Now that the roof framing has finally passed inspection and we're done with Demo Guy for ever (unless something awful happens in the next ten years) here's a few valuable (and the occasional expensive) lessons we learned the hard way when hiring contractors:
Check the contractor's license three different times: When you get the bid, when the contractor is hired and again before work is started.
Lots of things can happen between the time you get the bid and the time work actually starts. For example, the contractor might come onto hard times and have his contractor's bond cancelled and therefore have his license suspended.
Demo Guy's license was valid when we hired him but by the time work started the state's website for checking licenses said it was "under Contractors Bond Suspension". That means it was illegal for him to be doing contracting work valued at more than $500. (It also provides information to help determine if the license is no longer suspended.) And, to be fair, we don't know what happened with Demo Guy's bond and, frankly, it's none of our business what happened to cause the bond to be cancelled.
In construction (at least this project) there is not much worse than having problems with a contractor and then seeing "SUSPENDED" next to his license on the official site to check licenses. Your jaw drops, your heart falls into your butt and you stop breathing for a few seconds. (At least that's what happened to me.)
We're somewhat embarrassed by this. We really should have checked before he started work. It could have been one of our biggest mistakes. (In our defense, it seems the incidence of this kind of thing happening is fairly rare.)
As of today, the contractor's board website shows Demo Guy's license back in the "Active" category with a bond effective May 6, 2011. So that's good. Despite the problems we had with him and despite never recommending him to anybody ever for even so much as hammering in a nail I'm glad he got that SNAFU sorted out.
Take high quality pictures of the areas your contractor is going to work on.
Having documentation of what things were like when the contractor begins helps avoid the contractor saying "It was like that when I started." Here's the story.
Demo Guy claimed that some of the damage caused to the building was actually caused by the fire fighters who worked on the fire back in September, 2010. Specifically, the weather head that connects the electrical service box to the utility pole in the alley.
During the days the bar was without a roof, the weather head was left unsupported for four full days(contrary to what was agreed to) and was pulled away from the wall by the weight of the line to the utility pole. Being pulled away from the building cracked the electrical box which then had to be replaced at a cost of over $1,000 including materials and labor.
We didn't have to take Demo Guy to court to recover these costs but we were prepared to. Despite having what we believe would have been a solid case, we weren't really looking forward to small claims court. Part of that solid case is the pictures we had taken of the bar. Of special note in this case is a picture of the bar we took in February that just happened to show the weather head still attached to the roof; it was not removed by the firefighters as Demo Guy said could be a reason why the weather head was broken.
Keep a Blog
I suppose it doesn't have to be a blog, per se. A journal (which is like a blog) would work just as well.
This blog proved to be a valuable source of information in making the time line of what happened. For example, the "Vandals? Shocking!" post pin-pointed a time that we had PG & E out to fix some damage. (They never mentioned anything about a broken weather head.) Without that post, that part of the time line was "On or around February 2011". Changed it down to "Week ending February 18, 2011".) The more documentation you have in court, the more likely you are to win.
Don't pay the contractor until the job is finished.
Seems straight forward but it isn't necessarily so. By "Finished" I mean "Passed inspection".
We paid Demo Guy what he asked before the final roof framing inspection had been done since we thought it would pass easily the second inspection but it did not. (The first inspection brought up issues that seemed to be easily and relatively quickly corrected.)
What we should have done was pay him half of what he asked for at that time. And then paid him the other half when the roof framing passed its final inspection. In this case, this weakened our bargaining power with Demo Guy to eat the cost of his negligence with the weather head and delayed getting the final truss installed correctly (you know, like he should have done in the first place.)
Take clear pictures of the work.
This is especially true of any abandoned or incorrectly completed work; it'll help your small claims case should you have to resort to that.
I really don't mind learning new things but I hope these are the only lessons we learn from this project. They weren't massively expensive lessons (aside from delaying our opening date and the weather head problem) but they added far too much tension and anxiety to an already anxious process.