Final Decision on a Contractor

Warning: if you are not interested in the nitty-gritty details of how we made a final decision on which contractor to hire, skip this post!

[Update: March, 2016. We are now in a contract dispute with Ridgewater Homes. Custom Precision Homes, the other company we considered, cannot be contacted and has information posted here and here do not sound good. Apparently, all the work we did to vet our contractor, as described below, did not achieve the results we had hoped. For more details, click here.]

DSC01792Okay, here we go.

I told you we are working with Ridgewater Homes, right? I also promised to tell you how we arrived at that decision.

I told you about the first contractor we talked to way back in 2011.

I told you about The Missing Contractor who gave us our first comprehensive quote and then stopped answering calls and e-mails.

In January, 2015, going into the final stages of our Heritage Revitalization Agreement with the City of Maple Ridge, I stoked the fire of my contractor search once more. A few recommendations had come to us from friends and neighbours, but it was always “a guy” and I figured our project was going to need more than “a guy” no matter how awesome he was.

In fact, we had pizza delivered while working on the house last month and the delivery guy said, “hey I’m licensed if you’re looking for some help on your house give me a call.” He didn’t have a card with him so he wrote his number on a piece of paper. Seriously. It’s the wild west out there.

With the horror stories that you hear, I knew references were going to be vital. With only the one quote from the Missing Contractor in hand, I decided to try that website that helps you find “Home Improvement Pros” called again. I like the concept, but had only gotten two results last time. This kind of service is only as good as the number of businesses they are connected with.

By the way, HomeAdvisor’s article on easy energy efficiency upgrades isn’t bad. Click here to read it.

This time I had three hits and set up meetings right away. (I seem to remember four meetings, but I believe I have blanked one out of my memory.) Having planned this project for four years, we had some things we were looking for in a contractor.

imageA few things made our project unusual. We had complete architectural drawings ready (we thought) to be submitted for a Building Permit. We had structural drawings from an engineer. We had already received approval from city council on these plans. Finally, we had already researched, based on an energy model, specific energy and water saving measures we hoped to add. You might argue that these things should make a contractor’s job easier–no architect or engineer needed and the clients are less likely to change their minds in the middle of the project.

However, other things made it more complicated. For one thing, far from decided on what heating system we wanted (gas furnace, air source heat pump or geothermal heat pump) we were not even decided on how that heat would be delivered–ie: whether we would use forced air ducting or hot water baseboards or something else. For another, we knew from our first estimate that we couldn’t afford to have all the work done by a contractor, we would have to find some way to share the work.

I wasn’t sure if we could find a contractor willing to work under these conditions.

We had determined that the limit to our borrowing power was $150 000 (the first estimate we had was over $300K). The goal was to divide the work into what we could do ourselves and what we would need professionals for.

One contractor suggested we hire him and have him bill us “by the hour”. The idea made my head swim with images of a half-done house and a bill we couldn’t afford. My notes on that meeting were as follows:
-seemed better suited to working under a company
-brought up corruption and cheating on jobs
-suggested we bill him by the hour
-asked if we want to do “cash or invoices and taxes”
He clearly hinted that paying him cash by the hour was the much better option and I couldn’t politely say goodbye to him fast enough. (Note to contractors looking for work: if the first words out of your mouth are how you saved a homeowner from other unscrupulous and corrupt contractors, it does not reassure me that you are honest.)

RANT: I’m still alarmed at how inconsistent the renovation industry is. We want the best work at the best price, but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of regulation or quality assurance. We have the Better Business Bureau and Consumer Protection BC as well as independent services like HomeAdvisor, but one has the sense these don’t count for much. Contractors seem to rely on word of mouth to build a reputation. That makes it much more difficult for homeowners to find someone they feel comfortable with. Mike Holmes’ advice for finding quality contractors is all well and good, but what do you do if nobody is following Mike Holmes playbook?

Hiring a contractor to renovate your home is like handing a stranger your baby. No wonder people often feel more comfortable mowing down an older home and building a new one–at least they can walk around a show home and feel confident they know what the final result will be.

I suppose another part of the problem is the vertigo that we homeowners feel when someone, be it a contractor, a city official, a tradesperson or a friend, suggests that we’re going to need an engineer, an architect, a surveyor or–gasp–a permit. It immediately sounds so much more expensive and the temptation to hire “a guy” to “get’erdone” is real and understandable. Leanne and I have proceeded with the assumption that good planning and “doing it right” will pay off in the future with a better, more comfortable, cheaper-to-heat home to live in.

We’re willing to put in the time, energy and money to save a) the resources that went into building this house, b) its heritage value, and c) reduce its impact on the planet, but we are the exception. Some call us “early adopters” of emerging trends. As our governments back away from supporting home renovations and home energy retrofits, it will be harder and harder for people to do what we are doing. When will they get on the right side of history?

End of rant.

All this is why I was very happy to find two contractors I could not write off so easily, Ridgewater Homes and Custom Precision Homes.

Daryl (President) and Chuck (Construction Manager) from Ridgewater were not phased by the idea of taking on the foundation, framing and exterior finishing of the house and leaving us with the electrical, plumbing, insulation and interior finishing. They were even willing to allow us to work under their umbrella for our portion of the work so long as the project didn’t drag on too long. That would help with insurance, inspections, etc. The meeting ended with Daryl agreeing to get us a preliminary, itemized quote in a week or so.

A few days later I met Craig and Heidi from Custom Precision Homes who were also willing to work under our unique conditions. Our cat bonded instantly with Heidi’s feet. A notable difference between the companies was Custom’s policy of requiring a $500 deposit before providing a comprehensive quote. They explained that it could take up to two weeks to price out the items so that they could stand behind their numbers, and we would only lose the deposit if we didn’t hire them. While I can understand the thinking behind the policy, this made it a little more difficult to compare the two companies.

Ridgewater delivered a “preliminary quotation” on January 20, 2015 totalling $176 568.00. That’s almost $17K more than our budget and everyone tells us to expect the costs to go up, not down. Also, how reliable is that number? I had to ask myself if a rough, possibly inaccurate, quote is preferable to a more reliable quote that I have to pay for up front. (I guess I’ll never know because we didn’t choose Custom.) In a subsequent meeting with Daryl and Chuck we identified a couple of areas which could come down in cost if we play our cards right.

Both Ridgewater and Custom Precision Homes were very interested in working on heritage and sustainable projects and both seemed to get what we were aiming for. Both had experience with, and opinions on, house-lifts (both recommended Nickel Bros.), insulated concrete forms, and green building practices.

Unable to eliminate one of the companies from the competition, it came down to references. As landlords, Leanne and I take references very seriously. We always ask for references and we always call them.

Without further ado, here are the notes I took about each of the two finalists:

Daryl and Chuck from Ridgewater

-will give rough numbers, itemized, by early next week (Jan20 or so)
-quote for digging, foundation, concrete, framing of addition and dormer
-leave plumbing, electrical and finishing to us
-recommend using Nickel Bros to lift
-cautious about ICF given that any cracks that may develop will be invisible

I made a list of questions to ask the references so that I didn’t waste too much of their time.
1. Did your project involve lifting the house, re-roofing, bathrooms?
2. What was Ridgewater’s approach to energy efficiency?
3. Was the plan clear from the start and did the plan change as you went?
4. Did the project go overbudget or underbudget?
5. What were you impressed by? What were you not impressed by?

Ridgewater Homes References:
John – House lift – not available
Kit – Kitchen renovation – Call again Tuesday evening
Kit left a message Wednesday and said:
Complete kitchen reno. Had a plan with Daryl which was ~$20K but the designer made suggestions and it went up to $60K. $10K was the appliances. (She got tempted.) Asked Daryl to keep her on track after that and he did.
She is busy and Daryl took care of the details for her. She would recommend them.
Daryl said, “I did talk with Bill & Phyllis – on a renovation we did for them and they said it was ok to use them as a reference. Talk with Bill he was around a lot and we dealt mainly with him” Left a message Friday March 13th.
-Bill left two messages before I returned his call. His started out as a kitchen and bathroom and then expanded to most of the house interior. $50-60K went up to $105K due to their decisions. Bill got quotes from 3 companies over 3 months and would now just call Ridgewater. Reno did not open up the exterior walls or foundation. They were not the cheapest quote but delivered high quality work.
Shawn – Total house reno and addition – Number not in service

Liz – Full renovation – sent an e-mail:

[Update June, 2016: when I contacted these references I did not google the names or investigate whether these people did, in fact, exist. It is entirely possible that Liz exists, but looking at her facebook profile makes me doubt. For one thing, if you scroll down her wall you will find that one of her profile pics has a message from someone else saying, “Can you take my picture down, please?” Perhaps, when we screen contractors, it is necessary to screen their references, too? One thing is certain: Liz’ email influenced our decision to hire Ridgewater.]

“Hi James

Yes, we hired Ridgewater Homes. We had had a bad experience with the last company we had in for our basement bathroom. Ridgewater was doing a house lift down the road from us. We watched that process and we were impressed by how everything was kept clean and the job was moving along, so we called up Ridgewater. When we met with Daryl he was very knowledgeable and we were impressed, but we were still sceptical. Like you we asked for references, we were in touch with them and they all said the same thing. They were happy with the service and value of Ridgewater.

Once we hired Ridgewater, they went to work with all the prep work. We were blown away with the attention to detail that not only Phil, Dave and some of the other guys put in, but also Daryl and his approach to getting things done.

Our original project was just the kitchen and was very well laid out for us, but we started seeing that we wanted more and we ended up doing the bathrooms and the whole main floor. We opened up the floor plan to give it an open feeling. We did a small addition for a wine room as well. We did have the roof redone as it was getting old. This was all handled very well. When we did changes over the contract, they had change orders for us, so that we could keep track of the extras. We have heard and dealt with those nightmares before.

Energy consumption – it’s construction so hard to say. They did recycle as much stuff as possible. We were impressed with that service.

Yes, the project went over budget and over schedule because we added to it, but as far as what we had wanted it was under budget and as far as schedule it was right on. They were done a week early if I recall.

I was impressed with the whole company and how respectful and honest they were. It wasn’t the nightmare we had expected like we had had before. What I didn’t like were the subtrades smoking. And I know Daryl had addressed this and the issue was fixed. Also one guy brought his dog and Phil called Daryl and that was dealt with. So the issues were resolved very fast. Even though they were doing other renovation and a coffee shop at the time, we felt that we were still taken care of.

Daryl and his team at Ridgewater – I would recommend over anyone else. You won’t find the service that they give you. We had movers coming in at 8:00 am and the cleaners didn’t do the greatest job at cleaning. I found Daryl and Chris at the house at 4:00 am cleaning so that it would be ready. Who does that and from the owner.

My husband and I had talked about building a new house. We had started to talk to Ridgewater about all this, but my husband was transferred to Seattle, so we sold and moved.

If you want a company that cares and does an amazing job, Ridgewater is that company.

I hope that helps


March 17th, 2015 I called Daryl at Ridgewater and said:
Very impressed with comments given by references. Impressed by proactive approach to making sure we have all the info about your company. We are in the enviable position of having two good companies to choose from.
1. You have quoted $17 000 for house raising. Does that include Nickel Bros. and the prep work they require of us?
Daryl: Yes.
I spoke to Nickel Bros. and Jason (I think) said it had been passed on that Daryl has a good head on his shoulders.
2. Looking for cost savings that we can discuss with you. The demolition figure includes dump fees and clean up. Are those things that we can bring down if we find sites who will take the broken concrete and fill? Daryl: Yes that would save a lot (Sept. 2015 note: unfortunately, concrete fill must go to a licensed recycling facility so it is broken down properly before it is used as fill).
3. Available when?
Daryl: Any time. Available to meet this week.
4. Can I blog about you?
Daryl: Yes.
Heard great things about your attention to detail and the care you took in finishing projects as well as carefully documenting any changes that came up and clearing new expenses beforehand. However, our project by necessity is going to focus on the rougher work of lifting, digging out, pouring foundation, insulating, pouring a slab, framing the addition and dormer, roofing and finishing the exterior.

Custom Precision Homes
Craig, Operations Manager
Heidi, Exec. Assistant
Lawrence(?) also has house-lifting experience
Craig has 2 or 3 house lifts under his belt.
-interested in renovating more than building new
-willing to manage the project from start to finish but there would have to be a time limit
-ask for a $500 deposit for detailed estimate and timeline (takes 2-3 weeks)
-not available until June
-suggested if Nickel Bros. lifts they could also move the house out of the way to allow more efficient excavation and foundation pouring
-thought that ICF might be doable by keeping the exterior flat and reducing the interior space
-would have no problem taking on this job
-would need to enter into an agreement stipulating what work we would do and they would do and timelines
-will provide references next week.
A few of the references that you can call would be:

Sterling (just completed a full basement renovation North Vancouver) Called March 9: left message
He called back and left a message: Would recommend Custom, excellent job, attention to detail, they let him know when he was overstepping, get your money’s worth, $110K for basement. They delivered huge.
Called March 13th 1500sq ft basement finishing 1960 house
-Estimate: $64K for basic but then went up to $105K
-Estimate was similar to two other itemized quotes they got which were for only half the basement.
-blood red walls with terra cotta tile
-took boiler out and 2 HW tanks and added new boiler and radiators and on-demand water heater (replaced entire heating system—good advice, much more efficient) Also took up much less space in the basement.
-Heidi picked out décor suggestions but they went with their own ideas.
-Had a contract, updated changes, always wrote out changes before proceeding/asking for more money
-Original contract was 35 working days, finish in December. Encountered bad wiring upstairs due to previous reno and digging up the foundation for new plumbing took more time and money so they finished by January 31st, 2015.
-Very considerate: asked if smoking was allowed on site, never came upstairs except after knocking on front door, even after 3 months.
-Had drop-down ceilings which were taken out so they could have a suite in future (resale value). Ended up with 10-foot ceilings. ☺

Robin and Linda (complete bathroom renovation in an 1920s home North Vancouver) Called March 9: left message
Linda called back
-rescued us from another contractor and did everything on time and on budget
-helped plan and gave a detailed price list for everything
-wanted half deposit but ended up with a quarter
-did another couple of things (small deck for downstairs door…)
-helped pick out tiles, huge shower with cupboards they made
-1910 house
-been there 40 years, raised it and added full basement 30 years ago
-no regrets, have a suite down there now (4 kids!)
-replaced three windows and insulated them—Custom recommended “now is the time”—windows company was good

Dave (a complete renovation of a two bedroom apartment in Vancouver, kitchen, bathrooms bedrooms, patio) Called March 9: left message

Called Custom and spoke with Craig March 17th, 2015 and said:
Very impressed with comments given by references. Wasn’t able to reach Dave, but I’m assuming a similar positive review. Enviable position of having two good companies to choose from.
1. Can you comment further on your house-lifting experience?
Craig= 2 or 3 Lawrence (?) = several but he would have to ask
2. Acknowledging that you have not put the time in to give us an accurate, itemized quote, how confident are you that you can deliver under our $150K budget?
Craig: “Would need to do an itemized costing out” (Previously said, “it will be tight”)
3. Available when?
Craig: Start planning in 2 weeks, start work not before June
4. Heard great things about your attention to detail and the care you took in finishing projects as well as carefully documenting any changes that came up and clearing new expenses beforehand. However, our project by necessity is going to focus on the rougher work of lifting, digging out, pouring foundation, insulating, pouring a slab, framing the addition and dormer, roofing and finishing the exterior. For this reason, I’m leaning towards the other company which has demonstrated a lot of experience with house lifts and building whole houses.
Craig:Attention to detail includes all aspects of the job including foundations etc.

Kingswood Builders Group Ltd.
-gave a comprehensive quote $300K+ and updated it
-includes finishing

It’s really between Ridgewater and Custom Precision Homes.

So, given all this exhaustive research, who would you have chosen?

It was a really tough choice which is why I’m happy to include the information about Custom Precision Homes. If you are looking for a general contractor I recommend checking out both of these companies. [Update March 2016: Unfortunately, I must withdraw my recommendation of both of these companies. If you need a contractor, ask people in the trades and/or the building dept. at your municipal office.]

However, we could only choose one, and I decided to work with Ridgewater mostly because of their slightly greater experience with house lifts. Although Nickel Brothers made it clear they were not recommending one contractor over another, hearing that there were at least two people there who knew Daryl tipped the scales for me.

And you know what? So far, so good, my friends; so far, so good. There has been a hiccup with building permits (that I will tell you all about), but no deal breakers.

Me with Daryl and Chuck from Ridgewater. Good guys.
Me with Daryl and Chuck from Ridgewater.

PS: Daryl had a note to add after he read a draft of this post. In an e-mail Daryl wrote:

Home advisor accepts anybody, so its not the greatest resource.  They charge for the leads as well.  So companies pay $25-$75 a lead USD. A lot of people use it to find those people that will do the cheap job or the cash jobs you were asked about.  I’ve turned down cash jobs and I would rather be honest. Cash jobs leave the owner no proof and the company no proof.

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James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

3 thoughts on “Final Decision on a Contractor”

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