Have you ever read Dilbert? Scott Adams created a couple of characters like Mordac, the denier of information services, as well as a god of heck (not as evil as hell). We did a kitchen reno this summer, and while I could describe it as the kitchen reno from hell, all in all, that would be a gross exaggeration in comparison with those that have had renos from hell. Our contractor did do the work. They never abandoned the project. There was no flooding of the basement because someone nicked a water line. There were no lawsuits, lawyers, or ombudsman offices involved.
What we did have was frustration out the wazoo, and mostly avoidable by the contractor. Let’s get this tale started.
In the beginning
When we moved into our house 4 years ago, we were pretty happy with most of it. The upstairs was great, the first floor had a good living room and family room, and there were no major problems that had to be fixed quickly. Equally, the location was awesome, the house was large, and we basically chose it as our likely-forever house. However, there were a couple of things that were going to need to be done to upgrade it from “likely” (partly to avoid ever moving again) to “definitely”:
- a new backyard deck (replacing the simple builder’s stoop-deck);
- finishing the basement (it was already semi-finished for walls, but not floors or ceiling); and,
- improving the function, flow, and look of the kitchen.
We did have one “urgent” thing to fix early on … after the house had settled, it looked like there had been leaks in the west wall of the basement at some point, one in the centre and one in the corner. For the centre, we had someone come in and rip out the drywall, get down to the wall, patch along the line, and put the drywall back up. In the corner, we noticed a leak later on after we moved in (well, actually, we noticed again that there had been a small leak at some point after we moved, just enough to move the dust around the bottom of a bookshelf and leave some discoloration on the floor), so we had contractors do some work to regrade the backyard at that corner, although the most likely problem was that the downspout had come disconnected from the part that empties away from the house so everything coming down was being dropped right at the corner, about four inches from the base (in our defense, it’s blocked by a shed, you can’t really see it to know the outward drain extension had come loose), but we had the yard regraded anyway.
Experience with renovations
Up front, I should probably note, if it isn’t clear already, that I’m not a handyman kind of guy in any sense of the phrase. I can change a shower head, I can build some bookshelves if they need to be utilitarian more than quality design, etc. Beyond that, I can write cheques to people who can do it properly.
Some of it is simply the fact that not only do I not have any real skill in the area, I also have no patience when things go wrong. Electronics and computers? Sure. But if I do some basic work, and it doesn’t come out right, or it doesn’t work when I’m done, I feel completely useless, I get really frustrated fast, and then I’m not much fun to be around either. So a reno is waaaaay beyond my comfort level, and I’d prefer to stay married than attempt it myself.
When we moved out of the old house, we hired a friend of our sister’s to do a bunch of basic handyman work around the house. Little things, fix this loose board, replace this, scrape down this and repaint it. A lot of it I could have done myself, if I had a year to space it out. We didn’t — we’d already bought our forever home, after not expecting to find it and move so we hadn’t got our place fully ready yet. When it was over, and the light reno/repair work was done, we thought, “Wow, we should have done those things a year or two ago just to have it all done.” It was relatively painless, and the results were highly functional and decent, if not “perfect” looking.
We had a deck built at our new house. We had a referral from our chiropractor of a small team that he and his brother were using to renovate houses/backyards as investment flips, and the project went awesome. A deck was something for which I considered doing some of the work myself…a stupid idea of the highest magnitude. I could have built a platform, not anything like the deck they did. It’s fantastic. I checked in on the guy one day where he was using the laser level to tweak the setup for about an hour. Sure, you want to get it right, but long past the point where I would have given up and said “good enough”, and even past the point where I was ready to tell him, “Dude, that’s good enough”, he was still fussing to make it perfect. He just couldn’t figure out how he was getting a different height at the one spot of the deck…finally realized that the other guys had pulled a board from the wrong side of the pile, and gave him one that he hadn’t checked to his exact standards for warping/plumness. Replaced the board, moved on. Awesome deck, delivered on time, on budget, good guys to deal with, all good.
Last summer, we also decided to have our basement renovated. We got names from friends of three companies they had used and been happy with, had them give us quotes, and we were pretty sure who the likely winner was going to be even before we saw the quotes. One of them had done a basic look-through and gave us a quote without much work put into it, and seemed more interested in whether we were going to have them get a permit or not. That turned me right off them pretty quick, but to be fair, it was a honest question — there was no structural work, we were mostly finishing stuff that was already there, it’s a grey area for permits. I preferred to be safer than sorry, so permits were the way to go. Later, as the project grew, a permit was obviously required because of the plumbing work for the bathroom, but upfront, we weren’t decided on that yet. However, the middle quote was from the company that our friends P&ME had used and been really happy with, and honestly, anyone who can meet ME’s standards for home repair would have to be in the top 5% for quality. That isn’t a criticism, she just has really high standards and is fairly knowledgeable about this stuff, a fact that will be relevant later. P is no slouch either. So if the two of them were happy, and the company was the middle quote, a pretty good option to choose. So we did.
They estimated 3 weeks to finish all the work in the basement, including the expansion of the project to include a full bathroom. We debated it early on, my wife and I, mostly about whether we wanted a shower or not. We did, but we figured it was overkill. The contractors, A&R, came up with a good solution, it was hard to picture some of it as it was our first big interior reno, but it all seemed good. A couple of things were not “perfect”, as no reno is, but they were minor:
- they gave us some basic drop cloths to cover some of the stuff in the basement, but didn’t do a dust shield / vapour barrier — so when it was over, the rest of the basement was covered in drywall dust, including lots of things that had been covered, it just goes everywhere … lesson learned for future;
- I wanted them to put some removable drop panels in a few places to allow for easy future access to certain things, but it would mess up the look of the ceiling, so they found a workaround and installed them without asking first…minor issue, and the result looks better than my option;
- the basement layout is a bit more angled for part of it than I would have liked, but not a great option to avoid it; and,
- the toilet in the bathroom is a bit close to the wall/door, seemed like something that should have been avoided better and I did flag it for them earlier (a theme that will become relevant later too)…still functional, just mildly annoying.
The real big issue though was timing. If you’ve read the rest of my blog, you know that I’m a huge fan of ser ialized storytelling on TV, and I watch a lot of shows. I wanted the project done before the TV season started for premieres so I could be all set up in the basement, ready to go. The three-week timeline would have easily made that possible…instead, they took six weeks. It was a bit frustrating that they were still there, but not that disruptive, and some of the furniture being delivered was delayed too, so I was okay with it in the end.
End result was quality work, as P&ME had experienced too. It just took longer than we expected, and while we had them do a few extra small jobs while there, we didn’t have them do 3 weeks extra of work, which was their delay, more like 3 or 4 days tops.
I was a bit puzzled about one thing. I wanted some wiring done at the same time, and maybe it was because they could do basic wiring and the stuff I wanted “added” was more for an sub-contractor electrician to do, but they were resistant. Basically, I wanted our fusebox/e-panel re-done to separate out some of the circuits that seemed badly grouped, but the sticking point was I wanted ethernet cables run from the second floor to the basement and living room. I would have also liked one in the family room on the first floor but that was a bridge too far apparently. I wanted seven cables run, they reluctantly told me I could have three, and even that ran about $750 to have done with the other work (admittedly, putting wires through the walls and ducts to get them to the basement was not fun for anyone, sure, but isn’t that the kind of work these people do anyway????). I am incredibly glad I did that as I’m now using two of the cables full-time, with a spare for a game system at some point. We did have a bit of sticker shock, as the final bill included a lot of tweaks and enhancements that we asked for that put us above the cost considerably, and while I thought a few of them should have been choices-within-the-contract perhaps, I wasn’t of mind to quibble a lot. It looked awesome when they finished, and a year out, any residual issues are gone.
Preparing for the kitchen reno
We knew we wanted to renovate our kitchen, put in new cupboards and fix our island.
The island was functional but had turned out to be highly irritating in its layout. It was slightly angled at the middle, which looked cute, but meant when you were standing at the sink, you were a bit in the way for opening the fridge or the dishwasher. With two of us in the kitchen anywhere near the sink, we got in each other’s way. Similarly, the sink wasn’t a great size, the bowls were smaller than we wanted. The rest of the kitchen wasn’t arranged very well for workspace either, some of it for flow and some of it for bad lighting. We considered a bunch of simple things to improve things (like under the counter lighting, etc.) but the island was going to raise us from simple tweak to likely full reno, and we opted for the full reno, partly with my wife being an Epicure consultant and having parties at the house occasionally. We needed a better kitchen, my wife feeling the frustration more than I, but even I found it limiting.
So, with A&R at our house doing the basement reno, we talked to them about some basic config issues for a kitchen reno later. As an aside, I should note that A&R are a small team, two brothers plus 3-4 ancillary workers. They have a website with their contact info on it, but they don’t advertise and they don’t try to drum up business. Just by word of mouth, they are booked 4-8 months in advance. Not the most expensive, they finish their jobs, and it is quality work, what’s not to love? So we didn’t shop around for other contractors, we pretty much went with them again, partly because of the HGTV effect where you can see what really bad contractors have done to other people’s homes. A&R had been a mostly positive experience, and 1000% better than any of the horror stories out there.
We knew however that they were booked well in advance, so we started pushing them in January to commit to the last two weeks of July (note that I said JULY) for the kitchen reno. We expected to be away about that time, so we would avoid the bulk of the disruption, and summer was better for disruption anyway as we could easily barbecue a lot, eat on the deck, etc. So we pushed early. We also told them that we would need help figuring out the design as we had never done anything like this before. By happy circumstance, R’s wife was a former kitchen designer at Home Depot, so we thought that was perfect. We met with her (after some prodding for it to happen), and we told her we had three core elements that we had come down to:
- the kitchen had to include a table, as we use our kitchen as our main eating space and don’t use the dining room at all;
- we needed a larger sink setup in the island; and,
- we needed the project done before the end of August, preferably in July.
Sure, we had ideas about lighting, type of island, basic setup options, new fridge but rest of appliances stayed, but they were all flexible components. We wanted drastically improved flow and a good prep space, but other than that, we were open as long as the three core elements were met.
The best laid plans
There ended up being a structural question about one of the walls and a pillar, so it delayed part of the design process. Things that looked good to us, and her, turned out to be incredibly complicated and would have required changing the basement layout too to accommodate the load bearing part. I was interested in blowing out part of the back wall too, but that was too expensive. So we had a couple of contraints, but not huge ones, just mostly things we considered to find out where the boundaries of our design space would lie. We pushed, they checked, we pushed, they checked, and then finally, on June 15th (after SIX MONTHS???) we received a bunch of designs.
Nine of them in fact. We thought that was overkill, as did A apparently since R charges the company for all the design work, but fine, we had designs! Except we didn’t. Of the eight designs, four of them had no table in the kitchen. Remember core element #1 above? Great designs, really awesome kitchens, but no place to eat and instead they had us putting the table in the dining room (which is too close to the front door) or the family room (which is one of the biggest purchase points for the house, a room for Jacob to play next to the kitchen, and one he spends all his time in). We had ruled those out early, they were not open for consideration. I don’t mean we didn’t think about them, we did, or rather we had, quite extensively. But they were things we knew we didn’t want, so the kitchen had to have a table. Four more of the designs were almost non-functional, and so we were left with version 9.
It had some compromises in it that we weren’t quite sure of, but it was our main starting point. Over the next 45 days (i.e. to the end of July), we asked questions about certain things, checked some measurements, asked more questions. Remember when I said above that P&ME used these people and were highly satisfied, but that P&ME were both well-experienced in this area? Well, my wife and I are not.
So we had to go through a learning process in part to ask some fundamental questions that turned out to negate some of their plan. Things that they should have asked us or thought of on their own, but didn’t, and which my wife and I more or less stumbled upon as questions because we’re both very analytical. We didn’t know it yet, but this would be a recurring theme, just as it had been with the basement toilet being too close to the wall.
Finalizing our plans
Remember I said we got the plans on June 15th? And that it was another 45 days of asking questions and waiting, waiting, waiting on answers? Do the math and you realize this put us at August 1st. Already past our original desire dates to have it all done in July. And I didn’t tell you the other great part of those 45 days.
We went from version 9 to version 15 of the plans. Now, some of those were significant changes. For example, we had debated adding a pantry to our design that would extend into the dining room area. The short version of that debate was if we needed the extra shelving space (we thought “maybe”, it was hard to tell) vs. using up the dining room space we weren’t using anyway and just having a large living room. We did add the pantry (some pieces of which will come back to bite me later), but the big issue was the sink. In 7 months of our planning, we never wavered from our core elements — keep table, larger sink, and finish in the summer.
Somewhere around version 15, the measurements started becoming much more fine-tuned and we added a cupboard behind the sink i.e. we expanded the width of the island to allow for a serving area and with enclosed cupboard/shelves underneath. As we figured out what size cupboards went there, I noticed something odd. The standard image of the sink that they were using in the designs wasn’t to scale. Or more accurately, the standard image they used to indicate a sink didn’t match the size we wanted. Up until then, I never thought about it, just assumed it was the default sink picture. We had discussed how big the bowls had to be, and the combined size of two bowls was larger than the pic on the blueprint. I figured we were reading it wrong, but my wife didn’t understand it either and hadn’t noticed, so we went back to them and said, “Oh, btw, I don’t think you’re showing the sink right, because it’s too small.” We thought it was just a diagram error. Nope. SEVEN MONTHS AND NONE OF THE DESIGNS GAVE US THE SINK SIZE WE WANTED!!!
I was a little ticked. First they ignored us for the table. Then they were already past our timelines to even start. And now we realized they hadn’t given us the sink we asked for. P&ME would likely have noticed this on day 1, we didn’t notice until the penultimate version of the blueprints. Fine, they fixed it, but note this isn’t simply an issue of putting in a different picture. This changed how much space in the island was eaten up with sink. What had been lots of space to the left of the sink was now considerably shrunk, so we ha d to play with the dimensions of the island to leave us enough room to work, etc.
We agreed on the blueprints, and A (of A&R) let us know he was a bit miffed that it had taken 45 days to finalize plans. I chose not to rip his head off for saying so but wanted to do so … really, you’re giving me grief for 45 days to correct your bad design after you wasted six months to give them to us? We would have been happy to do all the design back in January.
But we had two other issues to still deal with.
First and foremost, we had to discuss cupboard choice. We had chosen a really nice cupboard design at Home Depot. Except it was one of their middle-to-higher end choices and was relatively expensive. Plus it would take 6-10 weeks to get them, we wouldn’t know for sure until we placed the order. By contrast, Ikea had just updated their kitchen options, the quality was good and they had way better interior configuration options, was available immediately, and at 40% of the Home Depot cost, but the exterior face choices weren’t quite as nice.
Second, we had to discuss timing. We had solved our first two elements (table and sink), but the timing was going to be off. So we had a fairly frank discussion. Our issue for timing had crystallized quite clearly…my wife was taking the fall off to finish her Masters degree, and Jacob would be back in school, so the disruption of a kitchen reno could not extend beyond mid-September. We told them all this, and gave them a choice — if they could finish before September 15th, we would go ahead now; if not, they could do it next summer.
They said, “No problem to do it now”, we signed a contract for a three week reno that would run from August 24th to September 11th, but they noted that they would likely be done on the 4th, with only the final counters to follow once they were cut. Seemed ambitious, but doable, and my wife really wanted it done this year, as did I. Her more than me, but still, I wanted it done too, as well as just it all being over. We compromised on Ikea for speed, and we were happy about the huge cost savings too, but we’d already come to terms with it being a lot more expensive than we initially hoped, so we could have swung a larger equity loan to cover the Home Depot cost and waited until the following summer.
However, contract signed, on to the renovation.