What are my rights regarding shoddy construction work?
January 31, 2008 8:48 AM   Subscribe

Legally, what rights do I have in regards to shoddy renovation work done on my condo before I bought it?

I live in an old three-decker in the Boston area that was completely renovated and sold as condos (three, one per floor) in the past 18 months. Since moving in, we (and our neighbors) have had a number of minor issues that we've just dealt with ourselves (vs. considering going after the builder), but we've had a new issue pop up that is making us question whether we can go after them legally.

The short version of the issue is that our upstairs neighbor's tile in the shower has been coming loose (grout crumbling, etc). They called in a tile guy to investigate, and he took one look and said that the contractors were idiots, and had used floor grout (basically cement) instead of proper tile grout for bathtubs and showers. I'm fairly sure they've done the same thing in our bathroom as well.

Unfortunately, from what the tile guy said, there's not much we can do to stop it from degrading, and you really can't remove the cement. You pretty much have to rip out all the tile out and replace it, or just accept that it's going to not-so-slowly crumble away. The cost to replace it from scratch was quoted at $4,000.

Now, I have no idea whether the tile guy is trying to gouge us, and that's not really my initial concern; I'll worry about getting more quotes for the cost when we actually go to fix it. My initial concern is, legally, can the people who renovated these condos be held responsible for the fact that they clearly screwed up installing the tile?
posted by tocts to Law & Government (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Have you got a contract covering that job? If not, you're probably out of luck, especially if this work was done more than 18 months ago.
posted by beagle at 8:52 AM on January 31, 2008

I think the tile guy is trying to gouge you. There's no such thing as "floor grout" vs. "wall grout". If you're getting tiles popping off in the shower, it's most likely one of several things.

1. Tile is over regular drywall instead of cement board or greenboard. The drywall is getting wet and swelling, popping the tiles.
2. Poor wall construction is allowing the wall to flex and pop the tiles.
3. Contractor used the wrong kind of mortar, like organic mastic.

The grout is not likely to be the problem, although if they did a poor job on it it could exacerbate the other issues.
posted by electroboy at 9:05 AM on January 31, 2008

Just to clarify, mortar is what holds the tile to the wall, grout is what goes between the tiles. Both the grout and the mortar are portland cement products with some additives for color and durability. There are epoxy mortars, but they're expensive and less common.
posted by electroboy at 9:15 AM on January 31, 2008

The work of the original contractor must be warrantied for a certain amount of time, so call them and tell them to get their asses out there under warranty and fix it. I think 2 years is pretty standard, but that's just my experience.
posted by tristeza at 9:19 AM on January 31, 2008

Agreed 100% with electroboy with one addition:

4) Contractor used an inappropriate mortar for the particular tiles (for example, glass tiles or certain stone tiles with an un-modified thinset). This could cause adhesion problems, and I could also see it being described as "floor mortar vs. wall mortar", although that's kind of a stretch.
posted by true at 9:36 AM on January 31, 2008

Give me the original installer's name or company name and I can tell you if they have the proper Massachusetts Home Improvement Contractor license. (I deal with that kind of stuff for work.) If they don't, then you might well have legal recourse for damages, but the contract holder on the work done can do something about it, not you. If that means the landlord, then you might be able to convince them to do some small-claims court stuff. If you can't convince them to, then you can tell them you'll do it yourself if they'll back you, I suppose.

If this guy turns out to have a license (which I'll be he will), then your only recourse might be to make a claim on his general liability insurance. I have to confess that I don't know much about making general liability insurance claims, but I have a feeling that 18 months might be too far out to make a claim; but you should find out for yourself. Small-claims court would probably be the place to do this, too. What I'd do: call the Massachusetts State Board of Building Regulations and Standards at 617-727-3200 and ask them the question you asked us. They're the ones who regulate the industry, and who do licensing; if they can't tell you what recourse you have, they'll be able to put you in touch with someone who will.

Your other recourse: sit down and talk to a lawyer who's done construction law. And I have a feeling that'll be easiest.

My sense is that you don't have a huge amount of legal room to get money back, unfortunately. You should look into the papers for when you bought the condo, too.
posted by koeselitz at 9:37 AM on January 31, 2008

By the way, reading the question again, it seems a propos to point something out. No one is legally required to do high-quality work in remodelling and contracting; they're merely required to do work that won't kill or hurt anybody. The reason I don't think you have any room to get money on this is because the contractor is liable for work that is unnecessarily dangerous, not for work that's shoddy enough to need to be replaced. It isn't as though your roof is caving in on you or the building is about to fall down; he just did low-quality work, and used the wrong stuff to do it. There is a certain amount of 'caveat emptor' built into all this.

The lesson here is: always get a place inspected thoroughly and independantly before you buy it. It sounds like you probably didn't do that. Do it now. If your roof is about to cave in, and you don't know it, you'll want to. You'll also have clear legal recourse then.
posted by koeselitz at 9:44 AM on January 31, 2008

The $4K is for completely re-doing the tile installation, right? That could be a fine quote or it could be ridiculous, depending on how large and fancy it is, and on where you live.

It's true that there's no distinction between wall and floor grout, but there are sanded grouts, for use when grout lines are wider than 1/8", and unsanded grouts for lines 1/8" or narrower. Cement shrinks as it dries, and sand helps control that tendency on wide joints; if they use unsanded grout on wide joints, it will shrink so much that it cracks and loosens. That's one potential cause.

Another possibility is that too much water was mixed into the grout powder, which weakens cement products terribly.
posted by jon1270 at 9:46 AM on January 31, 2008

Response by poster: A couple things before I run to lunch:

1) I'm not a tile guy, and as I said, exactly whether this particular tile guy is trying to pull one over on me, I'm not as concerned about. If this becomes an issue for my bathroom, and I'm going to get it fixed, I'll get multiple quotes from separate sources to get a better idea of the issue.

2) The house was fully inspected prior to sale (3 times, even, once for each condo sale). This isn't the kind of thing you could spot easily, I don't think. The tiles looked perfectly fine at time of sale, as did the grout, but nonetheless, grout is now crumbling and tiles falling out upstairs.

3) The tile isn't particularly ornate, nor are there particularly large grout lines. But again, my real question is whether a tile installation falling apart less than 18 months out (we ourselves are less than a year out from sale, having purchased later than that unit) is anything we can legally pursue.
posted by tocts at 10:11 AM on January 31, 2008

Ah. You had an inspection done. That's good.

I think the first thing you should do is go over the paperwork from the sale; there's often a clause about problems like this that crop up less than a year out from sale.

Then, if there isn't anything there (and you might've already checked) you should try to pursue the contractor. That won't be easy, but again, the first step is to check if he had the proper licensing, as it'll make it much easier to go after him legally if he didn't. If he did have the licensing, then you need to try to get your hands on a copy of the contract that he did the work under, as that'll be what he's legally held to. Getting a copy of that might not be easy. I can imagine the former owner of the building not wanting to share that. But unless you have that, I can't see how you can pursue this; again, it's not illegal to put up crappy tile, though it is illegal to put up crappy tile if you're contracted not to.

But one more time: I'm no lawyer. You should find yourself someone who is a lawyer and has done construction law, which is a pretty big field. Call a lawyer, and if they haven't done construction law, they probably know someone who has.
posted by koeselitz at 11:03 AM on January 31, 2008

You should speak to an attorney. There are often claims you can make for latent defects.
posted by dios at 11:04 AM on January 31, 2008

I actually disagree with the electroboy, et al. There are two different materials involved here- adhesive (which attaches the tiles the surface) and grout (which fills the cracks). There are different kinds of grouts as well as different kinds of adhesives. The determining factors for which adhesive and grout to use include:

1. Is the tile vertical (and lightly loaded) or horizontal (and will have to stand up to foot traffic)?
2. With the tiled surface be subjected to extended periods of being wet and/or have to stand up to standing water?
3. What is the size of the tile?
4. What is the spacing between tiles (grout gap)?

When doing some remodeling of my house, I found it helpful to read up on the different products available from Mapei, a company that supplies this sort of stuff. Look up, for instance, Tile & Stone Installation Systems > Traditional Portland-Cement Grouts to see a couple different types of grout
posted by Doohickie at 12:39 PM on January 31, 2008

What koeselitz said.

We went through pretty much the same thing a few years ago. Our house was bought for cheap, cheaply renovated, then sold to us. The contractor had done a really crappy job in lots of areas--pipes dry fitted but not soldered, floors not properly supported, low-quality paint that peeled within weeks, stuff like that.

We did talk to a lawyer experienced in such matters. His take was that we didn't have anything to sue the contractor for. Our contract was with the sellers of the house. We could sue them, and they could sue the contractor, if they wished, but we didn't have a case against the contractor, since we hadn't contracted the guy. I can't quite tell if this is the same as your situation.

Our lawyer advised us that it wasn't worth taking the sellers to court, either, and certainly not with his representation. We didn't have much of a case, and his fees would eat up any settlement we'd get. There is a large element of caveat emptor at work--we had the house inspected pre-sale and didn't object then (suing the inspector was also discussed). The lawyer said a judge would likely not award us much, if anything--he'd seen far crappier work go unpunished. He basically agreed with us that the whole thing sucked, but there wasn't much to do about it.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:00 PM on January 31, 2008

SO was a tile person 5 years. And says... sounds about right?
Ultra smooth mold resistant - is the standard. Sounds like what you got was Wide Joint (outdoor, not mold resistant - and why it's falling to bits)

You can take a bandaid approach - Sure Seal or similar. Provided it's just crumbly grout and not tiles falling off the walls.

You can replace the grout. Remove it with a Grout saw (very tedious and very painful). Then try again - with Ultra Smooth.

Smash the lot down and start again.

we were just going over what you wrote and - tiles are coming off? Which means that your neighbors have tiles that aren't glued down correctly or something's not waterproofed or both? It's bad whatever it is. It's all gotta come off. (And it's completely unacceptable!! That's why the law demands you hire somebody - so that doesn't happen.)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 1:51 PM on January 31, 2008


Good point, one other possibility is they used the wrong sized trowel to apply the thinset, or didn't "beat in" the tile, so the coverage wasn't complete.


I'm not sure what you disagree with.
posted by electroboy at 2:18 PM on January 31, 2008

"There's no such thing as 'floor grout' vs. 'wall grout'."

But reading it again, I guess I lept to the conclusion to that you meant that there is only one king of grout, period. But that's not really what that says, is it? My apologies.
posted by Doohickie at 6:02 PM on January 31, 2008

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