My contractor skipped town before my home renovations were complete

By: Caitlin McCormack on March 3, 2020
Article image

When my husband and I purchased our Toronto bungalow in 2009, we knew that it would need a little fixing up. If the water damage in the basement didn’t give it away, the sloping main floor sure did. But we were excited to have our very own house in the city (complete with parking and even a yard!) and were filled with naive optimism that we could handle whatever renovations were necessary.

At that time, we were both early on in our careers, and since I was finishing my last year of university when we bought the house, we opted to complete the repairs in stages. The first order of business was renovating our bathroom, which was neither insulated nor sitting on any sort of foundation. I started asking around for recommendations for contractors to do the work, and a colleague said she’d just had a great experience with a contractor doing a similar renovation on her home, so we gave him a call and requested an estimate. 

He offered up a lot of creative solutions to make our weirdly shaped bathroom as functional as we desired. His team was professional, and handled the unexpected discoveries that seem to go along with every reno with grace and ease, coming in more or less on time and within budget. So, when it came time to gut our main level a year-and-a-half later, we felt comfortable hiring him again. 

A contract was drawn up defining the scope of work, and a payment schedule was put in place. Since this renovation was taking nearly every penny we had, the contractor allowed us to pay for a portion of the work in cash in order to help us save the HST on the labour costs of our approximately $30,000 bill. This couple extra thousand dollars meant we could swing a few of the upgraded features we really wanted. We appreciated being given this option, and felt positive about working together again.

Peculiar behaviour

Because the main level renovations were so extensive, our family had to move out for a couple of months while they were happening. We checked in frequently, though, and as the renovations got underway, it looked like everything was going to truck along smoothly. But about three weeks in, strange things started happening. 

We’d stop by the house and find the contractor wasn’t there when he was supposed to be. Another time, we found holes punched in a wall that wasn’t being removed. During the project, we found out from an employee that the contractor was going through a breakup with someone who also happened to be his business partner. Things seemed messy, and our project was suffering as a result. 

While progress was being made each week, we were getting down to the wire for completion — a date we’d been very clear on with the contractor from the start — and I was heading back to work that Monday, after being on maternity leave. So given the very tight timeline, our family moved back in with the essentials over the weekend. 

We’d stop by the house and find the contractor wasn’t there when he was supposed to be. Another time, we found holes punched in a wall that wasn’t being removed

Once we were back in the house, we found a number of things that still needed doing. The trim wasn’t finished (no biggie) and the hallway leading to our basement wasn’t yet drywalled (more of a biggie), plus some other tasks. More concerning was the fact that he hadn’t reinforced our stairs like he said he would, and he didn’t attach our upper kitchen cabinets to the wall. But the biggest surprise would come later.

Ghosted by our contractor

I returned to my job on Monday and the contractor said he would finish the repairs during the week while me and my husband were both out of the house at work. He did get some trim up, so we felt like there was some progress. When he asked for final payment so that he could square away his expenses for the project, we didn’t see a problem. 

But when he picked up the final cheques, I sensed something off about his demeanor. I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that he wasn’t going to return to finish the work. I told my husband that we should cancel the larger of the two cheques, and let the contractor know that we would pay him the amount owing when the work was 100% complete. He reassured me that we could trust the contractor, and not to worry about it. 

In the following days and weeks, we tried to arrange a time for the contractor to come finish the work, and every time he would have a last-minute excuse as to why he couldn’t make it. Finally, he simply stopped answering our emails and blocked our phone numbers. Text messages went into the abyss and voicemails went unanswered. We eventually found out from his business partner and by checking his Facebook page that he’d left the country and gone to Hungary, his homeland.

At that point, the cheques had been cashed, and we knew the work would not be finished — at least not by him. We were able to do some of the work ourselves, thankfully, and we eventually hired out the rest to another contractor. 

Lessons learned

While this experience was frustrating and annoying, I learned several valuable lessons that have helped protect our family’s financial resources with subsequent home repair projects. 

First, just because you have a contract doesn’t always mean you can easily enforce it. Should we have opted to pursue legal action, court filings and the like would have taken a significant amount of time and money. Also, it’s very difficult to sue someone who you have no way of getting ahold of. So even though we had a contract that our contractor was in breach of, there wasn’t much we could do to hold him to account. 

Second, never hand over final payment for a project until you are 100% satisfied with the work. No matter how small the issues might seem, it’s your home and you want to be as happy as possible with the results that you’ve spent your hard-earned money on. Any contractor worth their salt shouldn’t have a problem with this. They’ll have enough float to cover the operating expenses of the business and above all, should want you to be happy with their work. 

Third, be wary of contractors who ask for or offer cash payment. Yes, it can save you a few dollars upfront, but it’s difficult to hold someone to account for wrongdoing when you yourself are skirting the rules. By agreeing to pay a portion of the repairs in cash, we knew our contractor wasn’t going to report that money as income, thus avoiding taxes, so we were both technically in the wrong.

And finally, trust your gut. If a contractor gives you a bad feeling or something just feels off about a situation, listen to your intuition. It could save you added work, heartbreak, and expenses down the road.