They had a 1900's farmhouse in Palo Alto, Calif., the vision for a redesign and the money to renovate. What Susan and Vince Giovannotto didn't have was a good contractor. Their top choices were booked solid for months. "After lots of begging, we finally found someone to do a room at a time on weekends," Susan says. "It simply isn't realistic to do a complete remodel in this town. Right now, we just want to get the bathrooms and kitchen finished so we can actually move in!"
Welcome to renovation in the new millennium. In many parts of the country, the high-flying economy has fostered a building and remodeling boom that's given quality contractors more work than they can possibly take on. Homeowners today not only need to be savvy about bids, contracts, change orders, and punch lists, but they literally have to sell their projects to a busy contractor. "It's a lot like dating," says This Old House heating and plumbing contractor Richard Trethewey. "You want the contractor to notice you, but you don't want to be too pushy. You hope he likes you and you like him."
A Little Romance
So, how do you woo a contractor when you're one of dozens trying to even get a date? Not everyone has the flexibility to renovate one weekend at a time like the Giovannottos, but there are other ways to make yourself and your project desirable.
This Old House contractor Tom Silva puts it plainly: "I'm looking for the client who wants to get the job done right and who is willing to pay a little bit extra to do it that way. No skimping. Years from now I want somebody to look at the place and say, 'Gee, who did all the great work on the house?'"
That doesn't always mean that the biggest remodel with the fattest budget wins the day, however. "Jobs with firm limits on the scope of the work are the easiest to schedule and the most fun to do," says T.O.H. host Steve Thomas. That means you have a clear plan, preferably in blueprint form, and a budget that fits it. When you call contractors, emphasize that you've done your homework and that you're ready to send over spec sheets for the entire project. But acknowledge that you understand that the contractor's popularity means you may have to wait. And just as homeowners want reliable contractors, so too do contractors want clients who will be easy to work with. "We always make room for former clients--it doesn't matter how big or small their projects are," says Seattle contractor Erik Toth. "Our business runs completely on word of mouth and it's in our best interest to take care of loyal customers." If you're doing your first renovation in the area, tap coworkers, friends, and neighbors for contractor leads. "I'm much more likely to work for a friend of a good previous customer than for a stranger," says contractor Dan Monte of San Anselmo, Calif.
Another way to attract contractors is to have a top-notch architect on the job. Says architect Jane Gianvito Mathews of Asheville, N.C., "Architects have relationships with contractors. You may still have to wait until the contractor is available, but it's a starting point." And, since this is a courting process, think about how you present yourself. When you finally get a contractor on the phone, don't tell him your renovation horror stories. Great contractors are passionate about their work and want their clients to be excited about the project, too. Tom is drawn to the homeowner who wants to get involved. "I love the guy who hangs around asking questions. I tell him, 'Go ahead, pull up a lawn chair and watch.' It shows he cares."
Finally, appeal to the contractor's checkbook and his ego. "The way I handle it is to tell the tradesman, 'You give me the bill, and I write you a check.' That works wonders," says Steve. It may also work to appeal to a contractor's vanity if you have any media connections. "Some builders and architects are really into getting publicity," says Erik Toth. "I'm not, but it is fun to get your project into a magazine.
Although it may feel like winning the lottery when a contractor finally calls back, the homeowner still needs to be choosy. So just as you wouldn't make a date with someone from the Yellow Pages, you shouldn't hire a contractor without checking him out. "Somebody is going to come and destroy and then rebuild your home and you're going to give him lots of money to do it," says Monte. "You'd better know really well who the person is."
In these busy times, some unscrupulous builders are juggling too many jobs or cutting corners, says T.O.H. Master carpenter Norm Abram. "The key is to hire an established contractor who's managed a company through boom and bust," says Norm. "He's more likely to have long-term employees so he won't be struggling to keep good help on the job. And since he's been around awhile, he understands the importance of taking care of his clients."
When you get together with the contractor, the goal isn't just to tell him about your project, but to make sure your personalities jibe. "Sometimes there's chemistry and sometimes there's not," says Tom. "You'll know pretty quickly if you're going to want to spend any time with this person." Make sure that all homeowners who are going to be involved in the renovation are at the first meeting. "In particular, females should establish that they are active participants in the decision-making process, so they don't get treated like 'the little woman' who doesn't really understand the project," says contractor David Mason of San Carlos.
Like most things in life, it's important to trust your instincts. Jack and Janet Neely of Knoxville got a funny feeling about two guys their contractor sent out to build the addition to their 1940's Cape. "They were sort of comical, like Laurel and Hardy," Jack recalls, "but we didn't think their appearance was a reason to fire them." The builders ripped open an old oil tank and drained the toxic contents into the Neelys' backyard, and later left the job without finishing it.
Even if it's love at first sight with your contractor, or he was referred by a solid source, always call other references. "Find out the nitty-gritty," says Tom: "Did he show up when he was supposed to? Did he do changes? There are changes on every job," he says, "but contractors deal with them very differently. Some say 'Hey, we don't make changes until the end' and their hope is that you won't want to make them by the time it's all done. They're working on a really tight schedule, and they're interested in getting in and getting out," he says.
"Do as thorough a background check as you can," says Tom. Visit a project that the homeowners have been living in for a couple of years and find out if they're still happy with the work. Ask how many projects the contractor handled at one time. "It's no fun finding out too late that you're low priority and the guy is juggling a lot of jobs," says homeowner and veteran renovator Cindy StackKeer of Menlo Park, Calif. "You need to know what other work he's doing and whether he has access to the appropriate subcontractors to do your job when it's time."
The Pre-Nuptial Agreement
At some point in every relationship, it's time to talk about money and commitment. In a renovation, that means bids and contracts. The fees can be based on a fixed price or what's known as cost-plus. Fixed-price bids put the onus on the contractor to set a number in advance based on the plans provided by the homeowner. Cost-plus contracts are a pay-as-you-go alternative; they cover time and materials, but there's no total price estimate.
"There's a bigger leap of faith required with a cost-plus contract," because the homeowner is trusting the contractor not to stretch out the project," says Norm Abram, who has worked both ways. "You'll want to be able to trust the contractor or have had previous experience with him." On the other hand, contractors have to pad fixed prices a bit to protect themselves. "And these days, it's not unusual for a busy contractor to demand a cost-plus contract because of unforeseens (such as rotted beams) that show up in the renovation of an older house," says Norm. To help limit a cost-plus contract, "you can put a cap on it," suggests contractor Charlie Englebert of Craftsmen Builders Inc., Huntsville, Ala.: "Add an incentive that if you come in under the cap, the homeowner and contractor split the difference."
With either type of arrangement, the contractor will add his markup, "which is usually 20 to 25 percent," says Tom. "It's our fee for providing great service. For the aggravation of solving problems, managing the subs, getting missing parts, running here and there, our profit, the whole thing." The markup also covers a contractor's overhead, whether it's the maintenance on his truck or his tools, or workmen comp for his employees. Says Norm Abram: "In either a fixed-price bid or on a time-and-materials invoice, you should see that you're paying X amount for materials plus markup and X amount for labor plus markup. It shouldn't be a mystery."
"Regardless of which route you go, you'll have a more realistic idea of costs if you specify everything possible ahead of time," says Steve Thomas. "A bid for a typical kitchen remodel," he says, "should indicate the type of flooring, cabinet knobs, hinges, lighting, backsplash, and so forth." And if a roof is spec'd as 'shingle roof, that's not enough," says Steve. "It should say '20-year fiberglass shingles, 3-tab, at $21 a square.' That way if the homeowners want to upgrade to an architectural 25-year shingle, they know what the cost difference is.
The more specific your plans and scope of work, the more you'll be comparing apples to apples when it comes to assessing different fixed-price bids. "When needs are clear but your bids are still far apart, you may have someone who has very little overhead competing with someone with a lot of overhead," says contractor Roger Foggia, of Portland, Oreg. "You can say, 'I'll take the lowest bid,' but then something will come up and you can't reach anybody in the office. Well, that guy's out working; he doesn't have a staff."
"Most builders and contractors are honest, but the low bid sometimes ends up being the high bid because the contractor is hoping you'll make a lot of expensive change orders," Tom warns. "There are also guys out there who are bidding low to get the job and will do the cheapest work they can do; then the low-bid job stays low but it's a low-quality job. Going with a higher bid might cause you less aggravation in the long run." In an era when contractors are very busy the low bid is especially suspect, says Richard Trethewey. His philosophy: "Always throw out the low bid."
Although the contract and bid paperwork can be intimidating, homeowners need to understand the process. "We go in and show our potential clients an old contract, and we review previous change orders," says Charlie Englebert. "We explain the billing system and how the invoices work and how it tracks back to the scope of work." Englebert's contract also promises that he'll provide a lien waiver which protects homeowners from liability should he default on payment to a supplier or a subcontractor who works for him. "That's a good business practice," says Norm. "You don't want anyone putting a lien on your house because a contractor didn't pay for materials or labor."
It's the homeowners' responsibility to have an attorney check the Contract before they sign. But they should understand the basic points that needs to be there, including a start date, a project time limit, a meeting schedule, and how changes and unsatisfactory per performance will be handled. It should also specify a payment schedule, with no more than 30 percent as a starting fee, and typically 6 to 8 future payments tied to completion of key aspects of the job, such as the framing or the roughing-in of the electrical. At least 10 percent should be held until the very last details of the job (the punch list) are complete. Contractors should provide proof that they're licensed and bonded in accordance with local standards, that they have adequate liability insurance, and that employees have workers' comp. Homeowners should know the insurance company's name, the bonding company's name and bond number, and the names of the subcontractors the contractor plans to use. "Just to be sure, put a provision in your contract that the contractor needs to inform you if he changes his insurance, bonding, or workers' comp," says Norm.
Homeowners are From Venus, Contractors are From Mars
Like a good marriage, the success of a renovation depends on communication. Says T.O.H.'s Trethewey, "The architect, the owner, the contractor all have pictures in their minds' eye. And each one could be seeing something different." So it's important that the homeowner expresses himself. "Make it a team effort," says Steve. "Be there to answer questions. If you're not living at the site, drop by every day. If you don't understand something, ask. Be clear about what you want. And talk to the contractor, not his workers."
"Ultimately, good communication is fostered by treating the crew the way you want to be treated--with respect," says Palo Alto homeowner Dawn Macurdy Billman. "It's important to develop a rapport with these professionals, just as if they were a doctor or a dentist," she says. "They're in your home trying to make it look great and you need to let them know they're appreciated."
"Nobody is expecting filet mignon and a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape," says Steve, "but you can at least offer to make the guy a sandwich every now and then if you're making one for yourself. It's the little things that matter. I've had guys working for me who've said that sometimes when they're working on the exterior, people won't let them in the house." "Treat the workers well and they'll reciprocate," says Toth. "They won't come pounding through your house with muddy feet."
When the Honeymoon is Over
As the renovation heads into the final stages, everybody will feel the strain. "So much of the energy and excitement of the job is gone by the time you get to the wallboard," say contractor Foggia. "Most people just want the job done." The result can be that everybody hurries up and corners are cut. "It's sort of like building a Rolls-Royce and then dropping it off at a discount upholstery shop because you're out of time or money, says Foggia. "I think that's why some people are disappointed at the end of a job."
"It does seem that contractors are most interested in the initial structural work," says Rachael Grossman, who recently renovated her hillside San Francisco home, "but what owners see and live with are the final touches many of which never get done or don't get done without a lot of nagging."
"Nagging works to some degree, but having a well-articulated punch list and withholding the final payment will work better," says Tom. "But give the contractor some wiggle room," says Steve. "Insist, but insist gracefully. Pick up some of the small jobs yourself, like paint touch-ups. That way you can call him for another job later and he'll knows you're easy to work with."
For all the stress and strain of the two-year renovation of their Colonial in Short Hills, N.J., Scott and Nancy Saffran are happy with the results. They found their contractor in their neighborhood, and from the start, Nancy took the reins on the project. "With me at work, she was going to be the one spending time with the contractor," says Scott. "It was important that they get along." The project is down to the punch list: a set of French doors leaks, a vanity mirror hasn't arrived yet, and a few spots still need paint. "But we'd use the contractor again," says Scott. "He communicated with us and he saved us money." Now that's a romantic ending.
(This information is from This Old House)
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