My remodeling disaster story

Our encounter with the Contractor From Hell began in June 1999 when we entered into a home improvement contract to add a master bedroom suite as a second addition. Prior to this we had hired this same company in November of 98′ to also draw the plans for the project as they were a design and build firm here in San Diego.

We had been talking off and on with the salesman for about a year and also heard their constant ads on AM talk radio as being the number one remodeling firm in San Diego (according to him), delivering quality workmanship of the highest standards (the guys’ been cited by the State Contractor’s Board for shoddy, substandard workmanship), committed to providing the highest level of customer service (he never addressed our problems in a timely manner and left our house leaking from rains the majority of the time), “master builders” (built our house 18″ over height limitations because he didn’t know how to determine the correct base of measurement) and “three generations of experience combined” (experience in ripping people off??) promises “guaranteed customer satisfaction” (more like guaranteed home remodeling nightmare!).

Just a note of caution: Be leery of those contractors who advertise heavily, particularly on these radio shows. It becomes a NUMBERS game with them getting as many projects going, raking in the bucks, with your project likely to suffer. The true master builders don’t need to advertise and take on a limited amount of projects at any given time so that they can truly deliver quality and craftsmanship resulting in real customer satisfaction.

Our contractor did heavy advertising on am talk radio with the host saying all these wonderful things about him, with three generations of experience and the best that San Diego has to offer. This is a guy who has had numerous citations and licenses to avoid disclosure of his past to the public. Also, I would stay away from design/build firms as well. Better you hire an architect who can provide you with plans that are not biased towards any particular building or remodeling contractor and can be used by anyone! What happened to us on this very issue follows:

Our plans were submitted to the city for approval and we were told that they were running about six weeks. It took us closer to 6 months as the plans the contractor had drawn up lacked so much detail that the city kept kicking them back time and again requiring more detail. Their so-called “architect”-as the salesman referred to him as-was really a draftsman in some firm they contracted with. It ultimately became a huge problem for us and many errors were made as a result of these poorly drawn-up plans along with no supervision on our project.

This brings us to June of 1999, when we bid out the plans to three other contractors. All three stated that the plans lacked so much detail that they felt they had to cover for any potential problems. One of them refused to bid on it – too many “unknowns” he said. Yikes! Talk about feeling stuck! We had already paid out several thousand dollars for these plans and the feedback was not good.

We were pretty upset about the plans and when we confronted the salesperson we insisted on meeting the contractor and he said “no!” Only when a contract is signed does the contractor meet the homeowner. Who is this guy, the Pope??? We said absolutely not, set up a meeting or we’ll contact him directly-we want to discuss the problems with the plans. Begrudgingly, he set up the meeting and we told the contractor of our disappointment with the plans and the salesman’s’ behavior. And he of course apologized and made some lame excuses for the draftsman, saying “he knows how I build and how I read the plans”. WHAT??? These plans were to be interpreted by any contractor-not just by him! Here we are at the height of the remodeling boom, everyone’s busy and there’s lots of work to go around-what contractor would want to take on a project with the potential for problems?? Our contractor assured us that he had done lots of projects like ours and it really wasn’t a big deal. He would take care of us…FAMOUS LAST WORDS!

As I said earlier, we signed the contract in June of 1999. Fast forward to August 1999. Our start date was the week of August 7th. Furniture was put into storage and we’re ready to start; only the contractor wasn’t. That week he called to tell us that he wouldn’t be able to start, as he didn’t realize the backlog the lumberyards were in and he would ultimately have to use a “higher grade” of lumber otherwise it would be another 4 weeks.

Now it would only be a couple of weeks and he would simply bite the bullet on it. He would get his workers to start digging the footings and by the time inspections were done the lumber would be there and the roof demo could begin.

Now at this point, he had our money and like everyone else we were unaware of the 10% or $1000 to start a job, whichever is less, versus taking 30, 40 or 50 percent up front as our contractor did. In California it is a clear violation of the Business and Professions code to take more than that and is certainly dangerous for the consumer. It’s also one of the most frequently violated laws by contractors. Consumers loose out every time, handing over tens of thousands of dollars only to have the contractor not show up or drag out the job far longer than is reasonable with little or no progress made.

Now here we are out 30K plus a lousy set of worthless plans. This guy does a couple of days of digging, pours some concrete and waits for inspection, but still no lumber. We find that the lumber will be just a little longer but it’s not a big deal he says, roof demo will still go on as planned. Week passes, nothing. Following week is inspection and still no lumber, but roof demo is slated to begin-soon. The following week the roof demo begins and the contractor shows up a couple days later with-guess what- a brand spankin’ new shiny $30,000 plus truck with all the bells and whistles. I know exactly where my 30K went because it sure as hell isn’t invested in my house-it’s been a month since I wrote that check and we’re still waiting!

A note about that inspection: the inspector notes that one of the footings is missing; the plan shows three, they dug two. It’s supposed to be two and the contractor was to make that change well before we signed the contract and started the project. Remember, he drew up the plans and was to correct this but it was never done. He was to get the engineer to recalculate but it never got done. In fact it would be another seven months before it gets done and it then becomes a battle. Pure negligence and irresponsibility and we’re just beginning.

October begins and the roof demo starts and the build up begins. The plumber begins his job and right away he begins asking questions about the plans and states that the plans are horrible-no detail (duh) and there’s no one supervising the job to direct him. I try to answer his questions but to no avail. He tries reaching the contractor but he doesn’t return the call that day.

It was during this time that I also began to get ill with what I thought was probably the flu. Lethargic, just not feeling right. Then the most intense and painful headaches that I’ve ever experienced-I was taking 12 to 16 aspirins a day but nothing was working. I dreaded what might be happening and the following weekend my husband started to feel ill but not as bad as I was feeling. I believed it must be just a horrible flu.

I then started falling asleep several times during the day and one particular day I just couldn’t stay awake and the headaches we’re so bad I just had to lay down-and promptly passed out. I don’t know how much time had passed but I heard a voice in the distance calling my name and someone was knocking on a door or wall and at that point I got up feeling disoriented. The plumber was at the door telling me “we have a serious problem here”.

The demolition crew had torn off the vent to the hot water heater leaking carbon monoxide gas back into the house putting us in a very dangerous situation.

No one had been around to check on the workers or supervise the job and we had been exposed for about eleven days. Since I work out of my home I got the worse dose of it. I ended up in the ER the next day on the advice of my doctor to check blood levels as well as the severe headaches. The ER physician related to my husband and I that the symptoms I experienced were typical of carbon monoxide poisoning. And the headaches would subside over the next five to six weeks. It took closer to seven for me.

I should also point out that at the same time they ripped off the vent, someone had fallen through the roof creating a gapping hole and at the end of that day, we found an empty six-pack of beer on the ground. Lovely.

The workers were so careless with no one around to supervise them, which is par for the course. When we talked to the contractor he apologized but says that carbon monoxide poisoning is not life threatening or anything-after all, his wife’s a nurse and she says I’ll be just fine-yeah, I bet she did. They’re both idiots-what an irresponsible comment to make! They should both be exposed to it for 11 days and see how they like it. Ugh!

Several weeks later the framing is up for the new addition. When I arrived home one of the workers, looking puzzled, was measuring the height and tells me something is not working out-he appears to be over the 30 foot height limit. I ask him what he used as his base of measurement. He points to the small porch – Oh no, he didn’t! It’s supposed to be the lowest point of the property, five feet out from the structure-even I knew that! He’s been waiting for the contractor to call him back regarding what to do next.

They have now built the structure 18 inches over the height limit putting us in direct violation of city code height regulations. For the next six weeks, everything stopped while the contractor tried to get the city to pass it (right, can you say variance?) and he was told he had to take off the roof structure, turn the joists 180 degrees and slant the roof toward the low point of the building-THE VERY THING WE HAD ORIGINALLY DESIGNED FOR IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION because of potential drainage problems. The drainage was never taken care of by the contractor though it was in the original plans for the original roof.

So now the ceilings go from 8 foot to 7’3″. Plus the design of the parapet roof was changed and now looked odd and not acceptable-we had to redesign it so that it would look half way decent-we were angry to say the least. In one short week they deviated from the plans and caused a ripple effect of problems that took several years and more money to repair and correct.

We called for a meeting with the contractor and expressed our disappointment and concern over his inability to build correctly and lack of supervision of his workers. He admitted that he was completely responsible for this mess and he would make it a priority to move things forward and he would personally supervise his workers. Ha! It never happened.

We were getting closer to the rainy season-the very thing we had discussed when first signing on with the contractor in June-no problem he said, “we’ll be done by Christmas”. Not even close. It was the end of October and the rebuild did not begin until the last couple of days of November. The contractor said they would “rock and roll” with a full crew. Well, we never saw a full crew and when they were working, we had anywhere from one to two workers whenever they did come around, a few hours here and there – nothing consistent.

During this 6-week period we had a rainstorm over the weekend and we were fully exposed to the weather with no protection whatsoever. We phoned the office, his cell phone, his salesperson, all the numbers we had. Nothing.

We put up plastic and buckets everywhere it was leaking. Monday morning someone shows up-turns out the contractor was out of town and he didn’t think it was going to rain and why should it-it’s only November when it rains every now and then! They covered the house but they were 36 hours too late. Nice attention to detail and such concern for the customer, just like their ads say. A-huh…

November 30th the plans have been OK’d by the City but unbeknownst to us they were only partially completed. They begin to rebuild and the first two weeks of December revolve around getting the new framing completed and the interior staircase done. The cutout in the ceiling was already done but the error in overbuilding by the contractor now created some additional problems for the proposed stairway. It no longer would work with the original calculations. They needed to be redone and resubmitted to the City but not a big deal according to him-it could be done over the counter.

But it was suppose to be done with the corrected roof design-“an oversight”, he says. We were doubtful so we kept checking on it and he kept saying that he was working on it and it would be done soon.

But it was not being done and this was December 1999; the plans finally got submitted in June 2000. It was typical of this contractor to put things off, procrastinate and lie to us. And we’d usually find out after he failed inspections consistently for the one same item.

December 16th and the new framing (except the stairs and a couple of other items that we did not know about) is completed. Lo and behold the contractor shows up at our house without us having to track him down for once! False alarm, he’s looking for his next 30% and I don’t want to give it to him.

In fact, I don’t want him to do any more damage to our house but getting out of a contract isn’t that easy for consumers, but it sure is easy for contractors to walk off the job with little fear of repercussion from the State. I tell him just that-I don’t feel good about giving him another 30% upfront. My husband says we have to give it to him as per the contract; but if I knew then what I know now, it would have never happened. Closer scrutiny would have uncovered items and work not performed correctly that should have been taken care of before that next payment.

We were supposed to be nearly finished at this point but we were far from it. We thought we were bound by that contract but in actuality, he was the one who first breached the contract when he deviated from the plans by building over the height limit with all the resulting problems-but we didn’t know what our rights were at that time. And frankly, the State doesn’t do enough to educate and inform the consumer on all the pitfalls of home remodeling, and they are numerous!

I told the contractor that I wanted to see someone supervising the workers and I wanted this project to move forward quickly so the house could be protected from the rains. He assured us that everything was behind us now and things would be moving forward quickly. Sadly, it was just the beginning. The next 15 days there was little activity with the exception of a couple of days of work. I call the contractor about those interior stairs-“working on it” he says.

Now we come upon New Years Eve. Our house is not covered-again-and we are still very much exposed to the weather. We’re out to dinner with friends when it begins to rain and it becomes intense at times. We’re all concerned and after dinner we immediately head back to the house where we find the house leaking from just about every crevice.

We began grabbing buckets and putting up plastic where ever we could. It was a nightmare-everything was getting soaked. The new deck above the living room and kitchen was leaking, the roof was leaking as well as the downstairs. We didn’t have enough buckets to go around so we started pulling out pots and pans. We tried reaching the contractor, leaving messages at all the numbers we had and tried his cell phone-nothing was working and no one returned our calls.

The rains subsided and we tried to go over to our neighbors for a bit, but the rains started again and we rushed home. It was about 10:30pm and it was a disaster. We frantically tried reaching the contractor again, but no one can reach him. And the answering service said he was not answering his pages. Apparently we weren’t the only ones trying to reach him.

We were emptying buckets, soaking up water with towels and moving boxes that were getting soaked. The rains came down hard; wind blowing in every direction and water was leaking everywhere. My husband tried to climb up on the roof with some plastic to cover the structure but it was too difficult and dangerous out there. We continued to sop up the water until about 1:30am.

Saturday was spent cleaning up after the rains and we put down plastic on the rooftop as the rains were expected to continue. They do and we took another pounding. The following day we dragged a wet/dry vac to the rooftop to soak up the water as best we could. That’s how we spent the first weekend of the new millennium and still no one has contacted us from the company. What an irresponsible, negligent and reckless contractor-he had an obligation to protect our house at all times-and we wrote that into the contract-but did he bother? Didn’t even cross his mind. Wait ’til you hear his excuse.

On January 3rd, some workers showed up and they surveyed the damage. First thing they did was to rip out the carpets that were soaked (relatively new carpets) and throw them in the dumpster. I wanted to know where the contractor was and they said he’d be back in town in a couple of days.

On January 6th the contractor showed up and walked around the areas where there was water damage. We were very upset and asked why he left us exposed and vulnerable to the elements. He said he thought his workers had covered the house (and of course no one is checking on them!) And why, we asked, was there no one available to cover the house when we called-no one was reachable particularly him who ultimately was responsible.

He then said “Oh, well because of Y2K-everyone was saying that all communication devices should be shut down-computers, pagers, cell phones-you know, to protect ourselves.” Protect himself from what and for how long?? So he makes himself unavailable for a week – during the rains! You know, just in case those Y2K gremlins are still lurking out there. Oh – my – God!

My husband and I stared at him in disbelief and we didn’t know whether we should laugh at him or whack him upside the head! What a moron!!

He disconnected himself from the world for 72 hours to protect himself and what about the responsibility he has to his customers, whose tens of thousands of dollars he is having some kind of fun with on yet another one of his many vacations??? We’re speechless – we cannot believe what this guy just laid on us, but worse, that he believes what he says is acceptable! And the State gave him a license?? We’re all doomed! But it doesn’t end here.

The ceiling over the kitchen and living room were leaking quite a bit and we insisted that we determine the source immediately. The mere fact that we have to insist we determine the source of leaking is absurd! The contractor should be on top of this as it is a sure sign that something is structurally defective. The contractor couldn’t understand where it was coming from; hell, we weren’t even papered on the outside yet-and he wondered if the drains on the deck above were not properly done. He said he’d look into it. And oh, he’ll compensate us for the carpets-right! Never happened.

In the mean time the house was covered with plastic and we asked for the interior stair plans. Oh, that should have been done by the engineer-he’ll check on it. The next week he tells us that the engineer is giving him the run-around but he promises to get on it-we asked him to look into alternatives. He assured us he was. They finish the parapet roof detail by the end of the week and then the next few weeks, electrical and plumbing get some attention, but that’s it and that’s not a lot of work-a couple of hours.

The City required him to follow the plans and get items done that he consistently failed and never completed-yet he would set up these inspections and was never ready and no one around could speak English.

When the inspector tried to explain to some workers who were there, she wasn’t sure if they even understood English! The inspector got fed up with him and proceeded to tell me she’s going to start charging him for all these call backs when nothing has been done.

The contractor started complaining that “she” was making him do extra things that he never had to do before-mind you, they’re on the plans and every year new codes come into play that he needs to keep up with-that’s his responsibility. But to consistently argue these points with the City Inspector only to have to abide with everything in the end? Waste of time – he couldn’t con her – she knew a heck of a lot more than he could ever know.

For the last few months the contractor had been calling the female inspector a “man hater” and told us that since her divorce she’s been bitter towards men and may even be “you know, one of those”. Unbelievable. We grew tired of his bellyaching and inflammatory statements about the woman and told him to stop it.

He looked surprised – gee, we didn’t buy into his garbage! Begrudgingly, he was directed to do a number of things as per plans and he dragged it out. The rains were non-stop and we had to put up plastic coverings and buckets everywhere in the interior of the house. We kept calling the contractor to do something about checking the drains and he tells us ha has checked with everyone-including the guy who laid down the deck just before the Holidays. Everyone swore they were off the hook; the contractor then said when we got ready to do the scratch coat, the leaking would definitely stop. He sent his guys over to put up more plastic. Just what we needed – more plastic.

So once again, the house is just sitting and getting soaked. In February we finally get the OK to paper and lath but ONLY because we have been sitting for so long, getting soaked and the inspector was trying to assist us by giving the contractor the OK, but with conditions to correct other items.

At the same time the contractor finally hired a supervisor who came over to meet us. He got an earful-we’ve been stalled, leaking and we’re pissed off. He’s been hired to take care of all that, he assured us. We were skeptical but we were hopeful at the same time.

Late February, we got the scratch and brown coat. Shortly thereafter, it rained. We leaked just as before but now it was spreading itself out. We told this new supervisor that we needed to address this now – he says he’ll talk to the contractor. He called back, and the contractor had just left out of town for the weekend and when he got back, he’d speak with him. He gets back in town and says he’ll send the Pro Deck guy out. Deck guy doesn’t show up-says it’s not the deck, probably the drains. We ask the contractor to open a section of the wall/ceiling so we can do a water test to determine the source-he says we have to wait until drywall. We argue.

And where the hell are those plans for the stairs?? Where are the calculations for the footings from the engineer we’ve been asking for since last summer?? The contractor thought it was taken care of – we ask by whom?? “You’re the one suppose to be taking care of it or so you said.” Week goes by, and the new supervisor, calls and says that he’s dealing with the engineer himself and the stairs he’ll check on with the city. Turns out that the alternative spiral staircase was not allowed by the city. Now how many months did it take the contractor to check on requirements? He never did – again, we just got lip service.

The inspector continued to fail the contractor on inspections for various reasons including nothing on the plans have been approved, but he built it anyway. The guy builds and then forgets to submit. That radio ad of theirs is ringing in my ears about the “attention” to detail” and “care for the customer”, the “master builder”-if that isn’t a crock of crap and advertising fraud, I don’t know what is!

These careless acts cost us time and delays in moving forward. The contractor stated that his dad-a retired architect-would be doing the corrections on the plans. The draftsman has made way too many mistakes. Really? He’s just getting it?

We wanted our ceiling opened up to do a water test-again he puts us off. City inspector comes out to check some items-asks where the stairs for the outside deck is on the plans-remember when he overbuilt the house, all elevations and resulting calculations changed. This new supervisor looked puzzled and stated he didn’t know-and then says the contractor would know but of course he’s out of town- again – for the next several days.

Frustrated, she ordered him to have the place cleaned up for safety reasons-it’s was a disaster…and get those plans submitted for approval so that we could proceed.

The inspector then said, “These poor people need to get their lives back…let’s get these things done in a timely manner. Tell your boss to get these items submitted that should have been done months ago because I’m not going to let you proceed otherwise!”

So then we had to sit-for the next 4-5 weeks with the exception of someone coming over to put up more plastic. Great – more plastic.

We continued to take in more water and we feared that mold would be growing in the plaster walls and ceiling. Also, the French doors in the new addition had been sitting outside in the rains since they were delivered the beginning of the year. Nobody felt like moving them in side, apparently not in their job description.

The contractor said it was the manufacturers’ responsibility to install-not theirs. Good grief! The pissing contest begins and we continue to take in water…their radio ad that rings out “attention to detail and care for the customer” is swirling around in my mind…lies, false advertising, it’s criminal! It’s now April and this started New Years Eve-actually, in mid-October when it first rained. With camera in hand to document, we cut out a 4 x 4 opening in the ceiling, exposing the drains and immediately see some mold. Then we performed the water test on the deck, expecting the drains to fail-nothing.

Ten-fifteen seconds pass and suddenly the ceiling begins to leak-we see it coming from the deck. So it was the deck that had failed. Yet we endured so much unnecessary water damage and stress because of his refusal to open the ceiling and do a simple water test.

The substrate put down was incompatible with the decking material that was applied over it. Now the Pro Deck guy knew it, but still went ahead with it. The contractor should have ordered plywood for the flooring system, not OSB, which is flake board and basically much more porous.

So we lost carpeting, ceilings and walls damaged as a result of both their negligence and shoddy workmanship. The workers report back to the contractor and now he and the ProDeck guy go at it.

We call the contractor and tell him that he needs to get over to the house today-no more putting us off. We demanded that he gets one of his workers over to open the ceiling to do a water test and get those damn French doors installed-I don’t care what he has to do, just do it! He tells us he’s working on getting their plans done as the city kicked them back but “his dad” is working on it.

And then we found out that the engineer refused to recalculate for the footings-but again, the contractor is “working on it”.

We were overwhelmed-how many more screw-ups does it take before it’s over? I felt like I was smack in the middle of a Three Stooges movie. A worker showed up the next day to open the ceiling.

A few days go by, the Pro Deck guy shows up and inspects the deck and says, “I told him not to use that OSB board, it’s cheap and not right for this application.. .there goes my reputation.” Your reputation! What about all the damage we’ve sustained?? I asked him why he went ahead and put the material down even though he could clearly see it was the incorrect substrate? Just shakes his head and says something about contractors’ insurance paying for the damages and gets on the phone. This is around the 12th of April 2000.

I talked to the contractor and he stated that the Pro Deck guy would be coming back when there was a break in the rains for at least several days. But he needed to get his workers over to the house first to tear out the floor and replace it with the correct substrate He promised that the plans for the exterior stairs were being done by the engineer as well as the footing issue (still from the previous year and unresolved) but will be ready for his supervisor to pick up at the City the following day.

Oh, and by the way, he’s talking to me on his way to the airport for yet another vacation-two weeks. Gee, I’d like to take even a week’s vacation but I have to run this project while the contractor either screws up, does a no-show or takes a vacation.

I drilled him on what he has and has not done-promises (yeah right) that he’s given his supervisor very specific instructions on handling the engineer and getting the plans over to the City. How many times have I heard this now?

It had been nearly a month that any work has been performed with the exception of taking care of leaks. The contractor was lying on a sunny beach in Cabo and we were mopping up water in the house-and freezing.

At the end of the week the supervisor had the exterior stair plans and the footings could now be inspected. He set up the inspection with the City; the inspector sees the footing, looks for it on the plans and doesn’t see them anywhere. The supervisor looked puzzled as usual and come to find out the supervisor doesn’t know what happened; he thought the contractor had it taken care of it before he went on vacation. The inspector has a fit, I have a fit and everyone is yelling. I’ve taken just about all I can take. Game over.

The following day, we called on a friend who is a construction defect specialist. He did a walk through and found all kinds of things from rusting nails to the use of incorrect materials, interior wood used in exterior applications, to lack of flashing or sealing around doors and windows. We got a report together and sent it off to the contractor, certified mail.

I should point out that we had sent four letters out to him since the inception of the job, relating problems with the construction but not once did he ever respond to any of them either verbally or in writing. In fact, we would always asked if he received and read the letters-he’d always say “I vaguely remember” or “yeah, Jim said something about it,” always pretending that he knew nothing about anything and he did nothing wrong. I would make sure he got it and hand him a copy whenever we did get him to come to the house. And he was always in a hurry to leave when he arrived – didn’t want to deal with anything if he could get away with it.

Continue to Part 2