What to do when a project goes completely SOUTH

June 18, 2019
last modified: June 18, 2019

I posted a version of this previously, as a response to an OP's tiling question/issue. I'm sorry it's so long, but I hope it helps someone.

The Story

Over the last 3 decades, owning 2 homes, we've hired contractors for window replacement, foundation repair, woodfloor repairs and refinishing, deck and dock additions, painting inside and out, roof replacement, adding a pool and retaining wall, another roof, a full down to the studs kitchen remodel, a few carpet and tile floor replacements, more windows, more woodfloor repairs and refinishing, addition of courtyard, paver driveway and major landscaping, and more. We never had a contractor quit. We never had an issue that wasn't resolved. We never fired a contractor. We never sued anyone or got sued. That is, until this project went south about 2 years ago.

When we finally decided to remodel our master bathroom, I started reading the bathroom forums on garden web and John Bridge. I drew up what I thought we wanted to do, worked with an independent designer, and paid for professional drawings.

I contacted local GCs, three provided proposals. I asked each this question: "How do you build and waterproof a shower?" You would not believe the answers I got. Here are some examples:

“I have a great handyman who does our tile. He’s never had a call back.”

“It’s important that the drywall is really flat. Then you put thinset and the tile on that. The grout is the thing that makes it waterproof.”

“You don’t really need anything because you have central AC; that’s basically like waterproofing because it keeps your house dry.”

“A sloped floor is nice but not really needed.”

None of the proposals said anything about waterproofing, just phrases like “frame, and tile the shower.” I followed up asking for info on the waterproofing steps and materials. They responded, but with really vague descriptions. One of them wrote “waterproof the shower.” Another typed “Install cement boards. Apply Red Guard.” We kept looking. I contacted every pro I could find in my area, GCs and individual tile professionals. I went on CTEF to search (not one resulting hit had a working phone number within hundreds of miles, and we are in a major city with millions of people). I asked at tile shops, asked for references from friends and co-workers. I widened my search going out over 200 miles. I phone-screened asking one simple question: "How do you build and waterproof a shower?" To that question, I got the same kinds of answers that I listed above, the most hilarious one was “We put a pan liner on the floor under the tile; you don’t need anything else if you’re careful not to splash.”

Finally, ONE GC described their waterproofing process using all the “right words” that did comport with the information I had read on John Bridge and GW. I asked him to put in the contract that he would follow industry standards and manufacturer’s instructions. His references checked out, and I was able to see 2 of his projects. The scope of the project was the whole bathroom, not just the shower.

The project started in the summer of 2017. We paid a deposit upon signing the contract, demo began, and we made another payment about 15 calendar days later.

Note: I always take before, during and after pictures. It’s fun to look back on the changes. It’s not to “catch” anyone doing anything wrong; I do it with every project whether it’s DIY or with a contractor.

So, the project started, summer of 2017:

Work Day 1: Demo, photos

Work Day 2, 3 and 4: Framing, photos

Work Day 5, 6: Plumbing, photos

Work Day 7: Shower floor pre-slope *, photos

Work Day 8: Pan installed, photos

Work Day 9: Poly attached to studs **, photos

Work Day 10: Hardi backer installed, photos

Work Day 11: Red Guard applied onto Hardi backer ***, photos

Work Day 12: More Red Guard, photos

Work Day 13: Tiling started, photos

Evening of Work Day 13: I arrived home in the late evening to find tile was partially installed, but in a very sloppy manner. There were tiles hanging off at angles, huge gaps, rough cuts, butt-joints, gigantic lippages, and some very strange-looking damaged tiles that made me think they didn’t have the right cutting tools. I took photos and texted the GC to ask him to come over the next day to inspect and figure out what to do.

Next Day: I was gone part of the morning taking a DD to the doctor; got home mid-morning. All the workers were gone and most of the tile had been ripped off the shower walls and thrown all around the bathroom; it was a huge mess of broken tiles. I wasn’t even sure if the GC had come here or not. I texted GC to ask what happened and what the plan was to complete the bathroom. By email he sent me a message saying that the foreman had quit the project.

We asked for a status meeting with GC for that Friday which was in 4 days. During the 4-day interval, I reached out to the gardenweb community, posted my photos and asked for help. We were really shocked; after all these years of home ownership and other renovations, we had never had a project go south like this. The GW response was very helpful, but also kind of harsh. I did get helpful pro advice, but I also got accused of hiring cheap, trying to get champagne results on a beer budget, etc, etc, none of which we did, but it’s a common comment here, and is sometimes quite true. I asked if they had built the dreaded “moisture sandwich,” and the pros on here said yes, they had. The pros also told me to look at the curb and the floor because those were also done wrong.

Regarding my photos on the dates above, I didn’t know it at the time, but they showed:

* they did not install a pre-slope, just slapped a pan on the uneven sub-floor

** there was a first vapor barrier (poly)

***there was second vapor barrier (Red Guard), thus creating the “moisture sandwich”

**** photos revealed spot-setting after tile was ripped down

I kept reading and saw some references to TCNA. I had previously searched CTEF for a contractor with no luck, but I had never gone on the TCNA site. I went to the site, and bought a downloadable version of the current year’s tile handbook and read all the shower chapters.

The Friday meeting with the GC started with us expressing concerns about waterproofing, spot-setting and other issues. The GC said we were too hard to please and that the subs were his A-team. The meeting ended with GC agreeing to work up a plan for completion and we would talk again on Monday.

Monday: GC sent email saying he has “decided to stop work on the shower.” We asked by email if that meant he was quitting entirely, and he never answered us. We sent a few follow up emails asking the same question over the next 2 weeks, but GC had gone radio-silent. No response.

(Hmmm. We are a large family who now has a trashed, unusable bathroom, with no sinks, no toilet, no bathtub, no shower, broken tile all over the place, and a rag shoved in the toilet flange; and a GC who just went underground.)

After a couple of weeks, we decided to just accept the fact that we made a really bad hire, say goodbye to the lost money, find a new contractor, and get this mess cleaned up and re-built. We didn’t think suing the quit-GC was something we wanted to do because it sounded like a real PITA. But we did send a demand letter by certified return receipt asking for a refund. It was received and signed for. No response.

Again, I went back on gardenweb and asked for help. I started interviewing tile pros and GCs again, running into the same old problem that I had before. No one could answer this question “How do you build and waterproof a shower?” with any words that even remotely corresponded to the information in the TCNA book, or any of the pro advice I read on this forum or the John Bridge forums.

Luckily, a pro on GW gave me referral to a real pro in my city. He came up to diagnose the shower mess and wrote up a proposal to complete the project. He prepared a report on the bad work, cross referencing all the violations to local plumbing codes, TCNA and ASNI standards. When I asked him “How do you build and waterproof a shower,” he walked me through all the steps and materials he uses. We talked about the drain, the waterproofing materials, how he builds the pre-slope, pros and cons of different types of tile, tub selection, lighting considerations, etc. It was so refreshing; it was hard for me to act cool, and I figured if I acted too happy, he would multiply his price by 10. We hired him.

So, the new project began. In 32 work-days, with a few breaks here and there for planned vacations and some really bad weather, the whole bathroom was re-demoed and re-built soup to nuts. Customer was happy and contractor was paid in full.

A few weeks into enjoying our new bathroom, the quit-GC emerged from hibernation and sued us, claiming that we breached the contract and owed him for cabinetry. DH downloaded and read our state’s laws of civil procedure and the state laws governing construction projects. DH researched the process and decided we would represent ourselves, which is called “pro se.” We responded with a counter-suit asking for the amount of money we had initially paid, plus the costs of all the ruined materials that we had to re-purchase, plus the amount of money we had to pay the new contractor to re-demo and re-build the shower portion of the project, plus court costs.

DH created a very detailed financial analysis with all costs itemized so that an apples-to-apples comparison could be made. For example, when we re-purchased materials, we bought more expensive tiles, so it would be unfair to claim that cost against the quit-GC. DH’s financial analysis boiled it all down so that we could clearly identify the dollar amount of financial harm the quit-GC had caused. Thus began a months-long process of us filing things and quit-GC filing things in court. Along the way, there was a hearing for something, and the quit-GC didn’t show up, so their whole claim was thrown out, and ours proceeded.

In mediation we offered to settle for about a third of the amount of the suit, but the quit-GC never moved from zero. We could have agreed to zero and just walked away, but then there would be no public record of what the quit-GC had done. We wanted the quit-GC’s actions in the public record because if not he could just go on screwing people in our community with impunity, knowing he could do hack-level work, harm customers, quit jobs, and no one would ever know.

Trial occurred, and the judgement was in our favor for the full amount, plus court costs and interest. Now we are starting the collections process, but that’s a whole other subject.

Looking back on it

Looking back on it, it was a real PITA; that’s why we didn’t initiate this whole chain of events in the first place. If the quit-GC had not sued us, we would have just moved on, but after he sued, we had to respond.

So, after this whole saga, I have some advice to homeowners:

1) Of course, always try to hire a real pro in the first place, not a hack like we did: Before you even start getting bids, look up and read, or buy, relevant industry publications that relate to the type of project you are dealing with (pool, bathroom, flooring, kitchen, staircase, roof, driveway, fireplace, etc). Read other peoples’ posts on sites like GW to learn what issues people are dealing with. Pretty much any area of construction has an industry group that puts out standards, offers training and certifications, and some have search tools to connect you to a pro. For bathrooms you would want to go on TCNA and order the tile handbook as a download, log onto CTEF and use their search tool, etc. There’s NAHB, ASNI, etc. Check out DIY books from the library even if you aren’t planning to DIY because reading that will at least give you familiarity with the process and you will learn the language of that trade. Reading these resources will help you evaluate proposals, ask smart questions, and ultimately hire better.

2) Sketch out what you want to do, then work with an independent designer appropriate to your project, such as a kitchen and bath designer, and pay for professional drawings. I did this with a huge landscaping, courtyard, and driveway project a few years ago. The landscape architect didn’t charge for the design if they were hired to install, but instead I paid them for the design so that I could shop around for installers. That worked out really well because all the installers knew exactly what I wanted. I did the same thing with my kitchen and bathroom remodels.

3) Decide if you need a GC or not. For big projects like kitchens, complete bathroom remodels, additions, etc you probably do need a GC. To GC something yourself, you need a lot of construction knowledge, insurance, etc. I certainly do not have the knowledge to GC something big or complex myself. However, for 3 upstairs bathrooms just this past year, we needed 1 tub/shower converted to shower only, and 2 tub/shower combos replaced, plus re-tiling all 3 floors. Everything else in the bathrooms were not to be changed (doors, lights, vanities, sinks, toilets, etc). So, for those we hired the tile pro directly, and then hired the plumber and painter after he was finished. That worked out extremely well because these were not complete or complex bathroom remodels.

4) If hiring a GC, the designer you worked with should be able to refer you to a few GCs in your area, and you should get referrals for friends and neighbors.

5) When you meet with the GCs, hopefully they will bring along one of their foremen, so you can ask more detailed questions. Even if they don’t do that, ask the GC to talk to you about the materials and methods they are planning to use and to give you advice about the products you are going to have to choose, such as fixtures and finishes, tile, appliances, flooring, etc. Meet with more than one GC and get their proposals. If you need a gut-check on the proposals, you can post the language on GW or John Bridge and ask pros to tell you if the steps and materials are correct. (I should have done that for my master bath remodel because unbeknownst to me, the quit-GC had actually written the steps for a moisture sandwich into their proposal. A pro would have caught that, but I didn’t know what the ingredients were for said sandwich.) When you choose the GC and their proposal becomes a contract, make sure that there is language in there that says they will adhere to applicable industry guidelines and follow manufacture’s instruction.

6) At this point you are at the mercy of the GC, hoping that they hire qualified subcontractors who really know what they are doing. For my kitchen remodel, the GC hired a totally incompetent plumber who was really just a handyman. That GC was responsive and did hire a new, qualified plumber. For my master bathroom project, the quit-GC hired a completely inexperienced and unqualified tile sub, which led to the whole hacking-quitting-suing scenario.

I’ve been trying to think of a good way for a regular homeowner like me to make sure that the GC hires experienced, qualified subcontractors. I feel as though this should not be the responsibility of the homeowner, but at the same time, it seems like it’s necessary for us to take on this oversight responsibility. I wish I could just trust the GC to hire well, but that has never worked out for me. The only 2 times I had to hire a GC, there were major issues with the quality of the subs they hired. On the kitchen, the GC was responsive to the issues, made changes, and the project proceeded. But on the bathroom, well you know the story. I haven’t come up with an answer to this, but if I ever have to hire a GC again, I’ll have to think hard about how to ensure the hiring of good subs.

7) If you’re not hiring a GC (such as for smaller, less complex projects), you need to hire the trades directly. You’ll need to go through the same process of getting referrals from friends and neighbors, and researching the process for what you are trying to do. For tiling, there are some websites that have a search function for finding contractors (CTEF is one). Also, if you already know your preferred materials for a project you can sometimes find your pro on the manufacturer’s website using their search function. For example, we found our driveway installer on the Belgard site.

8) Take BEFORE pictures. It’s fun to look back on the ugly before pictures and see how you improved your home.

9) Take DURING pictures every single day. It’s fun to look back on the in-progress photos. I’ve been taking in-progress pictures of all our project for 30 years. If you work from home like I do, it’s easy. Take pics when the workers leave for lunch and in the evening after they leave for the day. Don’t interfere in the work space, or take pictures while they’re working. Take pictures of every part of the project from different angles including all the buckets of products they have left in the space and all the tools and such that are sitting around. If you don’t work from home, take pictures when you get home at night. If you are traveling and have decided to let the contractor work while you’re gone, ask a friend or neighbor to come over and take pictures for you each evening (give them a really nice thank you gift).

Story about the value of taking pictures: Last year the sibs and I helped my Dad remodel his whole vacation home which is 1000 miles away. When I was up there, tiling was about to begin in the 3 bathrooms. I arrived late in the day and took lots of pictures of the whole house. In the hotel that night I reviewed the pictures and looked up the installation instructions for the waterproofing boards they were using. There were no rolls of fiberglass tape amongst all their supplies and products, but it was called for in the instructions. At our planned meeting the next day, I expressed concern to the GC that the tile pro might not be planning to tape and seal the boards. I gave the manufacturer’s instructions to him. The GC was very professional and responsive, and it all worked out, but what if I hadn’t taken pictures, read the manufacturer’s instructions for myself, and brought up this issue?)

10) If an issue comes up during the project, email or meet with the GC and it will probably get resolved. Confirm the resolution by email to ensure everyone is on the same page.

11) If your project goes seriously south like ours did when the GC quit, or if your project is really messed up and you are upset with the botched job, still try to have a meeting with the GC and ask them to provide a plan for moving forward to complete the project. Confirm all the communications by email so that there is a record of the communications. Confirm the understanding of verbal agreements by email.

12) If you and GC are not in agreement, or they quit, then you really have to pause and think about what to do.

a. If the GC quits or goes radio-silent like in our case: Ask for a refund by email or send a demand letter certified return receipt. Then embark on the process of finding a new contractor to re-do your project. After GC says no or doesn’t respond to the refund request, you can let it go like we did, or decide to sue them in justice court (small claims) or district court.

b. If GC sues you, like our quit-GC did, you need to respond and go through the process. You’ll need to download and read your state’s civil procedure laws and construction laws. It is a real PITA, but you have to go through the process.

No matter who is suing whom, you have to decide whether or not to hire a lawyer. In our case it was just a bathroom, not a whole house, so we decided to represent ourselves. If something like this had happened on a whole house build or remodel worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, well, then I think we’d be hiring a lawyer because the stakes would be so much higher.

13) If the GC still wants to fix things: Ask them to write up their plan and send it to you by email, and then make your home available for them to attempt the fix. Take pictures the same as explained above.

a. If the fix really does fix things, that’s great.

b. If/after the fix fails, you are allowed (under most states’ construction laws – you need to read the law in your state) to fire them. We don’t have any experience with firing a contractor, we’ve never done that. But in our research, we learned that you have to give the contractor a chance to fix things before firing them. You can’t just get mad and fire someone because you have a concern. Even if they really do legit screw something up, you have to give them a chance to remedy the situation. Preserve documentation that shows you gave them a chance; you don’t want to be in breach of the contract.

Comments (64)

  • theclose

    This is such a wonderful resource! Thank you, AJCN, for taking the time to write this. We have never undertaken a big remodeling project but will have to do so at some point. We’ve hired contractors for several jobs (house painting, interior paint, floors, small jobs) and luckily have one we love for those types of jobs. But we also get specialists when having things done that require a special skill set (brick patio, driveway paving, etc). I’m sure our contractor could do it (and he has said as such) but we want it done by someone who does it day in and out.

    I’m so thankful that GW has great pros and homeowners that provide excellent advice!! GW has been invaluable to me for so many things (new HVAC, new laundry machines, new dishwasher, etc). Thank you!

    AJCN thanked theclose
  • Larri


    Excellent Information. Thank You.

    AJCN thanked Larri
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    Your contractor probably didn't hire the sharpest knives in the drawer, so that he could pocket more of your money, and in the process not deliver you a correctly built shower. I'm just a homeowner, not a pro. If you have technical questions about waterproofing and such, don't rely on me. But I will tell you this. We hired an expensive, local, highly recommended GC with a locally great reputation in an expensive suburb of Houston with multi $$$$ homes; who then turned around and hired cheap/unqualified subs, who then trashed our bathroom, as told in the "Goes South" story. It happens bc the GCs are always looking for ways to decrease costs. Real tile pros are expensive, and they should be! But GCs always try to skimp IMO; and they don't want to hire real tile pros because that will decrease their profit. After the quit-GC situation, we hired an deeply experienced, super-qualified pro to fix our bathroom. Since I hired this pro directly, I didn't have to be worried about him hiring a hack-sub. Schedule your meeting and document everything. Post back here what the results are from your meeting. If you are anywhere near Houston, Galveston, or in the Hill Country, I can send you a reference to the experienced pro that I hired.
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  • cyc2001

    AJCN, thank you for sharing this information. I’m impressed by how smart and organized you and your husband are!

    AJCN thanked cyc2001
  • tartanmeup

    What an ordeal. Thank you so much for sharing. I've saved it to two of my ideabooks and will take heed when we're ready to remodel our bathrooms. Does anyone else find it frustrating that homeowners need to educate themselves so thoroughly in order to ensure they're hiring the right tradespeople? Researching a reno project is practically a full time job.

    AJCN thanked tartanmeup
  • Anthony C

    You need a GC because of their knowledge and experience, but to hire a good GC you apparently need knowledge and experience. It is quite a frustrating conundrum.

    In my area pools should cost about 60K built into limestone. We had pool guys come out and they were giving estimates of 150K "because of the limestone". Limestone by the way should add about 15K to the project. According to joseph, we should just accept those bids?

    I had some plumbing work that I needed done. It was capping 1 vent stack, moving 2 vent stacks and installing a shower valve. Most bids were in the 2500 range. One bid was 5000. All were by certified/licensed plumbers.

    In my area construction is booming so some contractors who are busy throw out extremely high prices because they are slammed anyway.

    We are still working on our bathroom remodel because it is almost impossible to find available and good subs. Finding someone that can legitimately waterproof a shower is like finding a unicorn. Every contractor uses illegal aliens that dont even speak english so you cant even ask them about standards and the method they plan to use.

    AJCN thanked Anthony C
  • Lynne

    Ask for and check references.

    AJCN thanked Lynne
  • raee_gw zone 5b-6a Ohio

    some contractors who are busy throw out extremely high prices because they are slammed anyway.

    I've never understood this. Why don't they just be up front and tell the prospect that they are booked up for the next x amount of time, and give their appropriate bid?

    AJCN thanked raee_gw zone 5b-6a Ohio
  • AJCN


    I haven't checked this thread in a while.

    Other than the TCNA book, I read tons of waterproofing threads on GW; I checked out DIY books from the library (not intending to DIY, but to learn lingo and methods); and I went on Laticrete and Schluter websites to read their installation instructions; and I watched a ton of Sal Diblasi’s YouTube videos. The contractor who ended up fixing my master bathroom and retiling my remaining 3 bathrooms said watching those videos is a good way to get an overall understanding. There are a lot of bogus YouTube tiling posts so I did not venture any further than Sal’s.

    I knew whoever I ended up hiring, I was going to prefer them to use one of the newer methods such as Laticrete Hydroban boards, Kerdi, Wedi, or something like that, so I called the local reps of those companies if I had questions about their instructions. I guess I could have asked the local reps for references, but I didn’t think of that at the time.

    After all that research, I still had to find a new contractor, but felt better armed with information to aid my search. The contractor I hired preferred Laticrete Hydroban boards for my project. When I asked questions about waterproofing he explained his methods and materials in a very detailed manner. It was a pro on GW who recommended him. I just threw my zip code out because I was so frustrated with the difficulty finding a real pro.

    These real pros pretty much all know each other because they go to trainings, seminars, industry meetings, conventions, and the local reps for the manufacturers are always giving them new materials to try out so they can get more sales, etc, etc.

    So even though the pro (the good one) I hired wasn’t on the CTEF list or other lists, being recommended by a real pro on GW gave me a lot of confidence. And it turned out to be a real gift to be able to hire someone who is more than qualified for this type of work, is totally professional, and doesn’t talk down to women (none of the “you’re too hard to please” statements). It cost me a pretty penny, but all in all was “only” about 30% more than the quit-GC. Well worth the extra cost to have a real pro work in my home.

  • PRO
    Joseph Corlett, LLC

    "I've never understood this. Why don't they just be up front and tell the prospect that they are booked up for the next x amount of time, and give their appropriate bid?"

    Because a bid goes both ways. If I give you a high bid and you accept, you've just stepped in front of all the tire kickers. We love our work, but we do it for the money.

  • AJCN


    I’m just a homeowner. I can’t evaluate the pictures you posted. I suggest that you start a new post asking for pros to weigh in. Also, a lot of people post on the John Bridge forum.

    If you want to get in front of things, maybe just ask the contractor to explain what materials and methods they are using for waterproofing. Then post on here or John Bridge to ask if he gave the right answers.

  • AJCN

    Agree with Joseph. I also work for money.

  • AJCN

    I posted my zip code here on GW hoping for a referral.

  • AJCN

    Here are some.....

    You’re too hard to please

    You’re being too picky

    I know you; you always have to have it the way you have to have it.

    I consider these to be sexist and threatening statements. In my head I’m thinking “There is only one person in this house who’s job it is to please me, and it ain’t you.”

    In regular business situations, statements like this would be considered unprofessional and unacceptable. I see no reason that a person’s home should be any different. It’s a work site.

    The real tile pro I eventually hired always used professional language, and said things like:

    Good question...

    I’m glad you asked that...

    Here’s my suggestion...

  • biondanonima (Zone 7a Hudson Valley)

    This is an amazing thread - thank you for posting. I am experiencing plenty of the misogyny myself with my current crew and am girding my loins for more because of my current suspicion that the sub's plan for the shower is not correct. We shall see.

    AJCN thanked biondanonima (Zone 7a Hudson Valley)
  • AJCN


  • AJCN

    The reason I bumped this is there have been a couple of posts lately where people are having problems with their contractors maybe not doing correct waterproofing. I’m not a pro, but I certainly know how it feels to have a contractor screw up the waterproofing.

  • becky2010

    I’m sorry this happened to you - but thank you for posting this all here! Such a wealth of information for people.

    AJCN thanked becky2010
  • Sheeisback GW

    I have this saved. Thanks for posting this sorry you had to go through all that.

    Now I’m wondering how my shower was waterproofed ....

    AJCN thanked Sheeisback GW
  • AJCN

    Don’t feel sorry for me! The judgement was in our favor for all payments to quit-GC plus the cost to demo back and pay real pro to rebuild. I’m bumping this up in case it helps someone else.

  • Helen

    All's well that ends well :-)

    For anyone reading, the bottom line is that if you are having a shower made, learn enough about how a shower is constructed to be able to ask intelligent questions regarding how you tradesperson will be building it. Obviously you are still relying on their expertise and talent, but at least you will not be going in blind.

    Ask them specifics about materials used - methods of construction - how they test the pan for waterproofing - how the slope the floor - how many inspections are done by your local jurisdiction.

    While it is being built make sure you take photos every day or night if possible and post them if you have any doubts regarding what is being done. If all goes well, you have some photos and peace of mind - if there are problems or issues, you have excellent proof of exactly what was done or not done.

    AJCN thanked Helen
  • nosoccermom

    This is super useful information!

    I agree that customers need to be informed, but if you apply this, apparently necessary approach, to other situations, where does it end? Do I have to become a semi expert in dental work (crowns, implants), car mechanics, surgery, airplane flying, etc.? At least, in some of these vocations people have gone through a recognized educational program and have passed licensing /board examinations.

    I don't have the solution, other than that there should be a proper vocational education system with official board administered exams (like in Germany, for instance, where any trade requires a 3-year vocational training, both practical and theoretical, under auspices of a master craftsman/woman and exams that are administered by the state and the respective guild/trade organization).

    AJCN thanked nosoccermom
  • Helen

    @nosoccermom - Not sure if you are being facetious but I do attempt to educate myself whenever I am spending large amounts of money or having stuff done that impacts my health.

    Obviously I trust my medical professionals but I have always researched before having surgery or treatments for a medical condition for myself or my family. That way I can evaluate the advice and give a truly informed consent.

    There is certainly a rule of reason where one can reasonably rely on external expertise - I assume that an airplane has been built to correct and inspected specifications and the pilot is qualified - an extreme example.

    I have no DIY or carpentry skills but I did attempt to learn how a cabinet is constructed and what the indicia of a well made cabinet would be. Therefore, I could evaluate and ask important questions although I certainly would not attempt to do the slightest bit of actual carpentry work.

    Honestly I left electrical and plumbing issues to the licensed tradespeople and relied on their expertise and licensing. My due diligence would extend to attempting to make sure they are qualified and honest but beyond certain basics of how I wanted my electrical and plumbing to operate, I left it to them.

    Shower construction is an example in which it is potentially a Wild West since there is no "license" per se that is required and there can be potentially catastrophic results if it is done incorrectly. I certainly have no knowledge of the nuances of the various ways in which a shower is actually constructed and/or how tile is installed but I did educate myself enough to where I could understand how my shower was being constructed in terms of methods and materials.

    AJCN thanked Helen
  • M

    The scary part is that things can go South, even when you do everything right.

    We recently finished a major remodeling project. My GC brought in an electrician who we had worked with many times before, and never had a problem. This is actually one of the bigger companies around here. They have an excellent reputation. They do both commercial and residential work. And they seemed to clearly understand what needed to be done. In fact, they proposed several improvements (e.g. commercial-grade light controllers).

    Our project was admittedly a little more complex, as we were installing several commercial-style LED fixtures that require remote drivers and that require electronic control buses (i.e. DMX and/or 0-10V).

    This isn't rocket science. In fact, it's technology that has been out there for decades in commercial settings. But it apparently pushed our electrician too far outside of their comfort zone. At the end of the project, we had lights that never worked. Light switches that tripped breakers when operated. Light switches that only worked if other lights were turned on at the same time. Lights that worked intermittently. And many more issues.

    I ended up opening up a few walls myself and I discovered literally dozens of mistakes. Fortunately, electrical mistakes are different from plumbing. If something is wrong, you usually notice it right away. Also, it's generally easy, albeit tedious to fix. Trace the wires, undo the mistake, and connect correctly. That's it.

    Took me about two weeks of my time fixing everything, and then having a lengthy conversation with the sub to sort out how much I had to deduct from their invoice. Sucks when that happens.

    AJCN thanked M
  • nosoccermom


    I really don't see where my comments were facetious.

    While we can inform ourselves, we cannot become experts in every field, including home improvement projects, nor should we have to ---- as it sometimes expected on these boards.

    My point was that just like we have to rely on the knowledge and skills of a pilot or surgeon, there should be educational standards for skilled trades. I then gave the example of vocational education in Germany, where plumbers, electricians, mechanics are trained to explicit standards and pass exams.


    AJCN thanked nosoccermom
  • Helen

    Equating trusting a commercial air pilot with hiring a tile setter seemed to be facetious.

    There is a rule of reason in terms of when one can reasonably act without extensive research and instances when an informed decision makes sense.

  • tartanmeup

    I agree with nosoccermom. A homeowner should not have to read the TCNA book before hiring a tradesperson to remodel their bathroom.

  • jmm1837

    I think the point here is that we really only need to know a lille bit about medicine, dentistry, or airplanes because all of these fields have struct licencing and quality control measures in place. Construction, not so much. I agree that the German and similar systems are good models for how things ought to work, but until the do, I guess that leaves us with TCNA manuals :(

  • Helen

    I certainly didn't read the manual but I took the time to educate myself enough to be able to ask intelligent questions in terms of how my shower was being constructed.

    It's the same as seeking medical advice. I don't take courses at a medical school but if a doctor recommends a procedure I would spend some time researching the condition and various treatments so I could ask informed questions as to why the doctor was recommending something.

    And despite all the safeguards one takes things can still go south as they did for AJCN which is why construction and remodels are such stressful undertakings because one is taking a leap of faith into the unknown and despite every effort one has taken to make informed choices by following recommendations, it is still possible to wind up in a disaster like AJCN did.

  • AJCN

    With respect, I would like to say that my story has 3 parts to it that hopefully can help homeowners today:

    1) looking back on things and seeing how I hired badly, and learning how to research and hire better.

    2) knowing how to document the process (pictures, emails, meeting notes) in order to protect yourself if something goes wrong.

    3) knowing what to do if the contractor screws up, quits, you decide to sue them, or contractor sues you, and how to prepare for trial if you end up there.

    All of these lessens are (hopefully) helpful right now, today, for homeowners. We can't solve the USA trade certification and vocational training system in this thread. I wish we could.

  • jmm1837

    No, we can't solve the problem, but I can entirely understand the frustration of having to become a quasi expert on licencing, construction techniques and standards, and contract law, to survive a reno.

  • dsnine

    This needs to be PINNED. I wish Houzz allowed such things, because there is a ton of valuable information here as to how to try and secure the best outcome possible and mitigate against complete loss of one still manages to have a squirrelly contractor or sub.

    Contracts are 9/10s of the battle. Amen.

  • AJCN

    It’s not my intention to be snarky, but I would like to know why there are no general contractors weighing in on this thread. It is very difficult for homeowners to thoroughly educate and protect themselves from a general contractor hiring badly/cheaply. I would really like to hear from some general contractors on this issue.

    The only 2 times that I’ve had problems on a project is when I hired a general contractor, and they hired badly; presumably to save money and increase their margin.

  • tartanmeup

    I agree with you about pinning this thread, @dsnine. At least the site makes it possible to save the thread to one of your ideabooks.

  • PRO
    Joseph Corlett, LLC

    "It's not my intention to be snarky, but I would like to know why there are no general contractors weighing in on this thread."

    Sorry, but this just isn't true. Mine is the second comment on this thread. I'm a licensed building contractor in two states.

    AJCN thanked Joseph Corlett, LLC
  • PRO
    Barnes Custom Builders

    I will give my two cents as a building professional. First, I'm sorry that you went through that ordeal.

    I do not think a homeowner should have to research how to properly install a shower - that's why you are hiring someone. As someone else mentioned - I do not research how to do mechanic repairs, or medical procedures etc. I am going to a professional because I can safely assume that they know what they are doing. I think like you have said, you unfortunately hired a bad egg. You did as much homework as you could do, and it didn't work out.

    When we meet potential clients, we really try to get to know them. A simple bid doesn't tell them about us, who we are, what kind of company we run and what our values are.

    I know you did a lot of research, and he answered the waterproofing question correctly. But did you have other in-depth conversations? Did he look you in the eye the whole time. Did you feel comfortable handing this person a key to your home? These are all things that we believe hold much more value than the number on a bid. The client that just wants a number from us, generally isn't our client. I would say that 90% of our business is repeat and referral based. We can spend a million dollars on marketing, but at the end of the day a happy client is our best resource. Hiring cheap to make an extra buck does not make sense for any company that wants to stay in business.

    I don't know if there is a solid 'answer' to this post - and I realize your intent is just to inform people.

    AJCN thanked Barnes Custom Builders
  • AJCN

    Thanks for responding Joseph, I can’t tell what people jobs are.

  • AJCN

    Barnes, thanks for replying. The quit-GC (who was not cheap at all, and perceived as the premier GC by many in my area) was very personable and seemed to meet all the criteria you listed, but then turned around and hired a very cheap inexperienced tile pro, telling me this person was on their A-team. The great contractor that fixed my bathroom is a highly experienced tile pro among other skills, and he took over the whole project. He doesn’t advertise and like you most of his business is repeat.

    The reason we wanted to go to trial is because the quit-GC continues to work in this area, and I know for a fact is still using the bad tile person, so we wanted all the information in the public record. I should have checked the district court records before hiring him in the first place because there were other suits. I didn’t think about that at the time.

  • bicyclegirl1

    I'm super impressed with all of this, AJCN. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I think anyone that's been involved with a building/remodeling project has a nightmare story, or 2 or 3. You were lucky to have gone so long without one. My kitchen remodel from 4 + yrs ago was not fun. It's a small kitchen so no one wanted to take the job on. I ended up GC'ing most of the job myself. Still quite a few nightmares with that. I'm hoping to remodel my bathroom soon. I can tell you, I'm so grateful for your post. I think the biggest thing that came out of your post for me, is education! Know what needs to be done & how it needs to be done correctly. Thank you for the lessons you have taught us. I'm sure your post has already help quite a few homeowners & many in the future.

    AJCN thanked bicyclegirl1
  • AJCN

    Bicyclegirl, thanks for your comments. I agree we are lucky that this is our first project to go so badly. It was difficult deciding whether to post this, admitting to such a bad hiring decision, and I knew I’d immediately be accused of hiring cheap, thus blaming the homeowner. I am guilty of #1, hiring badly, but not #2. I hired an expensive GC, who is the one who hired cheap. Still scratching my head about that issue - how to ensure GCs don’t hire incompetent subs. I don’t have an answer to that issue.

  • raee_gw zone 5b-6a Ohio

    Contractors hiring incompetent subs - or even their "own employees" who are actually day or seasonal laborers with minimal to no training - has been the biggest problem for me, for anything from roofing to concrete to carpet installation.

    AJCN thanked raee_gw zone 5b-6a Ohio
  • Wendy Bird

    Thank you for sharing this useful info.

  • K R

    Wow this is great information. The only thing I can add to it, now having been through 2 major renovations and in my 3rd with the same GC, is find out who their subs are ahead of time. The minute mine told me he didn’t have any subs, they’re all his guys (except for shower glass which he uses a vendor for) I was sold. A GC is only as good as his workers!

  • shadowpipersallie N

    Karen Rose,

    I'm hoping I don't have to ever hire a GC again, but it I ever do, I'll remember your advice.

  • shadowpipersallie N

    Sorry about the mismatched usernames. I am the OP, AJCN, but HOUZZ won't or can't fix it. If I'm on my phone I'm AJCN; if I'm on my PC I'm Shadow...

    It's been months, many phone calls and e-mails; not fixed yet. I can't log on to delete the Shadow one; it's a mess. Eventually one day I hope to only have 1 account!


    I hope this thread helps someone. If anyone ever finds a good strategy to ensure that GC's hire qualified subs, please chime in and educated the masses!

    For me, the GC/sub probelm has been the monkey-wrench. Whenever I hire trades myself, things go fine. But when using a GC (only 2 times) there are major issues with the GC hiring cheap unqualified subs, presumably to increase their margin, or maybe just willful ignorance. Either explanation is bad. When I hire trades directly, I do not (1) hire cheap; nor (2) engage in willful ignorance.

  • shadowpipersallie N

    The helpful pros on here already saw these pics when they saved my a** about 2 years ago. For entertainment value, here are some pics of what the Quit-GC thought represented the work of his "A-team."

    What I came home to after work:

    After Quit-people pulled all tile down: spot-setting (yikes!)

    They created the dreaded "moisture sandwich" which is a double vapor barrier. To create that they put poly behind the cement board and they put red guard on the surface of the cement board.

    They also just plopped the pan liner on the uneven cement subfloor. The tile "pro" looked right at me and lied to my face that they had put in the pre-slope under the pan liner. Also, they put screws through the pan liner in multiple places on the curb, dragged ladders, tools, and buckets across pan liner creating scratches and cuts.

  • shadowpipersallie N

    AND the A-team said I could not have a shower without that ugly support post. Turns out they were ignorant, lazy or trying to shave costs to increase their margin. New actual qualified pro created shower without that huge ugly post.

    I'm a terrible photographer, but here is my shower re-built by the real pro. It's prettier in person.

  • M

    That looks gorgeous. Thank you for the update.

    And yes, pony walls are absolutely possible. Whoever says otherwise has no idea. I can see how they might be concerned about the wall being sufficiently rigid so that you don't compromise the tiles and/or the water proofing by leaning against the wall. But that's a solvable problem. Glad to hear that you found a contractor who is more experienced.

  • PRO
    Cabot & Rowe

    Disclaimer - We are the contractors in this story who saved the day, testified in court, and established a great relationship with the homeowner.

    An educated consumer is our best customer.

    On GC's and subs-

    1- Give me a good price on this job and I'll shovel you tons of work. This is an old tactic used by GC's to drive the cost down / raise profits. After the first job the sub is fired and quickly replaced. Subs who haven't been burned by this before, or are hungry, are young, or didn't know this happened to them are easy prey to this scam. If the sub stays on and wants to get paid his full amount, he is quickly replaced.

    2- My subs have been with me a long time. What is a long time? Months or years? Did you speak to the sub himself?

    3- Most GC's have bare general knowledge about what their subs do. They don't have the specific knowledge of the trades. If you have specific concerns about waterproofing, it's best to ask the sub directly before the job starts. Having done your homework on John Bridge, or Fine Homebuilding will help you immensely.

    4- GC's are salesmen who add 25% to 35% to what the sub is charging to make their living. IMHO most GC's view subs as commodities not skilled craftsmen and are not willing to pay a skilled craftsman the rates they deserve. The best craftspeople I know around the world are all self employed and don't work for GC's. Most work aside the GC, directly for the HO. On the rare chance I do work under a GC, the HO is actively involved in the process and has usually brought us in specifically.

    5- GC's prefer to price items by the square foot or some easy (brainless) method. I find this a great disservice to the HO. If I am tiling the floor of a car dealership (wide open space) the price per sf will be lower than a dentist's office (tiny rooms and hallways) IN these instances a per sf price would be useless. Then we get into prep work, access to the jobsite, working conditions, and a myriad of variables unique to each jobsite. Is there a gate that needs to be kept closed all the time? Limited hours we can be on the site? Is the building heated and cooled? There is no way a flat rate of $/sf is useful when it comes to certain trades.

    6- GC's are not inclined to pay for prepwork. They pay for finished product. While we all want the finished product to be gorgeous, prep work is critical. Certainly in a shower, waterproofing is what you are really buying. Tile is just the pretty surface. This is why so many showers fail. I've actually had a GC say to me - "I don't pay you for prep work, I pay you to install tile" Prep work usually drives up the cost of a job considerably. Customers sometimes don't want to hear this or think we are adding to the scope of work unnecessarily. We don't work for such folks.

    7- Why don't contractors just tell HO's they are busy and will have to wait? When a potential customer calls, asking when they want the work completed is my first or second question. This comes with a lot of risk, mainly losing the job all together. My 40 years experience has taught me that most HO's call contractors when the HO is ready to start the project and is eager to get things rolling. Telling a HO they will have to wait a few months in the first phone call is usually the kiss of death. My thought is - Would you want to hire a contractor who isn't busy? Granted there are job delays and cancellations, but a good businessman knows how to keep his schedule full and workers busy. It takes some sales skill (and empathy) to save that first phone call from going down in flames and losing the opportunity to educate a customer on the process of hiring a qualified contractor.

    8- Not so news flash - Not all great contractors are great businessmen. Makes sense once you think about it though. The manufacturers have reps to show us their products, there are trade schools and unions, but teaching a contractor how to run his business is woefully lacking. Being a craftsman in any trade doesn't make you a good businessperson or a good salesperson. Some good contractors become subs as to have the business side of their job taken care of by the GC who feeds them a steady stream of work and a reliable paycheck. Pounding the pavement, making sales, maintaining a website, and giving estimates all take effort, skill, and time not everyone has.

    9- Not so news flash #2 - Not all great salesmen are great contractors. This is the hard part for the average HO to sort out. A slick talking young man in a pressed shirt can have all the right sounding answers. So what's a HO to do? Start by asking; Who will be coming into my home? Will they have seen the jobsite in person or pictures before they knock on my door? Or are they just given my address that morning? Ask what products will be used and why. Talk to the manufacturer's reps for those products. It's a good sign when the rep knows your contractor. It's a good sign when the rep backs up what your contractor claims. Ask the Rep about any installation tricks/hazards to watch for. Every manufacturer has YouTube videos giving detailed instructions which MUST be followed. An educated consumer is our best customer.

    10- Not so news flash #3 - There are good people on YouTube and then..... there is the rest of the crowd. As mentioned above, the John Bridge Forum and Sal Diblasi's videos are spot on. So are the videos made by the product manufacturer or a trade association. A HO will have a hard time discerning the good from the bad YouTube videos without trade knowledge or a trained ear which is why I recommend the manufacturer's videos and talking with their reps. The reps get paid for this, its their job.

    When you find a good contractor who provides excellent service the best compliment is to recommend them, give a good Google / Angie's List / Yelp review. This will also help other HO's in their search.

    I could go on for pages, but y'all are probably bored by now. If you have specific questions, I'd be happy to answer.

  • AJCN

    That's all true, and thank you Cabot and Rowe. I brag about you all the time.

  • PRO
    Avanti Tile & Stone / Stonetech

    Paul is a Tile God. Listen to him......

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