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Question DetailsAsked on 7/25/2016

I hired a contractor to build "all new stairs" for commercial use, but they are not to code. Do I still owe him?

I live in Virginia. Before I knew the violations, I told him, by email, I would pay him. Most of the stairs measure 7 3/4 high and 10" in depth. One stair is 9 1/8 inches tall, one 8 5/8. The top landing that connects to the main deck is not level, so that the top step measures 7 5/8" on one side and 8 1/8 inch on the other. A large portion of the railing system can wobble back and forth a good inch or more and seems very unsafe. Aren't the posts for the railing supposed to be bolted on the the side of the deck and stair stringers? The last step is concrete and about 6 inches tall. Later, I find out that for commercial use, the stairs should be 7" high and 11" deep. Is this true? After confronting him with pictures and measurements he didn't try to dispute what I believed to be violations. Later he wrote: "The inspector will not fine you for the stair not being to code." He is still wanting us to pay $2,500 for what seems like should be a re-do. Do we still owe him?

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If YOUR agent (architect, structural engineer, etc) did a design for the project and the contractor built to the drawings/specs, then he is probably off the hook - though certainly mis-matched step heights and out-of-level steps would NOT have been on drawings like that, nor would loose railings.

Generally, while you would have to check with your local building department on local regs about step dimensions (usually there is a spec sheet on the web for info), and numbers vary between different codes and jurisdictions, step height generally has to be the same for all steps (within 1/4 or 3/8" typically from greatest to lowest height) and generally from 4 to somewhere around 7-8 inches high depending on locale, with step depth typically in the 9-11 inch minimum range - some also have maximums around 10-12 inches with exceptions allowing deeper steps for "grand entrance" outdoor steps leading to monuments and edifice building like courthouses and city halls and such. And have to be level with typically 1/8 to 1/4" from front to back and side to side.

Steps would not have to be exactly 7 inches high though that is a common target, because the height of the steps for any given staircase have to be adjsuted to fit the floor-to-floor elevation difference into a whole number of steps - each of which are supposed to be the same height for a given staircase but varies from the "standard" 7" height depending on story heights and types of flooring on each floor, which can have varying thicknesses so affect the floor-to-floor elevation difference that the staircase has to "climb".

Sounds like he is WAY out of whack on several of these criteria - plus railings have to be secure and stable and carry a substantial (again varies by code, commonly 50#/LF all along railing and also [applied separately] a 200# concentrated load at top of railing) applied in any direction at any point against the railing. Usually railing posts are bolted into the framing/stringers that support the steps, as you said - generally 2 bolts per horizontally into it through the post, but some are base-bolted or welded only.

He is probably right about the building official not fining you for the stair not being to code - usually they do not have fining authority, at least not for some time and unless you refuse for an extended period of time to fix an unsafe condition. The inspector should just fail the installation and if not corrected before opening to use can withhold or pull the certificate of occupancy for the building - shutting you down and prohibiting occupancy (or only use of the stairway if he is nice) until it is fixed. The barring use of the stairway is unlikely, because that gets into the fire code - you cannot have (except for limited repair/construction periods) a blocked or unusable stairway - if it is there, basically it has to be to code and usable.

With as bad a job as this sounds like, trying to get this guy to do it right sounds like a lost cause. I would ask the building inspector to come and inspect it, and he should fail it on a number of counts - and ask him to document them well. Then I would take that to the contractors bonding company and tell them you don't feel he is competent to correct the problem and you want another contractor to redo the work at their expense. He is bonded, right ?

I certainly would not pay him anything for this inadequate work - if the bonding company agrees you should end up paying (probably to them rather than the contractor) the original contract amount and they will pay any required excess to correct and/or redo the work.

As for paying him - I would notify him you are having it inspected because you consider the work substandard and not to code and unsafe (or if you can get a quick inspection first and then notify him of the failure) and that you will not be paying him for substandard work. If he is bonded I would go that route - if not you are stuck between holding out payment till it is done right (which I question this guy's ability to do at all) or pay him nothing or maybe only for the cost of the materials installed and tell him he is fired for incompetence and you are not paying and get another contractor to make it right - which might well cost $2500 or even more depending on how screwed up it is and on whether the materials are reusable or not (certainly some like risers likely will not be). Possibly greater cost because fixing a mess can actually cost more than redoing from scratch, and also many contractors add on a "penalty" percentage or amount to fix another contractor's screwup - for the hassle and sometimes as a bit of a gouge at you for not getting a competent contractor in the first place.

One problem with getting another contractor - the first guy has the option of filing a lien for at least the value of the materials he put into it (even if maybe not of any use now) and potentially for the value of his labor too, so without a lien release (which you should get for sure if the bonding company gets the work finished) you have significant liability exposure and the risk of your credit being damaged and adverse credit actions being taken against you if he files a lien, plus possible lien action from suppliers if he did not pay them off, so if that situation develops (or maybe sooner) you will be needing the services of an attorney with construction contract experience to be sure your credit and property rights are not adversely affected.

And of course document all this with measurements, photos, etc - and unless the bonding company makes it good do not destroy the evidence without getting an attorney into the picture - he would probably have to let the contractor's attorney see the evidence, and would likely have a surveyor or forensic engineer take measurements and photos to document the situation before any corrective work takes place, so potentially a several week to month delay on your project in the worst case.

And of course, after all is said and done, reporting his shoddy work to the state licensing board (he was licensed, right ?) and an appropraite Review on Angies List seems to be in order.

Answered 3 years ago by LCD

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