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James Wanless

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Blogging renovation part 4; Contractor

It’s between a little over eight months since we finished substantial kitchen and bath renovations. I waited this long to post my thoughts on the contractor, to remove (most of) the emotional component. We hired Aero Kitchen and Bath in spring 2015 to do the work, plus some additional tile on two small landings and a basement bath (which also included some new drywall and paint). We were assured they could work with both our timeframe and our budget. Unfortunately the two glaring weaknesses they brought to the table were project and budget management.

There were typical supplier and other issues which come with any such undertaking. And, in general, I will say they did their best to fix problems if they were pointed out, and were willing to source things as needed. The work we ended up with was good (not outstanding) and, day-to-day, they were respectful and pleasant while in our home. The timeline problems, coupled with what increasingly became passive-aggressive behaviour with regard to the blown budget, are what what left us with such a bad taste in our mouth.

With regard to things within Aero’s control, read on for the most to least positive aspects of this project.

Trades (4 of 5 stars)

For the most part, one tradesman did most of the plumbing, electrical and tile, and he was very good. He was a pleasure to be around and was very diligent in his attention to detail. More resources on a sizable job like ours would have helped, as he was seemingly overworked. Plus, only one tradesperson to do electrical, plumbing, tile and most installation (kitchen cabinets and countertop being the primary exception) was definitely a key issue in time management, as it’s impossible to phase and overlap different types of work. If there was a trades negative, it was drywall finishing. Ours was mostly of the patch, sand and paint variety. Many of these had to be re-done, sometimes after they had been painted, and several small problems existed long after the project (samples below), which I have been fixing.

‘Finished’ drywall and messy grout

Finishing (3 of 5 stars)

The finishing in the kitchen was generally fine, but in the bathrooms, less so. Frankly, the general labourer (who clearly wasn’t a tradesperson) doing work like grout, caulking and cabinet door installation, simply didn’t have finishing skills. We found a lot of his work substandard. Initial installation of kitchen cabinet doors was crooked, there were huge spaces and holes in his baseboard tile grout, and he even used the wrong colour caulking in the bathroom in places. The re-work required in these cases also seemed to contribute to timeline management. Not an issue if done well the first time.

In areas where he was doing caulking around bathroom basins, tile edging, shower doors, etc, as opposed to a nice bevelled bead, there were large finger smears (and still are some). I’ve had to since remove it and re-caulk the tile edging myself. You simply can’t have an unskilled finisher doing this work, because it’s what you see all the time. It was clear in the last week of the project that they were so far over time that they were rushing to get out, and that also contributed to some of the poor finishing.

Project management (2 of 5 stars)

When we hired them, we had a budget in mind and a date by which we absolutely needed to be done. While they made the date, literally at the last day, we asked them to be done at least a few days in advance so we could clean before we were off on vacation, and they felt at the time, they’d be done a couple weeks early anyway. They seemed very time crunched as the project had been estimated as a six week engagement, which ballooned to nine, with no increase in scope by us. They also started a week later than planned. They thought they could still do it in five. I knew that wouldn’t happen but also didn’t expect twice that long. As far as I’m aware, not once did the ‘project/client management’ partner, Ronal, ever do any kind of timeline planning or use any standard processes such as updating actuals into estimates and revising to measure progress.

Budget management (1 of 5 stars)

In terms of budget management, we started at a $53k estimate with some uncosted things. We expected it to be as high as $60k or a little more initially, and had verbally indicated we could go NO higher than $65k. After multiple requests, we received the ‘midpoint’ invoice 5 weeks in (ironically the actual midpoint) and it was already at $64k. I pressed them for a reason why and got silence and avoidance. We were assured that there were few additional costs left. Knowing we would now not even come in at $65k, I told him to be VERY diligent for the remainder of the project. We even reduced scope in the basement to keep the budget as low as possible.

The final invoice came in many weeks after the project, at $74k, 15% more than we indicated our upper limit was. Thankfully, we had enough holdback that we were able to negotiate a small reduction. We had a lot of communication back and forth (mostly from us), and we expected a reduction to get us closer to our maximum. We were trying to be flexible, going as high as $69k in trying to settle the final invoice. Claiming ‘unforeseen costs’ as the reason, they offered a list of things that were actually in the estimate and had either gone up or not been appropriately costed or factored in, with zero rationale why. The only truly unforeseen costs in the project were some additional kitchen sub-floor and tile leveling, and straightening of frame materials for our ensuite. These additional costs had all been in the midpoint invoice, so the additional $10k from that point to final invoice was, in our minds, poor budget management. You simply can’t manage to a plan if you don’t update it and understand where you are, at least every week or two.

Not once did the ‘project/client manager’ partner ever take actual costs and plug them into the estimate for regular updates against plan, except for the midpoint invoice, by which time our materials were all purchased and most of the scope couldn’t be reduced. They ended up reducing the invoice by $2500, claiming they couldn’t do more because “we’ve never given a larger discount.” WTF? His communication skills left a LOT to be desired. A 3% ‘make good’ on a mismanaged project to nearly double its timeline and 25% over budget isn’t acceptable. However, as we simply wanted to be done, we weren’t about to get into a protracted dispute. We did ensure that no liens had been placed against our property after the deadline for placing them had gone.

In closing …

We did our best to ensure we never just changed the scope on Aero. We also sourced a number of materials ourselves; bathroom vanities, fixtures, lighting fixtures, etc, and I haven’t even included that amount above. Also, had we known where the budget was going with some lead time, we could have changed materials both they and we supplied, and saved some money that way. Finally, there was never any final walkthrough and sign-off. With the timeline blown and badly over budget, they were in such a rush at the end that nothing felt properly tied off.

Due to the very poor budget and project management work, and some of the finishing quality, there is no way I’d ever recommend Aero to anyone.

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