20 Years and Counting
Here it is 2015, and I am realizing that 20 years ago I first got my contractors license. Other than obviously feeling depression about how old I am getting, I can say that maybe, just maybe, a little knowledge has fallen in my lap over that time. They say you learn from your mistakes. If that is true, just call me “Super Genius”. Yes, that is a Wile E. Coyote cartoon quote, which again shows my age.
I am feeling good though, as I have been playing lots of guitar lately. Yes, I am a musician too. My stage name is “Chickenbone Slim”, coming soon to a town near you. I play the blues, which is more of a starving than a living, but it’s good for my mental health.
Usually, a little anger is motivational. However, I find myself less angry than just mystified. I feel like I have a lot of repeat questions that seem to repeat themselves over and over again. Did I mention they repeat? It’s my personal groundhog day. I may not be the coolest beer in the fridge, but I’ve been in the fridge a long time, so I have found out a few things.
First, I get a lot of calls from people and their agents who are buying houses. This is really where the bulk of my business comes from. When someone buys a house, possibly the scariest issue is the foundation. I get that, and I am grateful for those calls, because that is how foundation issues get dealt with. When you buy a house, you need to know how much it costs to get the house you are expecting to buy, and since foundation issues are a bit out of most people’s experience, it can be a little intimidating.
One typical thing that cracks me up is the real estate agent who feels they need to spell out what they want. “We need a cost estimate on the foundation repairs so that the buyer can understand what needs to be repaired and we can negotiate with the seller.” Usually it takes much longer to get to the point. No, really? As of today I have done over 12,000 estimates, probably 75% for real estate transactions. So, I get the drill. Yes, some of those estimates are the fifth estimate for a particular problem, (you may be surprised how long it takes for some of these issues to be addressed. The record for me is 14 years) but nonetheless, I think by now I understand how the process works. I am not saying I’m perfect, but the horse knows the way to the barn.
That just makes me laugh inside. But when I get the request to “make the estimate as large as possible so I can get a better deal on this property,” I get a little concerned. Is that what I am in business for? I thought I was trying to earn a living for my family, to pay my workers a fair wage so they can pay their bills, and trying to make my client’s homes safe and secure. I didn’t realize my free estimate was something that you really aren’t getting for the purpose of actually doing the work, but your are hoping I will basically lie about the issues, just so I can get you a better price. While I am not the cheapest in town, I will do it right for a fair price, not make up crap for your deal. It’s just not the way I roll.
Of course, there are lots of stock phrases I hear. After requesting a written lie from me, (oh, was that too harsh? How about a “factually variable cost opinion’?) the next thing I hear is (if we are still actually talking at this point) “Oh, once we buy it, you will be who we use to do the work.” At a lower price, of course. Or I will hear, “I will get you lots of work down the road (because I am the next Donald Trump)” or “I have lots of friends who will hire you (but not me)” or “I am looking for a foundation repair guy for my vast real estate holdings (cause I have never had this work done before and I am clueless but really just want to ignore the problem and not fix it because I really just want to flip this house and conveniently forget there is an issue or cover up the problems and make my money and retire to Tahiti).” Like you aren’t the first guy to try this scam. Do I sound bitter? Not as bitter as the poor buyer who inherits the problem.
This is my answer (I have practiced this so I can say it in my sleep). “When I do a bid on a property for sale, it is likely that you will not end up buying it. I will then have an unrealistic bid on that house, and when the next buyer or seller sees it (and gets other bids) he is going to throw it in the trash and I will not get the work. I bid it to get it, not to get you a better deal.” So, don’t ask me to lie for you. I admit, I am here to make money, and I do so by helping people fix their homes, not by making up foundation problems and over-pricing repairs.
A more benign issue is the unknown slab problem. I live in a slab house,and like them fine, but I prefer older raised foundation homes. Why? They are easy to see. I can look in the sub area, and the problems are easier to figure out. Slabs are hidden by flooring. So the typical conversation goes like this-
Client: “Can you come out and look at my slab foundation house and tell me if there is a problem?”
Me-”Possibly. Why do you ask?”
Client-”I am concerned there is a foundation problem.”
Me-”What makes you think there may be a foundation problem?”
Client-”I saw a crack in the drywall.”
Me-”How long since you’ve painted”
Client-”I don’t know. Maybe 10 years ago.”
Me-”How long have you seen that crack?”
Client- “Two years ago.”
Me-”Can you see the concrete slab? Is it cracked or tilting?”
Client-”No, I can’t see the slab. It has tile and hardwood and laminate and carpet flooring covering the slab.”
Me”-Is the slab sloping? Do the doors and windows work?”
Client-”I can’t tell. The doors and windows work”
Me-”Is there a evidence of a vertical crack in the edge of the slab that goes up and down on the exterior?”
Me-”So, again, what makes you think there is an issue?”
Client-”I am just buying the house/inherited the house/lived in the house for 20 years/ want to paint/want to remodel/my contractor, relative and friends who have no experience in foundations think there might be an issue, I am nervous and haven’t had anything to worry about lately.”
Me-”Have you had an engineer look at it and make recommendations?”
Me-”Are you willing to pull up the flooring?”
Me-”I am afraid I can’t really bid anything unless I see some sort of damages to repair.”
Client: “But don’t you have a way to see if there is a problem”
Me: “Sorry, I lost my x-ray glasses” (Okay, I don’t usually say that)
At this point I explain that I am a foundation repair contractor. I give bids for repairs. Often, I can see exactly what is going on, and can get a good price for repairs. However, I don’t like to guess, and I don’t like to make up repairs that are unnecessary. So, if I can’t see anything, I can’t really give a bid, right? That’s when I recommend an engineer. Just so you know, I have engineers I like, but don’t pay them and they don’t pay me. I just expect them to do good work.
Engineer’s are hired for their professional opinion. A Civil Engineer can look at the structure, etc. and make a determination about what should be done. They don’t have x-ray glasses either, but can measure floor levels, etc. If there is an underlying soils issue they may refer you to a Geotechnical Engineer, which is a civil engineer who understands the dirt. They can tell if you are on fill soil, clay soil, etc. The engineer makes recommendations (usually in a report) and we can provide a bid based on that report. Yes, they charge for their service. They carry the right insurance to perform their work, and (if they are competent) have the knowledge and experience to back up their recommendations. They are all different, so talk to one or more if you need that kind of help.
I am not trying to get out of anything, but I don’t want to waste our time (mine and yours) by not being able to give you anything useful, and only sending you to the engineer anyway. Again, my job is to bid jobs, and if that takes some diagnosing and insight, fine, but I have limits.
Next is a simple question I get before every job on a house with a raised foundation. People assume that they need to move out for us to perform the repairs. Generally, you don’t need to. The work is done outside and underneath, and we really don’t want to be in your house. When we replace a foundation, we do not lift the house in the air and then set it back down. That’s the old way and it stinks. You have to disconnect the plumbing etc., and then you would need to move out (unless you hate showers and like using porta potties). We do it in place, which means you stay in place. We adjust the house and get it level, then pour a new foundation in place. It’s dirty and take a long time, but you can stay home.
This leads to another question. People ask “Will you break my house?” The answer is Yes. But to really answer your question, we have to define that we will not break your house in half. When we replace a foundation or level the floors in your house, we are going to break something in the house. Not maybe-for sure! Maybe we will just crack some plaster. That is par for the course. I guarantee, if I am working on your house, it’s already cracked in the plaster. Perhaps it is repaired, but it’s cracked underneath,a and that crack will likely reoccur. Maybe a door will need adjusting, or a window. Tile will crack. The list goes on. I tell every client, and I put it in my contract, and I put it in the estimate, so this is usually well understood. Inevitably, for some people it is a surprise
that something broke. Usually, the damage is minor, and the client gets it. We really try not to break things, but when you lift a house, put it on jacks, and push a rigid structure around, things can and do break. These damages are generally cosmetic and specific.
If you have an old house, and it has plaster, that plaster has cracked before. Look close, and you will see patches and old cracks. When you push the house back to level, those cracks will reappear. You will need to fix them, and you will need to paint. If a door was adjusted to latch when the house settled, then you will need to readjust it when the house is leveled. I can’t predict the extent of repairs that will be necessary (or it’s cost) but it’s not $20. I cannot bid work that I cannot define, and that I don’t do (like windows). Like a boy scout, you need to be prepared.
The biggest issues of things that can break are plumbing and chimneys. While generally plumbing does well, cast iron drain lines are rated at 50 years. Unless your home was built after 1963, then you are living on borrowed time with your drains. This doesn’t mean it will break, but please don’t be shocked if it does. We get pretty intimate with the bottom of your house, so we may find existing issues such as leaky pipes before we even start lifting the house.
Chimneys are a special case. I have broken maybe a half dozen chimneys over my career. The old ones have brittle mortar, and are connected to the framing, so they can be affected. Breaking a chimney is something we try very hard not to do, but I never, (again for emphasis) NEVER guarantee them. We can push a house nowhere close to a chimney, and it can still break. I will now quote my contract- “Contractor is not responsible for any and all damages resulting from this work to unreinforced chimneys in any way.” I know this will not stop people from being upset when the chimney does break, but at least I can say they were warned. It’s like skydiving and being surprised when the chute doesn’t open. We can’t take the risk for you. If we don’t level the house
the chimney (probably) won’t be affected, but if we do then you take the chance. So please don’t try to take it out on me. You can cry on my shoulder, as I feel your pain.
Wow, I feel better getting that off my chest. If you have read this long, thank you! If you haven’t read to this point, then you are a slacker. Of course that’s not you! If you skipped forward you are just like me, a bit of slacker sprinkled with curiosity, which I respect.
I am pissed off today. I am not ticked every day, but everyone has their moments. I need to vent immediately, so it’s time for a rant. Sure, I am busy, and I may not finish this in one sitting, but if I don’t lay it out right now it may not have the tone I want to express.
It has been said that the customer is always right, right? It makes sense, as the customer pays the bills, so they should call the shots. I agree, but the customer is only right until they are wrong. And I guess, since I won’t be working for the gentleman who has inspired this rant, I will not be talking about a customer.
In order to be clear about my position on old houses and historic preservation, I admit to being a bit of a Nazi. Not in the brutal subjugation and killing of people sense, but in being a bit of a stickler, a bit inflexible. Lets just call me particular. I love old houses, the older the better. So when I went to my estimate this morning, I was excited. I was told that the house was built in 1860. Wow! That would be the oldest house foundation repair of my career, if I was fortunate to work on it.
I was a minute or so early, so I took my time walking up. I noted that the house appeared to be built around 1890. Too bad, but still a nice house, and it looks to be in pretty good shape. I do notice a few things right away. The front door isn’t square. And the deck has a coating on it instead of the original wood t&g floor. And, like I said, based on my experience and the architecture, built more like 1880 to 1890, but ok, I’ll just say it’s old and cool.
The client had called because he wants to put in a basement. In San Diego, basements are pretty rare. And putting them in on an existing house is even more rare. I have bid them a number of times, but have only done about one or two a year. Usually I replace an old worn one or add in something small. It can make sense, but there is a lot of work involved in doing them. When you do the math, the reality of what it costs doesn’t match what people think it should cost. In short, you have to excavate in a limited access area, typically without machines, haul away A LOT of dirt, support the house, pour lots of huge walls and seal behind them, and put in French drains, and pay for permits, engineering, finish work, etc. So unless you really wanted one and had money to burn, you probably wouldn’t do it. And if you are calling me for this kind of bid, I usually bring this up on the phone because I don’t want to waste my time (and yours).
However, when the “potential” client called originally, he had me with 1860. Kinda like bacon, I can’t resist it, so that part is on me.
I follow him under the old house, through a pile of stuff (yes, he needs some storage) and the potential of doing this project seems to make sense, due to the height of the rear sub area. But, when I look under the front, uncluttered portion of the sub area, the original foundation is so bad that it made me gasp. Let me be clear, you don’t want your foundation contractor to gasp. We see all kinds of stuff, and most times I yawn and measure for a bid. But this one is bad, as in top 10 bad, and that’s saying something.
The perimeter was supported on small stacks of bricks that may have been mortared at one time, but that mortar is now sand. The piers are 6 feet apart, and a large portion of the areas between was filled with stacked hollow blocks. The technical term in contracting speak is it’s a “P.O.S.,” or if you don’t speak contractor, a “Piece of S%#t.”
Upon gazing on this aged example of 18th century technology, I then said in the most positive voice I could muster (I am not sure my exact words but this is close) “Well this will make sense. You can put in the basement for the back portion of the house and at the same time address the foundation issue for the entire house and make sure it’s safe.” The client pauses as we walk out of the sub area to look at the exterior.
That’s when the client starts giving me the song and dance about how well the house is constructed structurally, in effect stating that there was not one crack in the house, how it’s been here a hundred years, and doesn’t need foundation repairs, just a basement. There’s nothing wrong with the house, The house is stable, blah blah blah.
Now, I know that isn’t true. You can patch plaster cracks all you want, and hide that fact the house has a bad foundation. I’ve seen the truth, and you can tap dance as fast as you want, I still see the man behind the curtain. If it looks like it came out of the back end of a duck, it’s crap, and I don’t need to taste it to know.
But, that’s not my issue. I said “Are you into old cars?” “Sure” He replies. I say then state that doing the basement without addressing the rest of the foundation is like rebuilding the engine and not addressing the rest of the drive train. He states that he doesn’t want to address it, he only wants a quote for a basement. That’s when I stop walking.
Okay, I got a little upset. Not screaming and yelling upset, but as mad as I get on a job site (I’m not a shouter unless I have a guitar strapped to me, and I don’t get upset then). I am happy to give free quotes and free advice, and you don’t have to accept either, but I won’t be party to a half assed job. At my age (I can now say that) I am not about to suffer fools. “Sir,” I said, “If you are not going to fix it right then I can’t be involved.” I thanked him for his time and I left.
Now, don’t think that I am mad at him personally. I don’t get every job, and I didn’t waste a lot of time here. I bet there are contractors who will want to do that job no matter what. I would love to fix that house, and if it’s done right, this is upwards of $100k in work. I am ok if he really can’t afford it. But it is extremely frustrating to see a house like that be neglected by its owner. Thinking you will spend money on a basement and not fix the underlying issues is neglect, especially since you probably have no idea the actual costs involved. I cannot be the only person who will tell him that the foundation needs to be replaced. I know most of my major competitors at least would mention it, and may even agree with me and also walk away from giving a bid. Any competent engineer would be aghast at the condition of the foundation. As far as I am concerned, if a true professional were to state this foundation doesn’t need repair, I want to know who they are so I can stay away from them.
I understand when someone cannot afford to repair his or her foundation. This is often expensive work, and money is tight. So start saving-but don’t bury your head in the sand. A bad foundation can last for many years as long as a major event (Katrina, Earthquake, etc.) doesn’t put stresses on the house, but ignoring it won’t make it go away. I have to assume this guy has some money, otherwise why bother adding a basement?
So bottom line, if you are a client (or a potential client) understand that I am only going to do it right. I can be flexible, but not that flexible. By far, most of the people I meet understand where I am coming from and I appreciate them. You probably would not have read this far if you don’t agree at least a little, and I am glad there are lots of people who appreciate higher standards. I am also thankful that I am not desperate enough for work to compromise my principles.
I think old buildings are a part of our heritage and reflect a level of craftsmanship that cannot be duplicated. I like my clients, and appreciate them, but they are separate from the house itself. The house should still be here after we are all dead and gone. Old houses have soul and we, as caretakers of these houses, have to make sure that they are preserved for generations to come.
Whew, I feel better already….thanks for reading!
So this is not really a rant, but a situation that occurs all too often (although not with this much discussion). I did an estimate for a house. The house needed a new perimeter foundation, with new posts and piers, and leveling of the floors. I did the bid in February of 2010. The bid was about $33k total, including plans and permits.
I get a call from an agent about a house for sale. Presumably, repairs were made recently, about $20k worth, with an engineered plan. So, as I typically do, I look up my records and note my original bid. I agree to look it over, as my curiosity got to me.
I look at the repairs. Basically, the perimeter was replaced, the posts and piers ignored, and the quality was very poor. I write a follow up estimate. Both estimates are here:
February 23, 2010
Via e-mail to
Dear Ms. Client:
As per your request, I have completed a preliminary cost estimate for foundation repairs at the property located at Blank Avenue, San Diego. This estimate is based on a visual inspection, as well as my subsequent conversation with you.
We examined the perimeter foundation system for the front, original portion of the house, and noted it has significant wear, with exposed aggregate and crumbling concrete. Furthermore, the post and pier system in the sub area is also badly deteriorated. We recommend replacement of the foundation system for the front, original portion of the house with a concrete stemwall foundation in the near future, particularly prior to major renovations.
We propose to support and lift the house with hydraulic jacks, remove 98 lineal feet of the existing perimeter foundation at the sides and front of the original house, and to pour in place a new foundation. We will perform a floor level survey and level the floors prior to pouring the foundation. We will install an additional row of 4×6 beams as necessary for supporting and leveling the floors. The new perimeter foundation will consist of the following: A stemwall 8 inches thick, reinforced with two pieces of 1/2 inch rebar placed horizontally. This will sit on a footing 15 inches wide, 24 inches deep, reinforced with four pieces of 1/2” rebar continuous. Foundation bolts will be 5/8 by 12 inches including a 3” square washer, and will be galvanized, placed at 4-foot intervals around the perimeter as well as within 12” of corners and connections between sections of sill plate. The concrete will be rated at a minimum of 2500 P.S.I. We will replace the entire sill plate with new 3×8 pressure treated fir and provide full blocking and double the rim joist. We will add Simpson A35 connectors at 24” intervals between the new sill and the blocking/rim joist, as well as between the bottom plate of the wall and the blocking/rim joist. The posts and piers will be upgraded and added with precast concrete strapped piers placed at 4’ intervals, placed on 16” square concrete pads, 12” deep, and with new pressure treated 4×4 posts. The poured pads will be reinforced with ½” rebar placed in a grid. We will strap post to beam connections with Simpson AC4 straps. We will strap the beam to joist connections with Simpson HST2.5 straps. We will remove and replace the adjacent concrete flatwork as necessary to access the foundation. We will place temporary restroom facilities on site for the duration of the project. We have not included landscaping, painting, siding, plaster or other cosmetic repairs. We will supply all necessary supervision, labor, and materials for completion of the project. We will provide the historic review, engineering, plans and permits necessary for the foundation replacement. Cost for this work is $32,825.
Six Months Later…
August 3, 2010
Via e-mail to
Dear Mr. Client:
As per your request, I inspected the property located at Blank Avenue, San Diego. Prior to evaluating the property I reviewed our previous estimate dated February 23rd, 2010 for this property, which is included as an addendum to this letter. We were informed also that some foundation work had been performed at the property and were informed that an engineering plan had been prepared for the work that was performed. Subsequent to our inspection we reviewed the scope of work and the engineering plan.
Our inspection revealed several issues. First, no work appears to have been performed on the posts and piers. As noted in our previous inspection the concrete is badly worn on the posts and piers, and we noted they generally have tilting and deteriorated posts, shims added between the posts and beams and posts and piers, excessive spans between the posts by current standards, and very limited access into the sub area. Soil that was previously excavated was not removed from the sub area, but piled up making many areas inaccessible. Furthermore, insufficient ventilation was observed, as current code requires 1 square foot of ventilation per 150 square feet of sub area.
We also noted that the perimeter foundation appears to have been replaced. We noted several deficiencies in the engineering plans, as well as the scope of work and implementation of the repairs. First, there appears to be no permit or approved plans with the City of San Diego as required by code. Also, the foundation bolts, nuts and washers are not galvanized, and the washers are not 3” square washers as required by code. The plans did not detail this requirement. The sill plate is not detailed in the plans, but current code requires a 3×8 pressure treated sill, and we observed 2×8 sill plate. Existing beam-ends no longer sit on the stemwalls, and are not connected to the framing. The cripple walls were replaced with a 2×4 placed on edge, but we observed large gaps between the sill plate and the 2×4, as well as between the 2×4 and the rim joist. Shims and cut wood wedges were installed randomly in the gaps. Additional 4×6 beams have been placed adjacent to the rim joists to support new sub floor sections. The engineering plan makes no mention of these details, and the plans do not match current city requirements. This may because they were only preliminary working drawings, not intended for city permitting. Nevertheless, permitting would have caused the plans to be completed in a manner matching requirements. It is our assumption and hope that the project engineer did not observe the completed project.
The plans also called for a beam to be placed to support the perimeter behind the front porch, placed on 4 poured concrete piers. The plans call for a pressure treated beam, but from a distance it appears that the beam is a laminated beam, which would be susceptible to deterioration. Closer investigation is recommended. We also find this type of repair to be a poor substitute for replacement of the perimeter as it creates cantilevering of the floor joists, which in our experience, causes future distress to the floors, creating a noticeable bowing or bending of the floors.
It is also our opinion that the footing depths outlined in the plans is insufficient, as it is common knowledge the soil conditions in the area are considered moderately to extremely expansive. A footing depth of 24” below grade is typical. Inspection by the city would also have likely revealed this issue. Since we have no record of plans or permits it is unclear if the footing depths match the plans, or if the coverage of the reinforcing steel is sufficient.
At this point, we recommend that a competent engineer evaluate the property, a repair plan and permits be secured, and proper repairs made. At minimum, it should be anticipated that the excess soil be removed from the sub area, the post and piers should be replaced, the perimeter framing and bolting be repaired, the installed beam be evaluated, and any other issues that are discovered are addressed. Due to the generally extremely poor implementation of the repairs we observed and the likelihood of issues with the footings consisting of inadequate steel coverage, unsure footing depth, improperly cleaned footings, suspect quality of concrete and the likelihood of soil movement in our opinion a complete replacement as per our original bid, with the additional costs of demolition of the existing may be warranted. Cost for this work including plans, permits and engineering is $39,825. Please note that additional costs for siding repair, paint, plaster or other cosmetic repairs are not included.
Now, after the second estimate, I thought would be the end of it. Then, I got an e-mail back from the agent with some questions. I responded with the following picture and comment that will be referenced. I thought THAT would be the end of it…
But No. After the agent forwarded the picture to the “contractor” I then got this e-mail from the “contractor” who did the actual work.
“Larry, We are neighbors though we have never met. Your office is a couple of blocks from my house, and I watched the snail pace progress that you guys made on that house on Collier. I never slam another contractor or their work in the manner which you did-it is really quite atrocious the tone which you took. I could perpetuate a lot of the rumors that I hear in regards to you, your crew, your personal conduct, failures in shoring etc.. while on foundation repair estimates but I do not, because that is not profesional conduct, (and it really makes you look flakey as well.)”
And my reply?
“Pictures are worth a thousand words.
Note the bolt with no 3″ square washer. Note the lovely shims. Note the
piles of debris, the beam that misses. The nailing of the shim. There is
more, but I just had my i-phone.
I would love to go there with my good camera. Beauty.
And again, the contractor replies…
“It is quite obvious to ANYONE with any construction experience that the floor beam was existing as were the shims. While the split in the 2×4 fill between the plate and the existing sill is unattractive, I dont think I deserve what you said.
We didn’t miss any of our beam connections. I dont know why you would try to stir up muck. You caused my client a lot of grief and put a strain on our relationship, you are causing the property not to sell and I need you to revise your review. This is truly a low blow and am dissapointed that somebody that is a competitor of mine plays on that level. I will be over there to remove the debris left by the trades to apease the client, maybe I will see you there.”
WOW! Was I that wrong on this? I am the lowlife guy who makes up details about how poor the work I observed was just to be vindictive? Was I mistaken? High on epoxy fumes?
No, I wasn’t wrong. Here is my response:
I was intrigued by your e-mail. Perhaps you should not have lead with the “snails pace” comment and then said you never slam another contractor. So which is it? I will say, I will slam another contractor, when he deserves it. That will be later.
To respond to your comments:
The job on Collier? Took 6 weeks. Takes that long if you do it right. Here is the client’s testimonial:
TESTIMONIAL-Craftsman Foundation Repair
Hi Mr. Davis:
We happened to drive by your house on Collier and noticed that one of our competitors was performing work there.
If it’s not too much trouble, would you be so kind as to let us know what we could have done to earn your business?
We are always looking for ways to improve out services so that more work comes our way!
Thanks so much,
-At the start of the job-
Dear “Competitor A”
Choosing Larry Teves at Craftsman was a long process for me. I received bids from you, “Competitor B” and Larry as well as a couple of general contractors. When discussing the job with the general contractors who weren’t specialists, it became clear that the job was not something I wanted to give to someone who had not done this before.
Once I settled on going with a company with a lot of foundation experience, choosing became a chore because there really are a lot of companies in the area that do a lot of this work. As you know, there are tons of houses in the area with 90 year old, bad foundations. The houses that people want to save get done.
A couple of people I know used Craftsman before. They were happy with the work and the scheduling. That wasn’t enough for me to choose them.
Larry was the only one of the three I settled on who spent a lot of time talking to me about the specifics of the project. I told every one of the contractors that I’ve done some major projects myself. While that was true, I didn’t have a sense of how detailed this job would be. I probably spent an hour on the phone with Larry over two weeks and met with him at the house for an hour before it dawned on me that this was a job that I couldn’t be the General on because I didn’t have the know-how. But beyond that, Larry told me in great detail how the project would be completed. He told me how they leveled the floors. How they supported the structure throughout. When I could do interior plaster work. Larry also came up with a lot of paint and trim ideas. He really is enthusiastic about the whole rehab as a project and not just the foundation job. Over the last three weeks I’ve met with him a number of times and his enthusiasm continues – he’s got good ideas as the total rehab goes forward.
“Competitor A” and “Competitor B” showed up and gave me written bids. When I asked specifics, I didn’t get specific answers. I got general answers. Like I asked “How can you take the stem wall out without dropping the house?” Your answer, while 100% true, didn’t tell me anything. You said, “We will support it.” That didn’t give me a picture of how that would be done – on jacks, beams and a crane? I didn’t know. I had to see the project clearly both to convince myself that I couldn’t orchestrate it myself and to convince myself that I had a contractor who really understood what I wanted out of the project.
Both “Competitor A” and “Competitor B” told me that leveling would be iffy. I read a lot of stuff on the Internet that talked about crowning floors and how hard it would be to level an old house. I brought that up with you and “Competitor B” and both told me that it might not be as level as I wanted it. Larry, on the other hand, expressed a lot of confidence and again, he told me HOW he combats crowning, if there is any, and said that he can usually get a floor pretty darned level. The initial leveling has been very good, even as they move the jacks around while framing. I understand there’s no guarantee on level and that the house will shift while I live in it. But there was a lot more confidence that I’d be happy with the leveling from Larry.
I checked out all the contractors with BBB and other means before I asked for bids. I was confident that everyone I got bids from was competent.
But the reason I picked Craftsman/Teves was that his attitude and helpfulness on the whole house rehab was much more inclusive. As the project progresses, I’m more convinced that picking him as the contractor was the right choice for me.
Timothy Lee Davis
-After the job-
Dear Mr. Teves:
I want to thank you for the completed job on my house at 3498 Collier Avenue. As time after the foundation completion goes by, I find more and more reasons that your guys did a great job.
For example, we expected cracking in the plaster from moving the house around. But 99% of the cracks in the wall were old cracks that had been previously repaired. What this clearly means is that when the old foundation settled and when earthquakes juggled the house, the house was out of its original square and the owners then fixed the plaster cracks inside. When you leveled the house to replace the foundation, the old repairs cracked again to allow me to repair them with the house walls square again. I found joint tape in all of the big cracks and joint compound clearly showing this.
If you’ll recall, that house was as much as four inches sagging on the corners where the most settling occurred. Of the three new cracks, they were hairline. That also showed me the carefulness and professionalism that your guys exhibited when they jacked the house up, supported it, removed the old foundation, put the new one in and let the house rest on the new foundation. If any one of those evolutions had been done improperly, I would have seen tons of big, new cracks in the plaster and stress on the joints. None of that happened.
Your work crews treated this house more delicately than the grocery store handles eggs.
Every day that I walk into my house I get a smile on my face from that new foundation.
Please feel free to direct others who are considering foundation work to contact me. I’ll be very happy to tell them that you really did a great project management. Your experience, and the experience of everyone in your work crews really shows.
Timothy Lee Davis
Attorney at Law
I don’t know you from Adam. But, I know you got your contractor’s license in March of 2010. You been doing this for all of 5 months? I got my license in 1994, and I got my specialty license in 1998 for foundation repairs. I actually worked for 5 years crawling under houses doing foundation repairs for the Horizon Company before I got my license. We have done over 1800 foundation repair jobs.
I noticed you do not have a specialty license to do foundation repairs. No shock there. Read the code. You aren’t even licensed to do this work exclusively.
Yes, in case you care, my company dropped a house. Made the news. Insurance rebuilt the client’s house completely, better than before, and I refunded all their money. Put them in a hotel. I hope it never happens to you or your clients. If it does, I challenge you to do what I did. By the way, Atlas and RAD both called to offer me help, and I respect them for it. I have seen their work, and they would be mortified if they did work of this poor quality. We respect each other, even as competitors, because we care about our work and what we do.
I don’t put down other contractor’s work that I haven’t seen, or those that I have seen that is to code, even if there are some flaws. Even if it’s done in a different way than I would do it, as long as it is serviceable. I have seen lots of shoddy work in my career, but this one is in the top 10 for sure. The foundation work you are referring to is just plain crap.
Look at this picture:
This is right by the opening. What does the other side of the house look like? Is that not the foundation bolt you installed? It’s NOT RIGHT. It doesn’t match code. It’s not galvanized, and doesn’t have a 3″ square washer as required. The sill plate is not 3×8 pressure treated. That is the current code. How can you defend that?
Is that wood framing not new? I had trouble describing it it was so bad. Those gaps not filled with shims are all around the house. If someone else framed this (sure they did) couldn’t you at least have removed this crap and framed this properly instead of leaving it? That is just not how it should be done.
Regardless, again, this would not have passed an inspection by any competent engineer, contractor or city inspector, and if you don’t know it, well, that proves my point. Whoever did this either doesn’t know or doesn’t care.
This is only one of the many issues I found. As I said in my estimate, I recommend a competent engineer fully evaluate the foundation for this house. Then it won’t be contractor vs. contractor.
If you cared about your client, you would not have done a job of this quality. When you go there to clean up your mess, look at the beam ends. At one time they rested on the perimeter. Now, they are flying, not touching anything. You could at least have placed a pier (with a footing, that is code by the way) under the beam ends. If the client hammered you into doing a job for way too cheap to make it work you are still required to do the part you are doing to code. That was on the law portion of your contractor’s test. Lack of budget does not permit doing poor work.
By the way, I don’t consider you a competitor. And, I don’t want to work on this house fixing this mess. But when I am called out to look at something, then I will tell the truth about what I see. All the crying and complaining in the world won’t make me lie to make a deal go through. So, no, I won’t be revising my review.
Feel free to forward this to anyone you want. Believe me, I can’t wait to put it on my website. I stand by what I said.
By the way, that client on Collier? Maybe he’ll let you look under the house to see how a foundation replacement is supposed to be done.
Professional Conduct? Are you kidding me?
-Larry Teves, President
This story goes on. But, regardless, I am hoping I never have to fix this mess, and that the new buyers will be told exactly what they are getting here. Unfortunately, I am afraid that will not be the case.
I didn’t get up today expecting it would be such a perfect day for writing a rant. Another day in paradise, as we say in San Diego. Rain is expected, which is a good thing in drought-ridden California, but generally pretty rare. If you have read my other rants you know I like rain, because it causes the ground to move, concrete to wear, and dollar signs to appear in the foundation contractor’s eyes. Of course it is the homeowner’s enemy, so check out my advice in my other rants. However, that isn’t the reason I am writing today. I have covered that before, and frankly, I talk about water so much sometimes it makes me have to pee. It’s just that sometimes things come up, and I realize that the mess I am involved today might shed light enough to help others avoid the problems in the future.
Today, I have three great examples of foundation problems. Not the actual foundation problems themselves. These are problems resulting from poor decisions or unfortunate circumstances. The “normal” estimate/job process is: The client calls me up, maybe they are buying a house, maybe they have owned it for awhile, then I look it over, send them an estimate, then they call me up “Hey Larry, send me a contract, come fix my house!” kind of normal stuff. No, what I am talking about is the problem with a client fixed, or rather, didn’t fix the problem. And now the foundation problem has become a financial problem.
The first example is a guy who bought a house about three years ago, and supposedly the previous owner had it fixed by a contractor. He told me the name of the contractor, but I will just say it’s someone well known in town that does work similar to mine (note the choice of the word “similar”). Anyway, the problem is the posts and piers were old and worn out, and the perimeter foundation had a number of vertical cracks. This is what I call “bread and butter” type stuff for us-we see and fix these all the time. Typical 1920’s house, without a concrete perimeter foundation that isn’t completely worn out, but the posts and piers are worn out or have major issues, and the perimeter has some vertical cracks. So, the proper repair of the posts and piers is to support the beams, remove the old piers, start one foot from the end of the beam, and install piers every 4 feet, as well as under every split in the beam (where the beam comes together end to end, like a kiss). Standard, by the book, by current code stuff. So what does the contractor do? Put new piers in-but between the old piers, leaving the old worn out piers in place. Puts the first pier right next to the old pier, about 4 feet from the beam-ends. Doesn’t remove the piers at the beam splits, just add one next to it. Is this right? Kinda…maybe, but no, not really. Because now the home inspector points brings up the issue of how the beam ends are not supported, and how the original piers are old and should be replaced, and it’s a big issue. Of course the other issue is the vertical cracks. These the contractor epoxy injected. Working just fine except….he missed repairing at least three of them. So they need to be fixed. This is a minimum $3,000 bid from me, just to fix a problem that was supposedly already addressed. What about removing the old piers, etc.? That’s more. Really not the client’s fault, but then again, who hired this Yahoo? Who inspected this work? Are they standing behind their work? (You know the answer here is no). The upshot-client can’t sell his house without fixing the problem or lowering the selling price.
One of these calls any given day is not unusual. But wait-there is more!
Problem two-I get a call from a guy I gave an estimate for four years ago. Seems he had a post and pier system that was also in bad shape. Not his doing-he bought the house that way. This is a little different-new piers installed without poured footings (not code!), no posts and only shims and blocks, and several missing posts. Some minor cracks in the stemwalls-more bread and butter! (Did I mention I like bread and butter?) Did nothing for three years (he really should have fixed it then….) and now he is in escrow. The buyer really likes the house, and wants to buy it if it has no major foundation problems. No worries, right? Wrong! He calls me because they had a home inspection (disclosure anyone?), and the buyer brought in another contractor. The contractor wants to replace the perimeter foundation, even though the wear is pretty minor, and it looks to have lots of life left. Is he wrong? I think so. But now we have a conflict, and an engineer needs to come in and “break the tie”. I am fine with that, but that’s $600 gone (not my money!), and likely additional requirements and paperwork. Worst case is the engineer says, “Replace the whole thing” and now your $10k problem just became a $50k problem. As my wife says when I do something stupid (daily) “That’s what you get!”. Still waiting to see how this one turns out.
Thought that was enough for one day, but here is my doozy. Got a call a couple days ago from a real estate agent. The sellers of a property had received a quote from me a few months back to replace the posts and piers. They forward my quote, and say to the buyers that the work is getting done, starting this week. So he calls me with some questions about the work. “What job?” I say. I am actually doing a job almost across the street. So I am a bit confused (doesn’t take much) until I get to my computer and find out that I am not doing that job, I had only done an estimate and never heard anything. So I called him back and tell him, and he says he will call the selling agent and let me know. Turns out that the sellers have another contractor (who I have never heard of) doing the job. Just a “misunderstanding”. Fine with me-as long as I don’t have to do a warranty repair on someone else’s work. So of course, he calls me back today, because the deal is going to fall through. For some reason, the contractor has poured the piers, but says they can’t set the piers for 10 days. Huh? Are they building a new baseball stadium? I have put posts on piers poured the next day for the last 20 years. I later asked an engineer friend about it and he confirmed they don’t need to wait. How convenient that they can’t set the posts till after the contingency period is over. This is fishy, of course, and with all the shenanigans up ’til now the buyers have no faith or trust in the sellers that the work will be done well, let alone finished correctly. So, as a favor (and because I am curious) I get to go by tomorrow to check it out. I can’t write a report (I am not an engineer or inspector) but as you can imagine I will be, well, a little anal about what I see. If they are not 4’ apart as required by code (4’ 1”? repour!) or something else is wrong, they will know about it. Really, it will be a shame to take my frustration out on some poor schlub contractor. But, take the good name of Craftsman Foundation Repair and use it to deceive or confuse a client and somebody is going to bear the burden. It may be the work is done just fine, but I ain’t betting on it!
So what’s the point? I don’t expect people to change their behavior completely. I am not that naïve. I just assume that people who read my rants care about their house, their foundation, and their pocketbook. Foundation work is not really that complicated, nor something really we want to deal with, but sometimes how people deal with a problem can have a huge effect on the bottom line, and can make what I consider simple decisions really complicated. I hope if I point out some of the pitfalls you might be able to step around them.
Hi Ya’ll! It’s once again time to get stuff off my chest. Instead of going to therapy, I just write another rant. Stuff sure builds up when living day to day in the foundation repair field. I imagine most every job has its challenges (i.e. pains in the tush) that you pretty much ignore, until something sets you off.
With the latest issue I’ve had, I must say that I am proud of myself for just sticking to my guns, and to not saying everything that ran through my mind. I must be getting mellow with age, or maybe I just don’t want to waste my time. And getting to write a rant helps. Since my rants are about anonymous people, you get to hear what I really think.
So I am in my office the other day, minding my own business, (literally, as I was balancing the company checkbook. Oh so fun.) when the phone rings. It’s a contractor calling about a project he’s working on. Now, let me point out, that I know lots of good contractors. I recommend them out a lot, like Jim Crawford, the chimney guy. (Sorry Jim, your anonymity is gone) I know he’s both particular about his work, and he gets old houses. But more often than not, I don’t care for contractors. We’re a smelly, grubby lot, and I am tired of other contractors telling me how to do my job. I do what I do, I leave the plumbing to the plumber, so leave the foundations to me. Besides, contractors are often slow payers, and will cheat you worse than lawyers. Oh yeah, I said it. I’d rather work for a lawyer than most contractors. In fact, check out my testimonial-he’s a lawyer, and a good guy. Living dichotomy. Finally, so many contractors bend the rules on workman’s comp, insurance, and just plain incompetence that I am leery when a contractor I don’t know calls me.
Anyway, as is usual, he tells me a story how he started to work on this house, and found some foundation issues. Right away, I bite my tongue. How did you find out about foundation issues AFTER you started working on this house? Didn’t you look first? I don’t expect you to know everything, but you had no clue? I suspect he did have a clue, but needed the work, so figured he’d “open her up” and then go from there.
After he spends 10 minutes describing the project in detail, I try to wheedle the address out of him. Now, this is typically tough with these guys, because I guess he’s concerned I will steal this job from him somehow. But, I have no interest in dry walling, painting, replacing windows, setting tile, etc. He should have no interest in doing foundation work, just like I don’t do granite countertops or eat sushi-not my bag, man.
I finally get the address, and sure enough, I find out I did an estimate 5 years before. This is not unusual-I’ve done thousands of estimates over the years. What surprised me is I did the estimate for the current homeowners. They had been told the entire foundation needs replacement. This is a large, expensive job, and should be done before all the “cosmetic” work they are planning is done. So I guess nobody talks anymore, either homeowners to contractors, or vice versa. Can’t we all get along?
We set up a time, and I tell him, hey, no guarantees, likely it hasn’t fixed itself, it’s probably a large job. Lets check it out. He goes on about the client’s not having a large budget, etc. Now here is pet peeve number 3,086. (Oh, I got issues) While I am sympathetic about lack of money (oh, I understand that!) that really doesn’t change the bid. The only way the price changes is if I change the scope of work. If the foundation is shot, I can’t just fix it a little bit. Better that you wait on the repairs till you can do them right. But while I am sympathetic, in this case, I figure they had five years to save up. Since I’ve never met them, I really can’t speak too much about what they are up against, so I guess I am fine with it.
I go there the next day, and I can tell it’s shot in about 30 seconds. Just like five years before, the whole thing needs to be replaced. Sorry, it didn’t fix itself. I spend the first 15 minutes looking it over, showing him the damage, (and still wondering how he didn’t see it) and explaining the process of house the repair would proceed. Then, for the next fifteen minutes he tries to talk me into doing a portion of the foundation instead of the whole thing. He says how the client’s don’t have the money, and since they have started cosmetically fixing the front of the house in order to get historic status, they have a limited budget, yadda yadda yadda…..
This is where I am proud of myself. I put my foot down. I said there’s no way I’m repairing that foundation in a way that compromises my principles, that I am not putting my name on it if it isn’t done right. Its just time to bite the bullet and give this house the foundation it deserves. I mentioned the names of several competitors, and how they might be willing to do it, but I just can’t do it. At the end of the day, I probably lost about $20k in work. But I have to sleep at night, and this house deserves to be properly preserved. So, if you are going to ask me to do a job less than what I think is necessary, save me from saying no to a customer, which I hate.
Finally, a note on historic homes. I LOVE historic homes, the older the better. The Mills act was an attempt to preserve older homes by giving property tax breaks to building owners. This tax break isn’t there for you to buy a new car, or Jacuzzi, or even antiques to furnish the house. It was intended to reimburse the homeowner for the expenses necessary to preserve old homes. So, if you think owning an old home that has historic status is a way to save money, guess again. Old houses need lots of love (translation, money) so be prepared to give the house the necessary love it deserves.
Thank goodness for rainy days, or contractors would never get any paperwork done. Also, rain causes foundation problems, and well, that’s what we do here. Today, even the paperwork is under control, and I found myself having a long and often repeated conversation with a potential client. The subject is drainage. Now, I have done my fair amount of drainage over the years, and I am trying to get out of the business. Not foundation repairs (hey, I’ve got three kids I have to send to college!) but the drainage business. Sure, I still will do a French drain (more on those later) but the basic drainage stuff is too time consuming for me nowadays, especially since it is pretty simple. I am finding that doing what I do (fixing foundations) is best for me to focus on. Here, I hope to give you, my audience, enough information so that you can “self diagnose” your drainage needs, and then either hire someone (preferable) or do it yourself (you fool you!). This rant may be shooting myself in the wallet, but if I save you from big problems, I can console myself in knowing there are lots of other people who won’t follow my advice, or its too late already (insert diabolical laugh here….)
So, let’s define: what is drainage? I define drainage as getting the water away from the foundation. Water is the universal solvent. It wears out concrete, causes soil to shift, and can even make you sick with mold. So water is bad, right? No. Water is good, even if it is sometimes used to cut whiskey. Water makes plants green, cools you off when you dip in the pool, makes the dog clean (and smell funky) and is necessary to life. A necessary evil, but it must be controlled.
I must point out that my advice here is specifically aimed at older homes, but is generally true for all houses. In San Diego, we have large areas of older homes built on clay soil. Clay soil is expansive, which means it swells up when it gets wet, and shrinks when it dries out. This change is often seasonal. Wet in the winter and dry in the summer. When wet clay expands, it doesn’t really lift the house up, but expands up around the foundation (in an action we call “pumping”) like when you step in mud, and the soil bulges up around your shoe. The house moves relatively little from the increase in water in the soil. The problem is when the soil dries out in the hot So Cal summer, the ground dries, starts shrinking, and causes the foundation to settle. This is exacerbated by water that has intruded under a house and into the crawlspace. This soil takes longer to dry, causing the middle to settle later than the perimeter. This can also cause the perimeter to rotate out as the exterior dries and the interior stays wet. Also, the north side of the house is the shady side, and the south gets the sun. So one side dries out sooner, maybe doesn’t get as saturated. Porches, sidewalks, roofs that drain to the sides but not the front, all these variables also can cause differential settlement. Add uneven watering patterns or lack of irrigation, and the variables become quite daunting. Overwhelmed? Me too….
So let’s simplify. I said previously the key is Moderation. Are you ready? Got your crayon? Write this down! The key to drainage is: Avoid too much water in the winter, and too little in the summer.
Yes, it’s that simple. By using proper drainage to reduce the extreme saturation in the winter, and having landscaping that you water in the summer to keep a little moisture in the soil, you can minimize the effects. It’s that balance, that Zen of water if you will, that you are striving for.
Now, it’s as much an art as a science, and there are a lot of ways to get there. I will lay out the basics that can really help you. First, I always recommend raingutters. Specifically, seamless aluminum raingutters (I like copper too, but they are a bit more pricy). The downspouts need to be routed to direct water away from the house, into pipes if necessary. These pipes can also be used for area drains in patios and yards, but dollar for dollar, raingutters are the most effective way to keep water away from the house. Think of it this way: If it rains an inch in a day, and it drains off a 10 foot section of roof (most roof sections are twice that) then you have a concentration of 10” of water directly adjacent to your foundation. Shall I say it? OK….That’s very bad.
Some people say to me:”But I don’t want raingutters….the eaves are not built for it, the house didn’t originally have raingutters”. True. A lot of old houses didn’t have toilets, either. You can choose to not have gutters and have the water drain down to the ground, but then you might want to pour sidewalks around the house to direct the water away from the house. This is acceptable, but more expensive. Generally, code calls for a 2% slope directing water away from the house, but it sure helps when the slope is concrete. I try to incorporate drainage into patios, sidewalks, and other improvements, so I can get more bang for my buck, more living area out of my drainage improvements. While the powers that be in government want you to keep all the water on your property, it is not in your best interest to try to soak it all in on your property.
Generally, we’re talking common sense here. Water flows downhill, so make it flow downhill away from your house. The other common sense issue is to have some sort of landscaping that can be watered in the summer. It can be drought resistant; you just don’t want your yard to go back to desert every summer. Your design should incorporate these principles. You can also do the obvious stuff first, and then add to the improvements as needed.
Now, I will address the French Drain issue. (Should I call it a Freedom Drain?) So, what is a French Drain? A French Drain has two components: First, it is a barrier to stop water from moving sideways underground, and then a mechanism to remove the water. It is typically constructed by excavating a trench, placing a moisture barrier on the downhill side, and placing a pipe with holes in it to catch the water. We use gravel to back fill, and have filter fabric around the pipe itself and around the entire gravel bed. Works great, if done properly. So, why don’t we use them all the time?
There are a few issues. I will use a gross analogy (my wife will hate this) …The problem isn’t that you pick your nose, but where do you put the booger? If the drain is 3 feet deep, and your lot is flat, where does the pipe and water drain to? You need a sump to collect the water, and a pump to pump it out, to….where? You cannot legally pump water through the curb under pressure, so you need a “break box” to break the pressure, and then drain out by gravity. Oh, and when you dig out the trench, all the material (soil) needs to be removed and disposed of properly. That’s expensive, especially if done by hand. So, French drains are expensive, and when you are done, they are buried and you don’t really see them, and you may have a maintenance issue with electricity and a pump that wears out. Not as enjoyable as spending your money on… like… a new big screen TV or Cadillac. Hey, this is my rant, so I put in stuff I like!
My point is a French Drain is a last resort. Another last resort is a sump pump under your house. If you have enough water under your house to pump out, then you better reread this rant. Water under your house means the horse has left the barn, and the pump is you closing the door.
Finally, I have one more concept for you. There are two sources of water. Man and Nature. We’ve talked about Nature’s role, but what about Man’s role in this (or Woman’s for that matter. If it is a problem, my wife says blame Man). If your neighbor is over watering (sprinklers running in the rain) or you have a leak in your plumbing, or your waterbed bursts, you are going to have issues. These problems can be avoided or repaired, and I suggest occasionally checking your water meter and under your house for leaks or water, especially in summer and fall. If it’s wet in August, it probably ain’t Gods’ fault. For neighbors that get carried away with the water, I suggest a nice bottle of wine (or three) drank in friendly companionship (call it courage juice) and lay out your friendly reminder/taunting jeer.
Well, thanks for reading. Hope this rain stops or we’ll be trout fishing on Adams Avenue.
Ok, time for chapter three in the rant series. Thanks to all the people who complimented me on my previous op/ed pieces. Please note that this is my opinion only, and though it’s backed up by my experiences and observations, the bottom line is you should think for yourself. I also hope people don’t use my informing others of these cheating techniques to dupe other people who haven’t taken the time to learn about the right way to hire contractors to get their work done. Just because I point out reasons contractors play fast and loose with the rules doesn’t make it ok and I hope every contractor who does work illegally or badly is prosecuted, or at least doesn’t profit from it. Nevertheless, the real reasons I am adding a new chapter are because: One-I recently met a customer with a problem that is not unique and Two-it’s raining today and I have the time since I’m staying in the office. We all know about how bad So-Cal drivers are when it rains!
One of the most important sources of future work for us is real estate. In California , (as well as the rest of the country, I imagine) buyers inspect the homes they are purchasing prior to closing escrow, and often the issue of foundations comes up. And we get a call, look at the problem, and provide cost estimates. We also look at houses for people prior to selling, as well as regular homeowners. People are trying to get an idea of what work should be done so they are not surprised when they sell, or to protect their investment. Most people want to know that their house is safe and well maintained. It is also important, particularly on the older houses we work on, that any remodeling is done correctly, and in the right order. Leveling floors needs to be done BEFORE the windows and doors are installed. Otherwise, you cannot level the floors without ruining all the previous work. As foundation contractors, we are typically first in, to prevent future damages to the improvements being made to the house.
Unfortunately, the money involved in major foundation repairs is substantial. That’s why people investigate houses prior to buying, and why there are disclosure laws. These are intended to protect buyers from dishonest sellers, and also to protect all the parties involved, such as the agents, mortgage companies, etc. It may come as a shock to you, but it has happened that certain sellers will not tell buyers all they know about the condition of their house. While some things are unknowable (on my house we had a plumbing leak one month after close of escrow the previous owner could not have known) other things are, especially if they are investigated.
This is the time to point out that I keep records of all my estimates. I look at enough houses that I can’t remember a particular house by its address or owner, but I usually can when I see it. When you’ve looked at the same house three times for the same customer, it can get frustrating (the record is five). So, I check all estimate calls for previous estimates. This leads me to my story.
As I do most every day, I got a call for an estimate from a gentleman who had purchased a house about a year ago. I looked up his address, and lo and behold, a previous estimate. It seems the house has a few issues, including (and not limited to) insufficient access in the crawlspace (the house is too low), cracked and rotating perimeter foundation, posts and piers shot, rear addition without any foundation, and a porch that is badly cracked. The previous bid is around $30k (three years previously) given to the owner who sold it to an investor/rehab type contractor who then “fixed” up the house. And then sold it to this gentleman.
I suppose the investor might not have known there was a problem with the foundation. If he was blind, deaf and drank a fifth of scotch a day. But the neighbor who observed the “repairs” and overheard all the stories (like having a spy!) said he got a bid for 30k, then got a bid for 15k, then hired a guy who worked during the week on the new baseball stadium and weekends on this house to do the work for $5k. Which scares me to no end, having seen the work that was done. I hope he didn’t do anything important on the stadium! According to the neighbor, they cut holes in the floor, jacked up the house to improve the level (I couldn’t tell if it improved….) and placed wood blocks under the perimeter, and poured concrete around the blocks. Then patched the floors. Surprise, surprise, a year later it’s shifting, cracking the walls, cracking the new stucco. I see a cost of around $45k for the foundation, not counting the stucco, plaster, plumbing (lifting the house 12” for access) concrete flatwork, paint, plaster, re hanging kitchen cabinets, etc., etc. He’s got $70-80k in damages, and he’s now in mediation to figure it out.
This is a terrible situation for all involved. It also not as unusual as you would think. I often get calls about a house that I have looked at before, and the sellers haven’t been clear about the issues, in spite of the fact that they have received a bid from me for the repairs. I would assume they got other opinions if they didn’t agree with my assessment, and they may have been the same, or worse. When I get that call, I send a copy of the previous estimate, and let the buyer make their own conclusions. On the other hand, often the sellers say there has been estimates, provide a copy, or at least let the buyers know. That allows the buyer to purchase the house with full awareness of what they are getting into. Not to mention keeping everyone out of court. And some (not all) real estate agents are only interested in a commissions, and don’t care what happens. The agents are called “old pizza delivery dude” by teenagers-after their broker and they lose everything in the lawsuit.
So take this as a warning. If I give you an estimate, you are stuck with it. That’s not to say I am the god of foundation repairs. Get several bids to be sure of the issues. You may find two or three other contractors that disagree with me, and will say it’s no problem (sure you will….). But do understand that you can’t lie to people and say there isn’t a problem, because if there is, and you know it, and you don’t disclose it, it’s on you. And it’s a lot more expensive when you pay the buyer’s attorney fees.
Ok, so you got a group of bids from various contractors you don’t agree with. Your next option is to hire an engineer to evaluate the property. I often recommend an engineer, especially if there are issues that I’m not sure about. When it comes down to it, engineers trump contractors. Also, be aware that you should hire your own engineer, not have the contractor (that includes me) hire the engineer. You want the engineer to work for you, not me. The engineer has no profit motive to make the job bigger, only to ensure it’s done right. But be forewarned…engineers are conservative by nature, and will recommend doing the job correctly. This may put you back to my estimate.
I must also point out that these issues can be dealt with. I have rarely seen a project that made tearing the house down more feasible than repairing it-only major landslides come to mind, and that’s FEMA stuff. If the soil is bad, then the new house will have issues to deal with too. Often, the repairs are an improvement to the house that justifies a higher price on sale. Example? Your floors are tilting so badly no one wants to buy your house. You didn’t mind it, but your inner ear is destroyed and you drink all day (oh, that Uncle Bill…)-hard to get top dollar at that pint. A new foundation will last 100 years, and some people appreciate that. At the end of the day, fix it, and the buyers will come.
The bottom line for me is this: don’t call me if you are trying to pull a fast one, or if you are going to put the estimate in the shredder. I’m only stating the facts, Ma’am, and you have a responsibility to any buyers to be honest with them about the issues pertaining to your house. I only care that the house is repaired correctly, and I don’t want to be a party to covering up defects in a house. It just isn’t right to hide the truth, and everyone will pay for your lies. It’s about basic fairness. I have seen enough houses that have suffered from poor workmanship without people trying to hide the facts about the house. These great old houses and people who care about them deserve better.
Time for chapter two. Thanks to all for the compliments on my first rant, and thanks to all the people who have given me more information to include in this new installment. Don’t worry, no names will be mentioned. The first thing I want to talk about is the difference between licensed and unlicensed contractors. Oh, I know, lots of unlicensed contractors do great work. There is no impediment to anyone doing good work. But the odds of a guy who won’t take (or can’t pass) the contractor’s license test doing a good job have to be less than a licensed contractor. Licenses are granted to ensure both minimum standards, as well as to give standards for contracts and how work is to be done. Example? I had the pleasure of seeing a homeowner hire a licensed contractor who botched the job badly, and the contract was so unclear and incorrect that the contract was voided, refunding the entire contract amount to the client. Sure, the rules can seem silly. The mechanic’s lien law is hardly useful for small dollar amounts that you can deal with through State Licensing procedures for arbitration (max $50,000) or even small claims ($5,500). But an unlicensed contractor has no license to be revoked by the state, and has to be sued. Mechanics Lien law doesn’t apply. No license bond. Try suing your typical “Fly by Night” unlicensed contractor, if you can find him. A licensed contractor can be disciplined by the state board, and believe me, a legitimate contractor will jump though fire to keep his clients happy, and keep his license clear. I had a client who had a complaint, didn’t call me but called the State board. I fixed his problem quicker than stink on you-know-what, not that I wouldn’t have anyway. Sure gets your attention, though, when the State board calls you. Note to customers-CALL ME with ANY questions! But I digress. It’s just that when unlicensed contractors become more common, it is harder for the legitimate guy to survive, and while the customer may be ok, often the cost ends up being more. Either that guy hurts himself and sues you, doesn’t do good work, or leaves the job uncompleted. Which means I get to clean up the mess.
So you hire a licensed contractor. A Contractor who has no employees can file an exemption to Work Comp with the state board, and therefore has no expensive insurance driving up prices. But performing many kinds of work is labor intensive. It’s hard to install a full new foundation on a house by yourself. And, if he gets hurt on your job, you may be waiting to get your job done, or you may get sued for his damages. Or, he has a guy helping him, working for cash, and he gets hurt. You get sued. It isn’t right, just reality. He may have TOLD you he had workman’s comp. Did you check? Great, you checked! He has the proper insurance! (Want to know how to get around it? I mean, if you are a contractor that feels like your guys will never get hurt, hate paying premiums, use guys for a day at a time, etc.? Buy a policy, put only your secretary on it, and pay cash to everyone else. Sure, you may get caught, but with work comp rates at 50-100% of payroll cost for some trades the money can be enormous) All fun and games till someone gets hurt. The legitimate guys are hoping the system gets fixed before we all lose our shirts…Go Arnold!
Want a story about Work comp? I know of a guy using a “temp” worker on a job. The guy slips off a ladder, falls through a window. Almost lost his hand. The worker is screwed. The guy is gone, out of business. Customer has an unfinished job, possibly a lawsuit, all for a job worth $1,000-2000, so he saves $500 bucks? Not when he pays to have it finished.
It all adds up to a playing field that is not level between legitimate contractors and unlicensed/unethical contractors. The money to be made playing it fast and loose with the rules makes it tempting. The costs incurred by the legitimate contractor means higher costs to the consumer. So, the consumer who takes on the risk gets higher returns. So, if you lead a charmed life, use that guy that’s cheap because he’s unlicensed. I won’t go into Society’s costs that occur when the worker goes into the emergency room, and the bill is paid by all of us instead of the insurance.
Have I tweaked your social conscience? I can’t offer solutions to the big problems-just protect yourself as best you can, use a legitimate contractor, check license and references, etc.
Not to say a legitimate contractor can’t be a problem. Here’s another horror story for you. I just bid a job that was to finish what one of my competitors started. (Remember, I said I wouldn’t mention names). The job has been sitting for a YEAR! Heck, the client had a baby during construction that’s talking. His first words? “Contractor’s Suck!” The original job was for $65,000. The Contractor had been paid $29,000, had done all the supporting and most of the excavation, but left the job. He got sick; his wife left him, etc. In pricing the completion, I believe the real reason is that he was going to lose his rear on the job. He even offered to supervise the job and let the homeowner hire the workers directly-for a fee! So the client uses laborers from the Home Depot parking lot? Once again, the risk is on the homeowner.
Why am I telling you all this? To scare you into paying over and above what is considered a competitive amount for a project? Frankly, you all don’t have a clue what kind of costs I have, and I’m not talking about boats and planes. I’m not complaining, frankly, you just don’t want to know. The saying “You get what you pay for” is never truer than in construction. A contractor is a middleman, if you will, between suppliers of materials and the laborers who supply labor when they perform the work, as well as subcontractors, and the customer. The costs for materials and labor can vary greatly between contractors, not because we get better prices, but in how we do the work. Then there is the overhead I mentioned above. I provide basic benefits including health insurance, dental, retirement, etc. I do this both to take care of my employees, but also to retain quality employees longer, and to improve both quality and performance. The bottom line is I am attempting to retain employees, who do a better job because of their experience on my customer’s project. Now, compare that with a contractor who pays similar wages, without paying any benefits. His guys may or may not perform as well, may quit sooner, (and he avoids paying raises to long term employees) and he can charge less. He gets more call backs, performs work in a more haphazard manner, and has more problems. The customer ends up paying by assuming more risk. So my costs are higher than his, and I cannot compete on price. It’s all relative. I choose not to be the low cost/low quality “supplier” because I want to do this for 20 more years. Thankfully, I know I am not the only person who desires quality.
Now having said that, PLEASE don’t beat me over the head with it. I admit, the business I’m in means that mistakes will be made by anyone and everyone, including me. My guys try hard, and we train constantly, but still things can go wrong. Everybody has an off day. But I believe it is how you react when things go wrong that is the measure. Anything can be fixed. I look at old houses every day, and it is rare that I see something that isn’t worth getting fixed, and a job done wrong can be redone. Our methods and practices improve every day. Codes become tougher, not because the City wants to mess with us, but because there are better ways to do things.
If I have advice to give you, it is just learn about your project before hiring a contractor. Learn about the processes, and get several opinions. Think about all the work you want to perform so your do repairs and upgrades in the proper order. And use common sense. Protect yourself as much as possible with knowledge. The California State Contractor’s Licensed Board has a website ( www.cslb.ca.gov ) that will give information both on specific contractors, as well as great information about hiring a contractor. Think Quality!
The beauty of having your own web page is the opportunity to express your personal opinion. I have been repairing foundations for about fourteen years, and in the construction business for over twenty years. What really irks me is the lack of quality of the repairs and upgrades I see or hear about at such a high rate. This last week I’ve seen and heard about the following repairs from several potential customers: A French drain placed against a wood framed wall (a completely insufficient repair). One foundation was replaced in portions, without permits, with exposed rebar, too shallow footings and concrete flatwork that allows water to pour over the sill plate and also into unprotected crawlhole entrances. A house in escrow with new concrete piers placed without poured bases and with no connections between the posts and beams. Okay prior to 1999, but they were done one month ago by a licensed contractor. I got a call from a fellow who hired an unlicensed contractor for $11,000 to replace his foundation without permits. The foundation had no rebar or foundation bolts, and the flake only completed 75% of the replacement. The fellow then hired another unlicensed contractor to remove and replace it, who then got red tagged (the city stopped the work). The unlicensed contractor cannot pull permits, and the fellow wants me to step in. Not a mess I enjoy cleaning up.
I understand that many people are naïve. They are looking for the best price. They want to do it themselves. They think the house has been standing for eighty to a hundred years and can’t we just wait another ten or twenty years? They think their Brother-in-law needs the money, and how tough can this work be? Why spend time and money on a permit? They think since a lot of the work is not visible, it’s not important. They think they would rather spend the money on new tile to put on their unstable floors.
Well, I’m here to tell you a couple of things. You can do it any way you want. But in the State of California, many (not all) repairs need a permit. Replacements of foundations need plans and a permit, at least in San Diego. ANY work you do (minor repairs included) must be performed to meet the minimum standards of current building codes, permitted or not. Any person (other than the homeowner) who works on a project as a contractor for a fee of over $500 must have a current, valid contractor’s license. Any contractor who has employees must have workman’s compensation insurance. He ought to have liability insurance. If a laborer is hurt on your house, and he works for an unlicensed contractor, YOU can be the person who ends up paying his doctor bills.
Okay, so you say, “I hired a licensed contractor, with insurance and all that. I got three bids and hired the least expensive.” Well, good for you. Let me tell you another story. I bid a foundation replacement three years ago. I got a call last week from the gentleman who had hired “the low bid”. The contractor got a permit, ostensibly did it all correctly. Or did he? My inspection revealed the following: Plywood forms left in place against the stemwalls in the crawlspace (too hard to remove…). Floors not leveled (it’s too late now…). The joists were not blocked (too late now). Framing done with screws (not structural). The inspector can’t catch everything. But most importantly, THE POSTS AND PIERS WERE NOT REPLACED. Needed to be done, not included in the bid, hence the “cheap” price. Now, it’s harder to do after the fact, and more expensive. Suddenly the “cheapest” price is the most expensive.
You are entitled to make your own mistakes. Having performed repairs for so many years, there isn’t a mistake you can make in working on your foundation that I haven’t made already. But to me the house will be here for longer than you will, and in most cases older homes are irreplaceable when the earthquake knocks it down. And now that your house is worth more and more every year, shouldn’t you be protecting your investment? I assure you, you might not want to call me, but the person who buys the house from you will call, and that foundation that your brother-in-law built without a permit will cost you. Quality is the best bargain.