Ask the Builder: Good drawings and detailed instructions help you avoid remodeling nightmares
Sat., March 18, 2023
I’d like to share a story with you. This saga transpired over the past six weeks, and I feel it contains a valuable lesson that could save you thousands of dollars, allow you to sleep at night, and go to dinner with your remodeling contractor at the end of the job.
This is a tale about trust, honor and betrayal. Perhaps you’ve been betrayed in the past by a friend, a lover or a contractor. No matter who it is, it’s always painful.
Weeks ago, a woman in Ontario, Canada, purchased one of my short phone call consultations. She was upset about a new exterior door that was installed in the basement of her home. She called to ask me if it looked OK or if she was just being too persnickety.
As I always do, I asked her to send me as many photographs as possible so I could get a handle on the situation. Fortunately, she sent great ones that allowed me to see every aspect of the job.
This job was very complex. The homeowner had decided to build a new patio beneath a deck. The basement of the house was only partially below grade, and the door was installed in the exterior wall in the basement under the outdoor deck.
To make the whole scheme work, the contractor had to excavate the ground beneath the deck to be able to install the patio. This patio extended to the columns supporting the outer edge of the deck. The contractor may or may not have known this, but the footing piers under these columns would have to be sunk lower into the ground, as they no longer would have enough soil cover to protect against frost heave.
I immediately saw a grave error in one of the photographs. The contractor had cut a notch in the house foundation to accommodate the new door. But the top of the notch was 6 inches above the basement floor! Other photos indicated that he had already installed the new patio outside, and that was also above the basement floor. I couldn’t tell if the patio was sloped away from the house so as to direct water away from the basement.
The notch in the foundation was not wide enough. This meant it was impossible to position the door far enough back in the wall in line with the wall framing that sat on top of the foundation wall.
But it gets worse. The contractor had not created a slope on the horizontal part of the notch in the foundation. This slope is necessary to shed water away from the underside of the door threshold. Without this slope, there is a very good chance water will leak into the basement under the threshold.
I told the distraught woman that I could make a simple color drawing showing exactly where the door frame should be in relation to the exterior of the concrete foundation and the existing wood-frame exterior wall. I also sent her several links to great illustrations and cross sections that I found on the websites of leading manufacturers of exterior doors.
Furthermore, I sent her links to several YouTube videos, including one of mine, that showed how to install a new exterior door in an existing wall. I believe she watched them, but it’s possible she didn’t comprehend all the information.
The good news is that she is still in possession of well over $30,000. I told her under NO circumstances to release another dollar to the contractor until the door is installed correctly. She followed this advice.
Just a week ago she texted to say the contractor was putting all sorts of pressure on her to pay him a large sum of money, even though nothing had been done to correct the door installation.
This woman also got a call from the contractor’s family divorce lawyer demanding money from her. Can you believe that? You might now understand why the contractor was trying to get his hands on money.
The bad news is that the woman told me she was about to hire an attorney to sue the contractor. I told her in no uncertain terms NOT to hire a lawyer. I wrote a column about why not to do this two years ago. You can find that column at my website, AsktheBuilder.com.
The simple reason is you have better odds of winning at blackjack in Las Vegas than winning a judgment against a contractor and getting paid. First and foremost, we already know this contractor has no money!
How could all of this been avoided? The woman should have had superb drawings showing exactly how everything was to be installed. There should have been detailed and crystal-clear written specifications. She should have then talked to the general manager of the best traditional lumberyard in her city to find out the names of the contractors the GM would use to remodel his house!
Subscribe to Carter’s free newsletter at AsktheBuilder.com. Tim offers phone coaching calls if you get stuck during a DIY job. Go here: go.askthebuilder.com/coaching
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