Renovation nightmare: Lack of quality contractors leaves Toronto homeowners in a bind
The first sign that Isabel Freire’s renovation job wouldn’t be a piece of cake was when her basement flooded after a simple plumbing fix.
Ms. Freire’s plumber let two apprentices do a piping job without any supervision, she said, and they didn’t notice a three-foot crack in the waste pipe because they didn’t check their work before going home.
When her contractor started the full gutting of her house in Toronto’s east end, the problems started piling up. They didn’t lay down mats on the floor while doing her drywall job, so the wood floors were ruined. Her tiling job in the kitchen was so uneven that people stubbed their toes on raised tiles. The subcontractors didn’t use proper tools to cut the corner tiles, so some tiles were entirely replaced with grout instead.
And to top it all off, the painting job was so bad that the door hinges snapped off when she tried to open some of the doors in the house.
Ms. Freire said she did her due diligence in trying to find a reputable contractor: She asked friends for recommendations, checked reviews online and got quotes from multiple firms. Still, it turned into a nightmare.
“If you’re trying to deal with contractors who are really, really good, they’re booked up until September,” Ms. Freire said. “The other guys – they’re the ones who can’t say no to a job.”
Many contractors and homeowners say issues such as Ms. Freire’s are rampant because Toronto’s hot real estate market is incentivizing people to renovate their existing homes instead of moving. The high demand means long waits for reputable contractors – sometimes as long as a year – giving less experienced contractors a chance to get into the market.
A recent survey by Ipsos shows homeowner trust of contractors is low across the country, with seven out of 10 Canadians saying it’s hard to find a trustworthy contractor for a major job. Sixty-three per cent of respondents in Toronto and Vancouver said they had experienced problems with their contractors – the highest rates in Canada.
Paul-André Bégin, a vice-president at Reno-Assistance, the company that commissioned the poll and helps link homeowners with trustworthy contractors, said high demand and an appetite for jobs to be done quickly contribute to the problem.
“People who want everything done right away and who aren’t willing to take the time to prepare open the window to bad contractors,” Mr. Bégin said. “If the contractor’s available today to do your bathroom, you should start questioning why.”
In Toronto, Dave Reyes is a contractor who specializes in air-duct cleaning in homes and apartment buildings. He said he has seen disastrous jobs from inexperienced workers. One house he worked on had no airflow throughout the entire building because of disconnections in the vents from a previous job.
He also sees a lot of duct cleaners charging impossibly low rates, he said, adding they couldn’t possibly be spending enough time actually inspecting ventilation systems.
Mr. Reyes said it’s hard to operate in an industry where clients don’t trust contractors. “Having to circumvent people’s perceptions of the service – it’s been a challenge,” he said.
A common complaint by contractors and homeowners alike is the lack of any regulating body for many different disciplines involved in contracting, putting the onus on the customer to do their research.
And as the housing market heats up farther outside of Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area, contractors say demand is growing in the suburbs as well. Mark Deboer, a contractor who has worked in Burlington, Ont., for the past three decades, said he’s seen a sharp increase in work over the past three years. He’s currently booked solid for the entire year.
“There’s a lot of guys who get into this and take advantage of the situation,” said Mr. Deboer. “It’s very important for homeowners to do their homework and make sure they’re dealing with a reputable, established company.”
The Ipsos poll found that many people weren’t doing the kind of thorough background checks Mr. Deboer recommends. Only 29 per cent of respondents checked online reviews, while only 27 per cent checked with their contractor’s previous clients.
Mr. Deboer said low interest rates, a rise in people moving to the suburbs and people trying to capitalize on the growing value of their homes are all reasons demand is growing fast in Burlington.
Laura Jurasek, a homeowner in next-door Oakville, said the demand can also make it hard to find a contractor who is willing to do smaller jobs.
It took weeks for Ms. Jurasek to find a contractor who would even consider doing a $2,000 job to renovate her driveway. Some said the job was too small, others said their minimum charge would be double the value of the renovation and others didn’t even bother replying. And the contractor she finally settled on hasn’t been in contact for three weeks.
But she said it’s not hard to understand why.
“If you rode down my street right now and saw the monster homes that they’re putting up and the number of trucks and crews involved … they can do this because they’re in such high demand,” Ms. Jurasek said.
Back in Toronto, Ms. Freire said she’ll only ever work with bigger companies with an online presence and many references – even if it means a longer wait. In the meantime, she opted to learn how to do some small jobs around the house herself.
“I just really wish there were an actual professional designation like electricians and plumbers have or government oversight,” Ms. Freire said.