A Singaporean couple's 9-month renovation nightmare and what you can learn from it

PHOTO: Stackedhomes

With Covid-19 raging, most homeowners reasonably expect the occasional hiccup or miscommunication, when it comes to renovations. Engage the wrong Interior Design (ID) firm, however, and it can quickly become worse than you ever imagined. From a very delayed move-in date to continuous issues with shoddy workmanship, this week, a homeowner shared some of the issues that you might encounter, from a bad ID experience:

Getting off to a rocky start

Our homeowner, L, started having issues with her Interior Design (ID) firm from the very beginning. L sought renovations for her HDB flat, which should have been a fairly straightforward procedure: HDB maintains a Directory of Renovation Contractors (DRC), which should all be approved and qualified.

PHOTO: HDB

However, L "experienced issues from the start, with the form not providing a working schedule". This would be compounded over a period of six months when she would struggle with the ID's poor supervision of subcontractors, limited communication, and what she felt to be a general lack of commitment.

One of the examples of this was the way L was repeatedly handed over to different designers:

"We spoke to three different designers, of which two have left. We thought things would get better after working directly with the boss of the ID, but instead, it got worse."

An early handover

L initially engaged the ID firm on March 14 last year. By June 17, the designer she worked with had provided 3D renderings and a quotation.

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On July 1, L put down a 70 per cent deposit with the firm (which is a hint of a red flag, it's more common practice to do 10 to 20 per cent). At the same time, however, the designer who had initially worked with L and provided the renderings, said she would be leaving the firm.

The project was then passed on to two other designers, whom we'll call ID two and ID three.

So, one abrupt change is bad enough. But on Aug 15, ID two also left the project, thus leaving L's project solely in the hands of ID three.

And as if the situation couldn't get worse, just four days later on Aug 19, ID three also left, and L was left to work directly with the boss of the ID firm.

While it's not uncommon for a different designer, such as a sales designer, to give the initial "pitch", we note that the designers involved were leaving altogether. This is never a good sign for the client, as the new designer may not have the same experience or specialisations as the previous. Also, designers who leave without a proper handover tend to cause delays.

It was all the way until Nov 29, however, before the boss of the firm raised such an issue:

"The Interior Design Boss said he didn't have any of our house renderings," L says, "Even when he asked his previous designers; and he had to request that we send them to him".

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The worrying implication here is that, from Aug 19 to Nov 29, the ID boss was somehow working on the project without even the renderings.

But perhaps it would have been bad even without changing designers

Even with the first designer, L already had problems. When the project works began in July, for example, L was told the proposed plan for her common toilet wouldn't fit after all.

This is quite an unusual occurrence, given that most IDs — especially HDB-approved firms — are quite familiar with flat layouts; we suspect the first designer may have limited experience (although we're also surprised ID two and ID three didn't notice the issue right away).

L was told that the design plans for the master toilet were "okay". But later, she found it was so cramped that — after the toilet bowl was installed — the toilet door would touch your knees when it was opened.

ID three even blamed L for choosing that particular design, and also blamed HDB for providing "inaccurate blueprints". L incurred an added expense of $899 to change the toilet bowl.

Besides this, the ID firm also let contractors hack the wrong wall during renovations. Half the kitchen wall had been hacked, not according to plans — and the IDs only caught it when they met L on-site, to discuss electrical issues.

The kitchen wall here was wrongly hacked. PHOTO: Stackedhomes

There were other inconveniences that suggest carelessness. Examples include chaining the gate without informing L, thus locking her out (a mistake that would be repeated again later), missing an important gas installation appointment*, and a study room door that opened on the wrong side.

*Singapore Power later informed L that her ID had blamed her for not arranging the appointment. The firm's boss later admitted that his staff were the ones who missed the appointment and didn't tell anyone.

Worse still, the place was just poorly maintained with the service yard drainage being choked and not fixed even after reminders.

Pipe leaking. PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Lack of communication between the ID and contactors

On Oct 8, L had to tell the boss of the ID firm that her $3,600 stove had "debris, used masks, cigarette packaging, and rubbish in it." It was only then that he told L that he would have it cleaned, which she accepted.

$3,600 stove was not covered up. PHOTO: Stackedhomes

On Nov 11, he told L that her $3,600 working stove had been thrown out along with her storeroom shelves. He blamed this on "contractors not asking" before they threw it out, and promised to buy a replacement (which never did materialise).

As with the wrong wall being hacked, and the locks being changed without L's knowledge, this points to a general lack of coordination between the ID and the contractor/sub-contractors.

L had to suffer through further consequences, besides the lost stove. For example, on Oct 6, the ID had to get L to re-select their house paint colours, as they weren't available (L also notes that the boss was 40 minutes late for the consult).

The stove had debris, dirt and a mask on it. PHOTO: Stackedhomes

The painting was done on Oct 18. But upon inspection on the Oct 21, L found that the wrong colour was used for the balcony, and that ceiling paint had been used instead of the selected wall paints.

Painters do make mistakes, but it's odd that the ID didn't catch this issue between Oct 18 and 21 when the homeowner visited. Most IDs would check a job as soon as the contractor declares it done… and most that we know would have panicked and rushed to fix it before the client saw it.

The painting was redone by Oct 25…albeit with issues of paint dripping on unprotected floors and windows.

Storage shelves that were thrown away without consulting. PHOTO: Stackedhomes

The most bizarre twist was the ID boss telling L he could not find a tiler for the toilet. He claimed that this was despite "contacting 20+ tilers". L had to find the tiler herself, which she did just a day later. The ID boss hired the tiler.

A sudden demand for full payment for carpentry

The final straw for L was when the ID asked for full upfront payment, for carpentry work. Given her past experiences, L was not willing to put down full payment; especially with the ID firm "not providing a work schedule, completion date, or any sort of assurance."

It was especially infuriating that despite all the issues that have happened so far, the ID firm still did not take ownership of the situation. The height of coordination proposed was just the ID boss creating a WhatsApp group chat, so L could speak directly with the carpenters so that they didn't have to manage the communication anymore.

L made efforts to remove carpentry from the quotation, for a split payment. As L pointed out, the Case model agreement for renovations does advise against full upfront payment. The model agreement specifies that you should make payment only after satisfactory completion, and never advance large sums unless you're prepared to lose them.

The ID boss refused all options presented, and wouldn't go ahead with further work until the full 100 per cent for carpentry was paid. At that point, L decided to stop working with the firm, and pursue a legal solution.

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These are just scraping the surface of the issues

L encountered several other problems besides the above — from failure to install magnetic tracks in the false ceiling, to improper skirting and plumbing. You can see some of these issues below.

Partition was not completed, yet the skirting was up and it has a weird gap. PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Timeline summary

For those who are interested in the timeline of events:

Renovation timeline:

March 2021

  • 14 - Engaged the firm and started working with ID one

June 2021

  • 17 - 3D rendering and quotation finalised

July 2021

  • 1 - 70 per cent deposit given
  • 1 - ID one then informed she was leaving and it was handed over to ID two and ID three
  • 11 - Locked out of our home as they changed the locks without informing
  • 15 - The firm hacked the wrong wall
  • 21 - The firm informed the common toilet design they proposed can't fit
  • 25 - Tiling started

August 2021

  • 8 - The firm missed a gas installation appointment and didn't inform
  • 15 - ID two left and handed over to ID three
  • 18 - The study room door was opened at the wrong side
  • 19 - ID three was removed from the project and the firm's boss took over
  • 20 - Informed the firm that the master bedroom toilet bowl if installed will cause the user's knee to touch the toilet door when opened, asked for an alternative solution

September 2021

  • 5 - Partition outside the master bedroom was built before approval, the build was also wrong
  • 18 - False ceiling done, magnetic track was not installed as required
  • 23 - Purchased an $899 wall hung toilet to fix the master toilet issue, the firm promised after the purchase can immediately proceed with tiling
  • 30 - The firm requested for extension of two months to complete the project

October 2021

  • 3 - Toilet flushing system installed
  • 8 - Informed the firm that the $3,600 stove had debris, a used mask, cigarette packaging and rubbish on it. The firm's boss said they will clean
  • 10 - The firm's boss asked for carpentry full payment, but tilling had yet to complete.
  • 11 - Partition guy missed appointment
  • 12 - The firm said tiler and partition guy have Covid, but did not seem to not have alternative contractors
  • 19 - Partition guy missed appointment no re-arrangement of partition works till now
  • 26 - Tiler missed appointment
  • 28 - Tiler started work but not enough and the firm's boss needed to order tiles. Since tile design was never changed at all so it was strange why there was not enough

November 2021

  • 5 - Tiler missed appointment
  • 10 - Tiler missed appointment
  • 12 - No updates on tiler but was asked to get ready money for carpentry again
  • 12 - Found a leak in the pipes in the master bedroom
  • 14 - Kitchen sink pipe installed in the wrong location
  • 15 - Tiler missed appointment
  • 18 - Vinyl floor measurement
  • 20 - The firm's boss changed the lock without informing and locked out of the home again
  • 21 - The firm's boss requested carpentry payments again, while no news about the rest of the pending items. Toilet leak still not fixed
  • 24 - Found our own tiler and passed the contact to the ID firm to liaise
  • 29 - The firm's boss said he didn't have any of our house renderings even when he asked the previous designers and requested to send them to him.

December 2021

  • 3 - Tiling finally started one month one week late from the promised date
  • 6 - Met to re-select house paint colours as he didn't have them, the firm's boss was 40 minutes late
  • 10 - Tiling finished
  • 11 - House rubbish cleared but contractors threw away our $3,600 stove and storeroom shelves. The firm's boss blamed contractors for not asking before they threw. He said he will buy a new one (but didn't)
  • 16 - Service yard pipe choked
  • 18 - Painting done
  • 21 - Went down and found out that the paint colours were wrong and ceiling paint was used instead of the quoted wall paint
  • 24 - Vinyl laid and completed. There were huge gaps in the skirting
  • 25 - Painters repaint the whole house, paint dripped on the floor and windows
  • 26 - Final negotiation on the carpentry payment terms, requested for a work schedule and completion date. All not agreed and no commitment given
  • 28 - Informed the firm to drop them and requested payments for the stove and shelf. No response till now

Most renovation firms have picked up in quality since the early '00s when Case started to crack down on them. However, L's experience shows that problem cases still exist.

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Based on the alleged behaviour of the ID, we'd speculate that L ran into contact with a firm that took on more clients than it could handle. L notes that:

"Communication was bad from the beginning when speaking to ID two and three. Weeks and weeks of no updates, no communication or responses to us, and unanswered calls.

When the boss took over… we had to message him every other day for updates. He also refused to provide us with a work schedule, which would mitigate the constant need to reach out to them for any updates."

Coupled with the lack of supervision when it came to contractors, and purported punctuality issues (L says the designers were often late to appointments, once by 45 minutes), it sounds like the ID was stretched thin… and we do wonder if the abrupt departure of the first three designers had something to do with that.

In any case, L's experience is worth knowing for any home buyers out there today. It's a smart idea not to make full, upfront payments, regardless of the reputation of the ID firm (things can go wrong even with established firms). You might also want to consider changing designers early on if they're proving overstretched or non-communicative — the longer you wait, the worse the cost will get.

While it's been a terrible experience, here is L's advice so that other homeowners don't encounter the same issues:

To start L suggested to "get at least five different IDs for a quotation to compare the price and value that they each provide". In her experience, there were even IDs that provided 3D rendering even before receiving any deposit, although she did add that such ID firms were few and far between.

While we did advise in a previous article to look at online reviews, L also agreed with our recommendation on taking some of the online reviews with a pinch of salt. The best way to really judge in her opinion is to try to see the actual work that has been done by the ID.

Although this may seem like a lot of work, it could be worth the time in order to avoid further headaches down the road. She added, "if you are unable to access the actual work done by the ID, check out for negative reviews and ask the homeowner what happened."

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Her third piece of advice was to include a work schedule into the contract before paying any deposit (see sample below). It's always good to get everything in black and white writing, so both parties are aware of the schedule and responsibilities, and it will be less likely to run into disagreements when everything is agreed to clearly.

And of course, L added that you'd want to negotiate the terms to your advantage as much as possible. Try to get the lowest minimum down payment to get started with demolition work, so you don't "get yourself into a hostage situation where you pay too much at the start and you need to chase after your ID".

Lastly, she helpfully pointed out to follow a contract format in accordance with Case, which has been drafted to protect the consumer. There's a clause of "liquidated damages", where you can stipulate a fixed or determined sum should there be project delays without reasonable reason.

Of course, the issue with this would be finding an ID agreeable to such a clause given the current pandemic, but it's worth negotiating on terms here that would help mitigate some risks on your end.

With 1,300 complaints posted in 2021 (an increase of nearly 50 per cent compared to 2020) against home renovation contractors, L's story is a warning for those who are about to embark on the next stage of their lives.

PHOTO: Stackedhomes

READ ALSO: Home renovation woes: Interior design firm says 'we face challenges too' during Covid-19

This article was first published in Stackedhomes.