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Not All Retaining Wall Companies Are The Same

Hello – I just came across your website: Retaining Wall Companies. What an invaluable resource of information everyone seeking a retaining wall company should see. Had I known about your website last year, I would have made better decisions when it came to my own retaining wall replacement.

My story is a long one, but worth reading if it can protect just one person from the financial calamity and unhealthy stress I endured. Everyone needs to be aware of and appreciate the laws and regulations governing the construction of retaining walls so their ignorance is not exploited. Although I once scoffed at them, local regulations, building codes and engineering requirements are in place for our safety and protection as consumers. I understand that now. If a retaining wall company or contractor tells you engineering and building permits are an unwarranted expense, walk away!

Unfortunately, retaining walls are simply not afforded the same scrutiny as other permanent structures, but as I learned the hard way, an incorrectly built retaining wall can cause your home’s foundation to slip, crack and even collapse.

This is my story. The retaining walls at my home made from railroad ties about forty years ago were disintegrating, so I got quotes from two local retaining wall companies. The fellow from the first company I will call “Jay”, told me that the new retaining wall would need to be engineered at a cost of $3,500.00. Jay explained that price included three site visits one before one for the footing and a final. Next, he revealed the EPA classified old railroad ties a hazardous material, so the disposal costs are $3 more expensive per square foot than retaining walls made from wood timbers.

As I stood there listening to him, I imagined Jay was charging me every dime he could! I mean, it’s not like I have a choice in the matter, the failing structural support of my rotting retaining wall had already caused the concrete patio above them to crack. Even worse, the ground under the patio was eroding away, so why not charge me all he can? My retaining wall was just over 1,000 square feet so he suggested an interlocking Allan block retaining wall to replace the railroad ties at $38 a square foot and showed me some images of other retaining walls he had built from that same material. As I realized the cost would be almost forty-thousand dollars, I felt nauseated.

The next retaining wall company’s representative, I will call “Doug”, told me if I write out a check for $2,000 to engage an engineer right now and he would charge just $41.85 per square foot “turnkey”. Turnkey means that price includes removing the old wall and all materials and labor to build the new retaining wall. “This is one way I save you money by saving my time!” he said, “Engineering plans are regulary $3,000 and a project like this normally $45 turnkey.

This worked out to be a bit less than Jay’s estimate. When I asked if hazardous material disposal fees were included at that price, the guy said he owned the land where the railroad ties would be taken for disposal. He said, “that’s just another way we save you money!” He and his assistant then went about measuring my railroad tie walls. Doug acted more like a high-pressure car salesman than a contractor.

Jay made a much better impression than Doug, but since both estimates were so much more than I dreamed possible, I needed time to ponder all the information and recover from the anxiety caused by the havoc this amount would wreak on my retirement account.

Then something odd happened. Saturday morning, out of the blue, a middle-aged Hispanic man I will call “Jose”, rang my doorbell. It was Doug’s assistant. He explained that he was a subcontractor for several retaining wall companies and if I were to hire him directly, I could save a lot of money. “I am going to be the person doing the work anyway.” And if you hire me directly, Jose said, “there will be no retaining wall replacement engineering or permitting fees. If you like, I can start on Monday.”

My first concern was Jose’s apparent lack of loyalty to Doug who had introduced himself as his employer just two days earlier, but Jose said that Doug never paid him what was originally promised, and Jose was an independent retaining wall contractor anyway.

The idea of saving money quickly overwhelmed the voice inside my head telling me something was wrong. I agreed to hire Jose. He asked for a five-thousand-dollar deposit check to purchase materials and promised to return Monday to begin the work. About an hour later a lady called from a check cashing service to ask me if I had written the check and would I authorize Jose to cash it. The voice inside my head urged me to say “no”, but instead I approved the transaction. As you might imagine, things only got worse from there!

Monday and Tuesday came and went without a word; so on Wednesday morning I called the number on my caller ID for the check cashing service to try and get a phone number for Jose. The check cashing attendant was apprehensive at first, but she eventually had mercy for my situation and gave me his number. Jose was noticeably surprised upon realizing who was calling. After being told I must have the wrong number twice, I threatened to call the police and his memory improved markedly.

When I asked why he did not begin the work on Monday as promised, he claimed that he had been mugged and the money stolen while walking home from the check cashing service. And over the past few days he had been desperately trying to raise the money elsewhere before contacting me. I asked for a copy of the police report, but he said the person who robbed him would certainly retaliate against his family if the incident were reported. He apologized sincerely and vowed to work every Saturday and Sunday until the project was complete; but of course, he would need more money for materials. I told him to come by my house.

When he arrived, I made a copy of his driver’s license and to circumvent any future losses, I demanded to pay for all materials directly to each merchant. When I called the supplier of block, he knew and even vouched for Jose telling me he has been in this business for years, and was often taken advantage of by contractors. I felt somewhat relieved and more confident in Jose. In retrospect, what else would a guy from whom someone buys supplies say? He wants to sell supplies so of course he will say positive things!

Saturday and Sunday Jose came as promised and a helper who I believe was his son, removed my old railroad tie wall and over the next three weekends they built my new wall. As they were building the new wall I noticed that they were not using any gravel or the geo-fabric that Jay (from the first company) said was important. Jose explained that the old railroad tie wall had “deadmen” which fortified the ground behind the wall and since they were still in perfect shape, the gravel and geo-fabric were an unnecessary expense. Deadmen as I later learned are attached to the wall at a 90-degree angle and buried to give support. Having never heard of deadmen before, I was easily duped!

About two weeks following the completion of the replacement retaining wall it rained for days. As I was sipping my morning coffee on the morning of the fourth consecutive day of rain, , I heard my retaining wall collapse! I will never forget that sound. I was sick!

Jose promised repeatedly to replace the collapsed retaining wall, but he never did. After waiting several weeks I called Jay to assess the damage and help me pick up the pieces. He was incredibly understanding about my dilemma. As it turns out, I am in very good company as Jay explained that hundreds of unexpecting property owners are victimized in scams like this every year. “How can you blame people for wanting to save money! After all, a retaining wall is not a very exciting expenditure!” he said.

The first time I met with Jay, I could feel in my heart that he was telling me the truth, but I simply didn’t want to accept it. In my own defense, retaining walls look incredibly simple! Who would think you’d need an engineer? Since I was paying dearly for this project, I was determined to learn all I could about the correct construction process of retaining walls.

Jay brought in a truly professional retaining wall crew who carefully removed and set aside all of the blocks Jose had installed. Using a small bobcat, Jay’s crew also dug out the earth behind the wall about the same distance as the wall’s height. Each of the old railroad tie “deadmen” was removed and hauled away. Jay rolled his eyes and shook his head smiling when I told him why Jose had left the deadmen from the old railroad tie retaining wall in the ground.

Next, Jay’s crew dug a suitable footing for the wall creating a gravel bed and leveled out the first row of Allan block underground. Jay’s engineer made a site visit that afternoon to inspect the retaining wall footing for himself and then scheduled a formal inspection by the city engineer.

After receiving approval from the city engineer on the footing, the crew carefully positioned, meticulously leveled and installed with gravel both inside and behind each row of blocks each consecutive row. The crew used a gas-powered machine to compress the dirt. and then every other row they laid out sheets of geofabric to ensure the ground, gravel and blocks remained locked in position.

The difference between Jose and Jay’s crew was painfully obvious and I began to understand the importance of the building standards Jay preached and why retaining walls without these vital steps have little chance of survival. The single most important element of a retaining wall is drainage.

Working Monday through Friday, it took Jay’s crew three weeks to complete the retaining wall. There were a few rainy days in between, but the crew tarped over the dirt to keep everything dry as possible. Once the retaining wall was complete, Jay oversaw the final inspection and then brought me the paperwork from the engineer and permit with approval stamps now officially marked closed. Jay told me that the best retaining walls are never seen, so he referred me to a landscape supply business to pick out some shrubs to plant in front of the wall. Jay was very professional and knows his industry inside and out.

The toll of this debacle was far greater than simply the lost dollar amount. It was the impact on my high blood pressure the sleepless nights and stress had on me that mattered most. All because I wanted to save a few dollars. So I urge everyone not to gamble it away on the price difference of having the job done by a professional retaining wall company!

Edward W.
Sandy Springs, Georgia