Retrofit blog

Pro vs Amateur - Selecting a Soft-Story Contractor | How to Avoid Getting Scammed


Lots of people are doing retrofits - avoid scammers, snake oil salesmen, and grifters.

When the Los Angeles City Council adopted the “Mandatory Seismic Retrofit” ordinance 183893 in 2016 it created a boom in construction worth upwards of $1.2 Billion dollars. This has triggered a manic gold rush frenzy in freshly minted would-be contractors that did not exist a few years ago. You can tell they are newcomers because their Contractors License No. starts at 100XXX. I have witnessed many cases where contractors pose as a “retrofit expert” but have had a CSLB license for less 6 months, and I’ve seen other cases where the wannabe “expert” doesn’t even have a license. What kind of ‘soft-story retrofit expert’ doesn’t have a contractor's license? Or any real construction experience doing seismic retrofits. I want to help you avoid these bad contractors that will try to sell you something that won’t work.

More often than not these “experts” submit incredibly low bids, far lower than anyone else because they don’t know what they are doing. They do not realize how complex a seismic retrofit project really is. Or you’ll see them as “third parties” (as a broker, property manager, or even a construction consultant) that try to wedge themselves in the transaction to get a commission. Why though? I have no problem with people trying to earn some money, but at least contribute something of value in the exchange or else get the heck out of the way.

Ask the Right Questions

I want to help you avoid these people, people who want to leach off of your hard work. So here are some questions you can ask to determine if you are dealing with a scammer or with someone who is truly an expert. These are three questions you should ask every contractor you are considering for your soft-story retrofit project in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills or Pasadena.

“Tell me about you approach to retrofitting a soft-story building? What is the best way to do the retrofit?”

An amateur contractor will say:

“We put a cantilevered Column, put it in and all done”

They will offer very little detail, mostly because they don’t know what to do. They just now cantilevered columns are cheaper.

A pro contractor will say:

“We open up the stucco asses the condition of the building framing and determine how much wood we need to add to the building to prepare it for the steel. The new steel is spread out over a wide footprint to provide a reliable load path and increase building performance”

A true pro will now that in most cases moment frames are the best solution, they also know about the importance of creating load paths to absorb lateral forces experienced during earthquakes.

“What is the cheapest way to retrofit my building?”

An amateur contractor will say:

“A Cantilever Column is the cheapest option, and its easy to install, we add a few clips and that’s it.”

A pro contractor will say:

“Making the building perform is the cheapest thing to do, you want to protect this building. Every dollar you invest can prevent 12X in damage. It’ll cost more in the present, but the repair you’ll need to do after an earthquake will be significantly cheaper”

“Can you give me a guaranteed construction price or firm bid before we get the plans done?”

An amateur contractor will say:

“Of course, my prices are firm”

If they say yes, it’s a scammer. No one with any construction acumen will agree to this. Only inexperienced, desperate people will agree to such a daft request. No two buildings are truly alike. Termite damage and shallow footings need to be repaired in order for the retrofit to work correctly and the building to perform.

A pro contractor will say:

“Our guarantee is that we will use all of our experience, talent, and to protect your building. We want to achieve the most performance out of your building at a fair price. The building’s need will determine the price. Let’s inspect the wood-frame and footings to make the best decisions about how to retrofit the building. Once we have a gameplan we can determine how much it will cost.”

Anything short of that and people are guessing on price, they’re lying. You don’t know how often work is delayed due to Field Change Orders (FCO) because the plans need to be revised. A pro should be able to give you detailed feedback about how to do the work and why that construction method is best. You should follow your instinct and make sure they are a good fit for you. Shallow answers with little details shows a person with a limited knowledge base. Sure, you can ask how many seismic retrofit projects they have under their belt, but a simple lie would be hard to detect.

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Alexander Rodriguez is a Construction Industry Veteran with expertise in Seismic Retrofits for Wood-Frame Buildings.