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Thursday, February 9, 2017

My life in real estate: Remodeling

While we all have had the occasional painter or carpenter in our homes, how many of us have gone through a major renovation?

Only once have I done something that kept me out of my home for more than a month.  What should have been a 3-6 month project turned into a year long ordeal of dust, disconnected bathrooms and mess.

When I lived on Pearson Street, I had a vision for my condo -- I wanted everything to be "perfect."   I was traveling with my job at the time and I'd get home on Friday night to see my place in a mess with litter around and I'd wonder - "What did they accomplish this week?"  Eventually I had to move to the University Club - the contractors had demolished both bathrooms at the same time and left them unfinished WAY TOO long.

I really lost it with my general contractor, when the tiles in my new bathroom were laid on an angle instead of straight and he said, "Well, it's not my fault -- the tile guy did it."

That was the moment when I got more involved and feisty about the delays and the quality of the work.

I've learned through the years, when a contractor says, "Don't worry.  Everything will be done by ...." be prepared to add at least a month on to the target date.   If they can't show you step by step, task by task who, what and when something will be accomplished, then they don't know when the work is getting done either.

I told my contractor I wanted my apartment put back together by Thanksgiving since everyone was coming to my place for dinner.

"Don't worry, everything will be done..."

With those fateful words, I pulled out my PC, created an excel spreadsheet and made him articulate room-by-room what needed to get done and how long each step would take.   When we added up the tasks, divided by the number of workers and workable days, it showed the job being completed in February.

"Don't worry, everything will be done by Thanksgiving."

The next day, I spoke with my family and we moved Thanksgiving dinner to somewhere else.   Good thing we did; my apartment wasn't put back together until February.

Whether you’re hiring a contractor for a small project or for something as large as a building a new home, you want to hire someone that you can trust and who will provide you with quality workmanship. You can make sure your contractor will live up to your expectations by interviewing contractors before you hire them and asking them questions like these.  (go to,, etc. to get more ideas for questions to ask.)
  1. Will you provide references? Ask for the names and contact information of former clients who have used the contractor for similar projects. An ethical contractor should be happy and willing to provide you with these references. Make the phone calls and find out what their clients have to say.  Go see the work and make sure you really like the quality of their workmanship.
  2. Will you provide a detailed written estimate? Don’t settle for a verbal quote. Ask for the estimate in writing. In addition, require that the estimate detail out everything that will and will not be included in the price being quoted. The more detail you receive, the better.  If you agree to something verbally, write it down and make sure it's included in the estimate -- if not, it may come back to you as a change order.  
  3. Can you provide proof of insurance? Contractors should all be able to provide you with proof of liability insurance. If they have employees, they should also provide proof of workers compensation insurance. This proof of insurance should come direct from their insurance agent and be addressed to you. A copy of their policy does not prove that the insurance is still in force.
  4. Are you licensed in my city? Know what the contractor licensing requirements are for your state and city. Ask for those license numbers from the contractor. Most legitimate contractors will have their license number printed on their business cards.  Check with the department of your municipality -- they may have a preferred list of contractors for their community.  
  5. Will you provide a written contract? Do not accept a handshake contract. Ask for a full written contract that is signed by both you and the contractor. The contract should provide the same detail as the final estimate or state that the contract is based on the estimate specifications. The contract should include in writing anything you and the contractor have agreed to verbally such as time frame for completion, scope of work, payment terms, procedures for handling changes to the contract amount or scope of work.
  6. How will change orders be handled? It is very seldom that a contract is completed without any changes happening to the scope of work. It is important that these changes be handled as professionally as the contract itself. Whenever you ask for or agree to a change in the scope of work, ask for a written change order that states the details of the change and the price of that change. This should be done even if the change is being done at no cost or is a decrease in the contract amount. These written changes should be provided before the change on the project is accomplished, or at the very least, be provided the same day the change in work is agreed upon. Without this, clients receive many unexpected charges at the completion of the project. This is one of the most common issues that clients experience with contractors, even with the most experienced and trusted of contractors.  They should provide an hourly rate for change orders on your initial proposal.   Consider that rate to make sure it seems appropriate.  
  7. Who will be responsible for obtaining needed permits? This is one of the items that should be detailed out in your estimate or contract. Most professional contractors will include the price of all necessary permits in their contract price and they will apply for the permits themselves.
  8. Who will actually be doing the work? Do not assume that because you hired a specific contractor that he or his employees will be the ones that show up to do the work. Some contractors will subcontract their work out to others. If the contractor will be hiring subcontractors, ask for the names of all subcontractors who will be working on your project and what types of work they will be doing.
  9. What will the payment schedule be? I would never pay the contractor in full before the work is 100% complete. My experience is that they ask for about 25% - 35% of the payment upfront.  I would question anything that is more than 50% of the total.  If the project will extend over several months, determine what the payment schedule will be before the work begins.
  10. Will you provide lien waivers for all materials and labor? Request that your contractor provide lien waivers from their suppliers and subcontractors showing that they have used your payments to pay for the materials and labor that have been used on your project. It is best to hold your final payment on a project until you have received lien waivers from all contributors to your project. This protects you from having a lien placed on your home by a supplier who was not paid by your contractor. A final lien waiver should be received from the contractor themselves once you pay your final balance on the contract as well.
Don’t be talked into working with someone on a handshake contract just because they seem like a nice guy. If your contractor has nothing to hide and truly knows his business he will be able and willing to provide you with all ten of these important protections for contractor clients.  I always like to see what others are saying as well on places like Yelp or Angie's List or the Better Business Bureau.   Google the contractor and see what pops up.    Ask your friends and interview, until you find someone you trust and like.

But I think there is one more thing to consider.  Do you like these people?  Is it a good fit?   They're going to be in your life for some time and if you don't like them -- regardless of their references -- cross them off your list.  One time I had work done by a guy, who clearly didn't respect me.  I think he was a bit of a sexist and resented that a woman was the only client.  I never used the guy again -- bad fit.   I've found that I like/dislike contractors that are different from those many of my friends do - it's simply interpersonal chemistry.

The good news is -- eventually the work gets done,  they're out of your life and you have a beautiful new home.
The bad news is -- you can't find anything you put away before you began the work!

So how did my apartment look?  I basically loved it -- it was pretty much everything I hoped it would be, albeit not perfect.

It was a great apartment!

1 comment:

  1. Renovating your home can be quite the task. It's easy to walk into your future home with a vision but you also have to be prepared for what it takes to make that vision a reality. Keeping spreadsheets of the renovation time frame is a wonderful idea. It's also helpful to previously research contractors.