EVEN UNDER THE BEST of circumstances, hiring a contractor to work on your home is bound to create stress. There will be noise, dust, disruption. It might take longer than you had hoped. Above all, it will almost certainly be expensive.
These hassles come with the territory, and they’re usually worth it if you’re pleased with the finished product — but not every renovation has a happy ending. Corners get cut, costs and project timelines spiral out of control. And when things go really bad? A dishonest or incapable contractor can not only run off with your money, but leave your home and family at risk.
We asked homeowners around Boston to share their contractor horror stories. The experiences ranged from the annoying to the frightening.
Quincy homeowner Maggie Cuthbert has overseen several successful renovations in the past eight years — and one that went sour. She wanted a new deck, sliding doors, and a window installed. She hired a contractor with generally good reviews on the referral site HomeServe, but after taking her deposit, he told Cuthbert her project wasn’t his priority and might take an extra month or two to complete “because it was small peanuts compared to what else he had going on,” she says. But Cuthbert had a seasonal deadline — “I needed this done before the winter” — and felt she wouldn’t have time to find someone else.
At one point, Cuthbert noticed the workers had ignored the design sketch she had provided showing two staircases off the deck, instead pouring fittings for just one. She says her protest was met with a demand for more money, which she refused. By the end of the project, it was clear that the job was sloppy — mis-measured staircase footings had been shored up with bricks taken from her garden, and the handrail gave way as she neared the bottom of the stairs the first time she walked down.
Cuthbert sent a series of e-mails and left five voice mails asking the contractor, whom she declined to name, to come back and inspect his work, with no response. She had already mailed him the final payment — and with it, any leverage she might have held. Her advice: Keep your final payment as collateral. “Never pay them the final balance until all work has been completed, inspected, and signed off by you,” Cuthbert says.
At least her contractor hadn’t billed for the entire job upfront, as some homeowners related. That should be a red flag, says Janelle Hardiman, deputy director of communications at the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation. “Never pay more than one-third of the total cost of the project upfront, unless special-order materials are needed,” Hardiman says. State law requires a contract for any project over $1,000, she adds, and it should include a detailed outline of the work spelling out the cost, the start and end dates, the payment schedule, how change orders will be handled, and what materials will be used. Cuthbert echoes that advice. “Be clear on all project expectations, quotes, and proposals,” she says. “If it’s not contained within the four corners of your contract, it doesn’t exist!”
Another common complaint relates to licenses and permits — or a lack thereof. Several homeowners said their contractor feigned having a license and didn’t pull promised permits, or insisted they weren’t necessary. Not every project requires a licensed professional, but when it comes to plumbing, gas, electrical, and structural work, an unlicensed contractor could put your safety at risk. If you think your job might require a building permit, it probably does, and it’s your contractor’s obligation to obtain one — so make sure it happens. While it adds a cost (usually $50 to $250) and bureaucratic hassle to the job, the town or city inspection can protect a homeowner from subpar work, not to mention future legal issues arising from unpermitted construction, including possible complications when selling the house.
If, like some homeowners we spoke to, you discover this only after the project has gone awry, small claims court offers potential recourse. But the time and legal fees involved mean it’s no easy fix.
Dorchester homeowner Meghan Malloy and her husband can attest to the frustration of small claims court. A magistrate found their former contractor owed them more than $8,000 for work done several years ago, but they have yet to see any of it. “We went to court ten or eleven times,” Malloy said, but the contractor would often be a no-show, so a continuation would be scheduled, only for the process to be repeated.
Malloy’s husband had found the contractor on the service site Thumbtack, where he had good reviews. They hired him to convert their oil boiler to a gas heating system, along with a few smaller jobs like installing a dishwasher. Malloy’s court complaint says the contractor bought the wrong boiler size, tried to install it anyway, incorrectly set up the gas lines “and basically walked off the job with it a mess,” she says. They had to have his work redone, and were fined $1,000 by the city because the contractor hadn’t obtained a permit.
Homeowners often give contractors a key so they can get into the house during a big project, but Malloy changed the locks to keep their contractor out. As they grew frustrated with his work, tensions escalated and they repeatedly asked the contractor to return their key; he mistakenly sent them someone else’s key, but they never got theirs back.
The contractor, Michael Hughes of MH Mechanical in Quincy, says Malloy and her husband wouldn’t allow him to finish the job, and that he spent more money purchasing their equipment than he ever received from them. Hughes has a number of complaints with Yelp, Angie’s List, and the Better Business Bureau, not to mention several judgments against him in Boston Municipal Court and Quincy District Court.
Chelmsford homeowner Ryan Kilian is among those plaintiffs — his family’s small claims case resulted in a $4,300 judgment against Hughes. Kilian found Hughes on Craigslist, and hired him to replace the aging furnace in his family’s house, as well as a water heater. As the project unfolded, he says, Hughes kept running into purported problems and asking for more money to fix them. “For all we knew it was legit work,” Kilian says, “[but] more things just kept popping up.”
Kilian says Hughes left the new furnace’s oil supply line exposed above the cement and leaking, so headache-inducing fumes filled the house. That prompted Kilian to find a replacement contractor, who told him Hughes had done an incomplete job installing a new water heater that could have resulted in an explosive pressure buildup.
Hughes says Kilian’s oil line was already leaking, and the water heater needed a part that “wasn’t in stock at the supply house, so we had to temporarily hook it up,” he says. “By that time [Kilian] was already being unreasonable.”
Hughes adds that the court judgments against him weren’t the result of unprofessionalism or poor work, but rather because he couldn’t make the court dates; he had returned to Philadelphia after his father had a stroke. Hughes notes his last two court cases went in his favor. “A lot of it has to do with people trying to take advantage of me,” he says. “It’s tough in this business — people don’t understand with heating we can’t see through walls.”
Kilian says Hughes showed up to the job site at odd hours, or not at all, and would ask his wife for checks when he was out of town for work. “He’d need $500 here and $900 here, and it snowballed,” Kilian says. Malloy says Hughes showed up at the house at night, when her husband was teaching, and asked for money. “He’d say he couldn’t finish the project if I didn’t give him more money, and I gave it to him,” she says.
Such behaviors should get your guard up. “If the contractor is asking for money outside the payment schedule, is disappearing for periods of time and is hard to get a hold of, is doing poor work and promising to come back and fix it, be cautious,” says Hardiman. If you haven’t been, start keeping careful records, including exchanges with the contractor and photos of the work.
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FILING A COMPLAINT with the Better Business Bureau and taking a contractor to small claims court aren’t the only recourse if you have problems. The state’s Home Improvement Contractor program requires contractors working on one- to four-family homes to register with the state each year and contribute to a guaranty fund — which can help homeowners recoup up to $10,000 in unpaid judgments against a registered contractor who is unable to pay. Program arbitrators ruled in favor of homeowners in 35 out of 40 cases in 2018, awarding them more than $628,000 — about $275,000 of which came out of the guaranty fund.
The program applies only to contractors who are registered; Hughes was not. So before hiring someone, check that they have an active professional license for the work they’ll be performing, but also check that they’re registered with the Office of Consumer Affairs (mass.gov/consumer). There, Hardiman says, homeowners can see the registration status of their contractors and whether there have been any complaints against them.
Replacing your contractor is sometimes necessary, but can be tricky for both homeowner and contractor.
“When you walk into a job that’s been butchered by a previous contractor, the homeowners are in a pretty bad state of mind,” says Mark Philben, project development manager at Charlie Allen Renovations in Cambridge. “You’re just in there doing triage.” What’s more, the new contractor often has to spend time undoing shoddy work, raising costs.
Ultimately, your best protection remains your own research and instincts. Start planning your project and soliciting quotes early, before urgency forces you to hire whoever’s available. And don’t be afraid to ask for your contractor’s credentials — a reputable one will be proud to provide them.
Philben says it’s a good sign if a contractor is a member of a trade association, such as the National Association of the Remodeling Industry or the Builders and Remodelers Association of Greater Boston. Ask your contractor for a proof of insurance certificate, and get a copy of the company’s standard contract as well.
In addition, don’t be afraid to interview your contractor, says Tom Janovitz of Thomas J. Remodeling in Devens.
“You’re basically in a sort of marriage with your contractor for four weeks to a year or more,” he says. “You’re going to see them and speak to them a lot, and if you don’t personally get along with your contractor, it’s going to be an uphill battle.”
As some homeowners have learned, battles can escalate to a war that leaves scars and rages on for years. “We have held off on having a lot of work done, we’re just afraid to let anyone in our home now,” Malloy says. “We know we won’t get our money back, but we want to stop this from happening to other people.”
HIRING A PRO?
Here’s what homeowners can do to make sure a project goes smoothly for them and their contractor.
1. Choose and order materials early. “Have as many decisions made and products ordered — and, hopefully, ready to go — before the job starts,” says Tom Janovitz of Thomas J. Remodeling in Devens.
2. Hire an interior designer if possible. “If you ask our opinion about a design matter, we’re usually going to give you an answer that is from a builder’s logistical standpoint,” Janovitz says.
3. Limit changes. “Any change, even if it’s small, can disrupt the schedule and delay things,” Janovitz says.
4. Express yourself. “The ideal client is someone who’s upfront, honest, and communicates well about everything, from their budget to their expectations about how they want the project to run,” says Mark Philben of Charlie Allen Renovations in Cambridge.
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Jon Gorey is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.