Home Improvement Horror Stories (and How to Avoid Them): Part 1
Home improvement is an emotional experience for many people. On one hand, it is exciting, joyous, and exhilarating. You know that feeling you get when you finally decide to pull the trigger on a project you've been wanting for years; a new deck to entertain guests on or a walkway that's going to let you travel from front to backyard without getting your shoes all muddy.
However, there's always, inevitably another feeling that trickles in behind all that: fear. AKA panic, intimidation, anxiety... whatever you want to call it. It's the polar opposite. It's the foreshadowing dread that something could go wrong. This fear is completely rational, but the feared outcome is almost always avoidable. To prove this, we polled some folks on Reddit to hear their stories and boy were they bad.
We're going to share some of these stories with you (anonymized and reworded for the protection of the victims), of course, but we're also going to show you how you could have avoided such disastrous outcomes.
Story 1: The Moonlighting Contractor and His Unwilling Financiers
This poor couple thought they had nothing to worry about. The husband worked for a lumberyard and was a former contractor, so he hired an acquaintance he trusted, helped design a second story for their home and arranged for payments to be made at various milestones. Nothing could go wrong, right? Wrong! But we'll get to that in a moment.
The contractor followed through installing the second floor to the home, but hadn't yet installed the electrical, plumbing, insulation, or sheet-rock. At this point, about halfway through the project, the couple began to notice that the invoices were way off, so they request an itemized list of the supplies ordered. There were tons of supplies that had nothing to do with their project!
Simple solution, the couple thinks and the husband contacts the contractor to point this out and have it rectified. Unfortunately, the contractor denies all claims and pulls his guys off the project. After taking the contractor to court, it's uncovered that the worker on their project ran side-gigs and ordered extra supplies for his projects on other folks budgets!
The judge ruled in their favor and they were reimbursed for the unused materials, but the contractor had no obligation to finish the project except ensuring everything done was up to code. Sadly, a paid off building inspector took care of that for the contractor and the couple was left with 1800 unfinished sq. ft. sitting on top of their heads.
How to Avoid Such a Disaster
There were a couple of mistakes made by the couple in this story that you can learn from. Here's how they could've been avoided:
1. Never agree to open-ended pricing arrangements.
Variance in price is normal for larger projects, but an experienced contractor should be able to give you an itemized list that lands pretty close to what they'll need to complete your project. For such projects, additional cost should always be agreed upon via change-order before supplies are ordered. The couple in this story, especially with the husband's experience, would have easily caught the moonlighter in the act before-hand, avoided court, and probably had enough up-front leverage to ensure the contractor finished the job.
2. Hire Your Own Inspectors
Home & building inspectors are service providers, just like pest-control or carpet cleaners. You can always hire your own inspector to verify the work of a contractor if you need the official documentation from a licensed professional or even if you're just not confident in your own ability to assess a contractor's work. It's like hiring a mechanic to check out a used car before you buy it. Never trust the word of someone who's been backed into a corner after performing some shady business practice. 99 times out of a 100, they're going to repeat the same kind of behavior.
Story 2: Do These Guys Even Know What They're Doing?
AKA The Clueless Contractors
This homeowner hired a guy to rip up his old carpet and lay laminate down in three bedrooms, a hallway, and living room.
"No problem", the contractor said. "Quick, two day job", he said.
After paying 40% up front, the check is immediately cashed. This might seem like a red-flag, but, hey, the contractor needs to buy the materials, right? Two days later -- 11pm on a Sunday night -- the homeowner receives a call from the contractors wife telling him there was a death in the family and that the contractor wouldn't be able to make it Monday.
Funny enough, the wife had added the homeowner on Facebook where he spied the contractor and his wife on an impromptu vacation. Whatever. The homeowner lets it go and waits until Tuesday. 8am rolls around and contractor is nowhere to be found. 10am and he finally makes contact. The contractor's "buddy" is sick and they won't be able to make it.
"Wednesday", he swears.
New home and all, the homeowner has internet and cable being installed that day so he comes home for lunch to be there. The contractors finally showed up! Great! Except that the contractor was someone the homeowner had never met, sitting on the couch, texting, with only about three feet of carpet ripped up. Turns out, this was the contractor's "buddy" who was sick the day before. This buddy spent almost the entire four hour stretch the homeowner was home chain-smoking on the front porch!
When the contractor, himself, finally shows up at 5pm, he kicks the homeowner and his family out of the house. After about two hours of killing time, they decide to return home to find that the carpet in one room had been pulled up.
Day 1 of this "quick, two day job" is in the books and only about 10% of the project has been completed. "OK, maybe this was a fluke", the homeowner thinks and preserves hope for tomorrow. Even more hope fills for the homeowner when their neighbor calls them to say the contractor showed up and appears to be working!
Thrilled to get home and see the finished project, the homeowner returns from work at 5pm, on the dot...
Only a quarter of the living room had been completed and the carpet hadn't even been completely removed. The contractor begins to blame the choice of flooring. "It's too hard to work with" he whines, with no excuses for the baseboard debris piled up next to the baby's crib or the huge pile of debris in the driveway.
With no energy to fight, the homeowner went to sleep that night still trying to preserve hope for the next day. But when the text arrived the next morning from the contractor's wife claiming he had the flu, the camel's back was broken. The contractors were fired and the homeowner brought in Lowes to finish (re-do) the job.
How to Avoid Such a Disaster
The mistakes made in this story are not readily perceived. The homeowner did the right things. 40% up-front might seem like a lot, but the first payment is usually larger, especially for projects heavy on material costs. Asking their neighbor to spy on the contractors was also a good move. However, the mistake made here was the choice of contractor. While we don't have enough in this story to illuminate the exact circumstances around the choosing of this contractor, we can suggest a few key questions to ask before you hire one:
1. Are you licensed?
This should be a no-brainer, but it's absolutely worth mentioning. While a contractor does not legally have to be licensed to perform work on your home, you should be extremely cautious if hiring a contractor that is not licensed.
Always ask about the type of license your contractor has as this indicates a number of things that will help you make a well-informed decision.
In Virginia, trades like electrical or plumbing require special licenses. So, you should ensure your contractor has licensed tradesmen if your project involves any work like this. Additionally, there are three classes of contractor's licenses that you should understand.
2. Can you provide references?
Hiring a contractor should not be a taken lightly. This isn't the same as hiring someone to power-wash your siding or clean your gutters.
You are hiring a team of professionals to complete a project and you should take the same care and consideration that a major organization would take before hiring a new employee.
A team of experienced, professional contractors should be able to provide you with references at a moment's notice. They should have an army of past clients that are ready and willing to put in a good word for them. Even if you don't have the time to verify all of their references (though you absolutely should), it can be comforting just to know your new-hire is confident and ready to share their references with you.
3. What can you tell me about the materials that will be used?
The contractor in this story complained about the choice of flooring. Asking this question might have illuminated a lot of things about the contractor, such as their ability to complete the job and their actual experience and knowledge. While it may have not saved the project in the long-run, it very well could have helped avert disaster.
These points were taken from our Definitive Guide to Hiring a General Contractor, where we outline 24 essential questions to ask before you hire a contractor. If you haven't hired one yet, we highly encourage you to read through our guide for much more detail.
Story 3: The Houdini Contractor
This poor victim's story is short, but with an extremely valuable lesson that you should absolutely adhere to 100% of the time.
This guy fell victim to the Houdini Contractor. After getting several quotes for a new home addition, he went with the lowest price, thousands of dollars cheaper than the rest. Price is always an important factor in picking a contractor, but it does nothing to guarantee the outcome of the project. In this story, it bought the customer an excavated backyard and a whole foundation for their addition. Everything was moving along!
Until the contractor disappeared.
He pulled a Houdini!
No problem, you might think, just hire another contractor to finish the job. But this homeowner paid the contractor everything up-front! Twelve years later and the project is still unfinished. As you might assume, it's pretty hard to recoup the funds for an entire addition...
How to Avoid Such a Disaster
Yep, you guessed it: never pay a contractor everything up-front! You might think contractors are ethical because they're licensed and they might tell you some wonderfully woven story about why they need all of the money up-front. We can tell you from over 30 years of experience, that a contractor never needs everything up-front. DO NOT FALL FOR THIS. Keep your contractors motivated with milestone payments and you'll never be out of your entire budget and that Houdini Contractor can run off to wherever in the world he wants while you bring in another contractor to finish the job.
We've shared these stories with you to help protect you from future home improvement horror stories, but this was just part 1! Our Reddit poll garnered hundreds of responses and we've handpicked a lot more to share with you. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or any of the other social networks listed above or below to catch our next post in this series!
We hope you've learned from these mistakes and encourage you to reach out to us if you have any questions or are looking for a contractor you can absolutely count on to get your job done right.
Thanks for taking the time to read. We look forward to sharing more horror stories and preventative measures with you!