What to do when a project goes completely SOUTH
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.
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.
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