Building materials and debris littering an apartment after the renovators stopped work part-way into the job despite having been paid 90 per cent of the total bill. Photos: Matthew Alan
A couple were due to move into their new Telok Kurau condominium apartment in April, but four months on they are still living in rented accommodation, and $63,000 out of pocket.
Mr Matthew Alan, a permanent resident and his Singaporean wife, hired an interior design company to renovate their newly-bought condominium unit on Feb 2, shortly before their daughter was born.
When they visited the flat just before its expected completion date in April it looked more like a demolition than renovation, Mr Alan said. Debris from knocked-down walls littered the floor, cabinets lay uninstalled and wooden panels were stacked haphazardly.
They are not alone in their misery. The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) received 1,447 complaints against renovation contractors last year, just 15 fewer than in 2014.
Home renovation contractors were the fourth most complained about industry here last year, behind the vehicle, electrical and electronics, and beauty industries.
What is worse – among the cases filed with Case, only slightly over half were resolved last year, compared to 78 per cent in 2014.
Case executive director Seah Seng Choon said the fall was down to "more complaints involving higher contractual value and complex issues where parties were unable to reach a settlement" as well as "complaints where companies decline mediation as a means of dispute resolution".
The most common complaints pertained to failure to honour contractual obligations and unsatisfactory services.
Affected homeowners told The Sunday Times they believed that the contractors knew that their clients would not take legal action against them because of the expense involved.
From January to July this year, Case received a total of 800 complaints – including one from Mr and Mrs Alan.
The couple say they paid 90 per cent of the total cost of $70,000 to interior designers from Sense Ideas Design progressively over four weeks. The renovation was due to last six to eight weeks.
Photo: Matthew Alan
Mr Alan, 33, a podiatrist, said: "We shortlisted five companies and we didn't choose this one because it was the cheapest. It was because they seemed to get our concept."
They had wanted to be able to move into the home to give their daughter a conducive "health conscious" environment to play in, complete with a small gym area and a rock-climbing wall.
The interior designers initially asked for an extension in the completion of the project, but eventually sent a text to the couple saying they were in financial difficulty, and could not continue, said the couple.
Making a police report, visiting the Member of Parliament for their area and going to Case did not help their situation. They turned to a debt recovery company, but have yet to receive a cent back, they added.
Mr Alan's 33-year-old wife, a sales manager, who did not want to be named, said: "The first couple of weeks, we had sleepless nights. There was tension. But now, it's like we have to move on."
Mr Alan said they have sent a letter of demand to the company through a lawyer and are waiting to hear back from them. They extended their lease on the Guillemard Road condominium apartment that they have been renting.
On top of the monthly rent, they have had to fork out close to another $50,000 to get another contractor to finish the job. Calls and e-mails to the interior designers by The Sunday Times went unanswered.
Another homeowner, who wanted to be known only as Ms Kasthuri, 27, a regulatory affairs specialist, lost $28,000 to a renovation contractor, who she did not want to name.
She and her husband had been referred to a contractor and arranged to meet him at a showroom. However, when they got there, only his colleague was there, so they discussed their ideas with him.
The man they spoke to left the company shortly after, but as he already knew what they wanted and was able to give them a quotation to do the job within their budget of $30,000, they hired him.
For the first month, they would check on the progress of their flat in Sembawang after work and see progress.
"A month later, everything seemed to stop. We saw the same loose wire hanging in the kitchen every time we went," she said.
They set up an appointment with the contractor, and started getting suspicious when one day, after arranging to meet, the contractor did not turn up, despite many calls.
Eventually, the contractor told them that he could not continue as he was taking care of his fiancee's father, who was was dying, even sending photos of the patient in hospital.
"We felt sorry, but that didn't mean he could just not complete what was in our contract," she said.
When the couple took him to the Small Claims Tribunal, the judge told the contractor to pay the couple $6,000, which he allegedly did not.
Ms Kasthuri's parents-in-law eventually paid another contractor $20,000 to complete the renovation.
Mr Adrian Wee, a commercial litigation lawyer, said that every month, his firm sees three to four cases of homeowners whose renovation contractors go missing or leave the project incomplete.
He said that when those who have lost $40,000 or less check with him, he would ask them to reconsider, as the legal fees may not justify the risk and cost.
He advises being stricter in payment terms.
"For example, if the work is 40 per cent done, you'd want to have paid 45 or 50 per cent, at the maximum, not 80 per cent."
Advice for home owners
The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) gives this advice to home owners looking to protect themselves against errant contractors.
•Consider an accredited contractor from CaseTrust (www.casetrust.org.sg). While this does not guarantee that there will not be any problems, consumers are assured of the availability of dispute resolution measures.
•Consider using a model agreement, such as the one on Home Renovation provided by Case (https://www.case.org.sg/pdf/model_renovation%20(1).pdf).
•Payment for services should be rendered progressively as the renovation continues. Do not make full payment upfront.
•Know your dispute resolution avenues. Besides Case, consumers can also lodge a claim via the Small Claims Tribunals. Note details like claim amount limits and one-year time limits.
•The contract agreement should reflect clear, itemised billing and listing of products and services.
•Obtain different quotations before committing to a service package so that you will be less vulnerable to misrepresentation, overcharging and pressure sales tactics.
800 Number of complaints Case received from January to July this year
1,447 Number of complaints Case received against renovation contractors last year
1,462 Number of complaints Case received against renovation contractors in 2014
Written by Jalelah Abu Baker for The Straits Times