Avoid remodeling re-dos by choosing contractor carefully

Contact: Lynn Walsh
Walsh Communications, LLC

Avoid remodeling re-dos by choosing contractor carefully

When you make a mistake in a computer program, you can simply hit the "undo" button to fix the problem immediately. But the solution is not so simple when a remodeling project goes awry. Whether it's a kitchen renovation, bathroom upgrade, new addition, basement facelift or otherwise, if the job isn't completed to your satisfaction, the results can be costly and the regrets plentiful. 

Mike Pudlik, MCR, GCP, president of Legacy Design and Construction, Inc. in St. Charles, knows all too well how financially and emotionally draining a botched remodeling job can be to a disgruntled homeowner. He and his team have been recruited by many customers over the years to rescue the renovation efforts undertaken by others. 

Case in point: a home in the western suburbs where an unfinished addition in the rear of the home had ground to a halt years earlier.

"This project sat for five years before we were called in," Pudlik said. "We saw code violations with framing, electrical and plumbing work that was either never started or completed, and major structural defects. In this case, the person previously involved didn't have the skills necessary to do the job right, and the homeowner's funds had dried up. But we ended up repairing and completing the project appropriately."

Kirk Bacastow, sales associate with Glenview-based Callahan and Peters, Inc., recalled a recent job where he had to rip out the walls of a shower stall featuring glass tile previously installed by another remodeler. 

"The contractor had put in a new type of waterproof substrate so when moisture passed through the grout it would collect behind the tiles. The homeowners could actually see the water there trapped behind the tiles while they were taking a shower," said Bacastow, who repaired and waterproofed the walls, onto which he installed hand-made ceramic tiles. 

The reasons why major home improvement projects fail or disappoint are numerous, said Jeff Stewart, partner with GCI Contract Floors in Elmhurst. 

"Often, a contractor lowballs a bid on a job and then learns that their bid is way under their own budget, so they cut corners or don't completely finish the work to make up the difference," Stewart noted. "Also, lack of good communication between the homeowner and the contractor often occurs, which results in very different sets of expectations and, ultimately, bad feelings and exorbitant costs."

Not having detailed written documentation, with clear written provisions for changes to the project, is another pitfall that can plague a home modification project, added Bacastow.

In some cases, renovation rescues are needed when do-it-yourselfers get in over their heads or don't realize until the work is finished that they've made errors. More commonly, Stewart and his crew end up salvaging jobs by "general practitioners and handyman types, who may be well-intentioned, customer-oriented people who entice with attractive prices, but who lack the level of expertise needed in that particular field," he said.

For example, GCI Contract Floors had to carefully replace an improperly installed mosaic tile kitchen backsplash in a Des Plaines home without damaging the new cabinets and countertops above and below. The homeowners were so thrilled with the end result that they hired Stewart and his team nine months later to put in new hardwood and ceramic tile flooring.

Sadly, "for every project that gets fixed or completed by another contractor, there are probably 10 bad jobs that disappointed homeowners end up living on and not correcting," said Stewart.

To avoid eyesores, money-pit projects and expensive regrets, it's important to do your homework, say the experts. 

"Consider hiring a professional to do as much of the project as possible," Pudlik suggests. "Too many homeowners underestimate the amount of time and planning required as well as the skill level needed, and they attempt to tackle the job themselves, which often ends badly."

The goal is to enlist an experienced, qualified and reputable professional who will not only complete the contract as specified--on time and on budget--but who will clearly and effectively communicate with you throughout the process. 

Stewart recommends getting a referral to a reputable contractor from a trusted professional organization like the Greater Chicagoland Chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI of Greater Chicagoland), whose members have to abide by strict industry codes and regularly keep up with continuing education in their profession. Once you have the names of a few good leads, research them carefully. Ask for and contact several homeowner clients to gauge their satisfaction level with the contractor. 

Mimi Altman, executive director of NARI Chicago, said that, prior to hiring a contractor, you should also request: 

  • Proof of adequate worker's compensation and general liability insurance coverage for himself and any workers he hires.
  • Proper identification which indicates a permanent place of business and business phone number.
  • Reassurance of financial stability--ask the remodeler for bank, trade and supplier references, and contact these parties to inquire about the contractor's financial solvency.
  • A written contract proposal, given to you within a few weeks of your initial meeting, that spells out the scope of the project, the expected start/stop dates, exactly what labor and materials are included and not included, the names of subcontractors who will be used, any special permits required, payment arrangements, and notice of a three-day right to cancel the contract (required, per Illinois law).
  • A warranty, expressed in the written contract, of the contractor's workmanship and the materials used for at least one year from the job completion date. 
  • A realistic price--be suspicious of any figure that appears too low or too high; also, avoid paying a large deposit (a 10% to 20% deposit up front is typical, but may be more if a significant amount of custom-made materials are involved) or paying in cash only.

Based in Des Plaines, The Greater Chicagoland Chapter of NARI (www.narichicago.org) is a not-for-profit trade association founded in 1987 and currently consisting of approximately 280 member companies. NARI Chicago is committed exclusively to the service of the local professional remodeling industry, representing professional remodeling contractors, product manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, trade and consumer publications, utilities and lending institutions.