A couple and a contractor in Surrey, B.C., have strong words of advice after a home renovation project went sideways leaving each party out thousands of dollars.

Ken and Jo-Anne Perka hired Evan Mathieson, who had been recommended by a friend, to spruce up their kitchen after they received a small inheritance. They never imagined they would end up in small claims court three years later fighting over a ripped-up floor.

The Perkas had hired Mathieson for various tasks, including to replace the linoleum with heated tile flooring, install custom cabinets, and put in new lighting.

"It just kind of went sideways and then next thing we're being sued," said Jo-Anne Perka.

Mathieson took the Perkas to court, claiming the couple owed him thousands of dollars in unpaid work.

"They were looking to get the best possible price and then after that, hammer it down even more," Mathieson said. "They were trying to do everything on the cheap."

But the Perkas counter-sued, claiming the contractor's faulty work cost them even more. 

Ultimately, Judge Robert Hamilton sided in part with both parties, cancelling out each other's request for repayment. 

"This is a case of a kitchen renovation gone horribly wrong," wrote Judge Hamilton in his decision.

No written agreement

As the judge highlighted repeatedly, the entire matter was complicated by the fact that virtually none of the agreement between the Perkas and Mathieson was written down — a judgement all parties strongly agree with.

"We're very trustworthy people," said Jo-Anne Perka. "I felt very trustworthy of this fellow."

Mathieson says he has been working as a contractor for about 25 years, operating primarily on verbal agreements. 

"I've done things on a handshake for a very, very long time and never had a problem," he said. "I  think we've just moved into a time when you now have to [write everything down]. A handshake is worth nothing."

Hamilton's judgement says the Perkas claim they expected all the renovations would cost them no more than $18,800. But he goes on to explain that there are no details in writing regarding whether that quote included tax, labour, or supplies, and what the payment schedule would be. 

Mathieson claims there was no upper limit to their agreement, and that they had actually agreed to pay him for his $50-hourly rate, instead of a fixed price. 

"None of the details of this quotation for the kitchen renovation are in writing," wrote Hamilton. "There is nothing. Not even an email confirming the agreement."

Final cost comes as a surprise

The Perkas claim they had agreed the work would be completed in two weeks — in time for an Easter dinner they were planning in March. 

Judge Hamilton says the Perkas paid Mathieson a $7,000 deposit, and another $5,000 as the work progressed.  

It's the last invoice the Perkas received, issued to complete the work two months after they paid the initial deposit, that appears to have come as a shock.

"When the Perkas reviewed Mr. Mathieson's March 20, 2013 invoice, they were very upset," wrote Judge Hamilton.

The total cost of the renovation had come to $20,656 — about $2,000 more than they say they had agreed to, but less than $200 if the original quote had not included tax. 

Hamilton says the Perkas refused to pay, and Mathieson packed up his tools and left. 

Judge Hamilton calls the Perkas' refusal to pay the invoice "unreasonable," especially given the amount is only a fraction of the cost they ended paying out to other contractors to complete the renovation. 

Faulty floors, installations and more

"Most of the problems ... were not known to the Perkas at the time they ended their relationship with Mr. Mathieson," wrote Judge Hamilton.

Some of the issues Hamilton cites in his judgement include a dishwasher improperly secured to the counter, the oven not fitting properly after the cabinets were installed, incorrectly matched edge trim, and a host of other issues resulting from the fact that Mathieson incorrectly measured the floor-to-ceiling height when the custom cabinets were installed. 

But these matters Judge Hamilton says could have been resolved by Mathieson, to little or no cost to the Perkas. It's the floors that he points out are the biggest issue with the contractor's work. 

Hamilton writes that the floor wasn't installed on the proper type of surface — a mistake he says Mathieson should have caught. 

"Over time, the Perkas have noticed that the grout between their tiles is failing and cracking. Some of the kitchen floor tiles have come loose," he wrote. "I find that this failure of the kitchen floor installed by Mr. Mathieson  is due solely to his negligence."

The cost to replace the floor, according to an expert witness at the trial, would be more than $6,200 — which Judge Hamilton writes Mathieson is liable to the Perkas for the cost. 

"Given the divided success in this matter the parties will bear their own expenses incurred in pursuit of their respective claims," wrote the judge. 

Lessons learned

The Perkas and Mathieson all say they have learned from this experience.

"I think he was absolutely right," said Mathieson. "None of this would have even made it to court had there been a lot more stuff in writting."

"Buyer beware," said Jo-Anne Perka. "Be very clear in what you're looking for, right down to hourly rate, the payments."