Surviving the Remodeling Process

by David Hollies

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Home Remodeling

"Remodeling": For many, the word evokes thoughts of soaring entryways, magazine-cover kitchens, and half-acre bathrooms. Unfortunately, it also brings to mind a sense of invasion, dread and chaos. As our homes age, it makes more and more sense to bring things up-to-date by remodeling. It's more cost-effective than moving and is usually far less disruptive. But make no mistake about it, remodeling can be very stressful. However, most of the horror stories you hear are avoidable.

The six key steps to smooth remodeling are:

1. Collect ideas upfront.
2. Don't skimp on design.
3. Carefully select a contractor.
4. Use a clear and complete contract.
5. Work out job logistics up front.
6. Establish regular communication channels.

Each of these steps is discussed in detail in the following sections:

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Collect Ideas Up Front
The first step in any remodeling project is to begin collecting ideas. For many, this step is pure pleasure. Read articles in the home section of your newspaper. Review home or remodeling oriented books and magazines. There are many books and magazines available at grocery stores, hardware stores, and your local library. Save or photocopy ideas or products that appeal to you. Visit showrooms. Build a big file.

At the beginning, don't rule out things that seem difficult or expensive. That can come later. What you want to do is collect as many appealing ideas as you can. It works best if your spouse does the same. As a matter of fact, getting other household members into the act at this stage can help build their enthusiasm for the project as a whole. Their cooperation can come in pretty handy during the difficult construction phase.

When your search no longer yields attractive new ideas, it's time to sit down with your spouse or any other decision-makers and start wading through all the ideas you have collected. Try to reach a consensus on the scope of the job and what features are most important to you. Don't worry about exact dimensions or specific product selections. Try to arrive at a rough budget of how much you are willing and able to spend. At this point, you don't have much pricing information, so the key is to establish your priorities. For example, if reusing the old kitchen appliances means having enough money to redo the hall bath, which is more important?

Don't Skimp on Design
Many people feel that once ideas, scope, and priorities are decided, it is time for a design professional to be involved. Most people need help making decisions about options and deciding what is feasible in terms of the existing structure and the overall budget. A design professional can help make sure that the end product is attractive and meets all the objectives for which it is built. As a general rule, the larger the project, the more important it is to have design help.

Today, there are more options than ever when it comes to design. People used to need to make a choice between hiring an architect for the whole project or winging it on their own. Now there are architects who will provide you with hourly help, and there is a new option called a design/build firm. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages.

Architects. The traditional approach involves hiring an architect to help you sift through your ideas and help you convert your needs into a detailed plan for modifications. The advantages of this approach are that the architect provides a very comprehensive service and is highly trained in the area of design. The best architects can also help you work with your contractor.

The disadvantages are that it is often the most expensive option and many architects don't have much experience with remodeling as opposed to new construction. There are many horror stories about architects designing additions that could not be built because of the limitations imposed by existing structures.

Architects without remodeling experience tend to over-design and use unrealistic cost estimates that leave homeowners with beautiful plans that they cannot afford to build. Obviously, the key for your project is to make sure you choose an architect experienced with remodeling. Keeping this in mind, you choose an architect in much the same way you would choose a contractor. There is more discussion about the selection of contractors later in this guide.

A la carte services. Besides the traditional full-service approach, some innovative architects now provide a la carte service on an hourly basis. While not nearly as comprehensive as full service, you can save money by getting only the specific help you need the most. This is an especially attractive option for smaller projects, such as a deck or a minor interior remodeling job.

Design/build. Finally, there is the design/build alternative. The concept behind this relatively new approach is to integrate the design and construction processes. This approach can eliminate many of the problems people have had with architects in remodeling, and can often result in a less expensive design that is much more practical to build. Just as important is that when all the design and construction is handled by one firm, that firm is fully accountable for the entire project. This means problems can be addressed directly without a lot of time and energy taken up with finger pointing. These advantages have made the design/build approach extremely popular in recent years.

However, the design/build approach has its share of hazards, partially because it is a new and evolving methodology. There are half a dozen ways of operating what people are calling "design/build" firms.

In some cases, a contractor who does remodeling and was always interested in architecture simply starts calling his firm a design/build firm. At the other end of the spectrum, you might find an architectural firm that has decided to subcontract actual construction of the projects they design. Between the two are myriad options.

When talking to a firm, ask them about their design and construction expertise and find out exactly how the two are integrated. See if their approach makes sense for your project. As always with home services, the key to success is to choose carefully the firm you work with.

Carefully Select a Contractor
Selecting a contractor is by far the most important step in a successful remodeling project. Everyone knows this, yet many don't understand the process or don't take the time to do it right. People have been known to choose a contractor based on the size of the firm's yellow pages ad, the color of their trucks, or the owner's last name.

To screen a contractor, you must document licensing and insurance, ensure that the firm has good records with area consumer agencies, and interview a significant number of recent customer references about price, quality, promptness, and other factors. Don't skimp on this process!

Consumers often succumb to the temptation of adding a contractor to their consideration list at the last minute. Perhaps they heard about the firm from a neighbor, or a nice fellow came to the door with a flyer, or they got a call from a telemarketer. No matter what the source is, you must exercise some discipline.

The rule is: check them out thoroughly or don't even consider them - no exceptions. Another rule is to never get confused about the order of smart home-services shopping. Check out firms first and ignore those that do not pass muster. Then, and only then, do you start looking at prices.

There will be plenty of price differential among the reliable firms. Don't make the big mistake of tempting yourself with low-ball bids from flaky contractors. Now, because you are only talking to firms that you've checked out thoroughly, you can switch your focus to issues such as price, compatibility, and design ideas. Explain your ideas and see what the contractor thinks. It's an opportunity to learn additional details about the contractor. Do you feel comfortable with him? Does he listen well? Is he organized?

Remember, the firm you choose will be practically living in your home during the remodeling project. Inevitably, the prices you are quoted will vary enormously. This is normal. Before you make real comparisons on price, you should make decisions about some of the details of the job. Each contractor will have his own approach and recommendations. You need to listen to their advice and the reasoning behind their recommendations and then make decisions about the approach you feel is best. Once you've made the decisions, get each firm to amend their estimate to reflect the changes brought about by the decisions.

In the final analysis, you don't want to work with a firm you don't trust or can't get along with. Eliminate them from consideration. Of the remaining firms, price is usually the most important deciding factor.

Follow these steps in selecting a contractor and you are just about assured of a smooth job. Cut corners or mix up the selection process order and you are inviting trouble.

Use a Clear and Complete Contract
A super contract with an unreliable firm is almost useless. Some folks think that a watertight contract with a bargain-basement firm will assure ultimate satisfaction. It doesn't. On the other hand, a clearly written and complete contract plays an important part in the relationship you establish with a reliable firm. The more specific details about the project that are in the contract, the better, simply because written agreements are far less susceptible to misunderstandings.

Each contract should clearly lay out the amount and timing of payments. A significant sum (at least 10%) should be reserved as a final payment. If possible, make this final payment due ten days after the final "punch list" is completed. The punch list is just a list compiled at the end of a job of things that need more attention before the job is completely satisfactory.

By waiting until a few days after the punch list items are completed, you give yourself ample time to discover minor problems. The leverage of the last payment assures prompt action by the contractor.

One clause of the contract should clearly state that the contractor is responsible for getting all of the required permits. Many people skip permits because permits often add to the cost and slow down the progress of a project. For very minor projects, the main problem with skipping permits is the possibility of getting a citation if caught.

On bigger projects involving structural changes, plumbing, or electrical work, the permits offer you some very substantial benefits, because the permit process ensures that things are done in accordance with local building codes. An inspector will come out and look at the work at various stages throughout the job.

He or she will make sure things are being done right and that the end result will be a safe improvement to your home. If you fail to get a permit and you later have a fire, flood, or other catastrophe due to improper work, you may find that your insurance company will not pay.

The nature of remodeling is that jobs always look more straightforward than they ultimately turn out to be. There are hundreds of things that can bog down a job. Even the most talented contractor in the world is going to face periodic delays. That is just the way it is: plan ahead.

The odds are that there will be delays on your job. Avoid remodeling when some critical event is coming up. Avoid Christmas, weddings, out of town visitors, etc. Some people put penalty/bonus clauses into the contract as additional motivators for the contractor to complete the job on time. In theory these clauses make a lot of sense, but in practice they can backfire. As a rule, a bonus works better than a penalty, simply because it is inherently more positive.

The key to making such contract provisions work is to not make them too large. Some delays will be caused by things the contractor has no control over. Weather, strikes, messed up factory deliveries, and myriad other things can sabotage even the most diligent contractor's best efforts. You don't want the contractor to be tempted to cut corners or skip steps to reach the deadline. You also don't want a contractor to lose all motivation when a job gets behind schedule.

For example, if you have a $200-a-day penalty and the job is three weeks behind schedule, with no end in sight, the contractor may conclude that by the time the job is done he won't get paid anything, so he might as well cut his losses and walk away.

Another contract provision that is growing in popularity is an agreement to use an alternative dispute resolution mechanism should a disagreement arise. This is a clause in the contract that says that in case of a dispute, both parties agree to abide by the ruling of an arbitrator. Whether provided by the Better Business Bureau, the American Arbitration Association, or someone else, this kind of service can assure you of prompt and fair resolutions without the enormous expense of conventional litigation.

Work Out Job Logistics Up Front
Remodeling is a bit like having 15 strangers over to play football in your living room for a few weeks. They all arrive and depart at different times and each is determined to make a mess of your home.

Well . . . it may not be that bad, but remodeling will disrupt just about every routine you have, including some you're not even aware of. To manage this process and to survive it, you need to sit down with your contractor and go over the "ground rules." Your contractor should then be responsible for getting the word to all the assorted workers who will come into your home. It is best to post a list of the ground rules so that everyone can refer to them. Your ground-rules list should cover the following:

1. What are the earliest and latest hours for working?
2. Where (if anywhere) is smoking allowed?
3. What entrance should workers use?
4. What entrance should materials come in through?
5. Who will have keys to the house?
6. Where will tools, equipment, and materials be stored on the job site?
7. Which (if any) phones are available for worker use? What limitations or restrictions apply to incoming and outgoing calls?
8. Where may workers park? Is there a neighbor who will be upset by trucks in front of their home?
9. Are parts of the house "off limits" to workers?
10. How will pets be handled?
11. Are there household members who normally take daytime naps?
12. Music: What type? How loud? Whose equipment? When?
13. How clean will the job site be made each day? For weekends? When the job is done?
14. May the contractor post a sign in the yard? How big and for how long?
15. Which (if any) bathrooms on the job site may workers use?

Many people find it easier to move out while the work is being done. If you can afford a local hotel or have friends or family nearby, there is a lot to be said for just removing yourself from the war zone. Other people move out for parts of the job, or give themselves periodic weekend breaks.

Another thing to consider is temporarily placing some of your more precious furniture and nonessential dishes, chinaware, and other furnishings into storage while the work goes on. You can have a moving and storage company pack things up for you or make arrangements to put things in a mini-storage warehouse. A ten-by-ten-foot storage space can be rented for not much more than $100 a month.

If you are going to stay in your home while work is being done, talk to your contractor about how critical areas like the kitchen and baths will be handled. If possible, get agreement that the room won't be made inoperable until all the new appliances and fixtures have been delivered. This will help you avoid the all-too-common problem of having your kitchen completely out of commission for weeks while the contractor sorts out an error in an order from a manufacturer.

Establish Regular Communications Channels
Because you have done your homework, it is very unlikely that you will have problems with workmanship or ethics with your contractor, but don't believe for a minute that this makes you immune to problems with the job. In fact, it is an absolute certainty that problems will arise. Knowing this in advance, it is important to set up arrangements for regular communication with your contractor.

Make arrangements to meet with someone in charge of the job at least once a day. This can be first thing in the morning, at lunch time, at the end of the day, or at any other convenient time. It should be with the same person every day, and it should take place at the job site. Make it a regular part of your routine during the remodeling process.

This regular opportunity for keeping each other informed is the best insurance you and your contractor have against the disagreements that can arise from poor communication. The daily meeting provides you with an opportunity to ask questions and be reassured, and it provides the contractor with an opportunity to explain glitches, delays, and so on. Many people expect the person who sold the job to be around all the time. This is rarely the case, so it's better to clarify just what you expect from the contractor right from the beginning.

Another source of problems is "change orders." Change orders are the little (and not so little) changes that you make to the initial plan as the job progresses. Change orders are virtually inevitable. Have a set procedure for discussing these changes, for getting agreement on how the change will affect total costs and payments, and for getting the understanding in writing.

Again, the order of events is crucial: come to agreement first; then write down all the details, including things like dimensions and model numbers; and finally, allow the work to proceed. By taking these steps in the proper order, you can avoid what often turn out to be expensive and stressful disagreements.

Remember, it is a good idea to take a couple of breaks during the remodeling job. Get out of the house and go to the beach or visit friends for a couple of days and get your batteries recharged. Going to a nearby hotel for a weekend package-for-two is a great way to relax and refresh your outlook.