Home Remodeling Nightmares and How To Avoid Them

Once you start looking for a reliable contractor to oversee a home remodel project, everyone seems to have a horror story to tell.

But you don’t need to let renovation nightmares scare you away from your home remodeling dreams.

The key to a successful remodeling project is establishing a good relationship with your contractor by educating yourself about your rights and theirs, and it varies by state. You’ll avoid a remodeling nightmare by finding the right person to oversee your project, but as the folks in the following examples will tell you, that’s easier said than done.

Don’t forget to share your own remodeling horror stories and successes with our readers at the end of this post. Your remodeling story could be featured in a future Case Design blog.

Photo courtesy of Charles & Hudson.

A remodel can turn into a big mess fast, especially when nobody’s around to supervise the project.

An MIA Contractor = a DIY Remodel

Steve Celander’s two-year basement remodel story was featured in The Chicago Tribune in February 2010. After more than a year of living amongst storage items and trying to chase down the contractor, Celander ending up doing much of the work himself and fixing the work of negligent sub-contractors.

Once Celander’s personal possessions were moved out of the basement, it became a storage area for the project’s materials. Subcontractors would come and go, but a lot of the work was done incorrectly because nobody was supervising the project. Once the electrical work was finished, the drywallers came in and plastered over the outlets after cutting all the electric and telephone wires.

With no electricity downstairs, the sump pump backed up during a rainstorm and flooded the basement. The wood for the floor and other project materials stored in the basement were ruined. The contractor had already been missing for weeks and continued to ignore the client’s phone calls.

Remodel Nightmare
Photo courtesy of The Red House Project.

Home remodel nightmare basement: don’t go down there – the contractor sure didn’t!

Celander had to stain and varnish the new floorboards, fix custom woodwork on the staircase, carpet the stairs, and finish the drywall himself, in addition to paying the electrician to fix his runined work and being stuck with bills from sub-contractors he had already paid. But finishing the project himself was easier and cheaper than getting the contractor to do it.

Jodie Costello: Contractors from Hell

Jodie Costello’s pages-long remodeling horror story of her master bedroom addition is described in detail on her website – Contractors from Hell – which she created in response to her family’s remodel nightmare, to help educate people about their remodeling rights and avoiding unscrupulous contractors.

The short of Costello’s story is that she signed a remodeling contract that provided protection to the contractor, but not to her. Her family spent a lot of time and money trying to get the contractor to finish the job he started, continually shelling out more money so the job could move forward, as per the contract they signed.

What Costello didn’t know before signing was that the contract itself was illegal according to California State law. The contractor she hired was also part of an advertising scheme that gets a building company far more jobs than it can handle responsibly. At the time they hired him, the contractor had already had multiple complaints filed against him by both clients and subcontractors.

The Costellos had to contend with a projected six-month project that took two years, a contractor who didn’t return phone calls for weeks at a time, sub-contractors walking off the job, repeated failed inspections, carbon monoxide poisoning, and plans that were so incomplete they couldn’t be used by another contractor. And that’s just an overview.

Remodel Nightmare
Photo courtesy of Gettum Associates, Inc.

Imagine if your bedroom turned into a construction zone like this one for two years!

Jodie Costello learned that education is the key to protecting yourself from getting burned, so she started the Contractors from Hell website and her (Pre)modeling Boot Camp for Women (and the Men that Love Them), to help arm homeowners with valuable knowledge. Jodie featured Joaquin Erazo, Jr. of our own company recently on her blog, What to Look for in Good and Bad Home Remodeling Warranties.

A Remodeling Nightmare on Elm Street Avoided

Laura Walker came to Case Design on recommendation from a friend after all three of the contractors she interviewed caused her to put her kitchen remodel plans on hold. The first contractor quoted an extremely high price for the project after showing up two hours late to the initial appointment and talking down to Walker in a condescending tone.

The second contractor wanted the entire cost of the remodel – almost $70k – upfront. Walker was very wise not to engage in this type of remodeling contract scheme. These contractors need your money to finish another project, and you’ll be forced to shell out more money for your own project when the funds run out mid-remodel.

The third contractor made Walker feel uncomfortable because he treated her like she didn’t really know what she wanted, repeatedly pushing her to remodel her kitchen the way he wanted it done. Walker didn’t feel good about hiring any of the contractors she met with.


There’s nothing scary about a dream kitchen by Case Design

Finding a remodeling company that puts the client in control

When I met with Walker she admitted that she hesitated to hire a remodeling company because she had read online to stay away from companies that draft their own plans and take on multiple projects. I wanted to address this issue first because she raises some good questions.

Just to make things clear, a remodeling company is a self-encompassing business that provides all the workers needed to make a project happen, from design and planning to construction and cleanup.

A contractor similarly oversees your project, but hires outside contractors – called sub-contractors – to perform all or most of the work. When problems arise with a job that’s overseen by a general contractor, getting to the bottom of things, and getting someone to take responsibility or fix the problems, can become a nightmare.

  • Unfortunately, there are a lot of builders out there that can’t oversee your project correctly because they’ve taken on too many in an attempt to make a lot of money in a short period of time.
  • Just as many contractors make it a regular practice to use your payments to fund someone else’s remodel project.
  • Many contractors fail to hold subs accountable for shoddy construction, leaving the homeowner to deal with the problem and the extra cost.

It’s true that some remodeling companies will only work off the set of blueprints created by their own architects. But it’s also possible to find a remodeling company that puts the client in control. It’s your money, so you should decide how it’s used and whom it’s used to pay.

In addition to researching any contractor or remodeling company you’re considering hiring according to the advice outlined below, keep in mind the following advantages to hiring a remodeling company:

  • Companies and corporations are overseen by multiple people that may include stockholders and boards of directors, providing a system of checks and balances that ensures high standards of craftsmanship and prevents money-making schemes.
  • Companies who work with the same sub-contractors and in-house staff regularly provide consistency and a reliable team of experts working together to complete your project.
  • If the person overseeing your project fails to live up to his contract, there’s always someone higher up on the chain of command that’s accountable.
  • Remodeling-specific companies may provide free education and remodeling seminars where you can meet industry workers in a no-commitment, profit-free capacity.
  • Remodeling-specific companies only do remodels and additions, while general contractors work on a variety of new construction and renovation projects.

Don’t become the victim of another home remodeling nightmare

Laura Walker did some things right. She began her remodel by interviewing multiple contractors before choosing one. She decided to get better educated when she was unhappy with her choices. She also listened to her gut feeling about the contractors she decided not to go with. A lot of it comes down to common sense, which can fall to the wayside when you’re excited about your remodel.

Photo courtesy of Durango Solar Homes.

A responsible contractor protects your home like his own.

Research the contractor: You don’t even need to move onto the interview stage if your initial search gives you a bad feeling.

  • Type their name or business into your favorite search engine and see what comes up. Also try entering their name plus a term like “complaints” or “lawsuits” to see if it returns anything.
  • Use a reliable feedback site like Angie’s List to obtain real reviews about the contractor from other homeowners.
  • Visit the contactor’s website to see which professional affiliations they’re a member of. Follow up to ensure their validity and review any formal complaints.
  • Look into any suits filed against the contractor in small claims court, in addition to any mechanics liens filed against them or their clients. These are public records that you can gain access to through your city or county courthouse.
  • If a contractor’s license or builder’s certification is required by your state, look into the contractor’s licensing and certification history, which can reveal breaks in licenses, claims filed against them, and other red flags.
  • Visit the contractor’s local office as a secret shopper and see how you’re treated.

Listen to friends, not ads. Definitely listen to your friends’ remodel stories and start looking for a contractor based on their recommendations.

  • Be wary of signs along the road or cheap forms of solicitation.
  • Reliable contractors generate the bulk of their business from recommendations of clients and subcontractors.
  • Of course, you will still follow up on any contractor you’re using with some of the above research techniques.

Interview contractors and ask questions. Whether you’re considering a private contractor or a remodeling company to oversee your project, there are some basic questions to ask before you write a check or sign a contract. If the contractor can’t give you specific answers or lacks communication skills, it’s a sign to keep looking.

  • How long will my project take? What do you do when a project falls behind schedule?
  • How much money am I required to put down and what will the payment schedule be during the project? (State laws determine the percentage of a total project cost that a contractor can require up front.)
  • Do you have insurance to cover subcontractors and damages to my personal property?
  • How will your workers and subs clean up the jobsite at the end of the day, and how will you hold them accountable?
  • What is your knowledge of local building codes? How do you address issues if a project fails inspection?
  • What are your working days and hours? How often can I expect to see you on the jobsite? Do you hold regular/daily/weekly meetings with your clients to ensure their satisfaction?
  • Can I add clauses to our contract before we both sign it?
  • Can you provide me with a portfolio of completed projects and references?

This last one is particularly important, because it’s like asking a potential employee for a resume and employment history. If they can’t provide a substantial list, they may not have the experience necessary for a successful remodel.

Clean Remodel
Photo courtesy of Pine Creek Construction.

How clean will your contractor’s crew leave your home at the end of each day?

Your contract should protect both you and the contractor. Your contract should explain very clearly what work will be performed when and how, and also what work will not be performed. A short contract is a major red flag to back out while you still can.

  • Look for “specs.” A project’s specs are used to determine the budget, list details about materials, and include design specifics not noted on the project’s blueprints, such as paint colors, tile, and appliance choices. Specs should include details such as cost, brand names, model numbers, colors, and measurements.
  • The contract should outline clear project beginning and end dates, the total cost, the payment schedule for the project, and any penalty for canceling the contract.
  • The project should come with a warranty that covers craftsmanship and materials for at least one year. The warranty should specify who is liable (either the contractor, sub, or manufacturer) for each part of the project that’s covered.
  • Require liens releases from subcontractors and suppliers directly in your contract to protect yourself from negligent contractors. Liens are discussed below in more detail.
  • Request an affidavit of final release. This document legally releases you from liability for your contractor’s agreements with subs and suppliers at the time of your final payment for the project.

You can and should have your own construction attorney review the contract before you sign it. And don’t be surprised if the contractor wants their attorney to review any changes you’re requesting as well. This is actually a sign of a responsible contractor!

Remodel Graphic
Image courtesy of Remodeling101.

Both your project plans and contract should pay great attention to detail.

Requesting liens releases in your contract. One of the biggest horror stories imaginable is when subcontractors and suppliers start hunting you down for payments that you already made to your contractor, who is responsible for hiring and paying subcontractors and suppliers.

The bad news is that when your contractor fails to pay his subs, you become legally responsible for the money they’re owed for their work. If you don’t pay, a mechanics lien can be placed on your home. Liens can cause a foreclosure on your home, limit your ability to borrow money against it, or can come back to haunt you if it’s sold.

The good news is that you can take the liability off yourself with a contract clause that requires liens releases from all subcontractors and suppliers. A liens release “releases” your liability for work you’ve already paid for and puts it back on the contractor, whose job, in part, is to hire and pay subcontractors and suppliers for your remodel.

Don’t forget to share your house remodel nightmare stories and successes below. Your input will help future remodelers make important decisions, and your story may be featured in a future Case Design blog post.

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