Friday, August 4, 2017

House Renovation - What You Need to Know if you Know Nothing

We are finishing up on a medium sized house renovation.  I want to say major, because we are spending major money...  Anyway, background and scope is this:


We found a new construction house in the neighborhood we wanted to live in.  Prime location.  The house was someone else's dream house, who couldn't afford to actually keep it.  They realized this just as the house was finishing up, so we got a high end, custom house that had some very obvious sacrifices made to finish to sell.  Two of the most obvious were the kitchen and the outdoor porch area.

The kitchen area is a combined kitchen/dining/living room open concept.  The stove is a 36" Viking Professional.  High end and expensive.  The refrigerator is an Fhiaba built in.  Idiotically expensive.  So expensive that I would have never in my life bought such a thing had it not been in the house already...  The island had a very large butcher block counter top, with the rest of the kitchen having Alabama White marble counter tops.  Very expensive.

The floors are all natural hardwood taken from trees that were on the property before it was cleared to build the house.  They are extraordinarily beautiful.  It is difficult to find old growth wood for flooring, like the old days, but somehow they pulled it off.

The fireplace is large with a bench like brick front.  The bricks were all kilned in Birmingham, and were reclaimed from some old buildings around town.


The cabinets were all Ikea.  As inexpensive as you could get.  There were no overhead cabinets.  And all of the cabinets were drawers.
There was no backsplash.  Just painted walls.
The oven hood was the smallest that could pass inspection...  and it was about an inch off center...  and it vented in to... nowhere.
The marble counter tops are gorgeous.  We love them.  They are impractical as all outdoors.  Everything stains them.  They scratch and chip easily.  They need to be regularly sealed.

The fireplace bench protrudes about two feet in to the living area significantly shrinking the already scarce space.

The outdoor porch area was...  Just a roof with supporting telephone pole like columns, and pea gravel floor.

The fireplace firebox protrudes about two feet in to the outdoor area, again significantly shrinking the already scarce space.

It was obvious that the family had intended something much more grand.  When we bought the house, we knew that we would have some work to do.  Now...  A little look in to my crazy.  I hate fireplaces.  I think they are outdated and should have been eliminated with the outhouse.  Wood burning fireplaces are even worse because they add smoke, soot and additional cost in firewood to the mix.
So... That is what we are doing.

Scope of Work

  • Kitchen
    • Replace all cabinets with custom wood cabinets
    • Replace all counter tops with marble looking quartz
    • Replace and extend cabinet around the built in refrigerator with a place to put small appliances.
    • Replace hood with stainless steel 42" Viking hood with 1200 CFM vent that vents outside.
    • Replace refrigerator door with stainless steel door.
    • Add two overhead cabinets
    • Add tile back splash 
    • Reduce the footprint of the island to allow more dining space
  • Living room
    • Remove fireplace
    • Add 16' sliding glass door to porch area
      • Gives an 8' open area when both doors are open
  • Porch
    • Remove telephone poll supports
    • Frame and screen in porch
    • Add ceiling, recessed lighting, and 72" ceiling fan
    • Add polished concrete floor.
    • Add concrete pad on one side of the porch for grilling
  • Landscape
    • Add sod and plantings as needed
So a good sized project with a lot of moving parts.

What to Know if You Know Nothing

I know nothing about construction.  It isn't my area of expertise.  I don't know how much things cost, or how much time they take.  What I do know is that it is MY house.  I am signing the checks, so I am the ultimate boss.  Me.  Never ever ever forget that.  

So the first thing you need is a contractor.  But not just any contractor.  You need to know things about your contractor.  You need to ask around.  You need to meet with people and really interview them.
I needed someone who was honest, felt the same about quality of work, could accurately manage my expectations, who could deliver on time, and who could guide my wife and I to the decisions that we had to make.

Everyone knows about the horror stories of the renovation that drags on and on and on.  Or get something they didn't ask for.  I don't what that.  

So, what do you ask?  How do you find this person?


First thing first.  You have a conversation to find out how well the contractor listens.  You need someone who will listen to you, not talk over you, or try to force their opinion on your.  You need someone who isn't afraid to be HONEST with you about the scope of work, or the costs, or even if you are being unrealistic.  So, ask their opinion on what you are planning.  You can tell if someone is telling you something you want to hear.  
You need to get a sense as to how this person does business.  Do they accept that this is YOUR house, YOUR project, and YOUR standards of quality?  

Find out if the contractor uses subcontractors and for what work.  Then find out if they use the SAME subs on each job.  That is important to know.
Ask about how he schedules his jobs.  Does he have multiple jobs going at the same time?  If so, how many crews does he have working.  

Next, get references.  But not just good references.  Ask them for three references.  One that loves them, one that is a return customer, and one that hates them.  Then call all three.  Get as personal as you can with your questions and the job that was done.  

  • Job completed on time
  • Costs, estimate accurate or not?
  • Work quality
  • Quality of the crew
    • Were they working or standing around playing with their phones?
  • Overall project management
Get in to the nitty gritty as far as the reference is willing to go.  Even the customer that loves them will have somethings they don't like.  If you can live with that, you are good to go.


This is where the rubber meets the road.  Subcontractors are specialists in a certain aspect of your job.  For instance, on my job we needed 
  • Masons
  • Cabinet maker
  • Landscapers
  • Tile people
  • Floor people
  • HV/AC
  • Window mill-workers
  • Painters
  • Concrete
  • Electrical
  • Plumbing
It is likely that your job will have this many and more.  The important thing to know here is that each one of these subs has their own agenda and time line.  Most renovations get hung up on the subs.  So, when you are finding your contractor, it is very very important to find out how much work is done by the subs and how much work is done by the contractor directly.
Find out who the subcontracting companies will be.  If the contractor is cagey about who will come, you DON'T want that contractor.  You need time to check in to those companies.

What you are looking for is a contractor that consistently uses the same subcontractors.  Why?  Leverage.  Think about your own job.  Which customer is treated better and given preferential treatment?  The large customer that keeps coming back or the first timer that you aren't sure that will ever come back?  Companies bend over backwards to keep large customers happy.  A contractor that uses the same subcontractors every time IS that big customer.  

Case in point.  When the slab was poured for our porch, there was a problem.  There was a slight bulge in the concrete that wouldn't allow the sliding door to go in.  The solution was to break down the slab and re-pour.  Because my contractor does the majority of his concrete work with this same company, they were out the next day early and working late breaking up the slab and re-pouring the concrete.  The contractor had the leverage, and the relationship to get the work done and keep us on schedule.

The main reason you want a contractor using the same subs isn't the problem fixes above, though.  It is the schedule.  With a strong relationship the contractor can get the subs to come when he wants them to according to his schedule, not the subs.  This means that you won't get the long delays between work.  


There are a lot of decisions to make.  Your contractor will help you get through them.  Your contractor, in the planning phase, have drawings for you to look at.  They should come on to your job site and show you what things will look like with tape or string or something that you can walk around at different angles to make your final decisions.
You will need to make decisions on colors.  This needs to be done as soon as you can.  You need to make decisions on placement.  You even have to make decisions on what kind of cover you want for your electrical outlets.
A good thing to do is to look at your current house and living area.  Get in very close.  Everything you see is a decision you have to make.  Trim, paint, plastic, placement, size, shape, etc etc etc.

The Work

When the work begins...  It will be DIRTY.  Very dirty.  Dust EVERYWHERE.  It will be noisy.  Bangs and saws and motors and everything else.  There will be smells.  Wet paint.  Floor varnish, etc.
You will lose the use of the part of your room that work will be done in.  Your electric bill will be much higher.  If you are doing work in the summer, and you have your AC on, people will be in and out of your house, so your AC use will be much higher.

The Workers

The workers...  It is unavoidable that you will have some shady looking people working in your house.  That is the nature of the business.  That isn't the worst part.  The worse part is that the workers will treat your property like crap.  Trash will be everywhere.  They don't pickup after themselves.  YOU must be the trash enforcer.  You must make it clear that you will not accept abuse of your property or your grounds.  Make it clear that they are to throw away trash in to a designated pile to be hauled away, or they must bring cans or something to put personal trash in.  Be insistent.  It is your house, your rules.  Be very clear on what is acceptable.  Some construction debris around the site are inevitable and unavoidable.  Have some discretion, but obvious stuff, cans, bottles, etc.  Be firm.

Smoking...  Some of the workers will smoke.  If you don't smoke in your house, make sure that everyone knows that the home is a no smoking zone.  Zero tolerance.  I set up a smoking area for them.  I did not allow any smoking on or near the materials that would go in the house.  I was very firm about this.  Again YOUR house.  YOUR job. YOUR RULES.  If they give you static, simply ask them if they would like to be paid for the job.  This is something that you have to jump on EARLY.  You can't pull it on them half way through the job.  

Once it is established that YOU are the ultimate boss, things are set.  The workers will listen to you.


You may run in to a situation where a working is intoxicated on the job.  Let the contractor know immediately.  It is a safety and liability issue for both you and the contractor.  If you are uncomfortable about confronting the intoxicated person, you have the right to revoke your invitation to anyone at any time.  Talk to one of the other workers.  If need be, call the police. Let that be your last resort, though.  Get with the foreman or your contractor before you do that, unless you fear for your or someone else's safety.  If you do call the police, do so quietly.  You don't want to have the intoxicated person become more agitated by announcing that you are calling the police.

Final Product

Before you call the job complete, or a section of the job that a sub does that is complete, go over every inch of it with the contractor.  If ANYTHING is not to your liking, let the contractor know so that they can fix it.  This is an important thing to keep in mind.  This is YOUR job.  YOUR house.  The job is done when YOU say it is done.  You have the right to be as picky as you want to be. Once they leave the job, they are gone and you must pay to have anything corrected.  Be anal.  Be specific.  Don't worry about anybody's feelings.   The only person that matters is YOU.  The only feelings that matter are YOURS.

Be sure that the job site is cleaned and finished to your satisfaction.  There will be construction debris everywhere, and the workers will not be good about cleaning it all up.  Again, be insistent.  Make sure that you are understood and that you won't accept the job being done before everything is looking beautiful.  


If you take anything away from this, take this:  It is YOUR project.  You must live with it.  Make sure that you have something that you will enjoy.  You must take ownership of the project at a personal level, because it is very personal.  This is your house.