When hiring contractor, be a ‘tough customer’

Bathroom remodel teaches lesson about how to avoid surprise setbacks, costs

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This is a cautionary tale. The moral of this story is when a homeowner hires a contractor, it’s incumbent on him or her to oversee the work and call any problems to the contractor’s attention immediately. There are no dumb questions, and don’t stop asking until you’re satisfied with the answer. This hit close to home recently.

A friend of ours sells books to school libraries. Because of the lousy economy and because the book market is going more and more digital, her income is shrinking along with her sales. The company is in the midst of restructuring, and our friend fully expects that she and many other salespeople are about to be unemployed.

Anticipating what seems to be the inevitable, our friend is tightening her belt and getting her condo ready to sell. She sought our advice on what to do.

We told her she needed to redo her small master bathroom, add some fresh paint, make some minor repairs, declutter, and clean, clean, clean. Then put it on the market and hope for the best.

Because she’s not certain whether she owes more than the condo is worth, it’s important that any work she does be inexpensive. It still has to look good, though. She went to one of the local big box stores to buy a prefab shower stall and a new toilet, vanity and vinyl flooring. She also bought new fixtures for the vanity and shower and contracted for installation through the store. The total cost of the new bath is about $4,000, which she hopes to recoup via an increased sales price.

Our friend found out she could save $1,000 or so by demolishing the old master bath and taking care of the painting herself. This left some rough plumbing, shower stall installation, a bit of Sheetrocking and floor installation for the pros.

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This sounded like a good plan to us, but all didn’t quite go according to plan.

The plumber came in only a day later than promised (not bad in the building trades) and moved the shower drain and set the shower pan. The drywall contractor came in the next day to patch the wall above the edge of the shower walls. He took one step into the shower and noticed that the pan flexed up and down about 1/2 inch. He said, "This isn’t right," and left, figuring that the pan and shower walls needed to come out, meaning he would have to do the Sheetrock work twice. Work stopped.

Whenever we install a new prefab shower pan or tub enclosure we set it in bed of thin-set mortar to ensure a solid base. This plumber did not do that.

Our friend complained to the general contractor who gave her a song and dance about "workmanlike business practices" and how they "always do it this way." We told our friend to get a second opinion, and a licensed plumber soon confirmed that the installation was done improperly.

After a little debate, Sarah and the general contractor agreed to support the bottom of the pan with expanding foam shot through holes drilled in the subfloor. We’re a little leery of this solution. Open cell foam can compress when crushed so although it may be a temporary fix we’re skeptical that it will stand the test of time.

Nevertheless, with a solution of sorts in the offing, the Sheetrocker came back and did the patch job.

The contract also called for installation of a new vinyl floor. The flooring contractor, an old pro whom our friend had used before, took one look at the vinyl curling around the edges and told Sarah she needed new underlayment. The general contractor missed this too.

In the end, the bath will look just fine. Our friend’s a good painter and the drywall job is professional. Our friend will enlist Kevin to confirm that she installs the new toilet, vanity and countertop correctly.

Like our dad always said, "If you’re going to do a job, do it right." And we say, if you hire someone to do a job, be a tough customer. It’s your duty to make sure it’s done right.

                                     

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