Shortly after hurricane Katrina hit, I was approached by a fellow in the Russian River area of Northern California. He described how he had hired a contractor to turn the basement of his vacation home into an apartment. Before work was completed, the builder suddenly left for Florida, saying he wanted to help hurricane victims. Long story short, the owner wanted to find out what was left to do to finish the job. Could I drive up and take a look?
My heart sank when the owner showed me the building permit, construction drawings, and the condition of the basement. Drywall had been installed and partially finished, electrical was not yet operational — not unusuall at that stage of remodeling — but there were much greater problems. The building permit was blank: no inspector’s initials indicating approval of framing, electrical, and other trades. Apparently no inspections had been requested… none. Worse, the drawings showed a required fire sprinkling system, but none was installed. In order for a municipal inspector to approve, say, electrical wiring, he needs to be able to see it. In this case, that would mean removing drywall that had already been installed. I went home with a lot of photographs so I could provide an estimate of what it would take to correct the situation.
In the end, after I discussed the estimate, the owner said he did not have the kind of money necessary to finish the job. I do not know how or if the issues were resolved, but it was painful to see someone who was so severely taken advantage of. Moral of the story: be an active, involved client. Nobody cares as much about your project as you do. Make sure you hire a bona fide contractor (is s/he licensed? did you check references?); are inspections passed? There is nothing wrong with being present during visits by your local building inspector. It is your property, after all. If you know nothing about construction, or if you feel bullied by the contractor, see if your architect can assist with keeping an eye on progress, or hire a construction consultant to manage the project to the extent necessary. Depending on their degree of involvement, this need not cost an arm and a leg. If you are in a similar situation as the fellow in Russian River and don’t know what to do, please drop a note here.