Kitchen Renovation Disaster
Our new home (built in 1873) came with a 1980s kitchen that had been repurposed from somewhere else. It looked kind of neat: the outside wall was faux exposed brick, and the cupboard doors had been treated with a lacquer that gave them an antiqued look. In a magazine photo shoot, it would have appeared to be very on-trend.
The drawers, however, were swollen and warped, and none of them opened without a major pulling effort. Closing them required nothing short of a complete body slam. The shelves had been taken out during the installation and had never been properly re-installed. What this meant for me was that after cleaning them, lining them with clean shelf liners, and loading them with my dishes and casseroles and pots and pans, everything crashed and fell, smashing much in the process. Upset but not undefeated, we attacked the shelves with hardware and a drill, attempting to fix them firmly in situ. Alas, that was not to be. The thin shelving split and splintered in the process, necessitating a new approach. We removed them all and inserted free-standing shelving units inside the cupboards. This was an expensive fix and one that should have resolved the dilemma. The problem with free-standing shelving units, however, is that they can’t withstand much weight, so if you overload them, they crash and fall, smashing yet more breakables in the process.
I am someone who believes that the kitchen is the heart of the home, and I love nothing better than to prepare food for friends and family. A complete kitchen renovation became a necessity. We conferred with a kitchen designer, who drew up plans for us based on the available space and our desired functionality. Undaunted and with our plans and a hefty budget, we approached a local contractor whose references we had already checked. Living in a small town, we like to trust locals, so we didn’t ask for the quote in writing. He shook our hands and said, “We can do this, all-in, for $50,000.” In an amazing coincidence, his quote came in at the exact same amount as our proposed budget, and we were ecstatic. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t wise to let him know how much we had to spend.
“All-in?” queried my partner.
“All-in!” he reassured us.
The fun part of the process began, namely choosing the cabinets and the flooring. Once those decisions were made, we set the date for the complete gut and rebuild of the kitchen. “Three weeks start to finish,” we were told. The work was scheduled for April. At the end of March, I boxed up my remaining dishes and glasses and all the other casserole dishes, pots and pans, and kitchen bits, and we began to eat only prepared food, using paper plates and disposable cutlery. Then we were told that there was a labor shutdown at the cabinet factory. In mid-May, we were still using paper plates and waiting for delivery of the units. In the meantime, our kitchen had been stripped and gutted, and we were living in a construction zone.
The first serious shock came when our contractor suggested we hire a structural engineer to inspect our floor joists to ensure the kitchen would be well-enough supported to manage the extra weight of the new cabinets. The structural engineer and subsequent steel beams and jack posts were not, of course, included in our “all-in” budget. We wrote the requisite checks. Then our contractor, knowing we eventually intended to replace the small window in the kitchen, suggested that now was the time to spend the money and enlarge it before the new cabinetry arrived. This seemed sensible. We wrote another couple of checks. The larger window led us to also blow out the back wall and install glass doors to create a walk-out to our small-town garden. We didn’t even ask—we knew by then that these extras would not be included in our “all in” quotation. Neither was the additional structural beam needed when the hole for the doors was cut. We wrote more checks.
Next came the flooring. To our surprise and despite our protests, the flooring materials and installation labor were also not included in the “all in” quotation. “Floors are always an extra ticket item,” we were told by our seemingly earnest contractor. He also at that time informed us that we had insulted his character and hurt his feelings with our repeated protests. We ended up apologizing and wrote a huge check for the flooring job.
It was late June when the first of the cabinets finally arrived. We were assured that things would now progress quickly and that all would be done in two weeks, maximum. So, imagine our surprise when we didn’t see the installers for weeks. Apparently their schedule had been compromised by the delay in our cabinet delivery (spoken as if this was somehow our fault), and they had moved on to another large job. They would only be able to come when their current job was completed. But then, we were promised, it would only be another two weeks.
We were expecting house guests in August. I was assured that there was no need to cancel, all would be done by early July for certain. In the meantime, we were told to purchase new light fixtures and to choose a countertop and backsplash. The cost for these also, by the way, was to be paid by us. Everyone else, it seems, knew that counters, backsplashes, and light fixtures were not included in an “all-in” quotation. We were, by now, beginning to have our suspicions about the integrity of our contractor. We were also looking bloated and gaining weight from all the take-out meals and restaurant food. Mid-July came and still no progress was made. Our house was in utter chaos. And despite being too busy to install our cabinetry, the installers still felt free to drift in and out of the house from time to time, clucking at the mess and depositing buckets of tools, which they would retrieve a day or two later.
Finally, at the end of August (the day before our house guests were to arrive), the men miraculously showed up to work. There was much banging and crashing and sawing and hammering as we endeavored to have some semblance of a visit with our guests. The installation itself went relatively quickly. Then we discovered (after our guests had fled) that the countertop, which we had long since paid for separately, had not yet been ordered. The electrician’s bill and the plumber’s bill were also not included in the “all-in” quotation either. Again, we were assured that everyone knew that those were always separate cost items.
The kitchen was mostly finished in October. The appliances were back in place, the dishes and casseroles, pots and pans all neatly stowed away. Key pieces of millwork were still missing, and a number of details had been left undone, however. We called the contractor, received promises, and waited. We called again. After a year, we finally got a local handyman to do the fine finishing work that the men had never returned to complete.
The final total for the kitchen was three times (!) the amount of our “all in” quote. We had lived in chaos for seven months. My good-natured partner chalked it up to experience and reminded me (often) that because we were living in a small town, I couldn’t trash the contractor publicly.
And so here is what we learned: (1) as prosaic as it sounds to make handshake deals in a small town, small towns can have unscrupulous contractors who take advantage; (2) always insist upon an itemized quote; (3) major renovations should have penalty clauses inserted, based upon completion dates; (4) checking two references is not always enough to protect you from disreputable business people; (5) a 10-percent cash buffer is not enough of a safety margin for major renovations; and (6) that “all-in” means different things to different people.
I hope this all helps someone else avoid our “all-in” mistakes.
Photo by Lua Vazia (Porto Alegre, Brazil) @lua_vazia
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