The Free Motion Quilting Project: When to Fire Your Contractor

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

When to Fire Your Contractor

Today it looks like it's my turn to veer off-topic and share a personal post.

Nothing about free motion quilting today, or even beginner quilting, but instead I'm going to talk about something pretty much everyone has been through at some point, or will go through.

If you follow Leah on Facebook, you probably already know what I'll be talking about today. Let's just say there's a reason why I haven't been taking a daily crack at the sewing machine...

free motion quilting | Leah Day

This is our master bathroom, which featured a cobbled-together, totally not-to-code shower that has been a big problem since the day we moved in our house seven years ago. The main issue was a worn out, water-damaged floor which caused the tile to leak constantly into the basement. About 5 years ago we installed a shower pan in the base which sort of fixed the issue, but the leaks soon returned whenever the caulk around the edges cracked.

Leah recently put her foot down about it and we hired our go-to contractor to install a plastic surround and tile the area around the shower to fill in the gap between the old tile and the new surround. While we have done bathroom and tiling renovations before, this one seemed out of our league. Our guy confidently told us he'd be in and out in two days on this job, so we scheduled it when it would be most convenient when we were out of town for a few days.

In the end, after delay after delay...we got the most appalling, ridiculous, and outrageously shoddy tile job you could ever imagine. Mike Holmes of Holmes on Homes would have broken into tears at this level of work. Seriously, it was so bad our bathroom would have been a frontrunner for being an episode in one of his clean-up/do-it-right-up-to-code series.

free motion quilting | Leah Day

Where to begin? The caulk. My God, the caulk. It looked to have been applied over the gaps and blank spaces as if a cat had been wielding a tube of toothpaste. Nothing was even, it was all over the tile, and in some places there were mounds of it, in others just a tiny strand. This was very clearly done at lightning speed without a single care put into the work. It was so bad I think it was done intentionally.

Next, the tile. We used the easiest variety of tile to install, the little square glass tiles that come in sheets and can easily be cut and laid without using a wet saw. If you need to cut a tile, you can use a pair of glass nippers, but for the most part, this tile is very easy to place, and it looks terrific when done right.

But it wasn't done right. The guys installing the tile didn't plan out the layout. They didn't decide from the beginning how to arrange the tile in a way that would be consistent and make sense flowing from the floor to the walls to the shower ceiling. Everything was slapped together and not lined up, and you could see every flaw from twenty feet away.

free motion quilting | Leah Day

Worse than the layout discrepancies, the tile wasn't level or flush. Every edge was at an angle, jutting out, or pressed in about a quarter of an inch more than other tiles. The border rectangle tiles were put up like scattered lines of refrigerator poetry after an 8.0 earthquake.

The thinset was smeared over the wall and left that way to dry. (Note: this is easy to remove. All it requires is a wet sponge. I know this because Leah and I have tiled before.) And not just little dabs, but big, gummy smears.
free motion quilting | Leah Day
The worst thing, however, the pièce de résistance of this disaster and nightmare, was the base tile, which needed to fill the gap between the floor tile and the shower surround, and also fill a gap about an inch deep where a wall had been removed.

Instead of cutting backerboard and layering it, or simply using a piece of wood, the guys just dumped a gallon of thinset into the area, leveled it up, then slapped the tile on top.

This is not what thinset is designed to do. It's not "thickset;" it's not mortar, it's not designed to fill spaces like this because it cannot dry. After a week of waiting, Leah stepped on the floor to find the tile squish down like silly putty. The only thing good about this situation was it was easy to rip out.

Finally, huge gaps were left in the subfloor--if the tile had set properly, we would have had a leak even greater than what we had before, making the entire job, and all the money we spent, pointless.

free motion quilting | Leah Day

This was devastating, as you can probably imagine. This bathroom job, which was guaranteed to be a two day job, took ten days, with a period of five days of no work, where our toilet was left unceremoniously sitting on our bedroom rug. We have a small bedroom and our toilet was a nice centerpiece for that time, along with the tools, plastic sheeting, and refuse and coke cans left behind (I cleaned this up immediately almost every day).

For anyone who's had extended work done, you know what it's like. It's like being under siege. But nothing is worse than when your bedroom is invaded and you're treated so disrespectfully.
free motion quilting | Leah Day

Anyway, we are fixing the disaster ourselves, even though we do not have the time. We are doing it in evenings after James goes to bed. No way are we having another crew in here, or anyone other than ourselves in our bedroom. It's a liberating decision, to take your personal space back after an event like this.

free motion quilting | Leah Day
Angry Poppy not happy!
In the end, we're looking at this in a positive light. We are taking back home improvement and doing the work ourselves again. I really have to thank Leah's dad for taking a good, long look at everything and revealing the catastrophic problems.

He was largely responsible for removing my blinders, to both the bathroom and the whole situation at large -- I knew the tile job was a wreck, but I had no idea of the extent of the problem. My father-in-law has been a contractor and working on houses for most of his life, putting in entire bathrooms from subfloors to properly vented moisture fans. He said flat-out this was the worst work he's ever seen, and that he's seen a lot of sub-par work.

I know this isn't a newbie free motion quilting tip, but I would like to end with some tips we have learned (the hard way unfortunately) about contractors and home improvement work.
1. Here comes the great Mike Holmes again... do not hire a general contractor unless he or she is fully licensed and bonded. This is for your protection. There's a reason Mike drills this into your head in every episode of every single show he's ever done.

2. Have the job planned out beforehand, and know every aspect of said job. If this involves going into your attic or crawlspace, go into your attic or crawlspace with the contractor and have her explain each step of the job. This ensures no surprises down the road, not shortcuts, no shoddy or non-code work. If you're having a fan put into your bathroom ceiling, be sure it is vented (and not vented to the sewer vent!). Do not let someone tell you it's fine to simply vent into your attic. That's a recipe for black mold--hot, moist air meeting dry, dusty air does not mix.

3. Look into your local building code yourself and be sure everything is built to it.

4. Have a timetable clearly laid out. While jobs always seem to take longer than planned, having something go two or three or five or six times longer is outrageous, and you're getting screwed. Yes, this has happened to us. Numerous times. No more, however. Additionally, find out when work starts and stops every day. If someone is showing up at 10 or 11 am or just whenever they feel like it, this is not professional.

5. Maintain boundaries with your contractor and crews. This is your house, not theirs. Do not let them act like they own the place. With this latest job, a delivery man was treated rudely. This was completely out of line. The only person who should ever communicate dissatisfaction with a contracted employee is the homeowner. That sort of behavior is territorial and toxic and a sign of a one-sided, unhealthy working relationship. If you see it, nip it in the bud, or find someone else.

6. Know when to end a working relationship. Do not let emotion, friendship, nepotism, or anything else come between the bottom line and the quality of work being done in or around your house. Also, do not let past work, which in our case had been adequate to barely commendable, cloud your judgment to sloppy work going on in the present. When something is wrong, and when bad work is defended and you suddenly become the problem (for us it was our fault because we bought "difficult" and "the wrong" kind of tile--a total lie), or when it's suddenly not your house and your decisions are not yours to make anymore, cut it off. We sent a professional, non-emotional letter of termination, clearly severing all ties.

Remember, you are the employer, and it's your house. The damage or bad work wrought upon you will be yours to pay for in the end. Always remember this.

free motion quilting | Leah Day7. Finally, always communicate with your spouse. Only yesterday Leah told me about an offhand, offensive comment one of the crew members said, right in front of the contractor! I had no idea this had occurred. When Leah told me, that was it. That guy is never stepping one foot on our property and we are totally done with that crew. Never tolerate disrespect, especially in the form of sexist, offensive comments directed at anyone in your family.
The thing to take home here is that this project will eventually be done, and at the end of the day we'll have good memories of working together and fixing the mess that was left for us. This has been a costly mistake but at the same time it's a valuable lesson we'll never have to learn again.

I sincerely hope our mistakes will help you avoid a similar situation.


  1. I am in the plumbing and heating business. We do most commercial and industrial. It amazes me every time I read a horror story like this. I just don't understand why we all collectively put up with bad work. In the end it takes an emotional toll, which if translated to dollars, costs a lot more to try to work things out than it does from hiring a replacement. Good for you for taking control of the situation.

  2. It is sad that people like those who did the shoddy work in your home sleep at night thinking what they did was okay. I come from a home improvement business family and none of us would ever think it was okay to leave a job unless it was completed perfectly to the homeowners satisfaction.

    You two are amazing. I would have totally fallen apart after that fiasco. You are truly blessed to have each other to get through this.

  3. You do not have to pay for shoddy work, you didn't get what your bargained for and you may have legal recourse. At the very least, report them to the Better Business Bureau.

  4. I agree with all of your points and the comments. But, as inconvenient as it may be, I would never schedule work to be done and go out of town during that time. I may be a pain, but I want to be there to say Hold on Here if I see anything I'm not happy with as it is happening

  5. No one should put up with shoddy workmanship. Your points are good ones and I appreciate you passing them on.

  6. Oh man, that sounds and looks like an utter nightmare. I hope you'll be able to sort it out soon.

  7. Oh my gosh, I am so sorry this happened to you guys! I'm flabbergasted. My dad is a contractor and I've heard plenty of horror stories from him about jobs he's had to fix, but this is unreal. I'm sure it will be awesome when you guys are finished, but still- what an ordeal to have to go through. :(

  8. My advice would be to interview several people- get recommendations from friends and look at the online review sites. Get a person that that is their specialty. I don't think that glass tile is suitable for your bath as easy as you are counting on it being- I hope you will rethink that and the plastic. Don't get down on all contractors because of 1 bad guy. I worked for a bath remodeling contractor years ago so I was able to specify all the fixtures and the kitchen ones too. You can do your research on that-middle of the road- Moen. Don't go cheap. Good luck and thanks for posting. You will help a lot of would be DIYers that way.

  9. We had two bathrooms completely gutted to the studs, sub-floor and rafters. It was a several month long project. And it cost more than a pretty penny, but so worth it. In our case, it's likely our "own work" would have looked like what you paid for and got not. Our contractor and his subs were professional and timely and we know everything is to code and done correctly. I don't think I'd trust BBB though. My belief is that they can be bought a little too easily. Angie's List could be a better option for finding quality business. Such a shame for you to have to go through this, especially after believing you could trust your contractor from previous experience.

  10. I am so sorry that you had such a disaster…It's bad enough to have your house torn up, but to have to re-do their work is unimaginable.
    My brother lives in Spokane and is licensed and bonded and tells his clients to check with the Better Business Bureau if they have reservations.
    I live in Mt. and he completely remodeled our bathroom. It is truly a work of art..I am really lucky to have him.
    Please follow his advice in the future and they should have some pictures of remodels to show you.
    You were shafted, but there are some good ones out there…Good Luck!

  11. Did your contractor get a divorce. We had this happen. Our go to guy who did the roof and deck and various other jobs was excellent and always under cost. Then the divorce, and next job (sink, disposal and dishwaser and new door) stunk and laborious cost doubled.. Never did finish door trim. Same thing happened when our sitter and hairdresser's got divorced.

  12. My mom went through a similar situation, please make sure you report this to the better business bureau to hopefully save it from affecting someone else!

  13. Dear Leah and Josh, remember whilst doing your bathroom. There is always light at the ned of the tunnel! I hope your end is in sight especially with no more leaks and damage. Merry Christmas Julie Beard.

  14. That totally sucks! And bravo to you two for taking your home back! You both rock!

  15. It is just the same in France - we are just so fed up - what a pain.

  16. This is not unique to the States - we've had similar problems in France - you've got to wonder at the morality of such people.

  17. I so feel for you! And the time and expense, added to the shoddy job!

    I have been renovating homes for 30 years and I always go by my gut feeling as to how I am treated on the interview with the contractor - if they talk down to me, act rude or know-it-all, or suggest ridiculous procedures, I don't hire them. Plus, of course, I check references, etc.

    It also helps to know how to do the job yourself, even if you are going to hire someone. Take advantage of ConEd courses in your area to learn some handyman skills so you can both talk to your contractor and also supervise him.

    And you do have to supervise! You can't just let them do what they want. Tell them exactly what to do, where you want it done, and stand over them and see they do it. Plus they shouldn't be dealing with deliveries or anything - that's your job! ;)

    Hope you get it cleaned up fine! It's a learning experience - we've all had 'em. Afterwards, we know SO much more about it! ;)



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