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Avoid renovation disasters

Your dream-home renovation can turn into a nightmare—learn how to avoid it

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For Marcy Melanson and husband Mike, the decision to purchase and renovate a 100-year-old home in Moncton, N.B. proved to be an unending nightmare.

First they fired a plumber who insisted it would be perfectly fine to run pipes alongside the outside walls of the house (a bad idea with Moncton’s harsh winters), then they found lead paint in their basement. But the biggest challenge was still to come: the house needed a new roof.

“I began calling around to obtain estimates and found they were wildly varied,” Melanson says. “Some were as low as $4,000 to $5,000, while top-end quotes were coming in around $13,000.”

Since the contractor appeared to do a bang-up job with the roof, Melanson says they hired him for other projects inside the house. After agreeing on an hourly wage and a completion date, it didn’t take long before the couple saw things weren’t rolling smoothly.

“The contractor carried on and talked as if he knew what he was doing,” she says. “He told us he worked at Home Hardware and that he could buy the materials needed using his discount, which in turn would cost us less in the end. At the outset of the project, he was very conscientious and seemed to be working hard on the task at hand… We subsequently discovered this guy was essentially doing nothing all day, but would basically just do enough work to make it appear as though things were moving ahead and on schedule. By the time we fired him, we had been taken for upwards of $3,000.”

Whether you are looking at a complete overhaul or minor work, the notion of home renovations is enough to strike fear in the hearts of the strongest people. John Shepherd, an independent contractor in Moncton, suggests that regardless of the size of the renovation, there are a few key questions that can avert this disaster.

Always get a breakdown of costs in writing. It should include labour, materials, potential sub-contracts, permits, special orders, and taxes. “Customers can expect some quote variance between different companies, that’s natural, but by soliciting a number of quotes, you’re then able to weed out the higher-priced contractors,” says Shepherd.

Don’t simply take the lowest quote either. When you see a group of quotes clustered around the same figure, they’re likely to be the most realistic, and tell you what is a reasonable cost.

“It happens that unforeseen costs may arise during the renovation process, but any reputable contractor will keep his client informed every step of the way, and lay out in black and white precisely why deviating from the original quote is necessary,” says Shepherd.

While it is a lesson learned the hard way, Shepherd says reputable contractors will also have a list of references available. He tells clients to never take a contractor at his or her word; just because he claims he is able to do something doesn’t mean he is.

“Contractors should have a solid history of work behind them,” says Shepherd. “If they are as good as they are claiming, they shouldn’t mind a prospective client reaching out to some of their previous customers, whether by phone or an in-person visit.”

The Melansons were reluctant to discuss their concerns with the contractor once the work was underway. Shepherd says if something doesn’t feel right, trust your gut and get some answers immediately.

“Check in on the work being done every day, and if you’re unhappy with something, bring the work to a stop,” he says. “What a lot of homeowners don’t always take into consideration when they are having work done is the fact they are the boss.”

Another red flag the Melanson’s missed was the contractor’s requests for more money. Most reputable contractors will agree in writing to milestone 10-, 30-, 60-day payment dates, or a deposit for materials, before any work begins and stick to the agreement.

“I always recommend a significant portion of the funds be held until the job is done and the customer is satisfied with the work done,” says Shephard. “If a contractor is insisting on full payment up front or is not in a position to cover some of the expenses up front, that should be a red flag.”

While the Melansons continued undertaking various renovations throughout their house over the years that followed, an unwelcome reminder of the dismissed roofer would drop down on them.

“We had noticed our roof has been leaking around virtually every edge of the house, which we knew wasn’t right given the fact the roof wasn’t even five years old,” says Melanson. “ I was about six months pregnant at the time, and one night, I had part of our bedroom ceiling come crashing down on my face.”

When work isn’t done correctly and on time, chasing down the contractor can be hard. “If you’ve hired a contractor that is reputable and has a bit of a profile in the community, you always have the option of taking them to court if you can’t come to an agreement on how the situation can be resolved,” Shephard says. “The advantage of working with a big-name contractor is having the peace of mind that they have the manpower to get the job done, and the money to back up any failures they have. But if you are dealing with a contractor with no official office and their phone number changes every couple of weeks, you will more than likely be in for a significantly tougher challenge in remedying the situation.”

Riverview, N.B. resident Denise Auffrey’s renovation nightmare doesn’t feature a bad contractor, but instead a bad product.

A number of years ago, Auffrey needed to replace the roof on her Dutch-Colonial house. She had initially considered a metal roof, but her contractor recommended a then-new product, Building Products of Canada Corp.’s BP Organic Shingles, which boasted a 50-year warranty and double the thickness of a standard shingle.

“I thought to myself that if it had a 50-year warranty and I got 30 years out of it, I’d still probably come out ahead than if I went with a standard shingle,” says Auffrey. “The cost was higher, but I was supposed to be getting a roof that would last longer so it all should have balanced out.”

Within two years of installing the BP Shingles on the roof of her home, Auffrey noticed many of them had failed to bond to the roof and were curling around the edges. She renovated the attic prior to the installation of the new roof, so she felt confident ventilation was not to blame for the shingles not adhering to the roof. All signs pointed to the product being defective instead.

A class-action suit against the manufacturer confirmed Auffrey’s suspicions. Although the company denied any defects in its product, it reached a settlement with customers in 2012.

“I hold no ill will against the contractor that sold me and installed the BP product, as he obviously wasn’t aware it wasn’t a quality product,” Auffrey says. “In fact, he had it installed on his roof too, so I never felt like we had been taken by him or anything like that.”

The fiasco with BP allowed Auffrey to once again revisit the idea of a metal roof. After researching various contractors, and inquiring about the warranty offered by the product, a must in light of her previous experience, she hired a roofer.

“The contractor’s website looked great, but I didn’t ask the right questions before hiring them,” she says. “I assumed that a roof was a roof was a roof. I didn’t necessarily factor in the difference in materials – metal vs. shingles – being used.”

Ryan McAllister is the owner of Riverview, N.B.’s McAllister’s Roofing. He didn’t work on Auffrey’s house, and offers advice to avoid such situations. Given the varieties of roofing products available, he suggests customers be sure they are asking the right questions pertaining to their selection of materials, and whether the contractor is equipped for the job.

“The contractor should convey a good understanding of the roofing production in question,” McAllister says. “Just because a roofer has a wealth of experience with asphalt or fiberglass shingled roofs, does not mean they are knowledgeable with every other type of roofing.”

The process for installing a metal roof is different, he says, plus the contractor will require different tools for cutting and fastening.

“Initially, he estimated it would only take a couple of days, but it ended up taking closer to a week of full-time work,” Auffrey says. “The main part of the roof looks OK, but it is the detail work, which I am admittedly obsessed with, that looked awful. There was nothing in the way of precision cuts; overall, it just looked really sloppy.”

Auffrey is working with the contractor to smooth out the detail work she is unhappy with, and plans to ask the right questions next time, if there is a next time.

“I wanted to go with a roofing product that I am going to be looking at for the next 40 years, ideally,” she says. “I don’t think it’s too much to be asking to be satisfied with the job itself. Whatever project we happen to take on next, I’m going to be asking a lot more in the way of questions.”

Find the right people for the job

Whether you’re hiring a veteran home-reno company, or want to give the little guy in your area the job, finding a pro doesn’t need to be nerve racking.

Ask friends, co-workers, and family who they hire. In addition to noting the contractors people gush about, make a list of contractors to avoid. But don’t take one glowing reference as a given.

When hiring any company, always check its Better Business Bureau rating. The BBB website gives accreditation to businesses that meet eight points related to respect for customers and fair business practices. The site also lists complaints and customer reviews to help you find someone trustworthy.

The Canadian Homebuilders’ Association offers a comprehensive database of professionals across Canada and Get it in Writing!, a guide covering contracts, permits, insurance, who not to hire, and lots more. It also offers a worksheet that will help you ask the right questions when it comes time to evaluate contractors.

CLARIFICATION: An early version of this story left some readers unclear about Ryan McAllister’s role. He provides insight as a local roofing expert, and did not work on Denise Auffrey’s house. The text above has been revised; East Coast Living regrets any confusion.

East Coast Living