Tom Muck's Blog
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in April - 2021
Remodeling project from hell
Saturday, April 17, 2021 2:42:04 PM
A little over eight years ago we started work on our addition. When we bought our house, we knew we would be remodeling. We bought a fairly small house, but it was on an acre of land with a nice yard, so it was ready for an expansion. My wife designed the entire remodeling project, and we decided to do it somewhat piecemeal to save money -- have a company do the framing and other rough labor up to drywall, and we would do all the finishing -- floors, cabinets, trim, painting, etc either by ourselves or with subcontractors.
After researching remodeling companies in the area that would accomodate this, and choosing a few with good reviews, we got several estimates. Most companies were not willing to do the piecemeal approach, but we found one with good reviews that gave us a decent price. We decided to go with them. I'm not giving the name, even though they are out of business now after screwing over another homeowner in the area.
This approach is probably not right for most people, but in my previous career I was a remodeling contractor and lead carpenter. I also was a roofing foreman and concrete wall foreman, in addition to doing jobs in virtually all of the trades from tile work to electrical to plumbing, so I was going to keep a careful eye on the project each day. As it turned out, it was very necessary.
Some of the agreements and promises from the beginning were that we were going to live in the house while the work was done, and the house should be livable. The company told us that they never use day-labor, and most of the subs are in-house. This sounded like a good way to keep costs down. We also expressed concern about our dogs -- to make sure that the yard was kept reasonbly clean--dumpster on site for debris. The company was also supposed to do rough grading of the yard and move dirt from the excavation into the yard and spread around, then plant grass seed.
It was a big job: three-story addition on the back of the house (including a walk-in basement) and much of the existing house demoed and redesigned. Existing stairway in the front of the house was removed and moved to the back. Kitchen was removed from the front of the house and put in the middle, open to living room and family room.
The first day should have been an indication of things to come. The project manager showed up and left the front door open allowing all five of my dogs to run out and down the street. Luckily none were hit by cars. Several other times during the project, the workers either left the gate open, or didn't latch it. I would try to look every day to make sure the gates were closed, but if the gate wasn't latched securely I didn't see it. The dogs got out a couple more times, but luckily none were hurt.
The concrete guys were the first of many horrible crews. They were messy. They kept driving across the corner of the front lawn every day, even after I told them not to, so I put some barriers around so they couldn't cut the corner anymore. The next day, they drove their truck across the landscaping in the front yard (spinning the tires like maniacs and all laughing). The worst part was their workmanship. As someone who has poured dozens of basement walls, I know what the job should look like. Unfortunately, I had to be out of town the week of the foundation work, but when I got home I saw the horrible workmanship. They used a combination of brick pattern and smooth forms, with no rhyme or reason. On top of that, the concrete was too stiff, so honeycombing was all over the walls. The honeycombing was so bad that you could actually spray the outside of the wall and see water coming through the inside. We had MAJOR leaks for months, before they finally agreed to parge the entire outside of the wall and install J-Drain waterproofing. This was months later, however. The foundation guys also installed some block, but didn't clean the mud off the tops of the block before applying the mortar, even after I pointed it out to them.
The plumbers had to install the drains before the basement floor could go in, but I watched them dig trenches, put in the pipe, then pull it all out again and start over about 2 or 3 times. Not sure what was going on there, but even after the floor was put in, they had to jackhammer out the toilet flange and move it over! As he was jackhammering, he said "I don't know what happened, we remeasured and moved this 4 times."
The carpenters were next, and they seemed to know what they were doing, but upon measuring and leveling things myself, I found that many of the measurements were WAY off, and walls were not plumb. They fixed a few of the walls, but I would also come in at night and make sure things were correct after they botched it. The wall for the bathtub was a whole 3/4" out of square, and when I tried to show the carpenter, he used his tape measure and held it away from corner, making it look like it WAS square. He said "Don't worry, the tile man can mud it." I just told him don't worry about it, I'll fix it. I didn't trust him to make it right. A wall around a tub that has to be tiled should be perfect, otherwise tiles won't look right, and tile man will have to fight the crooked wall to make things work. One room upstairs was an inch bigger on one side than the other. That one I made him fix, because I felt it was something they could do with their skill level. Kitchen walls were way out of plumb and also had warped 2x4's going in different directions. I fixed those. A box around a pipe left the pipe sticking out almost an inch. I fixed that too. Much later, after the job was complete, I found that the steps were as much as 3/4" different from step to step. I had to cut a few of them out and chop down the stringer. I also had to do all the siding cuts where new windows went into the old house (2 windows) because the carpenters didn't know how to measure the window, add the width of the trim, and finish cut the existing siding in place. Simple job, but nobody could do it. I did it one evening for them.
The thing that really bothered me about these guys -- every crew -- was the lack of cleanliness. The carpenters came in and started smashing drywall without any fans or plastic. I had to make them stop so I could protect some things and put up some plastic. Then when they went to dispose of it, they threw it in the yard on top of the dirt piles that needed to be spread out. It was almost impossible to clean up after that. Dumb asses. Every crew had smokers that threw cigarette butts all over the yard, and soda cans, and food wrappers, and even chicken bones. I had to clean up after them every day, even after I complained numerous times. One of the crew had the nerve to say "you know how it is on a job site, you used to be a carpenter." I had to explain to him that anyone on my crew would have been fired after being warned numerous times about littering in a homeowner's yard. We had a big rain one day, and I had to call the carpenters in to patch some holes in the roof and get the water off the floors, and their idea to drain the water was to use their hammers to smash holes in the OSB flooring to let water drain out.
One particularly messy day was when they used a concrete saw to cut an access hole for the crawlspace, approximately 3x4. The hole was next to the furnace, but they didn't turn off the furnace while they were cutting. Concrete dust was coming out of all the registers on the first and second floors! I had to run downstairs and hit the switch to stop the madness.
As a lead carpenter myself, I have worked on many large remodeling projects. The companies I worked for were very well respected, partly because we treated homeowners and their property with the proper respect -- cleaning up after ourselves, keeping the place as dust free as possible, and doing quality work. I know how a job is supposed to be done, and these guys didn't have a clue.
One of the big things for us was an open concept in the kitchen/family room area. It required a beam. The carpenters were going to put the beam UNDER the floor joists, which would have been unsightly and not acceptable. They said that's the only way they could do it. I had to explain to them how to remove the last rim floor joist, substitute the beam, and use joist hangers on the floor joists to make the ceiling flush. They did it and it turned out great.
This job took place during the coldest month of the year (it was supposed to be completed before then.) We didn't have insulation or windows in most of the house, so the cold air just blew through the house. The temp on the thermostat was under 30 degrees. I had to call to have the company put up some tarps, but even with that the house wouldn't go above 30. I had to go to half a dozen stores to find space heaters, and bought several to run in the house to keep pipes from freezing. Our electric bill was almost $2000 for one month.
Plumbers were the worst. They kept putting things in the wrong place, including the shower drain, diverter, and some other things. I had one bath fixture with 3/4" fittings to allow for more water (it was feeding two showers) and they ran 1/2" line to it and used an adapter (I had told them beforehand about the fixture). I made them change it to 3/4 from the source. I moved some of the pipes myself at night. It also turned out that they were ordering pipe and pilfering it from the remodeling contractor -- the company owner came out with tape measures and measured the pipe in the wall because he suspected something! After the tub was installed upstairs with a half can of spray foam under it, I took it out and reinstalled it with mortar (mortar was sitting in the bathroom for them to use--which I told them about--but they didn't use it). I tried out the tub after they got the plumbing complete and were off to their next job, and when the tub drained, all the water leaked out onto the room below. I called them back and they found that they had not glued ANY of the drain joints for the tub.
Electricians were not bad. They put things in the right places (mostly) and were easy to deal with, aside from a bad cigarette habit and throwing butts in the yard. I installed all the fixtures/outlets/switches and had a relatively easy time of it.
The HVAC people were another nightmare. We had one big trunk duct right where the shower was supposed to go, and the HVAC people could not figure out a way to change their design without encroaching on the shower. I came up with a plan myself to change the system from two zones (new and old) to two zones (2nd floor and 1st/basement) to eliminate the trunk completely and solve the problem. It also made more sense from a heating/cooling perspective. No idea why they couldn't figure this out. They were also very messy, and even threw away some of my stuff (shoes, chair, light fixtures) that were on the deck. No idea why they did that, but I found the stuff in the dumpster. I had to also help them figure out where to put ducts, rather than having a huge bulkhead in the middle of every room. If I had left them to their devices, the ceiling would have had bulkheads all over the place. Oh, and my idea for moving the truck also eliminated the need for ANY bulkheads on the first and second floor.
Insulation guys turned out to be day workers (after the company said they never use day workers). These guys had never insulated anything before, from the looks of it. On top of that, they were actually spitting on the floor. I called the company owner and told him about it, and he made them stop. He wanted me to point out the guy who was doing it, but I told him as far as I know it was all of them. Imagine spitting on someone's floor in their house while you are working there...disgusting. I tighted up the insulation and redid some of it after they left.
Drywall guys were not bad. Not many issues with them at the time, but we do have a few bad tape joints now that things have settled. I had to tell them to use glue. They only brought enough for a few sheets. I wanted at least all the ceiling drywall to be screwed and glued. Company owner brought out a couple cases of glue after I called him.
With the job winding down, the things that were left were grading and planting grass seed. They did a horrible job grading, and left stones and concrete all over the yard. Their idea of seeding a 3/4 acre yard was using one or two bags of cheap seed. At least they put down straw. I went out and got more seed and threw another 3 large bags of seed around the yard. After the job was complete I had to move roughly 100 wheelbarrows of dirt away from the house because the grading was too high and too close to windows. I moved it to low spots in the yard, because their grading was so bad that you could see hills and valleys all over the yard.
The siding guys were not great either. There was an area where the new (Hardy plank) siding was meeting the old (cedar bevel siding) and they wanted to slap a board OVER the top of the cedar siding, rather than do a joint to connect it properly. They wouldn't do it correctly (didn't know how), so I had to cut the cedar and install the transition board for them.
Final walkthrough was a nightmare. They wanted to do everything that day, but there was a lot of stuff left to do. At the end of the day, I said we would look it over and settle up the next day, if everything was done right. One of the guys in the crew got mad and was swearing at me, and the company owner had to tell him to leave. As the guy was leaving he was yelling and giving me the finger as he drove away! It turned out he was the uncle of the company owner, and he was fired after that. LOL.
We held back some of the money because of all the problems and the promises that were not kept, in addition to the extra work I had to do to fix things and several items of mine that were stolen, or taken accidentally (shovels, brooms, roof stripper, etc). Plus, among the many change orders that increased the cost of the job, several were not what we agreed to and we were overcharged.They even put a dent in the hood of my car and denied doing it. So we held back a few thousand, and the owner was PISSED. He had a clenched fist and a red face when he was arguing with my wife, but the project manager told him to cut his losses and leave. $3k out of a $180K job wasn't much.
Even after the nightmare, the job turned out well -- mostly because we were there to correct things as they happened. I can't imagine leaving this company to do the work without supervision. I'm still working on finishing. I did the hardwood floors, painting, all trim work, fixture installation, finish stairs, etc. We had a tile man do the bathrooms and kitchen backsplash. The biggest job left to do is the finish stairs from 1st to 2nd floor. It's still just rough framing. I did the basement stairs already and it turned out really nice.
The bottom line is that if you are getting work done on your home, you have to begin with the assumption that all contractors are morons, and work up from there. If you can't watch after them yourself, find someone who can. And check up on things...make sure gates are closed before letting pets out, even if you told them 100 times to close the gate.
Update: Second floor stairway complete. Took a week off work and finished them off:
Category tags: General
Posted by Tom Muck
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in April - 2021
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