Renovation survival guide

Arm yourself with knowledge before beginning any home-reno project

By Allan Britnell

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When Sabah Mirza and her husband, Asim Rashid, decided to put a nanny suite in the basement of their west-end Toronto house, they figured they’d done their homework.

After four contractors gave estimates for installing a bedroom and bathroom, they opted for the one who had provided an itemized, competitive estimate. Everything went smoothly at first. Then the contractor didn’t show up for a week. Upon his return, he apologized, claiming illness, did a bit more work, then disappeared again-this time for good.

“He stopped answering his calls. Eventually, the telephone number was disconnected,” says Rashid.

Realizing the job wasn’t going to get finished by this contractor, they sorted through another round of estimates to see if someone could pick up where the first guy had left off. “They all said the same thing: ‘Oh, no. This is all wrong,’” says Mirza.

The second contractor was hired to restart the job from scratch. Weeks later, he packed up his tools and left, with a promise to return to wrap up minor finishing details. All seemed well until they tried to use the shower. “Water was pooling because the drain was higher than the tiles,” says Mirza.

Once again, messages were left to no avail. The couple eventually discovered that they weren’t the only ones this contractor had left high and, well, wet. “He’d taken full deposits on other jobs and never done any work,” says Mirza.

They had to call in a third contractor to fix the shower and finish off the job. “He looked at the shower and noticed that there was no J-trap,” says Rashid. (A J-trap prevents potentially fatal sewer gases from seeping into a house.) “We had him tear up the concrete for the third time, put a J-trap in and fix the shower, which is now, finally, functional.”

In the end, the Mirza-Rashids were lucky. They hadn’t given the first contractor a down payment and had held back 15 per cent from the second, so they weren’t out any additional money by having to use three contractors. “We didn’t lose out financially, but the hassle was unbelievable,” says Rashid. “We lost a lot of time. We wanted it done by the end of June. It ended up being completed in October.”

Sadly, their story is all too common. Renovations are a $41-billion industry in Canada, and there are countless underqualified contractors-not to mention outright scam artists-claiming to be “home-improvement experts.”

“There’s so much underhanded business in the industry, and homeowners have to be able to identify that,” says author and renovation consultant Susan Easson. “The only way of doing that is education. If you don’t understand the basics of construction, you’re at a disadvantage when you get an estimate.”

Easson speaks from experience. She got into the business after what was supposed to be a six-month, $75,000 cottage renovation spiralled into a 12-month job that cost more than $200,000. “It would have gotten even more expensive if midway through the project I hadn’t started going through the invoices and really started to understand some of the tricks of the trade,” she adds.

Unfortunately, no matter how knowledgeable you are, how much background checking you do and how closely you monitor the project, there’s no way to guarantee the work will happen on time and on budget. But by using some of the measures in this article, you can improve your chances.

It may seem like a lot of time and effort, but you’ve probably already spent months or even years thinking about the renovation in question. It’s worth investing a bit more time to prepare, plan and investigate your options properly before you begin. In the long run, you’ll save yourself time, aggravation, money and possibly even your marriage.

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Jan. 31, 2012

2:30 pm

I have some very easy questions they should have asked, but before I get to them I'd like to ask these so called uninformed home owners what your motives were when you contacted these contractors. If it was one of the following: BEWARE because ... Lowest price almost guarantees you that you will get fleeced somewhere in the process, either poor quality (usually well hidden so you will never find out or when you do it's too late) or Unscrupulous character traits in the individuals doing the work. As well, if you are overly interfering in a contractors work, they may decide to cut and run simply because you're "high maintenance". I find it very revealing that you had similar experiences from two different contractors. I'd examine your own attitudes and conduct because it always takes two to tangle. Lack of clear communications, hidden agendas and other poor human traits will eventually drive even the most honest contractors to cut their losses and leave undeserving people to get out of their self-made messes.

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