Are You a Renovation Virgin?

When you believe what your contractor says, it’s a sign you are a renovation virgin. My very first renovation project was a small kitchen remodel that should have taken four weeks — tops. I didn’t know that. I was happy when the contractor we hired said he could turn the job over in six weeks and under budget. We knew he was a good contractor because he was the brother-in-law of my best friend’s sister.

Everyone thought Jerry was a great guy. I thought a recommendation was sufficient to represent the character and skills of a contractor. Oops. Always ask for certification and state licensing. Always ask for referrals and call and visit the referrals. As it turned out, Jerry was a great guy, he could sweet talk your ear off. What Jerry did even better than talking was acquiring and spending my checks. He needed materials money from me in advance — for his other renovation job, which he was months late on completing.

Once work actually started, Jerry told me we could save money and time by skipping the permit process. He said our renovation was too small to meet the guidelines anyway. Insist on proper permits and inspections. Jerry arrived with his crew of two and demolished my existing kitchen. Because my house is an older home, he had to turn off the water to the house because I was missing a valve somewhere. I accepted this at face value. I was only a little anxious at this point. Sure, the project started two weeks late which pushed our finish date very close to mid winter when I hoped to host family in my new kitchen. But mostly I was thrilled that work had finally started. After the kitchen was gutted Jerry told me he would rig a by-pass valve so we could use the house water.

I was surprised to see Jerry working with the plumbing pipes himself that Friday evening. He looked annoyed and wasn’t much for conversation. He finished up and turned on the water and we checked the kitchen wall with its old pipe. It was dry. I was thrilled, a few days without water cost us money in a motel. Jerry left. This was week three of the renovation. By week three Jerry was showing up every four or five days. He or his crew would make a few hours of noise and then he would vanish. I wouldn’t be able to reach him on the phone, until he needed more money. Saturday was fine.

On Monday we flew out to our in-laws for Thanksgiving. Tuesday welcomed a storm system and a hard freeze. We saw the weather on television and called Jerry, leaving him a message to please check the house. Let’s just be charitable here and say that Jerry’s jury-rigged pipe valve bypass blew, leaked, drained, exploded or otherwise completely failed. We didn’t know. We were eating turkey. Jerry didn’t check. It was a phone call from my neighbor Sally on Friday morning that rushed us home to a flooded house disaster. Jerry didn’t have insurance.

Exposing your house pipes in the middle of winter is not a good idea. If you live in an area where winter means snow coverage, hard freezes and difficult working conditions — don’t add water. A contractor isn’t a plumber, nor is he an electrician. Permits cost money because they provide a value. Ask more questions. Have your contract drawn up by a lawyer familiar with construction problems. And never forget that contractors measure time different from your calendar, even really good contractors.

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