Good Questions: What Do You Do When The Work is Bad?

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Note: This is LONG. However, it is well written, and this type of issue is about details. We include all of it for those who are patient and can give some good advice.

Hello AT,

We hired a cabinet installation company [name removed on request of company – editor] to do our new kitchen cabinets–both their ‘design and measuring’ service and full installation. We’re not happy.

My credit card was charged the fee for the measuring and design service at the moment I sent my info over their website requesting an appointment–weeks before the work was actually done. The guy who came to do the measuring and design was hours late. Despite my repeatedly pointing out that the jobsite address was different than my credit card billing address, he drove to the wrong bourough and then had to double back….. (more below)

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When he got to the apartment, i showed him what I’d sketched, and he pretty much said it was a great design, made few adjustments, and printed out some plans from his portable printer. We have a funky-shaped kitchen with a lot of old, crooked walls and warpy floors, so I made sure to ask him if the cabinets and countertops could be fit to the actual space. Sure, he said.

It took some time to get the work scheduled; there was some confusion about an insurance certificate our co-op board needed to approve the work, and the cabinet installation company people didn’t always call me back promptly. When the installers came, everything initially seemed fine. We’d asked the company if we should do anything special to prepare the space, and they said all that was necessary was to cover the floors, which we did.

When we got home at the end of the second day, however, things looked disgusting. The workers hadn’t cleaned up after themselves even in the most cursory fashion. They’d done a good deal of cutting (we used butcher block countertops), so there was sawdust everywhere—no one had swept, there were piles of sawdust on the countertops, inside the drawers and cupboards, on every available surface. Our small household garbage can was jammed full of construction refuse, so badly that I couldn’t get the bag out intact and it broke, spilling even more sawdust all over.

Worst, there were piles and piles of sawdust, dirt and grit all over the stainless steel oven we had just bought. We’d left the oven in the box and assumed they were going to dry fit it, but also assumed that they’d throw a plastic sheet over it before dumping any dirt or garbage on it. We’d gladly have covered any furniture exposed, but had been assured that it wasn’t necessary. As it was, sawdust coated everything in our adjoining living room, including computers and electronics. A leather jacket I’d accidentally left on the coffee table between the kitchen and living room was coated in dirt and grit on both sides, as if it had been dropped on the floor a couple of times.

There was also a blue bolt head in the middle of the wall between the wall and base cabinets in the kitchen; it wasn’t there before, and we can only guess that it was a mistake made by the installers. The moulding underneath the wall cabinets was poorly cut and joined–the joints were gappy and rough, very ugly, like someone hadn’t measured. The countertop was installed with an almost half inch gap between the rear wall and the end of the countertop. Filler strips that had been installed in the wall cabinets were cut crookedly and not flush with the top of the cabinets–one of them still had the pencil mark visible on it where the cut *should* have been. The island we’d had constructed out of cabinets was a mess–the laminate backing was already peeling off in a place, none of the joints were flush, the countertop edge was cut at an angle rather than straight-up-and-down where it was supposed to meet the wall, leaving another unsightly gap. Also, the standard toekicks that had been suggested were a disaster on our uneven floors.

And then there was some stuff that was just weird: the installers used our digital camera (without our permission, they just found it on the bookcase) to take pictures while they were working. They left a drill bit rolling around on one of the shelves. They threw out some hundred year old moulding we’d removed from the wall where the island was going, even though we’d placed it away from the work area on purpose so it wouldn’t be mistaken for refuse, and even though they *didn’t* toss out most of the extraneous materials left over from their *own* work. They also left a note saying they hadn’t quite been able to finish, and we should call them to schedule the installation of two more filler pieces.

I sent cabinet installation company a letter detailing all this by fax the next workday. The proprietor called me immediately, and was clearly very concerned. He assured me that most people were so happy with their work that when someone wasn’t, it really stuck out and made them want to make things right. I told him at that point that we wanted someone to come in and fix what could be fixed, and that I was unwilling to pay full price for the job that had been done. He had the leader of another crew contact us, and he made an appointment to come by at the end of that week.

He was half an hour late before he called to say he was having trouble “finding parking.” When he finally showed, he was personable, and had some good suggestions about how to better the work–he suggested chrome legs underneath the island cabinets rather than toekicks given our uneven floors (which was such a good suggestion I wondered why the designer hadn’t offered it originally), and said he’d replace all the filler strips in the wall cabinets, fill the gap between the countertop and the wall with a trimmed-to-fit part of the leftover countertop that could be hidden by a backsplash, and that he’d remake the island and use a new laminate back panel. He said he’d call us when the legs we needed were in stock, and would schedule then.

After he left, we had the super up to hook up our dishwasher, and he pointed out some additional problems: two cabinet doors weren’t hung straight. He also mentioned the cabinet installation company installers had been rude to him when he’d been in our apartment at the same time they had, in order to do some electrical work for us. We emailed the new cabinet installation company guy about the doors, and he responded rather snarkily, “Is there anything else you like [sic] to add to the list that seems to add up whenever the super is around.”

He did, however, agree to fix the doors on top of everything else. Then he called back to say Ikea was out of the laminate panel we needed, and would we be okay with two smaller ones joined by a seam. We said no, and are still waiting for him to get back to us with an estimate of when the parts might be ready.

In the meantime, I wrote to the cabinet installation company headquarters again and said that while I was appreciative that they were trying to make it right, that the guy’s lateness and snarky comments coupled with the long wait for parts that effectively more than doubles our period of kitchen-limbo didn’t do much to restore our faith or good-nature. I said we were looking forward to the kitchen being fixed, but still wanted a reduction on the installation fee.

They called today to say there would be under no circumstances a reduced fee. And I’m wondering: am I being unreasonable? These people did a crappy job, and while I appreciate that they’re willing to fix the parts that can be fixed, I don’t think waiting over twice as long and coordinating twice the interruption in order to get what we paid for in the first place is a good bargain. I don’t want to pay full price for this much headache. I can’t tell you how much I wish we’d gone with someone else.

What’s to be done when you’re not happy with a contractor’s work? I did sign a contract with these guys, but the work they did was bad, by their own admission. Is their responsibility limited to correcting the mistakes, at which point can they collect their full fee no matter how long it took or how many tries?

Thanks, LH

Dear LH, this is the position everyone wants to avoid. While there are many responses, we would counsel patience, persistence, avoiding emotion at all costs and sticking ruthlessly to the contract and to the agreed upon complaints or things remaining on your punch-list. That is, if you want to continue to work with them.

If you just don’t like the whole thing and don’t trust anyone in their organization, there is a way of calling off the whole contract and paying whatever amount you two agree upon.

At times, contractors or people who do this type of work can get defensive and rude, especially to women. That is just our experience. Don’t let yourself be dragged into a rude or emotional or snarky conversation. Reacting to this bait will not get you anywhere. Stay totally professional, stick to the facts and they will finish the job and leave because they have to.

The issue of how much you pay is a tricky one. Look hard at the contract. Probably they protect themselves against losing money for any reason, but check. If there is a clause that pertains to less than satisfactory work, call them on it and agree on the final price so that you can both move on. Also, only talk about money with the people highest up the food chain. They should be far more rational and interested in moving on than the guys who did the work. Anyone else?