contributed by Brad Yates [atypical engineer / freelance opinionist / aesthete]
EDITOR’S NOTE: In last month’s installment, serial homeowner Brad Yates shared his expertise regarding small changes to your new digs, specifically, how to look objectively, think rationally, and act accordingly. But what’s your next move if walls need to be moved, kitchens gutted, and bathrooms completely reworked” Let our fearless expert walk you through the tricky process that is remodeling.
I Liked Everything About This House Except…
If you are planning to remodel a bathroom or a kitchen, it’s probably worthwhile just to live with it “as is” if you can. If this is your first time to own and you’ve spent the last six months of your life finding the perfect house, fixing your credit, and getting a mortgage, tackling a remodel for the first time is probably not advisable. These are big-dollar projects that inevitably end up over budget, in divorce, or both.
Unlike painting contracts or other jobs that require more skill than equipment, these jobs require multiple crafts, skills, and resources. You are moving from the abilities of a small contractor into the major leagues… well the minors actually. You will want to make sure you find a general contractor [GC] who has multiple references — make sure they are licensed, insured, and bonded.
Finding a contractor in this next tier is both art and science. You will not only need to find someone qualified, you’ll also need to find someone you can comfortably negotiate with if you find problem or want to make a change. Though it’s probably hard for you to imagine, you will have a more intense relationship with this person for the next several months than anyone in your life. References from friends are a great place to start but have the success rate of blind dates.
Lookin’ For Love In All The Right Places
The best way to find a great GC is to talk with professionals in the industry (real estate agents, architects, engineers, etc.) and to get them to list out a few of their recommendations. These professionals are often ethically bound not to refer a specific contractor; however, I know few who wouldn’t share their top three or five with you informally.
Once you have your list, you are now the hiring manager and CEO for your project. You’ll need to conduct several interviews. Have these folks bring pictures of their work similar to what you are wanting done, references, and copies of their credentials. If they balk at providing any of these things, you’re dealing in the wrong league of contractors for a remodel. This isn’t necessarily a deal-killer, but unless you have the experience and the time to manage things yourself (i.e., anywhere from two to six hours a day), then hire a good GC. They will move you through estimating, bidding, and contract signing with ease.
Here are the key ingredients to have in the contract:
- Start date.
- Finish date.
- Total cost.
- Payment schedule.
- Required permits.
- Materials provided by contractor (be specific).
- Materials provided by owner (be very specific).
I’ll refrain from giving any legal advice here and just say it’s always good practice to seek out legal review and approval before signing any large contract.
By the way, my same philosophies apply for GCs as for small contractors — it’s easier to deal with the devil you know.
The Contract’s Signed And The Tool Boxes Are Open
Keep in mind that changes cost money. They just do. No one is expecting you to fork over more money for adjusting a shelf height an eighth of an inch, but just “moving that wall back a couple of inches” often means multiple crafts must be called back to the job site.
Smart GCs have multiple crews with different specialties. Keeping them busy is his livelihood. If you disrupt his planned flow, it costs him time and money. GCs are accustomed to changes and will work with you to make you happy. The best advice I can give is to continually talk and attempt to sketch out what you want (if you don’t consistently have a design professional’s help, of course). Try to meet with your GC on a regular basis and go over what work he has accomplished and what work is still planned.
Put your engineering hat on again. Does what you see fit what you ultimately want” If not, speak now or forever hold your peace. You have to be involved and satisfied every step of the way. Remember, it’s your company here. You may love it with all your heart, but everybody else is just working for a paycheck.
Outside of your routine meetings with the contractor, plan to make random appearances at the job site. Call the contractor immediately and let him know of anything the workers are doing or working on that concerns you. It’s not your responsibility to keep watch over his workers, but if no one knows when you’ll show up next, they’ll be much less likely to take shortcuts or park in the neighbor’s yard.
Know How To Close The Deal
A question that I’m always asked about working with contractors is how do I know when to pay” This is never easy, but it’s usually best when worked out up front. I prefer to use weekly payment schedules with small contractors and either quarter-point or one-third-point payments with GCs (i.e. pay when the job is a quarter or a third of the way through, then again at the half-way or two-thirds completion point, etc.).
Toward the end of the project, it’s a delicate balance between keeping enough held back and keeping crews on the job. Unfortunately, your best defense here is a good offense. Your only insurance against project delays or unsatisfactory work is a substantial final payment. Don’t play games, though, or make people guess your expectations. Make a punch list of the items that must be finished before you’ll execute final payment. Several days before the contract is supposed to end, walk through the list with the contractor. Keep a copy for yourself, and watch in amazement as things fly together in the end.
Get After It
The thrill of ownership is the ability to make your place your own. I think it is human nature to engineer new and exciting environments by changing the spaces that surround us. Be creative with your space, and if you don’t like something or want something different, never be scared to change it. Look at your house as your big kid’s set of Lincoln Logs. Children aren’t afraid to experiment, and you shouldn’t be any different. As long as you’re informed and have a plan (oh, and a small stash of cash never hurts), you too can create the house of your dreams.