Contractors who can’t be contacted… projects that don’t progress…the privacy of home replaced by living in a construction site. When people picture home renovations, they typically imagine how nice their homes will be after the work is complete…and ignore how challenging life could be while that work is underway. Renovation inconveniences can be especially daunting now—building product shortages, shipping delays and contractors stretched thin in today’s red-hot real estate market mean that many renovations are taking longer and costing more than expected.
Ways to make a home renovation as painless as possible…
CHOOSING A CONTRACTOR
Which contractor you choose and how well you communicate with him/her will have a tremendous effect on how unpleasant the project becomes.
Hire a contractor who specializes in your project and price range. The contractor recommended by your friend might not be a good choice for you if your friend had his kitchen redone and you want your basement finished. Most renovation contractors earn the lion’s share of their income from a specific type of job—but you might not realize that when looking at their websites and ads. Contractors generally claim expertise in a wide range of renovation projects to avoid missing out on potential clients.
So how can you confirm that a contractor has the proper specialization for your project? Tally up the photos on his website—often the largest number will be of the type of project the contractor does most. If website photos don’t offer an answer, count up which types of renovations are mentioned in online reviews— you can’t always trust that online ratings are honest, but when most reviews point to a particular type of renovation, that’s likely the contractor’s focus.
After discussing your project with promising contractors, ask how many jobs they do in a typical year…and what dollar volume they do each year. Contractors usually will disclose these figures because they like to brag about how successful and in demand they are. Divide the dollar volume by the number of jobs to get a rough sense of the typical job size. Choose a different contractor if that figure is not in line with what you had in mind.
Confirm that you will receive a “fixed price” contract. This type of contract will establish the total price for the job—the contractor generally won’t be able to bill you extra even if building-component prices rise or he encounters an unexpected construction complication. Fixed-price contracts usually do include a few exceptions— homeowners might be required to pay any costs related to the removal of termites, lead paint or asbestos discovered in the home…excavation cost overruns related to bedrock… extreme events such as wars or acts of God…and/or adjustments that the homeowners themselves make to the plans mid-project.
When you receive the contract, make sure it describes in detail the renovations that the contractor will complete and what is and isn’t his responsibility, all in easy-to-understand language.
Don’t hire a contractor whose contract lists little more than the price— that contract guarantees him the amount you are promising to pay but does not give you sufficient guarantees about what you’ll get for that money.
A contract that lacks detail or lacks a fixed-price guarantee also could be a sign that the contractor lacks experience with this sort of work—he might be building wiggle room into the contract because he lacks confidence in his ability to price the job properly.
Be clear with your contractor— and yourself—about your primary goals for the renovated space. Think through exactly what you want the renovated space to do for you and how much you’re hoping to spend to achieve that. Reflect on the features and details you would like to include, then divide these into two lists—“needs” and “wants.” Example: “I want a six-burner cooktop, but I need a kitchen island with room for six stools.” Keeping renovations on budget usually involves compromise so it’s crucial to be clear with yourself and your contractor about where you are and are not willing to compromise.
When you consider budget, ask yourself not just What do I intend to spend?, but also What is the absolute maximum I’m willing to spend? If you cannot get everything you must have for your maximum price, consider walking away from the project. Check in with contractors in a year or two to see if costs have declined.
Picking appliances, bathroom fixtures and floor coverings might seem like the fun part of the renovation process—but your decisions could accidentally undermine the project.
Choose appliances, cabinets and tile as early in the process as possible. These components are especially prone to delivery delays, so the sooner they’re ordered, the lower the odds that your project will grind to a halt while workmen wait for them to arrive.
Also: Ask your contractor what other decisions he needs from you and when he needs them.
Order components locally. In this year of delivery delays, the odds of project holdups increase dramatically when appliances and other key components are shipped from distant suppliers. Either buy from suppliers located close enough that you could rent a truck and pick up the items personally if necessary…or order appliances and fixtures through your contractor or subcontractors even if they charge more than online sellers. When you buy through your contractors, those contractors should take responsibility for finding solutions if there are delivery delays. When you order components yourself, any delivery delays likely will be considered your problem.
Keep a list of your second and third choices for each component in case your top pick becomes unavailable.
LIVING IN A CONSTRUCTION ZONE
Your home life is going to be disrupted during the renovation, but those disruptions can be minimized by taking these steps…
Construct a kitchen-and-bath plan for your construction-zone life. Some homeowners tell themselves, Having no kitchen is no big deal—it’s an excuse to eat out… or Having no bathrooms is no big deal—there will be portable toilets, which is more than we have when we go camping. That’s delusional—living without kitchen and bathroom access is among the most unpleasant aspects of remodeling.
If your kitchen is being renovated, set up a temporary kitchen with your microwave, coffee pot and refrigerator. If there’s no good way to reposition your full-size fridge, consider buying a small fridge for $100 to $200. Ideally set up this ad hoc kitchenette near a sink that will remain functional—a large mudroom sink is perfect. Or for $500 to $1,000, your plumbing contractor might be able to set up a temporary sink (or use the sink that is being discarded) in a room adjacent to the kitchen under renovation.
If you’re having your bathrooms redone, your contract should specify that at least one bathroom will be fully operational—including hot water— when the workmen leave each night.
Get pets and possessions to safety. Construction sites can be distressing and dangerous for pets because of all the power tools and strangers around. A panicked pet even could escape through a door left open by a workman and get lost or hurt in traffic. If your pet is unlikely to handle the hassles of renovation well, arrange for it to stay with a friend or kennel.
Possessions and furniture should be moved out of the part of the home being renovated. The odds of damage are significant even if everything is under drop cloths. If it isn’t convenient to store these things in other parts of the home, have a portable storage unit delivered to your property.
Offer the contractor a workspace that works for you. The section of your home being renovated isn’t the only area that will become a construction zone— workmen will have to use power tools and stow materials in adjacent rooms and/or your yard as well. Ask your contractor if it would be convenient to use your carport or a garage bay as the work/ storage space—that’s often the space that best contains noise and leads to the least disruption for homeowners.