By homeowner Janet Ricevuto, as told to Allegra Muzzillo
Back in August 2006, I hired a local contractor to renovate my four-story Brooklyn brownstone. The project was slated to take just 12 weeks. It started out fine but languished almost immediately after demolition began. The renovation grew into a costly two-year ordeal that's still being hashed out in court.
Ricevuto had to dispose of these bricks and other building materials herself. Photo: Janet Ricevuto
Dense mold, exposed live wires, and severe basement flooding are only several of the horrific problems I encountered. All told, I've spent $100K -- so far irretrievable -- and I've had to call in another company
to finish the job.
Looking back on it these past few years, I realize that there were
telltale signs that spelled DANGER from the get-go. The key is recognizing them in real time; hindsight is always 20/20.
Here's a list of red flags I encountered -- and ignored. If you experience any of these, my experience says you're in a losing situation,
and to back out as soon as possible.
Red Flag #1: Contractor's bid is far below that of others you've received.
Before hiring the offending company, I gave its owner a detailed price list based on a previous bid by a more costly contractor. When he presented his official bid, it sounded almost too good to be true. Looking back, I should have checked his references
right then and there. But the lure of affordability and his pledge for a quick turnaround had me sold -- and blinded, some may say. Of course, I found out later that multiple homeowners had lodged complaints against this "dream" contractor with the Better Business Bureau
Underbidding is often an indication that the contractor is either unfamiliar with the work you need done, or typically tends to go over budget. Always check references. And whenever possible, visit another of his work sites.
Red Flag #2: Contractor doesn't want to deal with the formality of drawing up a thorough contract.
Once I received the final quote, I noticed that some of the work I'd wanted done wasn't mentioned in writing. When I asked about the missing info, the contractor said every little detail doesn't need to be included in the final contract. It was a given, he said, that his team would perform all necessary follow-ups. I just let it go, which turned out to be a huge mistake.
A comprehensive contract is always
beneficial to both parties, and it will help assuage confusion when questions arise.
Red Flag #3: Work begins on schedule, but comes to a near standstill after several weeks.
The contract clearly stated that my renovation would be completed within 12 weeks. I made it clear that sticking to this timeline
was important to me, especially because my three children would be home while work was carried out. The owner assured me everything would be done in time. Workers came daily during the demo phase, but then visits dwindled down to one to two times per week. Then, I saw them just three times a month -- and there were even a couple months when they didn't show up at all. Whenever I called the owner to try and sort things out, he hung up the phone as soon as he knew it was me. I just wanted the work finished once and for all, so before that I'd tried everything possible not to bring lawyers into it. I knew it'd be a long, expensive ride.
As soon as you see that clear-cut goals aren't being met, it's then time to check in and renegotiate the timeline.
Red Flag #4: Payment is requested for work not done.
After workers showed up a total of just 14 days within a 24-week period, I calculated that on seven of those 14 days, I was writing checks to the contractor even though jobs weren't finished. The owner always said he needed money for more materials: Once he even asked for an advance because someone in his family was ill!
Lesson Learned: Proffer payments based on contractor performance, and shell out remaining balances only when work is complete. Some states limit the amount contractors can request as a down payment and the amount by which the final bill can exceed the estimate, unless you approved the increase.
(Left) Lint flew out of this sloppy hole each time Ricevuto ran her clothes dryer. (Right) Baseboard moldings were improperly measured, so they didn't even reach the floor. Photos: Janet Ricevuto
Red Flag #5: Shoddy workmanship and an unwillingness to correct problems.
I began spotting slapdash fixes, such as uneven window casings, polyurethane smears all over window panes, uncovered outlets, and nail ends jutting out of sheetrock. Whenever I took issue, the owner accused me of being a perfectionist and threatened to walk away from the job. It was a very tense situation.
Lesson Learned: Voice concerns as soon as they arise. If requests for corrections aren't met, the ball has officially been dropped; hire someone else.
Red Flag #6: An ever-changing roster of subcontractors who don't seem capable.
I saw four different electricians, three different tile installers, and so on, before a job was fully done. When the rotation came full-circle, the guy who started the job weeks before couldn't remember where he'd left off. After the electrical work failed to pass an inspection, I finally filed a complaint with Consumer Affairs. It revealed that the subcontractors were all unlicensed. Although my contract and the NYC Building permit both cited the same licensed electrician's name, he wasn't the one who performed the actual work. It was a typical bait-and-switch operation -- and a total mess.
Lesson Learned: When you sense something's afoot, it usually is. Trust your instincts, stop work immediately and regroup. More than one (confused) subcontractor is an indication that the job has spiraled out of the realm of what the original contractor can handle.