contractor is responsible for these things. She is supposed to be responsible for everything related to getting the construction done. I drew the design for my custom gate, the contractor was responsible for getting the gate made. Before we started I requested the gate be cut using the method I mentioned above. The contractor made no objection, but the method of cutting was never put in writing. We do have a written contract that covers work start times, and has a few outlined goals, but is in no way as thorough as many people here have suggested it should be. Lesson learned for us.

I have no way of knowing if the contractor is eating the costs she is incurring with her mistakes since the whole financial thing is murky, and we don't have a very detailed breakdown of how much each service (ie cement truck rental, cost of concrete, labor etc.) or material costs. I know that she's told us that we have already incurred new costs because our soil turned out to be too sandy to build on, and she had to have several tons of soil brought in. I also know that several of her projects are sharing the equipment she uses on our project so, you know, that seems a good idea, but how would I know if I'm only being charged a third of the cost of a machine that's being used on three projects? I don't know and I cant. I have to trust that she's the one that knows how to juggle these things for optimum cost effectiveness and that she isn't passing off costs for mistakes she makes and rolling it into the "unexpected extra costs " category.

However, having read the answers here, I agree with those who said that we are on the better end of the contractor spectrum, and I will be making a bigger effort to contain my frustration and learn lessons rather than get angry and stressed out over what I can not control.

Thanks for all of your answers, and thanks for your patience with me not explaining the situation very well.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:17 AM on February 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

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