(This is Part 1 of a two-part series. See Part 2: Homeowners create hell for contractors.)

“I can’t recommend anyone,” an acquaintance who had been living in her house during a remodel for much of the past year told me when I asked her to name a good contractor. She shuddered.

(This is Part 1 of a two-part series. See Part 2: Homeowners create hell for contractors.)

“I can’t recommend anyone,” an acquaintance who had been living in her house during a remodel for much of the past year told me when I asked her to name a good contractor. She shuddered. “I really can’t.”

The look on her face said, “Don’t go there,” and so I didn’t.

Later, with a little prodding, she told me about how her once-beloved dream home had become a disaster zone: “My friends say it’s like we’re living in Beirut.”

A single mom who raised a teenage son and daughter as a fitness instructor and a preschool teacher working double shifts in San Francisco’s hard-bitten Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, Melissa Carrington is hardly a leisure-class homeowner who arrogantly complains about “those workers.” But her experience living through a remodel had, well, burned through her preschool-teacher patience.

“They’re nice guys. There’s nothing wrong with them,” she said. “But you just want to kill them.”

What was supposed to have been a three-month renovation of two bathrooms and an interior stairwell had gone for eight months and spread into the kitchen, and there was no end in sight. “There’s no way it’ll be done in less than two more months,” she said. “Nothing is finished. They haven’t even figured out where the kitchen cabinets are coming from.”

Her parents, who own the house, had agreed to pay the contractor a whopping $240,000 for the job. Soon after the work started, however, they saw signs that the contractor couldn’t manage the finances. At the end of each week, they would pay him, but he didn’t seem to have money to pay his subcontractors or buy materials, and they suspected he was using their money to float other jobs, coming up short regularly. After two months of negotiations, which stalled the work, Carrington’s parents started buying and ordering the materials themselves.

In the meantime, her own family life began to resemble her dismantled living space.

“My son has basically moved out because he can’t stand it anymore,” she said. “He’s living with his girlfriend’s family in the East Bay. My daughter never wants to be home. We’ve all been sick for four months with sinus problems. It’s been a nightmare.”

Almost everyone has heard about a remodeling dream turned nightmare. (If you haven’t, then type “nightmare” and “contractor” into Yahoo! and you’ll be treated to scores of tales from the homeowners’ front about remodeling jobs gone absurdly awry.) But signs indicate there may be more such problem jobs than ever. Contractorsfromhell.com, a Web site devoted to airing such horror stories and providing information and resources to homeowners before they hire a contractor, cites a National Association of Consumer Agency Administration statistic that the home-improvement-services sector last year received more consumer complaints than any other service industry, including car sales, which typically tops the list.

Why now? In the wake of the housing boom, a mix of conditions has swelled the home-improvement and home-remodeling industry into a $106 billion-a-year business. High real estate prices have forced many first-time home buyers who might otherwise have been able to afford homes in move-in condition to buy fixers. Those flush from the boom of the late ’90s – whether by pulling cash from the stock market because of an earlier windfall or a post-boom decline – have also tended to pour money into their houses. Finally, record-low interest rates have encouraged cash-poor families to extract equity from their appreciating homes and finance that master suite they’ve always wanted. The upshot is that contractors have increasingly had their pick of the jobs, and many have taken advantage of the moment by raising their prices and changing their policies – such as working for “time and materials” only instead of agreeing to preset bids. More remodel jobs, more contractors overwhelmed with job offers, and an increasing rush to remodel (call it 21st-century bourgeois madness) naturally have led to more horror stories.

The details of these tales vary widely, from extended legal battles to fraudulent licenses, deserted jobs and toxic mold infestations resulting from shoddy construction. Sometimes, the guy hired for time and materials “only” ends up gouging a client’s pocketbook to shreds. According to my new neighbors, the remodeling job on my new house, conducted before I bought it, was so expensive that it sent the previous owner into a depressive tailspin; after escrow closed, she sent us a three-inch stack of bills from the work. It was scary how much she spent for a job that, while professional, was hardly fine craftsmanship, with hollow doors, plastic cabinets and roll-out linoleum, among other unfortunate choices.

The pay scale was absurdly inflated, too. The contractor charged $75 an hour, his carpenter billed $68, his assistant carpenter was paid $50 and – the kicker – the day laborer received an unbelievable $42 an hour. In addition, the contractor charged $42 per day for tool and truck use, as well as an 18 percent surcharge for bills paid more than three days late.

In the end, the former owner ended up with what might be called “a landlord special” – a cheapo but clean remodel that stripped the home of most of its character. The new kitchen and bathroom and newly Sheetrocked living room, dining room and bedrooms cost her somewhere around $200,000.

Other tales revolve around workers disappearing from the site, lying about time frames, ignoring deadlines and being generally flaky. And, even when cost may be kept in check by a bid, the time might stretch out as the contractor juggles multiple jobs, sometimes leaving work undone for days and even weeks at a time.

A friend of mine in the middle of remodeling a commercial space has lately been driven to ranting by the recurrent absence of anyone on the site: “I call the contractor, but he doesn’t call me back. Then, finally, he called me and told me he was sick, but I don’t understand. He’s running a whole company, so where is the rest of the crew? On one of his other jobs! We’re so close to finishing, but absolutely nothing is happening.”

Melissa Carrington says she’s gotten accustomed to her contractor’s peculiar business practices. “No one would be on the job, and so I’d call him – he wouldn’t answer his phone, or it would be turned off. Other times, one of his flunkies would answer the phone for him and tell me he wasn’t there. But as soon as I asked him a difficult question, you could hear my contractor in the background answering. The funniest was when he’d answer and pretend he couldn’t hear me – that there was static. But I knew exactly what he was doing, because I’d watched him do it to his other clients when they called him at my house.”

My favorite story came from a first-time homeowner who hired a carpenter acquaintance for a plumbing job in his basement. When the homeowner came home one day to find the man in his office looking up plumbing Web sites on his computer in a room littered with empty beer cans, he confronted the guy about his actual skills. The carpenter was so embarrassed; he simply disappeared, leaving all his tools behind and the job half finished. Later it came out that the carpenter was nursing a speed addiction that had led him to the verge of homelessness.

As professional organizations representing contractors are quick to point out, a lot of the worst experiences with contractors could be avoided if homeowners hired only licensed contractors. A lot of unaccredited workers are essentially running scams, preying on naive, often elderly, folks and disappearing with cash deposits and moving on. To protect consumers and maintain the profession’s standards, the California Contractors’ State License Board (CSLB) conducts undercover stings, attempting to ferret out unlicensed contractors and punish them. Last winter, for instance, the board, in cooperation with the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, cited 16 suspected unlicensed contractors.

But as Carrington, or anyone else who has had a bad experience with a licensed contractor, will point out, dealing with an accredited professional doesn’t guarantee satisfaction. Plenty of the horror stories involve licensed contractors, and I’ve known nonlicensed carpenters who performed beautiful craftsmanship and had stellar business ethics. Hiring even the best unlicensed contractor has its risks, however. According to California law, paying anyone over $5,000 to do anything to your house is illegal, punishable by a possible jail sentence or fine for the contractor and up to a $5,000 fine for the homeowner!

In any case, professional organizations tend to recommend serious due diligence before hiring a contractor. The CSLB’s Web site offers an exhaustive list of dos and don’ts when hiring a contractor that are almost as intimidating as the horror stories. Among the board’s recommendations: Check whether license numbers, bonding, liability insurance and workers’ compensation insurance are valid; get references from past customers and visit their homes to check the contractor’s work; contact subcontractors and suppliers to check that they get paid on time; and basically go over every detail of the job plan and contract with a fine-toothed comb. Managing a contractor properly, it seems, can become a full-time job.

And that’s where Carrington feels stumped about what she and her parents could have done to have made sure the project went smoothly. “We checked his license, we got multiple bids and we thought we were being really careful,” she said. “I guess we could have asked for more references.” Short of taking on a virtual third job baby-sitting the project day in and day out, she’s not sure what might have made the difference.

In the end, she has only to look out her window to feel that in the grand remodeling-nightmare cosmos, she got off easy. Her next-door neighbor’s remodel has been going on for two years, and the cost has ballooned to more than $500,000. “And do you know what’s so sad?” she added. “[My neighbor] told me yesterday, ‘I hate it. It’s some architect’s dream, but I just want my old house back.'”

So, what’s the moral here? Carpenters and contractors are a slippery lot inclined toward substance abuse and interminable lunch breaks?

Not on your life.

Some of the most ethical, bend-over-backward-to-help-you people I’ve worked with have been contractors and tradespeople. And, indeed, for every one of the horror stories homeowners tell about contractors, there’s one a contractor tells about a homeowner who made his or her life miserable, broke the contractor’s bank account and made that person desperate to get out of a challenging, much-misunderstood business. Tune in next week for “Tales from the Construction Crypt Part 2: Homeowners from Hell.”

Carol Lloyd’s Surreal Estate column appears every Tuesday on sfgate.com. She can be contacted at carol@creatingalifeworthliving.com.


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