It was their first experience with a construction project. Janice and David Edwards hired a local contractor, who had worked for a neighbor, to add a master bedroom and bathroom to their home in Forest Acres.
Mistake number one: “We did not check him out,” says Janice. “We just talked to our neighbors, and they seemed happy, so we hired him.”
From the start, the couple made it clear that they wanted the contractor to save and install the windows in the master bedroom because the windows throughout the house were new. The understanding was that the room would be framed to accommodate the existing windows. Mistake number two: The Edwardses did not put their request regarding the windows in writing and require the contractor to sign it.
After the new bedroom and bathroom were framed in and the windows were installed, the contractor left and did not return for more than nine weeks. In the meantime, when they attempted to open one of the windows that had been installed into the newly framed room, it easily dislodged and fell into the unfinished room.
“We were so patient,” says Janice. “We didn’t complain that he wasn’t showing up.”
However, after considerable time, the couple approached the contractor about what happened with the window. “He immediately became angry and said, ‘This window situation is not acceptable. I didn’t want to use the same windows.’ And then he turned from us, went back to his truck, scribbled on a piece of paper how much we owed him and said he was off the job. We were shocked.”
The Edwardses were even more baffled when they learned that the contractor had put a lien on their house – which remained for five years.
According to the attorney they hired, legislation protects a contractor in the case of a homeowner not paying after a project is started or completed. He points out that while a car can be repossessed if payments are not made, if a contractor installs a wall in a home, it’s not like he can take it back. Their lawyer further explained that the type of lien with which homeowners are familiar are the ones involved in a mortgage agreement. The type of lien that the Edwardses experienced is statutory. Contractors can pursue a lien – following specific rules – if they feel there will be a payment dispute.
In the attorney’s opinion, legislation set up to protect contractors was abused by the Edwardses’ contractor. The result for the Edwardses was a lot of stress, added costs for the attorney and the hiring of a new contractor to make repairs and finish the job.
And even though the second contractor provided quality workmanship and professionalism, the experience left the Edwardses daunted, vowing to never again embark on a construction project in their home.
After time passed, they realize that they just need to take precautions to avoid a construction calamity. Their attorney suggested that they always get everything in writing. He says that what typically happens on a job is that the homeowner might say, “How much would it cost to add such and such? Okay. Go ahead and do that.” Without the changes agreed upon in writing, it is the contractor’s word against the homeowner’s.
According to Emily Wright of The Wright Group Construction, based in West Columbia, stories like the Edwardses’ hurt contractors who are doing it right. “It makes everyone suspicious of contractors,” she says.
Emily’s husband, Joe, a builder, often has to help clean up the mess left by a lax contractor. One of those situations was with Columbia homeowner Susanne Wessel. She wanted to add a sunroom and master bath onto her home in the historic Cottontown neighborhood along with renovations to an existing bath and replacement of old mechanical systems, so she hired a contractor she knew personally. She made sure she saw his contractor’s license and tags and spoke with a reference who was a former client, and she trusted the project would be successful.
However, when the contractor came to her and announced that he was 90 percent finished and wanted the bank to sign off if he could get an inspection, she became concerned. She did not feel the project was almost completed and her suspicions were confirmed when she ordered a plumbing inspection and it failed.
Joe Wright then became involved and found about 17 building code violations – many of which were safety issues. Electrical and foundation work was not complete, plumbing work was not started, and support beams and floor joists were improperly cut and needed replacing.
What happened in this case, and what often occurs, is that disreputable contractors “rob Peter to pay Paul.” Emily explains that Susanne’s original contractor had forged a contract for a roofing job valued at $8,000 to pull the permit for Susanne’s $86,000 job in order to save money and hide the true nature of the job and avoid inspections.
Regarding the Edwardses’ case, Emily believes that when a client pays up front for the majority of the work to be accomplished, disreputable contractors will skip out on a job once the money is used up in order to go to another job and receive another lump sum.
The other scenario is that these types of contractors make an impressive show at first and then slack off after the initial impression has been made. Often, homeowners then feel at the mercy of the contractor in order to see the job completed. This is what happened with Niki and Mark Curley. They owned a home in Rosewood about nine years ago. They were newlyweds and – as Niki says – “We didn’t know what we were doing, and we were trying to find the least expensive contractor.”
Their intention was to remove an existing washroom from their older home and put in a concrete slab that would be the foundation for a screened-in porch and an outdoor patio.
“We put half down for the project, and then we didn’t hear from them for weeks,” says Mark. “Then we woke up early one morning, with no warning, to these guys ripping the washroom off of our house.”
When the crew’s demolition was complete, the house had a three foot-by-six foot hole on its roof. “They didn’t cover it,” says Mark, “and it rained. I called the contractor, and he became agitated and said he would charge extra to cover the hole. Then he sent a teenager over who put a tarp over the hole and covered it with bricks. When I was in the backyard, a brick flew off and almost hit me.”
Niki and Mark say that the project went downhill from there. The concrete slab cracked and had to be redone, the grade on the roof was not steep enough, the area flooded and the shingles on the roof had to be patched. The crew left a mess of debris all over the yard. The plumber that the contractor hired did not seal the pipes correctly, so sewage leaked under the house.
The Curleys filed a lawsuit along with two other families who were also not pleased with the contractor’s work. The lawsuit brought about no compensation for any of them, but as far as they know, the contractor is no longer practicing. They learned, after the fact, that there were at least 10 other judgments against the contractor. Had they researched his name over the Internet, explains Mark, they would have learned that before they hired him.
“We were such novices,” he adds, “blind as heck going in. And we got scammed. If we do it again, we will get more references and not just ones the contractor gives us. We will go above and beyond to speak to others because of course the ones the contractor gives you are going to be positive.”
Susanne’s experience with her second contractor, who fixed the problems of the first, was positive. She said he became a trusted advisor. The Edwardses’ second contractor, they said, did a great job completing their master bedroom to their specifications.
“At first we said we will never do this again,” says Janice. “But now we know we just need to plan ahead and make sure we cover all the bases.”
How to Ensure a Positive Home Construction Experience
Be careful of some common “red flags,” such as the contractor’s permits not being posted, business signs not displayed in the front yard, no dumpsters on site (if major renovation), no evidence of inspection approvals and no evidence of a contractor’s license. Also, when the contractor disappears from the job site for weeks on end without a phone call – that is a reason for alarm.
In order for a homeowner to protect against a nightmare experience, there are several precautionary measures advised by legitimate contractors. They include:
- First, do a web search of the contractor’s name and company name to see if there have been any negative issues reported.
- Check out references from former clients of the contractor – and not just the ones the contractor gives.
- Look up the contractor on the Better Business Bureau and Columbia Home Builders Association websites.
- Always look at a copy of the contractor’s license and look the contractor up on the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation website.
- Take a picture of the building permit(s).
- Sign a contract that clearly outlines the project and expected dates for completion.
- Make sure to obtain a copy of the insurance policies and the surety bond.
- Require a copy of each inspection report from the contractor.
- Pay only a 10 percent deposit in advance.
- Communicate regularly with the contractor.