Avoid These Home Renovation Horror Stories

Imagine you’re snuggling into your bed in your newly renovated home. Your journey to sleep is interrupted by a monotonous “beep, beep, beep” that won’t stop. What’s making the noise? Why can’t you find it? Will it ever cease so you can get some precious rest?

You can’t get to sleep, so how do you wake up from this home renovation nightmare? GOBankingRates spoke to experts to find out how you can avoid these scary remodeling situations so that you’re not paying extra on your home.

Things That Go Beep in the Night

Everyone makes small mistakes, but Barbara Nevers of NeoLittle.com discovered that not all are willing to make it right.

“We underwent a full home renovation a few years ago,” said Nevers. “One of the contractors accidentally left his stud-finder inside of the wall of the garage and hung drywall over it. I’m not exactly sure how this happened, but it fell down inside the wall and landed directly next to a metal stud. It beeped nonstop for about 36 hours. The garage is directly under our bedroom, so we had to listen to a faint beeping sound all night. When I called the company to figure out what was going on, he was just like, ‘Oh, so that’s where his stud finder went!’”

That led to even more inconvenience since drywall had to be cut to retrieve the offending device.

“I was hoping we might have gotten some kind of refund, but he wouldn’t budge,” she said. “I guess I could have filed a lawsuit, but it seemed excessive for such a silly mistake.”

How To Avoid This Home Renovation Horror Story

Reading reviews doesn’t just let you know about the quality of a contractor’s work. It also gives you some insight on whether they’re willing to work with you to make it right in case of an error or oversight.

“In retrospect, I wish I’d read their reviews more carefully,” Nevers said. “The reviews I read were mostly positive because their construction work was great. However, this company was notoriously stingy on discounts and refunds, even when they messed up.”

Homeowner Turns Into the Contractor’s Gofer

You hire a contractor to take care of every aspect of your project, but Shawn Breyer of Breyer Home Buyers in Atlanta soon discovered that he was expected to be the gofer for all the building materials, costing him countless hours during the renovation of the first rental home he ever purchased.

“When the contractors needed materials for the job, they would call us and make us go pick up materials for them after we got off of work,” he said. “We would spend roughly five hours per week at Home Depot picking up stuff for them.”

How To Avoid This Home Renovation Horror Story

Avoid a home renovation horror story starring you as the gofer by making sure every detail is laid out in your contract, including responsibility for picking up the supplies. If the contractor tries to step outside of the scope laid out on paper, bring out the contract as a reminder. Things like running to the home improvement store for materials might seem like a no-brainer, but the contractor may decide to put unexpected tasks on you if there’s no clear understanding to the contrary, as Breyer found out.

Moonlighting Contractor Missed the Deadline

Breyer learned the hard way with a rental home renovation that the old cliché about contractors taking forever to finish a job is grounded firmly in reality. He was told that the bathroom renovation would be done in four weeks. Two months later it was barely complete, causing him to lose a month’s rent because tenants aren’t keen on using portable toilets while workers are banging around in an unfinished bathroom.

It might have been easier to deal with if there was a good reason for the delay, but Breyer said, “We found out later that the contractor was doing side jobs for the neighboring houses instead of working on our house.”

How To Avoid This Home Renovation Horror Story

You reduce your risk of missed deadlines and projects that go on forever if you lay out the timeline upfront and get it in writing. Insist on penalties built into the contract for missed deadlines.

“Have the contractor sign a contract that you will be deducting $100 per day for every day they are past [the] contracted completion date,” said Robyn Flint, a licensed real estate agent and a writer for Expert Insurance Reviews. “This will help keep them on track and on schedule.”

Differing Definitions of Done

One common cause of home renovation nightmares is not clarifying what’s considered “done” between the contractor and homeowner, said Breyer. At best, you might wind up with a pretty much complete — but still messy — job. At worst, it might be half-done and possibly not even in compliance with your local building codes.

“You may be expecting a move-in ready, professionally cleaned bathroom while the contractor usually leaves the bathroom in broom-swept condition with dirt and dust everywhere,” said Breyer. “Sometimes you can even encounter a contractor that gets 90% finished and proceeds to pull his crew off to work on the next home while sending back people as they free up. This would leave you with an incomplete build.”

How To Avoid This Home Renovation Horror Story

It’s easy to avoid this home renovation nightmare by making sure you and the contractor have a meeting of the minds that’s memorialized in a written contract.

“When it comes to the quality of the work for your bathroom, don’t assume that you and the contractor are on the same page about the end results,” said Breyer. “Make sure that your contract with the contractor has a section stating that they will complete the work in accordance with the local laws and settle on the condition of the bathroom when it is completed.”

Staged Photos Cost $70,000

Texas real estate investor Rae Dolan suffered a $70,000 loss with one home.

“I had worked with a specific contractor numerous times over two years,” she said. “Because of that, I felt I could trust him. We had an extensive flip that was much further out than the rest of our houses, so I was letting this ‘trusted’ contractor manage things there. He was working on multiple projects for us.”

“Since he was completing the local ones I was often on the job sites for, and sending photos of completed work on the distant one, I kept advancing him the next phase of the distant rehab,” she said. “He was only taking pictures of one section of the house on the distant rehab, doing just enough to send me a photo of the ‘completed’ phase and get the next advance. By the time we figured out what was going on, he had taken us for about $70,000. To add salt to the wound, the house was left in even worse condition than we bought it in.”

How To Avoid This Home Renovation Horror Story

While it seems easier to put your trust in a professional, you could be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars if that trust is misplaced. The only way to truly know the progress of a job is to see it with your own eyes.

“We learned two fundamental lessons from this experience,” Dolan said. “Never advance money to a contractor, even if you’ve worked with them before, and always have someone inspect each phase of rehab before you move on to the next one.”

A Classic Case of ‘You Get What You Pay For’

A run-of-the-mill flipping project turned into a nightmare for realtor/investor Benjamin Ross when he tried to be nice and give some extra work to his gardener.

“I wanted to put new siding on the house to give it a fresh look,” said Ross. “My yard guy asked me if he could do the job. I was pressed for time because I was going on vacation, and he gave me a super deal. I gave him the go-ahead and left him money for supplies.”

“When I got home, I found he put the new siding over the old instead of taking it down,” he said. “He also used long nails with a nail gun and damaged the electrical wires in the wall. Now half the outlets in the home don’t work. I refused to pay him and demanded he pay to fix my electrical system and redo the siding correctly.”

“He said he would, but it would cost me more than double, so I fired him,” said Ross. “The next morning, I found my truck with four tires slashed.”

How To Avoid This Home Renovation Horror Story

Ross learned multiple lessons from this experience.

“Never hire someone new for a job and leave them unsupervised,” he said. “Don’t hire a yard guy to do contractor’s work, and if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Out of those three lessons, hiring someone who doesn’t do home renovations for a living is particularly important. When you hire someone you know, their potential lack of skill is only one problem. If you hire a friend or long-time acquaintance, they might not see you as a boss and take you seriously when you complain or try to direct them.

Gravel Is for Driveways, Not Subfloors

Nathaniel Butler of Washington Capital Partners has a house-flipping client who was completely rebuilding a kitchen. He was using a certain contractor for the first time but only occasionally checked in on the work.

“Because my company was funding the renovation, we sent an inspector out to check in on the progress as it neared completion,” Butler said. “When the inspector stepped into the kitchen, the first tile he stepped on shattered under his weight. Surprised, he stepped onto another tile to investigate why the first one had cracked, only for the next one to immediately shatter.”

“He was able to lift up some pieces of broken floor tile to see that the contractor had made the ridiculous decision to put down a layer of rough gravel in the kitchen as a subfloor and simply place tile and grout on top of it,” he said. “This uneven surface basically guaranteed that any tile that had about 200 pounds of pressure placed on it would shatter because of the uneven pressure points that the gravel caused.”

How To Avoid This Home Renovation Horror Story

“To remedy the situation, the contractor was fired, the kitchen floor had to be completely redone again and the flipper learned a tough lesson,” Butler said. “Even if you have done 100 renovation projects, you need to check in on the work constantly. If you are using a contractor for the first time, you should double the number of visits you make to the job site to ensure that the work is being done to your standards and that they are not covering up any shoddy workmanship.”

“Even contractors with good reviews can have turnover within their crew, and you could end up getting a completely different experience than the previous clients,” he added.

Past Renovations Cause Deadly Asbestos Consequences

Home safety expert Colin Ruggiero knows all too well that asbestos exposure is dangerous. Asbestos is often hiding in older homes, and the effects of exposure during a botched renovation can take years to show up.

“Recently, a woman from Lafayette, Louisiana, developed stage 4 peritoneal mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure,” he said. “She links it to renovation projects that her family would perform when she was a child. Due to the prolonged latency period of mesothelioma (10 to 50 years), she was not diagnosed until a later stage of life.”

How To Avoid This Home Renovation Horror Story

“It’s important that materials such as asbestos are abated prior to renovating so that you do not accidentally come into contact with asbestos fibers,” Ruggiero advised.

He warned that any home built before the 1980s could potentially contain asbestos. Before you break down walls or rip out insulation, contact an inspector and take steps to deal with asbestos or other hazardous materials safely.

Attack of the Mold Monster

Water damage is bad enough on its own. But if you botch the resulting renovations, you could end up with a mold infestation as well, according to Robert Weitz, founder of RTK Environmental Group.

“We had a house in Long Island that ripped out wallboard, ceilings and building materials that had been wet,” he said. “They didn’t have mold testing done and didn’t realize they needed proper containment. In doing this, they spread the mold spores throughout the home and ventilation system. Next thing they knew, they had a full-blown mold infestation, which cost around $10,000 to remediate.”

How To Avoid This Home Renovation Horror Story

Black mold abatement requires special precautions. First, remove the source of the moisture, then seal off the affected areas. If the room has outdoor openings, use exhaust fans to draw mold spores out of the room. This prevents a spread of mold and a tab for thousands of dollars to remove it.

Wear appropriate protective gear while removing the mold and dispose of the cleaning implements in a sealed black plastic trash bag. If you don’t seal it properly, you could spread spores. If that all sounds too complicated, bring in a professional to handle the process so you don’t have to worry about your own safety or possibly spreading the problem.

Beware of the Lurking Lead

If you botch renovations by not taking precautions when lead paint is present, you can wind up with nasty consequences.

“A family in Stamford, Connecticut, was remodeling their classic Victorian home,” Weitz said. “They didn’t test for lead paint prior to the renovation and their contractor didn’t follow lead-safe work practices. They inadvertently wound up spreading lead dust throughout the home and property, and didn’t find out anything was wrong until their daughter went to the doctor.”

“They found out she had high blood lead levels and was lead poisoned,” he said. “They called us at that point to test, and most of their home and property was contaminated. They wound up spending thousands to properly clean the house. They also shelled out money to replace the soil outside, which also tested positive for lead.”

How To Avoid This Home Renovation Horror Story

The first step in prevention is to exercise caution if you’re working on a home that was built before the 1970s. If you discover that the home has lead paint, it’s crucial to keep the fumes and dust to an absolute minimum because, as the situation described by Weitz shows, you could end up poisoned if you don’t.

Wet methods are commonly used because keeping surfaces wet reduces the dust and fumes. If you want to be sure that things are done correctly, hire someone with experience working in older homes with lead paint.

Going in Blind

Stan Mead, CEO of Summit Home Buyers, was burned on renovations by going in blind because a homeowner made him a great deal.

When Mead and his renovation team moved in, “a lovely combination of animal waste and cigarette smoke battered our noses,” he said. “They don’t show you that on HGTV! We knew as soon as we entered that nothing was salvageable, so we gutted the place, which led to our next surprise — wonky wiring.”

“Our electrician had to do some major head-scratching to figure out that puzzle,” said Mead. “Our next little surprise came in the form of a huge water bill our first month. We concluded that there was a water main break under a concrete slab somewhere near the center of the house. We had to improvise and run a new water main to the property. Let me tell you, this is neither fun nor easy.”

Fortunately, having an expert electrician and plumber helped him deal with the unpleasant surprises.

How To Avoid This Home Renovation Horror Story

Mead made a misjudgment based on the home’s price, but a talented team helped him salvage the situation.

“The truth is, you can deal with just about any renovation horror story if you have the right people on your team,” he said.

That underscores the importance of knowing trustworthy contractors and people in the trades who can find and fix those elusive problems.

A License Doesn’t Count When It’s Expired

You might know that you should always use a licensed contractor, but don’t just take the person’s word for it. Flint learned that the hard way while rehabbing a historic home in southwest Virginia.

“It is a total rehab project,” she said. “We hired who we thought was a licensed contractor and a family friend who had completed work for us in the past. Not only was his license suspended, but he ran off with over $20,000 of our rehab money.”

How To Avoid This Home Renovation Horror Story

To prevent a similar costly mess, Flint said, “Do your homework. Check the license of the contractor to make sure it is valid, even if you know and trust someone. Get copies of their insurance policy. Do this for every sub you use, too.”

If you run into someone you believe is doing unlicensed work, report them to the proper authorities. Even if you don’t hire them, you might be saving another homeowner from their own renovation horror story.

No, Super Glue Isn’t Good for Everything

Keith Melanson, project manager of the RenosGroup home renovation company, often gets called in to clean up after horror stories. One of his most memorable was an incident in which he stepped into a bathroom remodel after another contractor got kicked off the job. When he brought his team in to assess the situation, the tiles were falling off the bathroom walls like snowflakes.

“The previous contractor tried to use some regular glue on his shower wall tiles rather than using proper cement thinset,” he said. “Needless to say, the tiles were coming off pretty easily.”

How To Avoid This Home Renovation Horror Story

You won’t have to call in someone to clean up the mess if you choose carefully in the first place. It’s tricky because con artists typically talk a good game, but you’ll protect yourself as much as possible if you do your due diligence. Get more than one quote so you have a basis for comparison. Confirm licensing and insurance, read reviews, request references and ask for photos of previously completed work.

Home Improvement Tetris Goes Wrong

Contractors cause many home renovation nightmares but doing it yourself can lead to some real messes, too. Melanson recalled one bathroom remodel in which the homeowners thought they had plenty of space for a claw foot tub, shower, sink and toilet.

They did — in theory. But in practice, the result was pretty much unusable unless you like using the toilet with one leg in the tub.

“I like to say that this DIY project was not a good fit,” he quipped. “Probably a lack of measurements, but perhaps just a bit too optimistic. A tub, shower, toilet and sink were never all going to fit in there.”

How To Avoid This Home Renovation Horror Story

You might fancy yourself a designer, but that could have costly consequences if you plan out a roomful of renovations and end up with something unusable. Hire a professional, like an architect, to help you. Depending on the scope of the project, an architect can also add value by providing plans to use when you get any required permits and by helping you chose and manage the contractor.

Research and Planning Can Help You Avoid a Nightmare

When you design renovations to transform your house into a dream home, you don’t want the process to turn into a nightmare. While there’s no way to protect yourself completely, you tip the odds heavily in your favor by using professionals, choosing them carefully and covering every aspect of the project in writing. That way, you’re on the same page as your contractor with what should be done and when it should be complete. The less you leave to chance, the more likely you are to avoid a home renovation horror story.