If we were to take our favorite design shows as reality, renovations are a straightforward process – with some minor unexpected obstacles along the way, of course. It seems like termites or asbestos are the biggest issues that homeowners have to face. But the reality is that renovations are far trickier than that. Unprofessional contractors, lazy workers, faulty contracts, permit delays… there can a million reasons why renovations aren’t smooth sailing and it has very little to do with the house itself.
We solicited the advice of Laura Muller, of Four Point Design Build, who, along with her husband, have over sixty years of experience in building and renovating homes between them. In our latest issue, we featured one of their projects that required bringing a historic space to life. With that kind of cred, we knew that Laura had plenty to share that could help even the most well-versed of us learn a thing or two about renovating a home. Warning: It’s a long one, but is full of great tips and advice.
How far in advance (before purchasing or wanting to begin renovations) should we get in touch with contractors and designers?
It’s never too soon! When considering purchasing or leasing a new home or office, your first step should ALWAYS be to build your team. If remodeling a fixer-upper or improving your newly obtained space is part of your agenda, then your team should be with you from the very beginning. Your team should include a vetted and trusted general contractor, designer, and whenever applicable, an architect and engineer; and always consider researching a design-build team. The design-build approach enables you to streamline your conversations and communicate with one single entity who can provide you with the resources needed such as structural engineers, landscapers, contractors, designers, and professional consultants. In some cases, an experienced team can even assist you in understanding lease terms and property resale limitations that should be considered.
For those that have hired the wrong people and have ended the relationship before the renovations have been completed, what would you advise them to do?
First, seek a professional construction/project mediator. Don’t wait. In most cases, the project can be saved and completed without legal action. A third party with construction experience can provide a calm steady stream of reparative action steps that can help home and business owners complete the project and protect their investment. The best advice I can give, of course, is to hire an experienced construction project management team that can maintain accountability and communication throughout the entire project from the very beginning.
Most of the issues erupt when homeowners are asked to interpret contracts where the scope of work is not clear, or to process payment requests before the work is in place, completed, or inspected. In some unfortunate cases, general contractors may bill for work that is not yet in place (or at the percentage of completion to which they are billing) which (if done frequently throughout the project) can result in the contractor’s lack of funds towards the middle or end of the project, causing stress, delay, and contractor distraction.
Clearly, they are super important! What should you pay close attention to in renovation contracts?
Scope of work. Never assume. The scope of work should be detailed and spelled out. The homeowner’s expectations should be CLEAR and noted in the scope of work. For example, if you expect to have the walls prepared in a certain way for paint, then the contractor should understand this immediately and it should be stated in the contract.
Timeline. Some contractors leave this detail out of their contracts, for reasons such as unforeseen site conditions and issues, revisions, client approval delay, weather, etc. However, this can easily be included in language that specifies that the contractor is not responsible for these things, but will do their best to complete the project in the specified and desired timeline. It is most important that both parties are very clear about expectations. There should be some measure of accountability with respect to your timeline and communication is critical.
And finally – exclusions, approvals, and what constitutes a breach of contract.
How do you avoid getting ripped off or having a contractor/worker take advantage of you? Do you have any rules on what constitutes red flags?
- A vague contract is a certain red flag. All steps and expectations should be clarified with confidence on the contract and a detailed scope of work should be provided and approved prior to signing any contract.
- Always check your contractor’s references. Contractors who are transparent have no problem sharing their references and reviews.
- In general, never assume that the lowest bid is the best bid. There OFTEN can be hidden costs which is why it is imperative that you clarify what your contractor will be providing and request that he provides you with a breakdown of services and complete scope of work.
When doing a complete gut renovation how much time does the non-visual part take in comparison to the exciting finishes and design?
The longest and most tedious, technical, and administrative project work happens during the front loading portion of any project prior to construction. This is the time when the project and site data is gathered, reviewed, and analyzed, and where the exciting design work is presented and revised; the architectural and construction documents are generated at this time, and budgets are created for the bidding and the negotiating phase begins; and finally, site preparation begins and permits are obtained.
During the construction phase, there are many exciting surges and also many moments where things take longer than one might expect. This can cause the homeowner to feel panic. The best solution is always communication. I can tell you this… It looks worse before it looks better. In percentages, it is about 60% non-visible and 40% visible throughout the process.
What is the most common reason for delays in renovations?
- The lack of information and communication between the client and the team.
- The lack of timely approvals by the client.
- The lack of proper project administrative and timeline management and oversight, especially when it comes to contract payments to the contractors.
What are some commonly seen design features in magazines that actually take a lot of labor or are costly?
- A very popular design element on our client’s wishlists lately is the staircase and railing. These are seemingly straightforward design and construction features that are custom and costly.
- Metal roof and solar panels – always a great idea, but are a very costly investment.
Do you recommend solid wood, engineered or laminate flooring?
High-quality well-engineered wood flooring is highly recommended and the preferred option. High quality here though is KEY, especially when it comes to your location’s climate and moisture fluctuations. High quality engineered wood flooring can keep your floors looking beautiful for MANY years to come.
What are some other lessons, either in the technicalities of design or the process of taking on a renovation, that you’ve learned along the way?
One of the most important things I have learned in my many years in the interior design and construction business is how misled the general public is when it comes to understanding the TRUE costs and timeline of a project, and even more important, the TRUE value of hiring professionals. We spend countless hours informing and educating our clients as to these costs upfront; at times even prior to signing any contracts. Many of the general costs associated with most remodeling projects are simply not glamorous enough for media and in the end, the consumer can experience sticker shock.
Finally, We NEVER work without a time and budget contingency. Ever. Typically, we are able to reconcile the contingency towards the very end of the project and actually have a surplus which is returned to the client. So build in those project discretionary funds and days in order to help maintain project momentum and timeline.
Check out our slideshow to see some of Laura’s completed projects!