On the Couch: Advice from Renovation Therapists

Wherein our reader therapists listen to
your remodel sob stories and offer
strategies to avoid that next home-improvement trauma—no inner child involved

on the couch with this old house
Illustration by John Hersey
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Our remodel therapists listen to your remodel sob stories and offer strategies to avoid that next home-improvement trauma—no inner child involved.

CASE #1:
Wedding Bell Blues
Tracey Ann D., Philadelphia, Pa.
"We had a deadline for our kitchen remodel: our wedding, on October 20. Work began on September 7. The first problem was that our wall cabinets were hung upside down. Next, we asked for oak butcher block, but we got maple, and the subway tiles in the backsplash were cracked and sticking out in places like buckteeth. Two weeks before the wedding—still with no running water, sink, or counters, and with only one naked bulb hanging from the ceiling—we had to fire the contractor. There was a silver lining, though. The wedding was lovely!"

Rory's Diagnosis: These people hired a bum. The only way to protect yourself is to get recommendations. You wouldn't pull into just any garage and say, "Hey, do my brakes." No, you'd ask a friend "Do you know a mechanic?" Same goes for finding a contractor. But don't just get a name and number; get an address, and check it out. Then look at the contractor's portfolio and ask questions about the photographs to be sure he's showing you projects that he did, not somebody else. That's one trick. The last thing is to go see the work in person. We take people to past clients' homes all the time so they can see, feel, and touch our work.

Nitsa and Ignacio: As with any renovation project, there are always delays. You don't know exactly what they'll be, but you can predict that they'll happen: Cabinets won't arrive on time, the contractor will get sick, there'll be bad weather. So starting something seven weeks before your wedding really is a disaster waiting to happen. It's better to wait, and take it one life-changing event at a time.
Our remodel therapists listen to your remodel sob stories and offer strategies to avoid that next home-improvement trauma—no inner child involved.

CASE #1:
Wedding Bell Blues
Tracey Ann D., Philadelphia, Pa.
"We had a deadline for our kitchen remodel: our wedding, on October 20. Work began on September 7. The first problem was that our wall cabinets were hung upside down. Next, we asked for oak butcher block, but we got maple, and the subway tiles in the backsplash were cracked and sticking out in places like buckteeth. Two weeks before the wedding—still with no running water, sink, or counters, and with only one naked bulb hanging from the ceiling—we had to fire the contractor. There was a silver lining, though. The wedding was lovely!"

Rory's Diagnosis: These people hired a bum. The only way to protect yourself is to get recommendations. You wouldn't pull into just any garage and say, "Hey, do my brakes." No, you'd ask a friend "Do you know a mechanic?" Same goes for finding a contractor. But don't just get a name and number; get an address, and check it out. Then look at the contractor's portfolio and ask questions about the photographs to be sure he's showing you projects that he did, not somebody else. That's one trick. The last thing is to go see the work in person. We take people to past clients' homes all the time so they can see, feel, and touch our work.

Nitsa and Ignacio: As with any renovation project, there are always delays. You don't know exactly what they'll be, but you can predict that they'll happen: Cabinets won't arrive on time, the contractor will get sick, there'll be bad weather. So starting something seven weeks before your wedding really is a disaster waiting to happen. It's better to wait, and take it one life-changing event at a time.
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CASE #2:

 

CASE #2:

rory mccreesh, new york, ny
Photo by Rory McCreesh
Remodel Therapist #1
Who he is: Rory McCreesh, New York, N.Y.
Why we chose him: Founder of Duce Construction, Rory made our top 10 list of best contractors in 2005 after coming through on one near-impossible job after another. With 26 years in the home-building business, Rory's the guy you can trust.
No Tools, No Manners, No Way
Gary O., Reston, Va.
"Even the simplest things that shouldn't go wrong, will go wrong. I had bathroom mirrors installed. The crew didn't have a level (I provided mine); they didn't have a stud finder (I provided mine); they didn't have drop cloths (I provided mine). It got worse once the work began. A drill slipped, just missing the new granite vanity top and making a dent in the drywall (not repaired); they put glue on mirrors while they were lying on our carpet with no protection against drips; they started to install one of the mirrors in the wrong bathroom. As they left, they ran over my garden."

Reva's Diagnosis: The first red flag was no level. The second was no stud finder. The third was no drop cloth. Shame on you, Gary. You knew exactly what was going on but had the fatalistic attitude that you just can't win. If they're so unprepared, you have to say, "I'm uncomfortable with you not having the tools to do this job. I'm going to regroup and talk to your boss. Maybe you can come back another time." You could have controlled this.

Rory: Oh, geez, yeah, I would have tossed them out of the house. Now this is a small project, so you're not going to get references, but the contractor should treat your home with respect. Next time a crew walks into your house for the first time, check their manners. Are they courteous enough to ask to take off their boots or shoes? Remember, you're bringing strangers into your home.
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CASE #3:

 

CASE #3:

home owner on a couch discussing bathroom remodel therapy
Illustration by John Hersey
Treacherous Tub
Nancy R., Carmichael, Calif.
"We are completing a remodel and discovered that the plumber installed the on/off and hot/cold handle way up on the wall (46½ inches from the tub floor), close to the showerhead. He placed the diverter valve just above the tub filler. My young daughters will now have to stand up to adjust the temperature. The contractor says it's 'fine' and refuses to correct it even though these were not the specs we agreed to."

Reva's Diagnosis: If you had plans and the contractor didn't follow them, then he should make it right. The standard warranty on a contractor's labor is a year.

But if the shower plumbing wasn't specified, the best way to get the contractor to fix the work is to say, "Okay, what can we do to make this right? What do we need to talk about as far as money goes?" Don't go to him in an accusatory fashion because he'll say, "Forget you." Approach him calmly, and he'll be more likely to work with you on a solution.
In this case, the on/off control should have been between 24 and 36 inches from the tub floor, so you'd just have to reach up to turn it. The diverter is generally 18 to 20 inches high and placed under the tub filler.

Nitsa and Ignacio: Nancy also has some accountability. We were having our kitchen redone and the electrician put some outlets in the wall. We looked, and looked, and looked at them some more­ because they seemed too low. We told the contractor, but he insisted that they were the right height. So we asked, "Could you please come out and measure them to be sure?" Turned out they were too low. The countertops would have been right where the outlets were. You must check on your project on an ongoing basis so if something goes wrong you can tell the contractor early enough that he can fix it.
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CASE #4:

 

CASE #4:

Ignacio Arribas and Nitsa Lallas, Mill Valley, California
Courtesy of Ignacio Arribas and Nitsa Lallas
Remodel Therapists #3 & 4
Who they are: Ignacio Arribas and Nitsa Lallas, Mill Valley, Calif.
Why we chose them: They coauthored The Happy Remodelers, a book about how not to lose your money, sanity, or marriage during the home-improvement process. Their advice comes from 20 years of working with contractors on their own renovation projects.
You Get What You Pay For
Joe A., Whittier, Calif.
"Why is it that you go to see a job, show your contractor's license and insurance, give references, and draw up an estimate, only to be asked to lower your price because some guy says he can do it for less? You decline, but after a few weeks they call you again. They want you either to check the work the other guy is doing because it doesn't look right, or to fix what he messed up."

Rory's Diagnosis: Homeowners need to realize that they pay for expertise and peace of mind. But they should also know what goes into the bid. I itemize mine so it clearly states the cost of a supervisor (if I can't be on-site), materials, the cost to install those materials, and my liability and workers' compensation insurance. I even factor in a fee for a guy who just does punch-list items, such as installing hardware, paint touch-up, and cleanup. That costs more, but it ensures that nothing's missed and that you're coming home to a clean house.

Nitsa and Ignacio: The lowest bid doesn't usually turn out to be the cheapest. You have to ask yourself, "Why are they charging less for the same work? Are they using inferior materials, or do they have less experience?" The person bidding might just be a handyman, not a licensed contractor. If he's licensed, he's also insured and has workers' comp to cover him—and you—if something goes wrong. Every state has an agency you can check with to see if your guy is licensed.
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CASE #5:

 

CASE #5:

plumber troubles for contractor therapy
Illustration by John Hersey
Wall Be Gone

Bernie S., Manitowoc, Wis.
"I hired a contractor for an old-barn restoration. Part of the project involved a room with a unique plank-sided wall. First day of work, the contractor called offering to dispose of the wall. I said no—preserving it was part of the restoration. I thought no more of it until I dropped by the barn some time later. The wall was missing! I later discovered that the crew demolished the wall because it was in their way. Then the contractor tried to cover it up with his generous offer."

Rory's Diagnosis: Anytime we keep a wall, we put something on it saying save, save, save. But you should have that information on paper, too. It appears as if no one was following a written scope of work. Truth is, when a crew is doing demo, they want everything to go into a garbage container because, ultimately, what's not trashed is in the way.

Reva's Diagnosis: There was clearly no communication with the crew, and the contractor wasn't on-site. But Bernie also shares blame. All homeowners need to keep an eye on their projects. After that call, I would have gotten in my car to go take a look.
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CASE #6:

 

CASE #6:

Reva Kussmaul, San Gabriel Valley, California
Photo by Reva Kussmaul
Remodel Therapist #2
Who she is: Reva Kussmaul, San Gabriel Valley, Calif.
Why we chose her: A contractor turned renovation coach, Reva makes a living listening to both sides. For the last decade, she has taught homeowners and contractors how to make the remodeling process better for both parties through better communication and compromise.
Unholy Contractor
Pastor Jose C., Gainesville, Fla.
"We hired a contractor to add a roof over a walkway at our church. He asked for money up front for materials. Then he tore down the existing eaves, fascia, and soffit above the church entry and began to install some monstrosity. Code enforcement stopped the work before it got worse (the contractor never pulled a permit). I didn't see the contractor again until our court date, when he promised to restore the church. Then he disappeared.

Rory's Diagnosis: The church is somewhat at fault here. They should have spoken to an architect first and had a drawing done. Then they could have said, "Yeah, that looks nice on paper," before calling a contractor. An architect would also have told them they needed a permit. To get one, you, your pro, or an expediter must show drawings, a contractor's license number, and proof of insurance. As for advanced money, generally you pay a 10 percent retainer and up to 30 percent for materials that are needed right away.

Reva's Diagnosis: After that initial money, develop payment due dates that correspond with the work to be done. Say the contractor has to do rough-in for the plumbing and electrical, and that costs $3,000. If the electrical isn't done by the agreed upon date, she doesn't get paid for that portion of the job. With a payment plan, which is spelled out in the contract, you aren't writing checks for work that hasn't been completed. To keep track of material costs, ask your contractor for receipts once the stuff arrives on-site.

Read more remodeling horror stories, and advice on dealing with them.
 
 

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