Diary of a renovator: How was it for you?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 October, 2008, 12:00am

We've all heard about nightmare contractors but what about clients from hell? With my home renovation a spit and varnish from completion it was time to ask my architects and contractor how I performed as a customer.

'Be brutal,' I urged. 'I can handle it.'

During the time it took them to e-mail me their thoughts, I queried several designer friends about their experiences with difficult clientele.

'You're expected not only to select fabrics for cushions but also be their pal, psychologist and punching bag,' said David, who turns down work when it's clear he'll be bruised by the project. 'But I don't tell them 'no' exactly,' he said. 'I just quote them a ludicrous price.'

Money, not surprisingly, is a common deal breaker. I learned this early from a contractor I'd invited into my home to explain I wanted two flats knocked into one. When I phoned a week later to ask whether he'd take on the project for the budget proposed, I was subjected to the standard trick: 'Hah? What? Bzzz, I can't hear you, static, rattle, hum.' He didn't try to call back.

'It's not just unreasonable expectations,' said another acquaintance, who, like many in the design industry these days, picks his clients instead of the other way around. 'I can't stand people who change their minds constantly, sometimes halfway through the renovation, then scream when there are delays and escalating costs.'

Guilt shut me up. I recalled the middle-of-the-night e-mails I'd sent my architects Keith and Will because I'd woken up in fright at the ideas I'd okayed. And I felt remorse about the Sunday morning phone messages I'd left Joe, my contractor, regarding things that seemed important at the time.

'Should the balcony railing be grey or black if the house is blue?' I asked in panic one weekend. I decided on white the following day.

What really bugs professionals, however, is the second guessing from third parties. I confess to having invoked the boyfriend on occasion. 'He doesn't think the sliding doors need floor tracks,' I told Joe. 'He suggests retractable wheels.' This apparently would have worked had my floor been flat - or not as uneven as it is. 'Why don't you have him do the job if he's so smart,' a worker muttered. This type of thing must happen a lot.

By remaining in the house while it was being renovated I was always on hand to make decisions, unlike a homeowner on Lantau who destroyed a relationship with his contractor because he rarely picked up the phone, never answered e-mails and disappeared for long periods whenever a yes or no was needed. 'And then he complained we were behind schedule,' the contractor said, adding that a lawsuit might follow as the client was withholding final payment.

On this point, I scored rather well with Joe. 'You never pay late,' he said. But he was less enthusiastic about my decision not to move out. Because I stayed put during the entire renovation, construction took place in two phases, prolonging completion. 'And you were like our site inspector,' he added. 'No contractor likes having his work constantly scrutinised. Ha Ha.'

Anyone could see through the false jollity but he had probably censored his feelings because he was due one last cheque. My architects told me what he really thought. 'You were a nightmare for Joe,' they said.

How did they feel about me as a client? Overall I think I scored a B+ although it's clear they too had edited their comments.

'You're very, very precise,' they said, making me wonder what others put up with. 'Your ideas were 90 per cent good.'

But apparently I added to everyone's workload. 'You wanted to choose even the colour of your locks,' Keith wrote, 'and everything had to be reported to you for approval.' I took that as a moan.

Last week friends visited to view the house. 'Wow, fantastic, well done,' were some of the generous remarks. I repeated the comments in thanking my team.

What I didn't relay was the assessment of the gas man.

'Hmm, not too bad,' he said casually, poking his head through the door uninvited. If he hadn't been balancing a canister on his shoulder I'd have kicked his shins.

'Who asked you?' I snapped.

My reaction made me realise how I felt about my new house. In the same way you protect loved ones I wanted to throw my arms around my home. It's special, it's mine, it's done.