Renovation Nightmares

The Horror Stories

Hammond Forever House at peace now that the horror is behind us…or is it?

Imagine you embark on that home renovation you’ve been thinking about. Close your eyes and imagine how it would go. Are you getting warm fuzzy feelings or are you trapped in Mount Doom? Do you get a positive feeling from the prospect of hiring a contractor and making your dream come true?

No? Why not? Wouldn’t it be cool to do something like this?

Nickel Bros. lifted HFH in 2015

Is it the horror stories? Chances are you’ve heard horror stories. We sure did.

In fact, the closer we got to actually doing it, the more we noticed the reactions of people who had gone before us. The sucked in breath. The eye-rolls. The temple-rubbing.

Then there was the urgent hushed advice–“Make sure you get a good contractor,” “get lots of quotes,” and “check references.”

Some people expressed almost complete hopelessness. My former Member of Parliament, upon walking up the front steps, said, “better you than me.” A few people said they wished they “had our energy.”

All of these well-meaning sideways comments were like cryptic prophesies of inevitable doom. It was as if they wanted to tell us the horrible truth, but were afraid it would become self-fulfilling. Or maybe there was some schadenfreude in there–because if we succeeded where they had met with problems, maybe it was their own fault after all.

February 23, 2018. Almost 3 years after hiring a contractor and it still looks like a construction site.

The result of all these conscious and unconscious portents of ruin, was to make me even more determined. I had reached that point where there was really nothing that would stop me.

At least I was aware of the arrogance of what we were doing. In the “About James and Leanne” page I wrote:

Can we do it? Watch us!

It sounds like bravado, but I left ambiguous exactly what you would see if you watched us. It was either going to be a spectacular success or a horrible failure, but it would at least be interesting and illuminating. This blog was born out a sincere and open-ended question:

Why aren’t more people retrofitting their homes?

I had already got several ideas about that, but it was the contractor piece that surprised me. Now I can see that those nightmare stories are real. This is a cycle and it happens to many, many people. It is a cycle that goes largely unreported even though everyone knows about it. I now present to you, my personal understanding of:

The Cycle of Renovation Nightmares which goes like this:

  1. The dream
  2. The cryptic warnings from others
  3. The determination to prove the naysayers wrong
  4. The assumptions
  5. That sinking feeling
  6. Denial
  7. The truth sinks in
  8. The Shame
  9. Dreams of Justice
  10. Impotence
  11. The washing of the hands
  12. The cryptic warnings to others

Politicians take note! We’re going to have to address this cycle if we are going to make our existing buildings more efficient, meet our goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and divest from fossil fuels.

Here’s another time-lapse taken from the roof of the Little Yellow House next door.

Quick recap for those new to the blog: From the beginning, I have said that we have to stop destroying perfectly good homes to construct new ones, no matter how much more efficient they are. Even if all new homes were constructed to Passive House standards (which they should be) we need to save and retrofit as many existing homes as we can and retain heritage buildings where it is feasible to do so. Lots of people want to save the home they live in and have equity that can pay for a renovation, but give up on the idea after hearing the horror stories.  We can’t blame the homeowners; we have to make this easier and cheaper!

As you explore the cycle I’m about to describe, think about the fact that you need a license to build a new home but you need exactly zero certification to call yourself a “renovator”. That one simple fact may explain a lot. I’m not saying that all renovation companies are dishonest; I’m just saying that the cycle is real–those honest people in the industry must find it pretty frustrating, too, because they have to work that much harder to earn a good reputation.

1. The Dream

Adding to or improving your home should be exciting. You can realize your dreams at a fraction of the cost of a new house and reduce your carbon footprint without demolishing a building and wasting so much energy and resources. You should be able to get some quotes and choose a reputable company who will stick to their estimate, do a good job, build what they promised and finish when they said they would.

At this stage you start looking for a renovator and wonder why more companies aren’t knocking on your door.

2. The Cryptic Warnings of Others

We’ve all heard nightmare stories. Most people seem to hire a contractor to renovate once in their lives and never again. Ask them what happened and they curl into a ball and mutter to themselves. Why is this accepted as normal and unchangeable? It’s hard to nail people down on exactly what was so awful.

You start to wonder why people are so negative and you feel…

3. The determination to prove the naysayers wrong

Pride Goeth Before a Fall and there is definitely some pride at this stage. You will not make the mistakes others made. You will heed the warnings and be careful. You are also a little smarter than the average bear.  You will show them how it is done and be an example for others.

In this pre-contractor limbo, you do your research. You check the Better Business Bureau and other sites that allow clients to rate their contractors. You get quotes. You check references and credentials. You put everything on the table: plans, city heritage bylaw, heritage permit, energy modelling notes… You go to reasonable lengths. You even make sure your contractor is insured. You look over the contract and make sure it is based on the quote and that you could even bring costs down by doing some of the work yourself.

You do all this with the feeling that it’s probably unnecessary, that you’re probably going overboard. You don’t know that you are making…

4. The Assumptions

You assume that Canadians are basically trustworthy. You assume that you are hiring a professional who has whatever credentials are needed to do the job. You assume that the flashy brochures, T-shirts and website means that this company cares about its reputation and makes sure clients are happy. Unhappy clients would leave bad reviews and hurt the business, right?

You assume that references are genuine. You assume that when you phone a previous client you are talking to an actual client. You assume that the positive reviews are real, that the A+ BBB rating is well-deserved, that the awards are legit and that the “Renomark” from the GVHBA means something. You also assume that the contractor fully intends to honour his contract. People don’t lie to your face in Canada, you assume.

5. That sinking feeling

When you want to believe you’ve hired the right company you ignore your gut feelings. You tell yourself that the things that bug you about your contractor are inconsequential. When you ask a question and he jokes, “with all due respect, how many houses have you built?” you back off. This house is your baby and you know your plans inside and out, but he’s right, you’ve never done this before and that’s why you hired a pro. You start to worry that if you keep sticking your nose in, your pro might up and leave or worse, screw up your house.

You want to blog every day about the wonderful progress, but you can’t. You want to celebrate the company you’ve hired but you’re waiting for the joy. When does the fun start?

It’s true I didn’t have a good feeling in my gut when I met any of the contractors I interviewed, but I will never forget the day when the contractor we chose put their sign up.  Three people from the company were there in their company shirts, the owner, the site supervisor and a labourer who had erected the sign. We wanted to take a photo to cross-promote each other. I invited the labourer to be in the photo. The owner muttered to me under his breath something like, “You don’t want him in the photo, trust me.” I was confused and my gut churned. How could he have such a low opinion of one of his employees? Hadn’t he hired this guy? The labourer took the photo and I never saw him on site again. The photo still appears on the company’s website. I told myself it’s hard to get good help, maybe this is just the way it is in the construction industry etc. etc. but the trust I wanted to feel never materialized.

09/28/15 That sinking feeling when you have to point out they are laying forms for a foundation wall across the middle of the house in the wrong place. Don’t they have the plans?

One notable refrain we heard from our contractor was that the City was holding things up. The City planning department was moving slow (it turns out the proper paperwork had not been filed). The building inspector was being difficult (or maybe they were just doing their job). If your contractor is blaming the City, it may be time to talk directly to the City and get their side of what’s going on.

Then there is that sinking feeling when the guy in charge shows up and says, “So what we doing today, James?” and he’s really asking.

6. Denial

The denial comes when you know that mistakes are being made and a large part of you wants to fire your contractor but you’re too far in. What are you going to do? Rip up your contract? Find someone else? Maybe the problem is with one employee and if he’s gone everything will work out. You try that and it looks like it helps until…

7. The Truth Sets In

One thing tips you off (for us it was an invoice that went over the original estimate when the work was nowhere near complete). It has taken a lot, but you are finally drawing the line. You begin negotiating. You’re confident you’re in the right and expect the contractor to be reasonable. When that doesn’t happen it’s like you just woke up from a dream to a nightmare reality–you’re trapped in The Matrix: Renovation.

It feels good to finally take a stand but now you’re on your own and your house has no roof and there is nothing but an improvised tent protecting it from the winter weather. Your engineer visits and it’s not good. Another contractor with a great local reputation teaches you all the mistakes the first one was making and agrees to help you satisfy the engineer and the building inspectors (could you have hired that company in the first place? No, he’s too busy building townhomes and is just helping out because you’re in trouble).

You learn that the company never paid its sub-contractors even though you paid their invoices in advance. Your family circles the wagons and you all grit your teeth. Although you lie awake sometimes worrying about everything and wondering what the owner of this company is capable of, there is peace here.

You don’t have to pretend anymore, but you blame yourself. You feel…

8. The Shame

Does the stress affect the kids? Well, one of them, 10 years old at the time, chose this phrase to decorate the new basement wall. #inspiration

Now that you know the truth, how can you blog about it? You failed and there’s no one else to blame! You hired this company and ignored the warning signs. You kept paying and even paid in advance and now look where you are! Your spouse doesn’t blame you but maybe she should.

As more issues come to light you have…

9. Dreams of Justice

Your wrath will be sweet. They’ve messed with the wrong family. Didn’t they realize that your plan has always been to tell the whole story, warts and all? The facts speak for themselves. Wait til the world hears about what this company did. The truth will set you free! Justice!

Now, how should you go about doing this? The blog was always going to be a positive space (“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” and all that) but you are obligated to at least let your readers know that you can’t recommend this company anymore, right?  You are also too classy to launch an all-out social media attack on the company’s reputation (too classy, and too afraid that the owner might fire-bomb your house.) That’s okay because there are countless places online where customers can rate a company and write reviews. You will write nothing defamatory, just the truth and your true opinion. You can also make a complaint to the GVHBA, Consumer Protection BC, the BBB, and even contact the Canadian Anti-fraud Centre and the RCMP.

You even meet other clients who are going through the same problems with the same company. Who knew?!

It’s hard to believe they treated you so badly. It’s almost like they think they can get away with it! What were they thinking?

While you put on your new General Contractor hat for your own project, you find time to write a post here and a review there. However, you soon start to feel…

10. The Impotence

Again, here’s the problem: home builders who construct new residential buildings need a license from BC Housing. There is no license required to renovate buildings as a general contractor. You can complain to anyone you want, but in this self-regulated renovation industry, there’s no regulation with any teeth. Oh sure, you can sue and even win, but that will take years and cost thousands.

You blog (impotently)

You do have your blog, and that’s a comfort, but it’s not a revenge blog so you write something… um…unsensational.

I didn’t want to be vindictive, but the whole point of Hammond Forever House is to share the lessons I learn, and this was a big one. I wrote:

Unfortunately, I have to tell you that Leanne and I are in a contract dispute with [contractor]. As you can imagine, I can no longer recommend them as a company to you.

Reading past posts you may get the impression everything is fine. However, with every post I have struggled to present the truth without criticizing the people and companies we are working with. Unfortunately, this may have created an inaccurate picture of our journey so far. It has been challenging and we are currently going through a difficult time.

Pretty mild, right? My complaints to other appropriate organizations were more detailed. Mild as it was, the owner of the company wrote this in an email:

James, you have until noon to remove the post with the slanderous comments if not removed this will goto[sic] our lawyer.

As you can imagine, this caused a chill. It doesn’t matter that his accusation of slander was ridiculous; if he sued, I would have to hire a lawyer to respond and that would be expensive. The owner made it sound like he would sue at the drop of a hat. He wrote to Leanne, “Telling people not to hire us is slanderous.” (What??)

At that time he was my only subscriber so he was getting notified with every new post. The next three posts were about the upcoming Earth Day Celebration, meeting with our new Member of Parliament, and putting down crushed rock in the basement. I was trying to keep the blog positive but I was also tip-toeing around a disgruntled contractor. He had succeeded in limiting what I was willing to say on Hammond Forever House. It’s not like I had a lot of free time to blog while I was working, taking care of the kids and addressing all the issues with the house, but even a quick update was now problematic.

But back to you. As a result of all this, you start to feel terribly responsible for anyone who hires this company because they saw their name on your blog. You write to the owner asking for him to please remove any photos of your house or taken on your property from his promotional material. He takes down a Pinterest page, but your house is still on company banners, videos and online. What can you do?

You report (impotently)

You feel it is important to let the wider community know about your experience. Consumer Protection BC doesn’t apparently handle contractor issues–they suggest the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. The CAFC lets you file a report and gives you some advice, but nothing comes of it. The RCMP refers you to civil court (it’s rare that they consider this kind of thing “criminal”).

You complain (impotently)

The Greater Vancouver Home Builders Association could step up and investigate the member company (as you are not the only unhappy clients who have complained to them). However, while they require a notarized complaint from you, all it takes from the contractor is a verbal claim on the phone stating that they have taken you to court. It isn’t true, but it’s enough to stop any disciplinary process until the court process is finished. They tell you to keep them updated and, every few weeks, you do. You are pretty sure the threat of legal action is just a bully tactic but each time you report to the GVHBA that no legal action has ensued and ask if they will investigate, it seems like the GVHBA calls the company asks what’s going on. The result is that, eventually, the company bows to pressure and sues you.  Lovely.

It was last month, almost two years later that I finally got word that the company is no longer a member of the GVHBA.

The Better Business Bureau publishes your complaint and that seems to have some effect. The company fails to respond adequately and their rating drops as low as B+. Unfortunately, after just over a year and a charm offensive on the the company’s part, they are up to A+ again. The complaints are still there if a homeowner looks for them, but if the company has an A+, why would anyone look any deeper?

The BBB can help you resolve disputes through mediation or arbitration. In your complaint you wrote that you seek a “negotiated settlement”. After a full year and with the lawsuit still hanging in the air, the company agrees to binding arbitration. What should you do? You want to come to a resolution, but you have paid about $7000 preparing for the lawsuit and you don’t want to put your fate in the hands of an arbitrator who is not obligated to follow the law. So you reluctantly decline. Maybe if the lawsuit is dropped, you can negotiate on an equal footing. Maddeningly, the BBB registers the company’s offer to submit to arbitration as a sincere effort to resolve the dispute, and that is why their rating is back up to A+. Was the company really sincere in seeking a settlement or did they simply want their rating back?

You write (impotent) reviews

There are all kinds of websites which list companies and allow clients to post reviews, but you feel very exposed doing it. Complaints about a worker tracking dirt into your house seem petty and pointless, so why bother? Serious complaints like yours might have more impact, but they can be countered in all kinds of ways. A company can flood the site with fake positives. If you read 10 glowing, positive reviews and there is one, on page three, that alleges serious incompetence and dishonesty, many people will discount that negative review as an anomaly. Very few sites vet the comments to make sure they are genuine. Some will send all reviews to the company to verify that the poster was, in fact, a client. What’s to stop a company from simply confirming the positive reviews and denying the negative ones?

I posted a review on Google, HomeAdvisors and Trustedpros, to name a few. Several seem to have mysteriously disappeared, but how much time do I want to spend trying to warn the world about this company?

My Google review is still there but my TrustedPros review was quashed in the following way.  First, the contractor posted a long and rambling response which included:

He [James] lied to us and now we have liened the property because he owes us money. So if he thinks trying to blackmail us with blogs and emails will work, that is fine. Tying to hurt our reputation in his postings, and going to companies we deal with – sad that he would stoop that low, this only shows that he is that nightmare client. But we built him a house that will last him forever as we won’t build a cheap house. So James can keep telling people not to hire us and all his slanderous comments because he doesn’t want to look bad in front of his readers – feel free, not that its really fair. But it tells me allot about him and tells his readers allot about him. If it makes him feel tough to lie and steal, than the courts will settle this.

Whew! And there was a lot more where that came from. Unfortunately, both my review and his response were deleted. TrustedPros still has my name up, but it says:

Review removed following commencement of legal proceedings by the contractor/service provider and formal request for removal of this review being made by the contractor/service provider or its legal counsel.

TrustedPros takes no position with respect to any dispute between users and contractors (or service providers) and makes no comment regarding the accuracy and truthfulness of reviews submitted by users or replies submitted by contractors, or regarding the merits any claims commenced or threatened by any user or contractor.

We strongly encourage contractors not to attempt to silence the voices of their critics and to instead rely on their ability to respond to such criticism and present their side of the story. Regrettably, this contractor chose not to do so.

Disappointing, yes, but what can we reasonably expect from a site which makes its money connecting businesses to clients? Consumers should be under no illusion that the company profiles and reviews are accurate. (I notice that the owner reviewed himself on Facebook.)

You blog again (and try not to be so impotent)

About the same time I was posting reviews, I decided it was time to add a little more detail to the blog in case my readers thought we just didn’t get along. The dispute is deeper than a disagreement over windows or workers smoking on site.

I called this new post Structural Issues 1. It describes looking around the house with our engineer after the contractor had left and the botched job they did on the ridge beam. I made every effort to share nothing but facts (and my true opinions). The people and company name are not identifiable in the photos, but I still got backlash.

Threats of legal action

Oddly, it was not the owner who complained about that post, but our second site supervisor who had seemed so much better than the one who had been fired (long story). He texted me:

Hey james…I got forewarded[sic] a blog or email today that was referring to a bunch of things that are not true along with pictures that show myself and others on the crew that didnot give you permission to take or release to social media and have taken this to my lawyer and had crew provide statements. I will be taking legal action against you…lets see where your proof of these accusations are?

It’s an odd text because it doesn’t seem like he had seen the blog post in person. I pictured the owner standing over his shoulder and dictating what to type. Needless to say, no legal action ensued, but again it made me ask if I really want this kind of fight. Maybe that’s why I haven’t written, “Structural Issues 2” yet. Hmmm.

A year ago I posted something a little more uppity called Alternative Facts, but I didn’t share it widely.

There’s a lot I haven’t shared. Here is a sampling of the deficiencies left by our contractor for us to fix:

The Washing of the Hands

You and your family have been living under siege for over a year. A lawsuit, no matter how frivolous, hangs over your head. You’re struggling to pay off your credit cards, your electrician, and your building supply store, but the bill that you resent is your lawyer bill–that one pisses you off. You live with a strong sense of unfairness. You know that you may need to put aside your desire to win so that you can move on with your life.

This is where we are now. We have a choice to make.

We could swallow our pride and agree to meet the contractor either privately or as part of a mediation or arbitration process. We could come to an agreement which, while not ideal, would let us move on with our lives. As part of the agreement, we would probably be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Nobody would blame us; our family comes first. While the company solicits more clients with their A+ rating and their “awards”, we could live the rest of our lives saying things like,

“I’m not supposed to talk about it, but yeah, it wasn’t a good experience.”

The Cryptic Warnings to Others

Whether we sign an NDA or not, we wouldn’t want to dwell on the past. If a friend asked for advice, we would hope she has a better experience, but we would try to let her know not to expect sunshine and roses. Perhaps that would be all we’d really be comfortable saying while wishing we could say more. After all, we would say to ourselves, there’s a contractor out there who knows where we live.

Yes, we could suck in our breath and say, “make sure you check references”, but we’re not going to.

Breaking the Cycle

Are fight or flight the only two options? What if we refuse to play? What if I speak the truth without attacking anyone? The goal of Hammond Forever House is to make this all easier and that doesn’t have to include getting sucked into fights with contractors.

While I do have warnings to give, the only cryptic thing about them is my commitment not to name the company, its owner or employees on the blog. I don’t know if this helps or hurts the company. Does it hurt them because they don’t get the publicity? Does it help them because one of my cautionary tales doesn’t pop up on Google when you search their name? Maybe it helps them if you can’t easily find out what company I’m talking about.

I assume that having their name associated with Hammond Forever House is not a good thing for them, but the owner apparently disagrees. He has downloaded several of my videos from my Youtube channel, rebranded them as his own, and shared them on his company’s channel. As Justin Trudeau said, “Oh, come on! Really? Really?” I’m not even kidding.

Apparently, nobody on his crew took any photos (except the professional photo shoot they arranged on our property without asking us, but that was a different day) and so he stole mine. I have to admit, my videos are pretty cool – I can see why he wanted to use them. Here’s a 30-second video of the elaborate steps I took to get the angles. It shows the iPhone in the back yard, the iPad on the roof of the little yellow house, the iPhone on the neighbour’s roof and the iPad peeking through the fence.

The videos he chose to steal show mostly Nickel Bros. house movers raising and lowering the house and very little of his company’s work, but I guess he feels it’s good advertising nonetheless. I’m glad he likes my videos, but he does NOT have my permission to use my footage. The most important step in promoting yourself with your client’s video is to treat your clients well enough that they want to share their video with you. Here is one of his edited and branded videos:

Isn’t it ironic that all my efforts to keep the company name off the blog have been subverted by the company itself? You can see the other edits on my Hammond Forever House Youtube Channel.

Don’t let it get you down

I always intended to stay positive while blogging about our experience, and that has meant not sharing the whole story. That has been really frustrating. I hope that, with this post, I have found a way to stay honest and positive at the same time. After all, improving public trust in the renovation industry would be an extremely positive outcome!

If you have something to say on this topic, please comment. I will post any respectful comments but in particular please comment if you are:

-a homeowner who had a great experience with a contractor (please name names!)

-a homeowner with a horror story (please don’t name names!)

-a contractor with an insight on the industry

-anyone with ideas to shift this cycle

Let’s blow the lid on the shadowy world of Renovation Nightmares!


Published by

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.

7 thoughts on “Renovation Nightmares”

  1. Yup, I feel your pain. I renovated my bathroom myself, because I couldn’t find anyone who wasn’t charging me $70 an hour labour (since the person doing it had no qualifications but lots of “questionable” experience). Now that I need to replace the bathtub it took me a month to find someone willing to do it, but yet again(second time) I got a call this morning that they are not coming and have to reschedule. I have to renovate (because of a leak that is causing the subfloor to rot) our master suite and I’m already dreading the fact that I will end up doing it myself, even thou I would like to hire someone to do it, but I hear Mike Holmes is not available… 😉

  2. Hi James, I’ve read your blog posting here. I’m sorry to hear about your experience. I used the same contractor and I’m sad to say he’s continuing to take advantage of people and move from one person to the next. Would love to talk to you and find out more if you’re open to it.

    1. Oh Desmond I’m so sorry. I wish there was more I could do to warn people. Feel free to find me online and reach out directly.

        1. Hi Desmond, sorry, I don’t share my personal contact info on this blog, but I’m easy to find on Facebook or other places where you can private message me. I’d be happy to chat with you.

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