A Contractor Goes Bad: Our Foundation Replacement Saga

NOTE: As of September 23, 2009, this post has been edited in accordance with a court-mediated settlement. The names of the contractor and his excavation subcontractor have been replaced with pseudonyms.

A lot of people come to this site having heard about our horrific foundation replacement experience and wanting the dirt (heh). It's been my opinion that just letting people filter through the archives for themselves was valuable enough, but lately I've had many requests for a distilled version of the story. This is it: basically a guided tour through the posts from the time period in question.

As a side note, we have received many requests for information on how much this whole thing cost us. That is not information that is going to help you at all. First of all, it would be very unusual (we hope) for a foundation job to end up costing what this one did. Second, the cost of a foundation job is highly dependent on the condition of your foundation (where you are, the configuration of your original foundation, what the soil is like, whether you need seismic bracing, whether there is a basement, how many jobs the local contractors have, and so on). If you want a rough estimate of the cost of replacing a foundation in your area, call three foundation contractors and ask them what an average replacement costs.

Now on with the show.

In the Beginning

We knew when we bought the house that it needed a new foundation. The old one was brick, from 1876, and was plagued with rot and had up to 45 degrees of rotation.

We planned to do the foundation within a year of buying the house, but our insurance company threw us a curve ball by threatening our homeowner's insurance if we didn't paint the house immediately. The house hadn't been painted since 1958, and had lead paint, and the whole job cost tens of thousands of dollars, making us put the foundation work off. We were also dithering over whether we wanted a basement for tool storage and so forth. It was June, 2004 before we even began work on preparing for the foundation replacement. In early July, we refinanced the house to get money to do the job, hired an engineer, and interviewed contractors.

Contractor A, Who Came to Work Drunk

The general contractor we hired was Contractor A Construction, of Richmond, California. Contractor A Construction is operated by Contractor A, a ruddy, angry man who looks perpetually drunk (and did in fact show up on the job site reeking of alcohol), and he represented himself to us as an expert in foundations. "Foundations are my bread and butter," were his words. After signing a contract with us in early December, he said he would begin work as soon as the rain stopped (at that time we had six inches of standing water in the basement and the delay seemed prudent), but shortly thereafter he decided to start work in late December/early January, citing a lack of other work. Here are the posts about his work on the project for the next few months:

All Hell Breaks Loose

On March 11, Noel and I were driving home from a visit to the beach when Contractor A (who had been hastily concealing the extent of the damage he had done under our house) called us and said the engineer had been out to the site for an inspection and that we would need to add grade beams to support the side walls of the basement (because he had been mistaken that the slab was non-structural), and also he was concerned about the soil condition. Contractor A (who had been working on our job with neither a permit nor final plans) assured us that we didn't need a soils engineer and that he thought the engineer was over-reacting. When we got off the phone with him, we had a minor disagreement about the situation and decided to call our engineer, whom we both trust as an honest and conservative person. The engineer was very firm with us: he didn't know why Contractor A (who was a friend of his) had misunderstood his misgivings about the site, but he urged us to hire a geotechnical engineer to check the soil under the house, because he said that the gravel Contractor A had put down was extremely soft and he was not sure of its bearing capacity (ie, its ability to hold the house up).

On March 24, Contractor A (who had started to claim he'd informed us that there were issues with the site, now that it was clear that his damage couldn't stay hidden) and I met with Alan Kropp and Associates, geotechnical engineers (and highly recommended). The engineer from Kropp looked at Contractor A and said, "You really f---ed this up." And boy, was he right. The next day, Kropp came out again to meet with our structural engineer. Our structural engineer (when you start having to modify the engineer's title, a project is in trouble) spent some time doing new drawings to account for the conditions under the house, and we spent a lot of time waiting.

We ended up having to put in a mat slab foundation with an ability to support a six-foot cantilever. In laymen's terms, this means that the basement floor had to be strong enough to hold the house up even if a hole twelve feet wide opened up under the center of the house. That is a non-trivial foundation.


Contractor A (who was given to making threats in order to make himself sound more authoritative) suggested we speak to a lawyer, saying he had done so. We consulted with a couple of lawyers about the situation. I will leave out what was said. You can guess what sorts of words were used.

In late April, we had a meeting with Contractor A (who at this point confessed to us that he had been drinking a lot) (discussed somewhat here) where he refused to continue with the job unless we paid him what amounted to more than twice as much as was in the original contract (he also accused us of setting him up to be sued, but nobody ordered him not to dewater the site before excavation; even he knew he should do that, with six inches of standing water in the basement before he began work). We recorded most of that meeting on audio tape (with his knowledge) until he refused to talk any more on the record, when we turned the tape recorder off. I don't think much of people who are unwilling to speak on the record about whether they will complete a contract they signed. He then proceeded to say all sorts of amazingly horrible things about his wife (what a winner you picked, Joanne!). We stood there, stunned, as he talked about how much disdain he had for her religion and values, and how he disagreed with how she raised their kids, and other things, and how he felt trapped because as a Catholic she wouldn't agree to a divorce. We can't imagine why he would have said such things to us, especially under the circumstances. They were so inappropriate that we felt it was not right to put them verbatim on this blog.

When, with some effort, we finally got him back on topic (because quite frankly, as much as we like juicy gossip, what he was saying crossed the line into Too Much Information about a person we didn't know), Contractor A (who was by this point belligerent because we kept bringing him back to the subject of the budget and why he was unable to do the job for the original contract price, which was not, by the way, a bargain) agreed to finish the sump drain to the street and wait until the ground had dried before proceeding; there was the narrow chance that it would dry up enough to make a standard foundation acceptable. The next day he did the drain work, which was the last work he did on the site.

In May, Contractor A removed all his major tools and equipment from the site. He took down the tarps over the front of our house (thus sabotaging the site by removing the weather protection), and his sign (we can only assume he was ashamed of his work). Rain continued to fall on the bare sand around the house. This is what the site looked like: a mess.

On May 27, our lawyer received a note from Contractor A's lawyer asking for $126,000 to complete only a small portion of the job, and asking us to take the site down. In order to try to foster an open dialogue in order to save our house, we temporarily took the site down for two months. As far as we can tell, we have said nothing on this site that falls under the legal definition of defamation, but Contractor A, who made a habit of threatening us to try to get his way, has declined to tell us exactly what meets the legal definition of defamation on this site. At any rate, it was a small step to make in order to get him to the negotiating table. Keeping the site down indefinitely was never an option.

I was rapidly losing patience with Contractor A (have we mentioned how he showed up drunk on the job?). I spent a lot of time stewing in rage. In the meantime, our neighbor's lawn began to collapse into the pit under our house. We had our geotechnical engineers monitor the neighbor's house, but the situation was now critical.

In addition to the bullying us about the web site, it was pretty clear that Contractor A (who was continuing to claim ridiculous and unbelievable losses on the excavation while totally unable to back them up with any evidence) was not going to finish the job. A meeting with Contractor A (who was looking, as usual, ruddy and angry), all our lawyers, and our newly hired construction manager included such highlights as my having to tell Contractor A's lawyer, William Campisi (another angry, angry man, though perhaps that's just how his client wanted him to be) to stop yelling at me. As soon as it was clear that they were not going to abide by the fixed price contract we had signed, we fired Contractor A (and, given the incredibly shoddy work he did on our plumbing, this was probably the best thing that could have happened, because god knows what a mess he would have made of something as complicated as our foundation), then reviewed every entry and just put the site back up. I consider this information to be a public service.

Moving On

When we fired Contractor A, Noel and I made a walk-through of the materials left on site. We were not sure what belonged to him, so we asked him to identify the equipment he believed to be his and give us a list so we could return it, since we didn't want somebody who had threatened us multiple times and clearly had some kind of anger issues coming anywhere near our house. Contractor A refused to do so, claiming it was impossible for him to know what tools and materials were on the site, even though he claimed he needed them to do his job. Basically, he wanted carte blanche to come to the site, walk around, and take whatever he could find that had any value. Since he'd already used (and damaged, and in some cases actually destroyed) our tools and equipment while legally on site, we didn't want this to happen. In the mean time, our CM suggested we put up a fence.

We hired Counterforce to finish the job. I should note here that Counterforce really saved our butts in a bad situation. Not many contractors would want to walk into a job as political as this one, and certainly not at a competitive price. Plus, they had an opening in their schedule that fit perfectly with our needs. You should hire them to do your foundation work. If your house is not in the Bay Area, you should move here so you can hire them. We cannot recommend them enough.

On August 1, Noel and I spent the evening packing up all of Contractor A's things that we could find that were not involved in maintaining the sump system or shoring. That felt so good.

On August 3, Contractor A, who was not known for being a calm, rational individual, decided to show up at the house to gather his things, claiming he had a right to wander over our property at will, claiming things he was unable to inventory for us. We had placed his things at the end of the driveway, and we barred his way and told him he was not welcome on our property. He trespassed, so we called the police. Somehow, the cop talked me out of pressing charges.

While this was going on, we were trying to get the permits, which were in Contractor A's filthy name, transferred to us. He refused to do so without a completely unreasonable settlement agreement. Fortunately, he reckoned without the wonderful, helpful people at the City of Alameda, who made everything good for us and even managed to save us a few hundred dollars in special hauling fees. You can only hope to have such a great team of people in your city.


August 3 was also the day Counterforce showed up for work. They hit the ground running and the job was a whirlwind from there.

All Lawyered Up

We spent the next five years in various states of a lawsuit against Contractor A. I'll leave off too much description here, for now, because we're writing a series of posts about the case.

In August, 2009, we theoretically settled the suit. We agreed to take Contractor A and Contractor B's names off the site, and their insurance companies agreed to pay us enough money to complete the job and pay back my parents -- not nearly the amount we would have gotten in a lawsuit, but less risk.

But Contractor A, being the dishonourable, dishonest character he is, wanted further concessions from us. He was upset that we said the truth about him -- and everything we have said is the truth, or at least our opinion -- and he was especially upset that he'd agreed to a settlement that didn't include removing his picture from the site. In repeated back-and-forth, he got further concessions from us. He was not, however, to get an important one, which is that we are under no obligation to edit comments on the site that may identify him (we only had to remove his name from one comment that pre-dated the settlement).

We waited until we had the check cashed, our lawyers had been paid, and the case vacated (so he could not hold things up by making motions) to begin to write about the five year ordeal.

We showed the basis of our case: that the conditions of the site were neither concealed nor were they unusual, but Contractor A had been negligent in failing to inform us of them and in continuing to work on the site after he knew there was a problem. (High Water)

We took apart the events that led us to get in trouble, including the scam he pulled on us with change orders and fast talking:
The Scam - Part One
The Scam - Part Two
The Scam - Part Three

And we showed the incredible mess his friends at Rising Star made of our heating system install.

There's still more to come, so stay tuned!