Consultant Michael Stone provides guidance to contractors and renovators throughout Canada and the US, including some GOHBA Renovator Council/RenoMark renovators. In a recent posting, he reports on a contractor who received a request for observations as the owner complained about poor work quality from the previous contractor. As you can see, quality can be in the eyes of the beholder, and often, indeed, you get what you pay for.

You Get What You Pay For

Sometimes a prospective client wants you to fix the work done by another contractor. Usually the other contractor was the lowest bid which is why the work needs to be fixed. That was the situation a friend of ours ended up in recently.

He’d been out to see a homeowner about a project. After the sales call, he received the following email asking for his help:

“Would you please write a list of the problems with the porch that I can refer to and bring to Small Claims court when I go? ……  A general letter of the poor workmanship and problems with his work. I want you to do the interior and John Doe the exterior as we have spoken about. I want to do a contract soon and have the work scheduled for beginning or mid April.

I will be bringing in a lot of photos but I would like an overall description such as unacceptable aluminum work, bent wrapped and folded wrong, siding issues, the piece falling off at the corner strip etc., aluminum metal on windows that is a problem, parts/strip coming off interior because of not using screw, etc. overall problem with certain parts of his pvc work stopping short, not long enough in length to end where it should, Some screens sagging with paint on them. Floor not painted. The cut across new pvc skirt, a vague contract.

I can send you some photos to remind you. It would really be helpful.”

Did you notice the promise that he’ll be hired after the issue is resolved? Let me rephrase it: “Do me a favor today and I’ll hire you tomorrow.”

Money aside, this is a sticky situation. He’s being asked to join a fight between a contractor and a homeowner, and the primary issue is workmanship. Our friend handled it well with his response:

“The problem is your contractor didn’t necessarily do anything wrong as the contract was very vague and, from what I saw, I wouldn’t say the quality of workmanship was up to my standards but it wasn’t necessarily done ‘wrong’ either (for the most part). It really is typical construction (not that I would call it good but it’s typical).

The quality of workmanship is subjective as, again, the contract is extremely vague. Also, the combination of vinyl siding and aluminum cladding is not going to give you that traditional look of quality that wood and some other materials can give. Vinyl expands and contracts, it’s flimsy and has a ‘plastic’ look and feel. Aluminum gets wavy, nail heads are hard to hide and unfortunately caulk becomes a lot of builder’s best friend when trying to finish off details, seams, etc. Of course there are better and worse ways to work with aluminum and vinyl but the amount of quality is usually reflected in the price.

Your contractor probably priced the job to do a quick, easy and typical installation. Again, I see this all the time. As bad as it might look I don’t know that it violates any building codes or that he necessarily did anything ‘wrong’. I’m sure he did a poor job flashing some areas as most contractors do but being that you don’t have any water problems (yet) his flashing, though likely not ‘text book’, may be good enough.

As far as I know the work he did is reasonable per the project price and conversations you had with him (in which case it’s his word against yours). Did you show him pictures of a style (overall or detailed) that you wanted him to replicate? Did he show you pictures or drawings of what he was going to do? Did you check out his references or look at other projects he worked on before hiring him? If so, you may have a good case that his work and/or quality of work does not match the drawings, pictures or other projects that he showed you. But if there were no drawings, pictures, specifications, etc. then it’s hard to determine whether or not what he did was ‘wrong’.

That said, I’m going to decline in getting involved in this any further. My suggestion is that you hire an attorney or arbitrator who specializes in residential construction cases and go from there. I’m sure the department of consumer protection can guide you on this. I wish I could have better news for you.”

He was polite and didn’t burn any bridges, but he also didn’t allow himself to get drawn into the fight.

Questions on the telephone won’t always tip you off that you’re going to be asked to be an expert witness for an owner. If you do go on these calls, and we all have at one time or another, make sure that if you’re going to get involved, you’ll be paid. Our friend obviously felt that he did not want to get involved at any price and chose to walk away. I think that was a smart move.

Getting involved would have taken his focus off his own business. He was also dealing with a homeowner who appears to have hired a previous contractor based on low price, so they might not be someone he’d want to work with anyway.

There are a lot of little details in his response that can serve as a lesson to any homeowner hiring a contractor. Make sure the contractor knows what you want. Check references and/or look at other projects. Don’t work with a vague contract. And you get what you paid for.

What can you learn from this observation?  Well, if you selected a contractor within the RenoMark program, you would almost certainly not receive the unwelcome surprises this homeowner experienced. You could, indeed, receive a simple and inexpensive project — if that is what you want and know you are looking to achieve — but you wouldn’t be surprised, and your expectations would match your reality.