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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, August 24, 2001

Taking active role averts remodeling nightmares

• Seven key tips

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

Sharon Kamali'i and Alysa Kealoha did everything possible, including buying supplies, landscaping and dump runs, when they renovated their properties in Mo'ili'ili. Yet they still ran into major problems and spent more than twice what they had intended.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Alysa Kealoha and Sharon Kamali'i tried to do their home renovation by the book, and still, "it was a nightmare. We went through hell."

They checked workers' licenses. They asked for references. They found out about previous complaints. They got several bids. They paid as the work progressed. In fact, they did just about everything homeowners are always advised to do before hiring workers.

"And still yet ... nothing went as planned," Kamali'i said. What's more, the job, a top-to-bottom renovation of a 1930s home in the Mo'ili'ili area, cost about $70,000, more than twice as much as it was supposed to.

Kealoha and Kamali'i aren't alone.

"Even when you try to do all the right things, it can turn really ugly," said Shawn Corridan, who has spent $40,000, and is still counting, in an effort to fix up an old Manoa home that's on the state register of historic places. "People just take your money and run. You hear so many sad stories about why they just can't do the work."

Many people who have been through a major home repair or renovation have a horror story to tell: Shoddy work. Poor materials. Workers who show up late, or not at all. Con men and flimflam artists. Drunks and drug addicts.

In his book, "Outwitting Contractors" (Lyons Press, $14.95) author Bill Adler Jr. puts it this way: "Remodeling a home or apartment isn't a job — it's a war. It is going to be everything but fun. It's you versus the workers."

Not all workers are bad, of course. The trick is finding the good ones, who, precisely because they're skilled and reliable, often have more work than they need.

The state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs licenses general contractors, electricians, plumbers, pest-control companies, engineers, architects and others in an effort to regulate the construction industry. The Department's Consumer Resource Center (587-3222) maintains a public database of existing licenses and a history of complaints against licencees or businesses). The privately run Building Industry Association of Hawai'i has a number of seminars and printed material to help both contractors and consumers deal with each other fairly.

And yet ...

"I'd say eight out of 10 people we hired couldn't deliver what they promised," Corridan said.

"I sympathize," said Danny Graham, president of Graham Builders and a former president of the Building Industry of Hawai'i. "We have to work hard to find and keep good workers for our company, too."

Do-it-yourselfers need to take a professional's hard-nosed approach, he said.

"Generally, people will spend more time shopping for a new car than they will a contractor," Graham said. "They just don't want to do all the legwork; that makes it so easy for the fly-by-nighters to get on the job."

Kealoha and Kamali'i, business partners and housemates, thought they were done with remodeling when they finished an eight-bedroom multi-family rental unit that they hoped would allow them to retire comfortably. Then they stumbled on the lovely fixer-upper in Mo'il'iili that they just couldn't resist. Even knowing what was coming, they ran into problems.

One contractor promised discounts, then doubled the price of materials. A tree trimmer showed up drunk and brutally topped a rare, old paklan tree. A worker took half a day to make a 20-minute run to City Mill for supplies.

One worker insisted on taking up to 20 cigarette breaks a day, even though his contract stipulated no smoking on the job. Several professionals had phony or outdated licenses; one used the license of a dead person to con his way onto the job site. At least one man got into a fistfight with other workers on the site and coldcocked Kamali'i when she tried to intervene.

Even though contracts with their workers clearly spelled out a payment schedule as work proceeded, many workers still tried to get their money in advance.

"They just have a way of asking for a little more money up front. They've all got a sad story about a sick child or a bill that needs to be paid. You don't want to be hard, but you've got to be," she said.

Corridan, the Manoa homeowner, said he had similar experiences.

"Before you hire them, they'll tell you anything," he said. "Then you find out they have all sorts of excuses about why they can't do the job right."

Kealoha said the No. 1 lesson she learned was to stay home as much as possible and supervise the workers. More than anything else, that keeps costs — and trouble — down, she said.

"If you don't keep a tight rein on things, they get totally out of control," Kealoha said. "The big thing is that you've got to be strong."

That means completely check out the people you hire with the state Office of Consumer Protection (587-3295) and Professional and Vocational Licensing Division (586-3000), which monitor complaints against licensed contractors. Don't just ask to see a license; make sure it's current and in the right name. Don't just ask for references; check them out. Then ask to visit the sites on which they've worked. Ask for several bids, and don't necessarily take the lowest one. "If you just base your decision on price, you're likely to end up with cheap, shoddy work," Black said.

"You've got to work like your own general contractor," Kealoha said. "Be ready to hire and fire people. You're like an umpire; if they give you any trouble, you just say 'You're out of here,' and move on to somebody else."

Of course, Graham said, you could hire a general contractor in the first place. Kealoha, Kamali'i and Corridan all said they thought they'd save money by not using a general contractor.

"People think that adds a lot to the cost, but generally a contractor is working on a 5- to 10-percent margin," Graham said. "And then he's the guy who has to deal with all the problems."

Even Adler, the contractor-hating author, admits: "Sometimes when you think you're saving money by being your own general contractor, you aren't." Adler suggests that general contractors are more adept at coordinating many workers on a job, scheduling materials and managing potential problems, all of which can save a homeowner money.

Many good contractors are in demand and don't want to be bothered with relatively small jobs, however. In that case, Graham said, call a big company and ask them to recommend someone else; many good workers for a large contractor appreciate getting smaller jobs on the side, he said.

Kealoha and Kamali'i say they took an active role in the work to keep both costs and trouble down.

"We were there alongside the carpenters all the time," Kealoha said. "We did our own dump runs, almost every day. We did most of the landscaping ourselves. We bought all the materials we needed to be sure we weren't getting ripped off. We really got to know the people at Home Depot."

Whenever possible, they bought their own lumber, paint and other materials to be sure they were getting the best quality at the best prices.

Graham suggested dismissing problem workers at the first sign of trouble.

"Once the precedent is set, that's it," he said. "If they don't show up for work the first time, they're probably going to do it again."

Kealoha agrees: "You've always got to have something in your back pocket," she said. "If you're going to fire someone, be sure you have another person ready to go."

When you do find good professionals, hang on to them at any cost.

"If I had to do anything different, No. 1 would be giving a bonus to people who finished the job early or with a high degree of skill, and charge a penalty for those who are late," Kealoha said.

• • •

Seven key tips

From "The Everyday Law Kit for Dummies," by John Ventura and Mary Reeda (Hungry Minds Inc., paper, $29.99).

  • Pick the right professional. If you have a large, multi-faceted project, get a general contractor. If you want a cabinet built, hire a cabinetmaker. Handymen are best left to the smallest of repair jobs.
  • Ask the right questions. Get written bids from three contractors, then ask them all the same questions so you can compare bids.
  • Ask for references. Then check them out thoroughly.
  • Get it in writing. A written contract should spell out the expected scope of work, a timetable for completion and payment schedule. Include a late-penalty clause. Make sure you and the contractor stick to the written agreement.
  • You can change your mind. If a contractor doesn't live up to his end of the deal, fire him and start over.
  • Write a check or use a credit card. Paying in cash leaves you little recourse if problems come up later.
  • Keep records. Keep copies of all paperwork related to the project and a written log of conversations you have with your contractor.
  • Handle disputes right away. At the first sign of trouble, talk to your contractor or the worker; many bigger problems can be headed off this way.