How to select a contractor

The foundation was rebuilt to engineering standards using a polymer-enriched cement.   Photos: Charles Weiner

By Charles Weiner

This stone foundation was so badly degraded that the exterior wall was beginning to collapse.

Its 9 a.m. on a Sunday. I hear my business phone ring. Curious, I listen to the message. The caller explains that they are concerned about a recent home renovation project – there are noticeable cracks in the drywall and several broken kitchen tiles. I call back and make an appointment.

I am a structural expert and although I am not a professional tiler or drywall installer, I have 40 yearsʼ experience in assessing and correcting the most egregious (if not criminal) attempts at home construction. These abominations were, not surprisingly, carried out by wannabe contractors.

In some cases, the customer is partly to blame for choosing an inept contractor. We have all been trained to believe that the lowest price is the key factor; nothing can be further from the truth. This is what I call the first law of renovation: Contractors who give the lowest quote are usually inexperienced. They are desperate for work and should not be hired no matter how smooth their sales pitch. Go with the middle price – that contractor expects to be paid for their skills and is motivated not by greed but by doing a good job.

I arrive for the assessment. I am told the job was supposed to take 11 weeks but took several months more. I ask whether the contractor had other jobs on the go at the time. The clients say he had several but promised to do his best to keep their job a priority. That didn’t seem to pan out as expected. It never does.

This brings me to the second law of renovation: Always demand, on paper if need be, that the contractor must be on site every day during the renovation and must not take other jobs. One must be reasonable, of course, and allow for sick days or the odd medical or dental appointment.

I am eager to see the damage in question. The house is two storeys with a full basement. The drywall shows structural tearing. In the adjoining kitchen, which is on the flip side of the damaged drywall, three broken tiles have lifted away from the adhesive.

I ask to go down to the basement to look from underneath at the floor joist. I am told that the basement was also part of the job description but was never finished because the contractor wanted more money.

Law number three is also of primary importance: The lowest price will always cost you more in the end than the highest price. So always choose the quote in the middle.

I noticed right away that a structural wall underneath the damaged drywall and broken tiles had been removed and replaced by a beam that was clearly not strong enough to hold the load of the two floors above. Steel posts were used as temporary shoring posts instead of permanent posts on footings as required by the building code. I told the clients all this could be easily fixed. It is then that I noticed the basement had been lowered to allow more headroom.

I asked the clients if any water had leaked through the concrete underpinning that was used to lower the depth of the basement floor. They said yes and took me to the adjoining boiler room. I noticed water stains right away. With my masonry hammer, I tapped on the underpinned area. To my horror, it rang with a high-pitched ting – the underpin that should have been a minimum of 18 inches thick was less that an inch. The contractor had faked the job and undermined the structural integrity of the entire house.

This brings me to the fourth law: Always contract a structural engineer to design appropriate loads for beams and to inspect the underpinning or bench-footing that is being installed to lower or reinforce a structure. It will cost as little as $1,000 but could save you tens of thousands in repairs.

We finally come to the fifth law: Always call referrals! In this case, one referral did not reply to the clients’ call and the other emailed a favourable response. I did not want to upset them any further so did not mention how easy it is to set up a false email address that the contractor responds to himself.

In the end, with the help of an engineer, we were able to save the house. This customer was fortunate to have enough income to see the job through. The insurance company paid for some cosmetic finishes but would not cover the structural repairs.

Charles Weiner is a structural specialist in residential and commercial repairs in the Ottawa area. He can be reached at 613-915-8377. No cost consultations.

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