Category: Managing Construction

Where to Live When You Renovate

Here's how to decide whether to move out during construction.

Where to Live When You Renovate


How Much Mess Can You Stand?
Do you want to live in a work site? Do you want the sawdust sneezes every morning and plaster dust on your blue suit at the office?

Demolition is loud, dusty work and a taste of things to come. At best, the mess is a hassle and, you may discover, too much to live with. If you haven’t already made arrangements, it’s not too late to go live someplace else for the duration of construc­tion. Think about it this way: you know how black clothes always seem to attract lint or dandruff? Then how will you feel if your whole life has lint on it? The lint will actually be sawdust and gypsum dust, but believe me, it’ll be omnipresent. If you have the option, live somewhere else. At least figure out with your contractor when in the process the plumbing won’t be working, the roof will be open, or other basic com­forts unavailable to the residents, and arrange to be someplace else then. If you plan to stay in the house, you need to expect the arrival of workers at an early hour. Some may want to work into the evening, too. The life of the house will be disrupted. Prepare yourself and your family.

How Big is Your Remodeling Project?
If your remodeling is the sort that won’t take more than a day or two—refacing the kitchen cabinets, say, or adding a deck or patio—then moving out of your home is probably quite unnecessary. On the other hand, if you are putting on a big addition or if major plumbing work will put your bathrooms out of commission, you should make arrangements to live someplace else for a time.

What Quality of Life Issues are Important to You?
This is an important quality-of-life issue. Don’t just dismiss the notion of mov­ing out as too expensive. Don’t resign yourself to living with the mess, noise, and dis­order without giving the alternatives due consideration.

Look at it this way: A prolonged home renovation project is a tremendous dis­ruption in the life of a household. No, it isn’t up there with such stressors as a major illness, a death in the family, or a job loss, but it is among the most stressful circum­stances a relationship or a family can face. Everyday patterns and schedules will be out the window. Financial worries are inevitable. Especially with small children, there may be significant safety concerns. The peace and quiet of your home sweet home will be shattered.

Options for Where to Live During Remodeling
Now, you do have some options. Staying with friends or family is an inexpen­sive one. Taking a room (or rooms) at a nearby hotel is a more costly alternative. For a major job that will take a month or more, renting or subletting an apartment or house nearby may make sense.

How about going on vacation while the work is being done? I know people who’ve done that and come home to completed work, relieved at not having had to live through the process. But I also know others who returned to a job that was less than perfect, and who have regrets that they weren’t there to supervise construction. Don’t go away for the duration of construction unless you are comfortable with leav­ing the supervision entirely to your designer, contractor, or construction manager.

If you insist upon taking the grin-and-bear-it approach, do yourself a favor. At the very least, develop a back-up plan that will allow you to escape for a few days. Per­haps it’s simply a matter of segregating a small sum to pay for a few days in a motel when the frustration peaks. Have a conversation with an old friend whom you’ve been promising to visit—a weekend away will give you a break from the action.

In talking the construction process through with your contractor, ask him what he thinks. If you learn the house really won’t be habitable for a time, add another line item to the budget for alternative living accommodations. Your marriage or relationship, even your mental health, may depend upon it.

Closing Up the Box

Advice on what to do in order to ensure the house wrap properly covers all appropriate surfaces.

House Wrap

On the exterior of the walls, a layer of a water-repellant material will probably be applied, especially in cooler climates. Think of your addition as a gift package, and just like a tie or child’s toy, it needs to be appropriately wrapped. In the case of a building, however, the material won’t be colorful paper. It’ll be one of several products described as air-infiltration retarders.

In the past, papers impregnated with asphalt (tar paper) or rosin were applied to the exteriors of houses, after the sheathing went on but before the siding did. More recently, proprietary products like Typar and Tyvek have superceded such papers. The new house wraps are high-tech sheets of olefin fibers that are stapled in place. This clever extra skin allows moisture vapor to escape the wall cavity yet also stops wind from moving freely into the wall.

The house wrap should cover all wall surfaces. Flaps should fold in at win­dows and doors. An important step that is sometimes omitted is the application of a specially made seam tape over joints between sheets of the wrap and around win­dows and doors. Without it, the wrap will not form a complete air barrier.

Windows and doors tend to be key unifying features in an addition. The chances are good that you and your designer will use doors and win­dows that match or at least resemble those in the existing house. However, in select­ing any new windows, there are a number of issues to consider. Among them are these:

Wood or clad windows. The windows in most older homes are made of wood (though metal casement windows have also had several bursts of popularity). On the other hand, many new windows have their exterior surfaces clad in aluminum or covered with vinyl. The advantages of the vinyl and aluminum is they do not require paint­ing; the disadvantage is they don’t look like wood and therefore may not match the existing windows.

Energy efficiency is another issue, and the basic rule of thumb is that the more layers of glass, the greater the insulation value of the windows. Your basic single pane window has an R-factor of about one; thermal glass (two panes) doubles the R-factor; if a Low-E coating [E is for emissivitrf is added (a coating that helps reflect heat back, quite like a mirror reflecting an image), you gain another R or so; the same is true if argon gas is sealed between the panes in the airspace, as that limits heat and cold transfer. A typical insulated two-by-four stud wall has an R-factor of about ten, so you can see how a window space can account for significant heat or cooling loss.

The window industry uses another unit of measurement, the U-value. The II- value actually measures the heat lost—it’s the inverse of an R-value. An R value of two equates to a U-value of one-half; U-values lower than that have higher insulat­ing value.

All of which is to say that, as usual, professional help and some shopping around is recommended when you make your decisions about which windows to use. The same is true with doors, too, though the options aren’t quite so bewildering. In general, I recommend attempting to match existing windows and doors unless you are building new spaces that are intended to contrast with the original house. And keep in mind, too, that in heating regions of the country, tight and well-insulated doors and windows almost always pay for themselves over a period of years in energy savings.

As with the windows and doors, your guiding principle should be the existing finish on the house. But by this stage, you and your architect/ designer, along with your pocketbook, will long have decided what the materials will be. If your construction project is a remodeling or an addition to an existing house, then presumably you will have chosen the same or a compatible matertal to what is already there.

Should your project involve a new bnck fireplace or chimney, the masons will be at work during much of the framing. Depending upon the complexity of the masonry mass, it can take a few days or a few weeks for the stack to make its way, course by course, from the footing at ground level out through the roof.

Some Notes on Dealing with Contractors

Don't forget to pay close attention during, and at the end of, construction in your home.

Dealing with Contractors


There’ll be surprises along the way, some of them delightful and some not. But here are a few matters for which you should be prepared.

Pay for completed work. And you should only pay for work that is correctly completed, since a paid invoice leaves a contractor or sub no incentive to return and fix the problem. So make sure the work is right before writing the check.

You won’t be the one inspecting the work: His title may be building inspector or code enforcement officer, but for jobs of any size, he’ll make periodic vis­its to the site to ensure you are in compliance with the building code. Typically inspections are required for new foundations; at the completion of the rough fram­ing; after the plumbing and electrical services have been “roughed-in”; when the electrical and plumbing work is completed; and when the house is ready for occu­pancy. In some municipalities, the amount and installation of the insulation will also be checked.

Some communities require more, some less, but usually before the Certificate of Occupancy is issued the inspections must be completed. The nature of the job is also a determining factor as, obviously, if your project involves no plumbing work, then no plumbing inspections will be required.

Consider the story of the homeowner who, upon realizing dur­ing construction there was no linen closet in the new master bedroom complex, asked that one be added. He identified a place, thinking the shallow niche at the end of a hallway would require a minimum of change to the plan. Yet when the bills came, the total cost worked out to $1,900. To this day, the homeowner refers to the closet in disgusted tones as “that nineteen-hundred-dollar closet!”

Strange as it may sound, he wasn’t ripped off. The installation was more than a matter of simply framing in an extra door. There was electrical work to do, too—several electrical boxes had to be moved, a light fixture added, a switch line run to control it. The door itself had to be special ordered, because it was an oddball size. Then the interior of the closet was fitted out with state-of-the-art shelving. In an addition with an average cost of about $100 per square foot, that closet had a square foot cost of more like $250.

My friend made two mistakes: First, he didn’t anticipate the need for the closet during the planning stages. But I’ve already scolded you about the importance of thinking things through first.

Second, he didn’t execute a change order when he changed the original plan.

Again, a change order is a sort of contract amendment. It incorporates the change into the basic agreement, describing the change, its price, necessary materi­als, added labor cost, and so on. The creation of a change order means that every­body’s on board, no one is surprised later. You have the bad news of the cost increase, and the contractor proceeds. No surprises.

Change orders aren’t inevitable, but they are very common. In order to manage the expense of change, follow two basic rules. First, if someone is managing your con­struction for you, ask him or her to negotiate the change orders with the contractor(s). There may be inexpensive solutions to a problem. Second, get the change order in writ­ing. Casual conversations have a way of being remembered differently months later.

Errors get made. Details get forgotten. Misunderstandings occur. That’s life.

Perhaps the prefabricated countertops arrive, and they simply don’t fit. When the appliances are removed from their boxes, one is mint green, the others white. A partition wall is built in the wrong place. The windows or doors don’t fit the rough openings. The tile, the moldings, plumbing fixtures, the cabinetry… there really are many things that can go wrong.

What do you do?

Get upset if you must, but keep the anger to yourself. Walk around the block. Have a glass of water. Listen to a Mozart concerto. Get cool again, then solve the problem.

If you’ve put an architect or construction manager in charge, talk to him or her first. Go through channels. Whatever the explanation, you will find a problem or two or twenty as you examine progress on your renovation.

Mistake prevention? Meet often with your builder and designer. Review con­struction progress, costs, and schedule. What deliveries are due? If there are delays, determine the cause. If people are waiting for materials, what’s the holdup?

Alongside the plans at this work site, a staircase carriage begins to emerge.

Keep a daily log as things proceed. Even if you’re not a gifted pho­tographer, buy a cheap disposable camera (make sure it’s a model with a flash attachment; they cost less than ten dollars and the quality of pictures is much higher). Take pictures of the job as it progresses.

Later—after the job is completed—you may find a journal useful in settling disputes, large and small. Your notes and pictures may jog your memory and other people’s when there are questions of who said or did what to whom and when.

Even if you don’t need it, it’s a good insurance policy. Plus you’ll have a record of the process. When friends and relatives come to admire the finished product, you can show them before and after, as well as in-progress shots. Most people are fasci­nated. It’s both businesslike and fun.

A closing thought? At some point when you won’t be interfering with the workers, spend an hour walking through what will be a typical day for you in your new space. Do it on a Saturday or a Sunday, when you have the place to yourself and some uninterrupted time. Literally go through the paces of a typical day: Walk to the bathroom, from the morning shower to breakfast. Carry out a usual work and recre­ation schedule, the other meals and entertaining and the activities of a day.

Try to imagine what it will be like living in the new space. There should be a growing sense of anticipation. And it’s completely normal to have concerns about costs, schedules, and a million other things. But keep in mind your last chance to correct any unanticipated problems is rapidly approaching.

How To: Settle a Dispute with Your Contractor

Here's what to do when a dispute arises with your contractor.

Bad Contractors


So, you tried to anticipate everything. But the fact is, no one can plan for every exigency. So here are some ways to deal with the aftermath of a disaster. They do happen. Not often, but they occur. What do you do if something major does go wrong?

First things first. You ignore the pleas of your GC for partial payment and explain that everybody will get paid when the job is done. If the tradesman who is at fault has the GC on his case as well as you, then the chances are much greater that he’ll come back and straighten things out. One angry customer is an irritating incon­venience, but an angry contractor who will badmouth you to the trade is dangerous to one’s professional health.

This doesn’t always work, of course. Sometimes there is too little money left unpaid for the contractor(s) to be bothered. It’s called cutting your losses. They fig­ure you owe them a thousand dollars, it’ll cost two thousand to fix the trouble so, what the heck, why don’t we just make ourselves scarce for a while, aye?

RELATED: 9 Things Your Contractor Never Wants to Hear

If you checked your references thoroughly, this shouldn’t happen. Contractors don’t usually turn into bad apples overnight. But if they do?

Next you check what’s in your contract. The contract will be at the beginning of any legal proceeding, so even before your dreams start featuring Perry Mason’s rotund frame, look to your paperwork.

You should have negotiated some leverage there. Payment schedules are the best leverage but if you find yourself without sufficient monetary leverage, check with your lawyer to see what other options are available. There may be an arbitration clause, for example. In any case, the possible remedies open to you are several.

In many areas, local governmental agencies have been established to help consumers who feel they have been wronged.

Start with your city’s agencies first. If there isn’t one or they cannot be of assistance try county or state departments of consumer affairs. Often you will find personnel there who know the local laws, and who may be able to advise you on what your next step should be. If you consult with any such consumer agencies, be sure you have your contracts and other records of payments with you.

Small claims court is an option if you are unable to get your complaint satisfied in other ways. Usually, no lawyer is required, the paperwork simple and the results rapid. Small claims are usually inexpensive to pursue, and you may even be reimbursed for your filing fee if you prevail. Check at your local courthouse for hours and any requirements. You may find the small claims clerks very helpful in explaining procedures.

Small claims courts are, as the name suggests, for small claims. If the kitchen window you paid $400 to have installed leaks, small claims court may well be the right place to pursue your action. On the other hand, if the foundation on your brand-new $250,000 addition is riddled with cracks, go talk to your lawyer and get him to pursue it for you.

Many municipal Better Business Bureaus have programs for resolving disputes. Call your local Bureau and ask. Check the telephone directory for your local Better Business Bureau or write to the national headquarters, the Council of Better Business Bureaus, at 1515 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA 22290 or telephone 703-276-0100.

Professional societies for electricians, plumbers, and other tradesmen may also have such a service in your area. Check them next. They are associations created to serve their memberships, but most are careful to be fair: they gain nothing in the long term from protecting the irresponsible, incompetent, or shoddy among their members, and at least some of them act as if they know it.

Professional arbiters are also available. Even if your contract does not include an arbitration clause, you may be able to get the contractor with whom you are having your disagreement to agree to an arbitration proceeding to avoid your dragging him into court.

Arbitrations vary a great deal, but in general, the idea is to get the parties to present their case to an impartial third party, who will then render a decision. Whether it is binding or not is a question of the paperwork (did everybody sign a written agreement up front guaranteeing compliance to the decision of the arbiter?). At the very least it is an opportunity to sit down in a room with a cooler head to try and solve the problem.

If none of these options works, you have two choices. Swallow your pride and get somebody else to fix it or get your lawyer on the case.

The Decorators and the Landscapers

Consider these reasons to hire interior design experts or landscape architects.


When your job nears completion, you may want a couple of other pros to come in and help with the finish. I can’t emphasize enough, however, that you should arrange for their services well in advance of the last broomful of sawdust being swept up and out.

One more point before you skip over these paragraphs: Decorators and landscapers are no longer just for rich people. On the contrary, they work mostly for middle-class folk who aspire to attractive settings, indoors and out, within which to live their lives. No, they’re not essential. But I firmly believe good design always adds value and polish to a job.

The Interior Decorator. Your architect may be willing to consult with you on your interior decoration if you wish. He may be able to get you trade discounts, too. If the time involved is simply a matter of a session of “What do you think about this?” and “How do you think this fits with that?” then your architect is likely to regard it as part of his basic services.

However, if you want him or her to help you find what you want, to explore possibilities for you and with you, you should expect to pay a price. An hourly fee is probably best. Establish up front what the rate will be and what the estimated number of hours are.

You may do better with a specialist, an interior designer with specific training and experience. There’s a great variety of designers out there, and the good ones have great skills at blending colors and textures and can do wonders on limited budgets as well as large ones.

Selecting one is quite like finding an architect, in that you must make a judgment that you can work with the interior decorator, that the decorator’s tastes and yours are compatible. There are interior decorators who are in the business to satisfy themselves. That’s fine, supposing your taste coincides with the decorator’s. Get a decorator who comes well recommended, whose work you admire, and who seems inclined to listen to what you say.

Decorators are not licensed, but membership in one of the professional organizations like the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) or the Institute of Business Designers does suggest some level of achievement in the business. Membership in those organizations requires three or four years of postsecondary education, at least two years practical experience, and completion of a written and design- problem examination given by the National Council of Interior Design Qualification.

Another reminder on timing: All too often interior designers arrive about the same time as the moving vans, when their appearance on the scene should be as early as possible. If you are planning to hire an interior decorator, he or she can be of maximum value to you if consulted before {ill the decisions are made on finish materials in the house. Most architects are quite willing to work with decorators, as their skills are compatible with one another. The earlier the interior designer is involved, the greater your chances of ending up with a carefully coordinated, coherently planned and decorated home.

The Landscape Architect. An experienced landscape designer, who may be a landscape architect or a veteran hands-on professional, can do for your site what the interior decorator does to the interior. He or she decorates, too, only the raw materials are bushes and trees and plants. He also has an architectural function in that he may advise you to add a stone wall, to regrade portions of the yard, or to make other topographical changes in its configurations.

A fully trained landscape architect will have studied horticulture, history, and engineering; the experienced landscaper may have less book knowledge, but years of experience in what plant material survives in your climate and what doesn’t. The landscaper’s expertise will extend from which perennials will survive in the shade to the design and placement of retaining walls and drain lines and paved areas. The talk will be of hardscape, plantscape, and landscape.

A landscape architect, like an interior designer, is not a requirement on every job. If your home project involves only the interior, obviously the landscape architect isn’t critical. Even if you are concerned with your yard, your architect or even a local nurseryman may provide you with the guidance and materials you need. But don’t underestimate what a professional design consultant can do in making the most of your property.

Paint and Paper, Fixtures and Fittings

Paint Paper Fixtures Fittings


With the finished walls, ceilings, and floors in place, the job may seem to be nearing completion. Once again, however, countless details remain. Carpenters will be applying casings around the windows and doors and doing other trim work, like finishing off the moldings at the baseboard and ceiling. Simultaneously, the cabinet guys may be installing your kitchen cabinets.

Meanwhile, the plumbers are waiting impatiently to put in the dishwasher, and the electrician and HVAC crew are elbowing each other in the basement. The floor sanding crew has just pulled into the driveway, as the painters are trying to back out.

There’s a pile of boxes containing doorknobs, lock sets, and window latches that the UPS man just delivered. The alarm installer is on his way because somebody set off the alarm, and its incessant beeping has gotten the dogs next door barking their fool heads off. The fax line won’t work, though, and you’re on the phone with your designer, who has the bad news that the countertops aren’t ready. You find yourself concerned about… well, just about everything.

Are you getting the picture? Your project may never be a madhouse like I’ve just described, but it might be. That doesn’t mean, however, you should throw up your hands and give up. Actually, this is a time when your inspections are most important. You should be available to the workers, but not in their way. Often there are many questions that come up at the last minute, and if they know you are there to give them answers—or will be at a certain time—you’re more likely to get what you want.

Among the many matters requiring your occasional attention will be the following:

Before the painters arrive, check the work done with the joint compound or plaster. Is the surface flat and uniform, or can you see the dimples around the nail or screw holes? Can you see the joints between the sheets? How about corners, and if you are not planning on any moldings at the ceiling-wall joint, how do the surfaces look there? After the painters have finished, are the painted surfaces smooth? Are there drips or missed spots? Are the paper or paneling seams straight and tight? Are the edges and corners tight to the wall? Do patterns align? Is there evidence on the sur-face of glue? Are paneling nails color-matched to the panels? Check the holes for plugs and switches: the holes should be small enough that plate and switch covers will cover them. If ceiling tiles, paneling, or wood strips have been applied, are the edges of the pieces parallel? Are they level or plumb? The longer the lines, the more obvious they will be to your and your guests’ eyes if they veer up or down or to one side or the other. If there’s a pattern, is it consistent?

Check electrical outlets and switches. Are they straight? Once the power is on, do they work? In particular, check three-way switches: Does each control the correct light properly? Check phone plugs, cable television, and other specialty wiring. Check any built-in units: Does the heater in the bathroom work? Any wiring trouble is less expensive and time-consuming to reroute before the final coat of paint or wallpaper goes on. Are new circuits on the electrical panel labeled?

Are the plumbing fixtures located where they are supposed to be? Do they sit securely fastened to the floor or walls? Once the water is on (it’ll be one of the last things to happen, so don’t be concerned if you can’t check it until well into the process), do the drains work and is the hot water hot? Is the water pressure adequate?

Are the registers or radiators located where the plans called for them to be? Are thermostats located on inside walls, away from sunlight and direct drafts?

Check the moldings and other trim pieces. Is the fit tight and are the cuts even? Are there visible saw lines or hammer marks? If the wood trim is to be painted, then careless work is easily covered with wood filler and the paint that follows. However, if you are only sealing the wood, pay special attention to the care with which it was installed. Doors involve multiple installation steps: the rough framing is hidden behind the casing, complete with jambs (on the inside of the opening) and the architrave (on the wall surfaces). Then the door is hinged and hung, the door and trim primed and painted or sealed, then the lock set or latch installed. Windows are easier (usually prefab units are inserted, then trimmed off). But the inspection is the same: Check the doors and windows to be sure they open, close, latch, and swing as they should. How do they look?

Are the joints tight? Does the floor surface sit flat? Are there bumps or gaps at the walls? Are there thresholds or transition strips where one surface gives way to another? Do the doors open easily over the flooring surface, or do they rub or scratch?

The outside of the house should be in good order, too. You should see neatly painted trim and other surfaces, the paint scraped from the windowpanes, and in general get the feeling the job has been done and done well. If your contract called for landscaping, grading, or plantings, have they been completed to specification? How about walks and patios and driveways?

Growing Home: An Approach to Adding Space

If you're planning a home addition, let the following considerations guide your decision-making.

Home Additions


As real estate markets across the country deal with sluggish sales and plunging prices, many people who, just a couple of years ago, might have decided to sell a smaller home to move to a bigger one are now choosing to remodel and add more space. And while adding square footage can be a sound financial decision, it still represents a major investment.

Be Realistic about Your Budget
Homeowners who are unrealistic about their budgets are one of the biggest roadblocks to successful renovations, says Greg Harth, president of Spring House, Pa.-based Harth Builders. “When it comes to budget, people come to the conversation thinking about what their project will cost and what they want to spend, and those numbers are usually the same for them,” he says. “Unfortunately, sometimes that just isn’t realistic. So, we like to talk about the budget right away.”

Another reason it’s important to start with budget is so your contractor knows what he should be talking to you about doing. “You can go through so much work and get them so excited about a project only to find out they don’t have the money to do it,” says Nick Barile, president of Greenwich, Conn.-based York Construction & Development. “People really do have misconceptions about how much certain additions will cost because they don’t always realize everything that goes into it. I recently had one person who had some really fantastic, grand ideas about what he wanted to do with his home, but it turned out he thought it was going to cost about half of the actual estimate. It sounds kind of bad to say the first thing to talk about should be budget, but it is.”

Being realistic about budget doesn’t just mean not going over the top, says Dave Whitehorn, co-owner of Kitchen and Bath Unlimited in Derry, N.H., which specializes in kitchen and bath remodels and additions. “Some people fail to do their homework when it comes to allocating a realistic budget,” Whitehorn says. “The budget can certainly get away from people quickly on the higher end, but it can also be a problem on the lower end. If they don’t have a realistic budget, they’ll never get what they want.”

Finally, in the current financial climate, it is important to secure financing right away, even if you have stellar credit. Harth says that people who in the past would have been approved for home equity loans without hesitation are now being turned away. “We’re advising people from the beginning to go to the bank,” he says. “We have projects sitting, ready to go, and people with phenomenal credit scores — above 700 — and dual incomes are having trouble securing financing.”

Consult with Experts on the Best Improvements
Even before meeting with a contractor, consulting with a real estate professional on your addition can be worthwhile.

“Realtors are very useful when considering an addition,” says Kary J. Bartmasser, licensed Realtor® and Certified Public Accountant in Beverly Hills, Ca. “They can analyze the sold comps [comparable listings] in your area. These area comps can show how additional bedrooms or bathrooms may add to the value of your home, based on your local area. Your main objective is not to overspend for your neighborhood.”

Bartmasser says one of the biggest mistakes he sees people make is overbuilding. “Don’t build a mansion where one-stories are the norm,” he says. “You don’t want to have the most expensive house on the block.”

“Realtors are constantly expected to sell properties that have been ‘over-improved,’ “ says New Hartford, N.Y.-based Realtor Jean Hunt. “However, if your home is on the low end of the price range for your neighborhood, go ahead and make improvements. I bought the smallest, least expensive home on my street, and I was very comfortable adding on twice — I’m still easily within the price range for my neighborhood.”

Beyond making sure your improvements will pay off when it comes time to sell, having an architect you trust on your project is wise both structurally and financially. “It’s always good to have an architect or some design professional helping homeowners through the early part of the remodeling process of gathering information and doing homework,” says Ken Hirsch, AIA, owner of Hirsch Architects, Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla. “They dive into it, and depending on when they finally talk to a contractor or a design professional, they may not really be ready to make practical choices. The best way is to find a professional who’s really experienced in the process and let them walk the homeowners through it.”

Find the Right Contractor for Your Job
With so much money and emotional investment on the line, one of the most important decisions you will make when adding on to your house is the contractor you choose. The biggest mistake homeowners make is simple, says Hunt. “Not getting competitive bids from contractors is one of the most common mistakes people make when adding on to their home,” she says. “Going with the first contractor and the first bid could be your biggest mistake. You get a second opinion when you go for surgery. Why not do the same for your house?”

Asking some basic questions in the interview and bidding process can weed out contractors who may not be a good fit for your style, says Whitehorn. “If you’re a homeowner and you’re going to do a big project, they’re going to be in your house, they’re going to be in your life for a long time,” he says. “Find out how many different people will be in your home during the project, find out what their payment schedule is and how they handle payments and how they handle change orders. If you don’t like these answers, that may be a tell-tale sign this isn’t the right contractor for you.”

Whitehorn also cautions against relying too heavily on references. “References can be helpful, but keep in mind that most contractors will have a list of their favorite customers they use as references,” he says. “So, I wouldn’t overrate the importance of that.”

Beyond liking a contractor’s work, feeling confident about their business practices and agreeing on budget, there’s one more factor homeowners shouldn’t overlook, says Colin O’Neill, co-owner with Whitehorn of Kitchen and Bath Unlimited. “You’re speaking to somebody who you’re thinking about giving tens of thousands of dollars to make drastic changes to your home,” he says. “You really need to be able to trust them on a personal level.”

Carefully Consider Why You Want More Space
Carefully considering why you want or need more space is essential in deciding how to go about your addition. You might be surprised that what you thought you wanted isn’t actually the best answer to your problem, says Harth.

“We really take a look at the house as a whole and how the space is used,” he says. Harth says he worked with a family recently who contacted him about adding square footage to their home for a playroom. “They said they were tired of constantly stepping over the kids’ toys,” Harth says. “But once I really got in and looked around, I realized a better solution to their space problem would be adding a master bedroom suite and turning the old bedroom into a playroom.”

One reason this was a better solution was because the return on investment (ROI) of master bedroom suites is better than that of playrooms. And even if you plan on staying in your home for many years, it’s still wise to consider how appealing your addition will be to future buyers.

So, what are the most “profitable” additions? Bartmasser says adding bathrooms and expanding kitchens are perennial winners. Harth agrees that kitchen expansions or additions have a very high ROI, and he adds that he’s seeing a lot of requests for second-story additions and master bedroom suites, as well, and those also pay off when it comes time to sell. In fact, according to Remodel Magazine’s 2010 Cost vs. Value Report , second-story additions recoup more than 80 percent of their cost in most parts of the country.

And again, it’s important to consider not just the “average” return on investment but also what’s right for your area and your immediate neighborhood. Don’t do too much, says Barile, or you may find diminishing returns on your investment. “It’s so important to consider the other homes around and what’s typical for the area,” he says. “You don’t want to create a Renoir in a neighborhood of art prints.”

Be a Good Client
Adding onto your home can be an exciting time but also a time marked by stress and money pressures. While your contractor, architect and designers are there to work for you, it’s imperative that you understand what it means to be a good client, says O’Neill.

“Choose a contractor you really trust,” he says. “What happens a lot of times is people will make that choice based on the wrong criteria, like putting too much. or not enough. emphasis on price, then they try to micromanage the person rather than letting them do their job and then holding them accountable for the results. Take the time, hire the right person, trust them to give you the end result, and you’ll have success.”

More Tips for Choosing a Remodeling Professional
Beyond doing due diligence by checking for complaints on the Better Business Bureau website and other similar sites, it’s smart to choose a professional certified by the National Association of the Remodeling Industry says Harth, who notes that in places like his home state of Pennsylvania, licensing is not required for contractors. “You need a license to do someone’s nails, but not to work on their house,” he says. “By choosing a local professional who’s a NARI contractor, you know you’re getting someone reputable.”

Here are a few warning signs from NARI that you may be dealing with a remodeler who is less than reputable:

  • You can’t verify the name, address, telephone number or credentials of the remodeler.
  • The company or salesperson says your home will be used for advertising purposes so you will be given a “special, low rate.”
  • The builder/remodeler tells you a special price is available only if you sign the contract “today.”
  • No references are furnished.
  • Information you receive from the contractor is out-of-date or no longer valid.
  • You are unable to verify the license or insurance information.
  • You are asked to pay for the entire job in advance or to pay in cash to a salesperson instead of by check or money order to the company itself.
  • The company cannot be found in the telephone book and is not listed with the local Better Business Bureau or with a local trade association, such as NARI.
  • The contractor does not offer, inform or extend notice of your right to cancel the contract within three days. Notification in writing of your Right of Rescission is required by law. This grace period allows you to change your mind and declare the contract null and void without penalty (if the agreement was solicited at some place other than the contractor’s place of business or appropriate trade premises-in your home, for instance).

In addition, be cautious when:

  • You are given vague or reluctant answers.
  • The contractor exhibits poor communication skills or descriptive abilities.
  • The contractor is not accessible.
  • Your questions are not answered to your satisfaction.
  • The contractor is impatient and does not listen.
  • Only the work is addressed instead of your needs as the homeowner.
  • There is no book of previous projects presented.

Supervise the Work on Your Home

Follow these simple guidelines to ensure that your construction is completed as planned.

Construction Supervision


It’s important to oversee the details of any repair or remodeling job done on your home. There are a number of ways to protect yourself from incompetent or dishonest contractors. Start with a contract and keep track of the job as it progresses to make sure you get the work you pay for. Once you’ve selected a licensed contactor and completed the contract, you should follow a payment schedule and sign off on completed work. These steps will protect you from builder scams and shoddy work:

  • Be sure to sign a formal contract for work.
  • Read the contract carefully and personally fill in any blank spaces. Consider having an attorney review it. If you don’t have an attorney, contact your state bar association or your state or local division of legal services for a referral.
  • Verify the contractor’s contact information, including the state license number. Most states require a licensed contactor to perform certain jobs, including plumbing, heating, electrical, roofing, alarm work, and permit-related building.
  • Include a full description of the work being done, including a schedule and the materials that will be used.
  • Determine in the contract when payments will be made made—upon the completion of each phase of the job or after an inspection and sign-off.
  • Set a completion date to include cleanup.
  • Include a warranty agreement.
  • Make sure the contract includes provisions for how work outside the scope of the original contract will be presented to the homeowner and billed.
  • Make sure theat you is complete and signed by all parties.

It’s very important to keep track of the work being done. If there are dates for completion or the delivery of materials, check that those items are completed successfully and mark the dates on your copy of the contract. Keep careful notes about any delays in the delivery of materials, weather delays, or work slowdowns. Make payments according to the schedule set forth in the contract and follow the recommendations below:

  • Do not pay in cash.
  • Be wary of those who ask that checks be written directly in their name.
  • Do not pay up front. Arrange to pay after the work is completed or in installments.
  • Beware of contractorswho travel in unmarked vehicles, solicit door-to-door, or use a post office box for an address.
  • Do not pull your own building permits.
  • Do not sign a completion certificate until all work is finished and has passed a final inspection.

Most contractors are hardworking and honest. They will appreciate a firm contract that guarantees their payment and a timely schedule. By working with a licensed professional and using a solid contract for services, you will protect yourself and your home from dishonest businesspeople who take advantage of homeowners.

Should You Custom Build Your Home?

If you’re wondering whether to custom build your dream house or buy a resale, this guide to budget and time considerations, modifying existing plans, and finding a builder may help you decide.

Custom Built Homes


Many of us would love to design and build a dream home, the house created just for us, but is that something only the affluent can afford? “When you custom build, you’re getting exactly what you want and you’re going to love everything in the house,” says Craig Meyer, president of Meyer Homes in Hopkinton, MA.

But getting what you want may price you right out of the project, especially if your resources are limited.

Custom building a home is much more expensive than building one from preexising blueprints, even with upgrades, says David Stenger, president of Creekview Homes in Hopewell Junction, N.Y. “For example,” he says, “custom building might cost $25,000 just in blueprint fees as opposed to standard blueprints that are thousands cheaper.” Add in the costs of the land, which can vary widely depending on location, architect fees, building permits and fees, land surveys, building materials, engineering, and interior design selections and your budget can run amok, especially if you don’t plan ahead.

Interior designer S.A. “Sam” Jernigan and her husband, Thomas Kehrlein, designed and built their own home in Glass Valley, CA, after flipping a previous home — buying a fixer-upper, remodeling it, and reselling it, netting a tidy profit. “We got lucky with the market and actually figured out that the project would cost us less than buying a resale,” she says. “But it’s important to have emergency funds ready, including 10 percent more than you actually need.”

Patience Is a Plus
Custom building a home also requires patience and tolerance. “When you buy an existing home, you make a few changes and move in, but a custom home can take up to a year,” says Don Vandervort, founder of in Glendale, CA. “Also, things don’t work out the way you imagine. For example, utilities provided at the site are not where you would expect them to be or materials don’t show up on time, so expect delays.”

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Do you use a builder or do-it-yourself? How many rooms? What will it look like? How many floors? From the wall color and carpet to the type of cabinet knobs, there will be an overload of choices to make, so be prepared because it can get stressful.

“Once we get to know someone and get a sense of their taste and style, we can bring samples in of plumbing fixtures, lighting, cabinetry, etc., but there are a lot of decisions to be made,” says Meyer. “Builders try to help them with the whole umbrella of things that need to be done and help them to make these selections.”

But be warned that custom building has even strained relationships. “It breaks my heart when the couple goes at each other’s throats and there’s a real risk to the marriage,” says Jernigan. “You need a real team collaboration to do this.”

The Perfect Brainstorm
If custom building sounds right for you, then Susan Lang, author of Designing Your Dream Home, recommends brainstorming a list of must-haves and don’t-wants before even starting the process. Her book provides useful checklists to help kick-start ideas. “The process will be smoother depending on how well the homeowner does homework and plans for what they wanted,” she says. “One sink or two, heated towel bar or not, a room for your autographed guitars, wheelchair access. Otherwise, you can run up additional expenses because you haven’t worked through all of the options.”

If you’re using a builder, you can research candidates through the National Association of Home Builders<> and your local chapter, which you can find on the NAHB website. If you plan on incorporating green building techniques into your home design, you’ll want a builder who has been trained in that area. You can find one through the NAHB or through the U.S. Green Building Council. You may also want to check your state’s Better Business Bureau to make certain that no complaints have been filed against that business.

Once you’ve found builders you’re interested in, ask them for referrals from previous customers. Often, they’ll refer you to the testimonials on the website, but ask to be put in direct contact with the customers so you can ask specific questions.

Be very careful if you decide to do the work yourself, says Hector Seda, vice president of operations for Wilson Seda Builders in Pompton Lakes, NJ. “Have some sort of background or have someone guide you in the process,” he says. “Don’t go into it blind or it might end up costing you more in the long run.”

If you want to build a home but custom building isn’t an option, consider semi-custom. “You can choose an already made spec plan and modify it to fit your needs,” says Stenger. “You might like a home that was done before and can start from there.”

For example, say you like the plans for a Victorian house, but it has only three bedrooms and one bathroom, which is too small for your growing family. You can modify the plans with an architect, who can add another bedroom and half-bath. The same can be done for almost any modification you want to make, including adding windows or a porch or moving the kitchen to the other side of the room. Too many changes, however, and it might be better to create a custom home plan with your builder instead.

Above all, says Vendervort, once you make the decision to custom build a home, “you really will know you’re putting together the house that meets your family’s needs and lifestyle every way you want it to.”

Resolving Job Site Conflicts Between Homeowners and Contractors

Use these suggestions to prevent arguments in the first place — and settle them once they arise.

Job Site Conflict Resolution

Photo: Flickr

When Fern Dickey saw what a fantastic job a contractor did on her neighbor’s remodel, she had no problem figuring out whom to call when she needed work done in her own home. She didn’t get estimates. She didn’t check references. She signed a contract that offered a ballpark figure and no time line. But the contractor was a nice guy, she thought, and he did such impressive work. Dickey was confident that everything would be fine.

From day one, it wasn’t. It took nearly a year for drawings to be approved and permits issued. Then, once work began, Dickey learned that her contractor’s business now consisted not of a full crew but only him and his young, inexperienced son. The contractor never started working before 10 a.m. When he left for the day, only five hours later, he left behind trash and open paint cans.

“I had never hired a contractor before,” Dickey says. “I hadn’t read anything about it. I was so busy with work. I just assumed everything would be okay.”

A year and a half after starting the project, Dickey fired her contractor. The project —to remodel the den, add a deck, and re-side her Fairlawn, NJ, home — remains incomplete and has major flaws that will have to be fixed by a new contractor at added expense. Dickey admits she wishes she had ended the relationship sooner, but the contractor always promised that problems would be fixed and projects completed as soon as possible.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, Dickey can pinpoint all the mistakes she made. “Contracts should be very detailed and have dates for when things are going to happen,” she says. “Any change or discussion regarding work should be in writing and signed by both parties.”

Getting everything in writing upfront is one of the most basic ways to avoid conflicts on the job site. Other ways are hiring and scheduling well and limiting changes to the original plans. Here are some other ways to resolve on-site conflicts.


Hire a Reputable Firm
Many job site conflicts can be avoided by making sound choices. Ask friends for referrals, but also check references and licenses, says Monica D. Higgins, founder of Renovation Planners, of Culver City, CA. “Check references and actually go out and see the work, and it should be work that was done recently and maybe work that was done five to ten years ago so they can see how the work has held up,” Higgins says. Also, ask how many jobs the contractor takes on at once and how many hours per week they will spend on your project.

Seek bids, but don’t make lowest price your final determinant, Higgins adds. In fact, many of the horror stories you hear come from small, less-expensive contractors who, unbeknownst to you, have cash-flow problems. For example, a contractor will tell you everything you want to hear, take your deposit, and then disappear for weeks. This is often because he needed your money to pay the people he has working on another current project.

Once you settle on a contractor, get everything in writing and make sure the contract is extremely detailed. Add factors that are important to you. Require contractors to clean up after themselves daily. Mandate that notice be given before certain kinds of work — like anything that involves turning off the water or that might disturb the neighbors.

Require a Schedule
From the contractor’s perspective, scheduling is the most challenging part of any project. “Estimating and scheduling are the crux of this industry,” says Higgins. That’s because there are so many variables to consider: applying for permits, ordering and receiving materials, scheduling subcontractors, waiting for inspections. There are also the factors you can’t control. Weather can seriously delay an outdoor project such as roof work, siding, or building a deck.

When it comes to setting deadlines, contractors have a habit of “being a little unrealistic,” admits Dean Bennett, president of Tri-Lite Builders in Chandler, AZ, says you should ask your contractor to guarantee a time line up front. And homeowners need to take responsibility for their role in that time line. Her company requires that clients make all design selections — such as granite, tile, paint colors, and light fixtures — before any work begins. “If we all of the sudden realizewe don’t have a part, and the homeowner says, ‘I’m going out of town and can’t make that decision right now,’ it holds up the project. It makes a mess,” Minde says.

Make a Plan and Stick with Your Decisions
Before you even call a contractor, come to an agreement with your spouse or partner about what the end result of your remodel should be. If you’re not working with a design-build firm or an architect, consider hiring a remodel consultant or project manager. Higgins provides homeowners with 3-D models of what their completed project will look like, complete with paint colors and tile choices. This can be very helpful for people who have trouble visualizing a blueprint and can reduce costly change orders midproject.

If a picture in a magazine or a home improvement program inspired you to make a change, understand that there are limits to what your contractor can do. “Sometimes homeowners can be unrealistic in terms of what’s available,” says Minde. “For instance, with all the green building going on, people want certain kinds of paint. But that paint doesn’t come in a myriad of colors.” So, she adds, don’t blame the contractor if the certain item you want simply doesn’t exist in the size, quantity, or materials you require.

Insist on Regular Progress Reports
In your contract, stipulate that you want to have a weekly meeting with the general contractor. Even if you’re living in the home while the work is going on, there’s a good chance you’re unaware of the particulars of the project. This communication can help limit costly and time-consuming surprises.

“We have a project manager assigned to your job,” Minde says. “We have weekly client meetings so they know, this is what is going to happen this week: On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, there will be drywall going on. On Thursday and Friday, I’m going to have to wait for it to dry so we won’t be here. What we all say in our company is that we should never hear the phone ring with clients saying, ‘What is going on?’ If we ever got thatcall from a client, we have not done our job.”

Create a Realistic Budget
If you have $50,000 for a kitchen remodel, plan your project so it will cost $40,000, says Bennett. Leaving a 20 percent cushion can help cover unexpected costs, such as the plumbing that no one knew needed replacing until the walls were ripped out. It also creates some wiggle room when, for example, you thought you wanted a basic $500 tub but then saw a $2,000 model that became a must-have.


Handle Disputes Calmly
Greg Antonioli has a philosophy at his firm, Out of the Woods Construction, in Arlington, MA. It is: “Never allow the homeowner to turn you into an adversary.” That means no matter how loudly the homeowner yells, don’t help fuel the argument. “I tell people, ‘Bite your lip and maintain congeniality,’” Antonioli says. “Remind the homeowner that we’re in this together.”

This philosophy should work both ways. If you’re incensed over something your contractor did, turning up the volume is not the best way to fix the situation. Being politely persistent and persuasive is much more effective. “If you’re the nice guy,” Antonioli says, “on any given morning when the contractor has to decide where to send his resources, odds are they’re going to go not to the squeakiest wheel but to the nicest squeaky wheel.”

If your contractor made a mistake on the project — placed a window in the wrong spot or installed the kitchen tile in the bathroom — give him the opportunity to correct the error, Antonioli says. This should come at no cost to you.

If your contractor is obviously dishonest — if, say, he took your deposit and never returned to do the work, or you think he’s trying to scam you into paying him more money —  report him to your local authorities as well as the Better Business Bureau. You can fire him outright and then take him to court. Most contractors would rather negotiate with the homeowner than go to court, Bennett says, so see if you can come to an agreement before you hire a lawyer.

Bottom line: When undertaking any remodeling project, try to hire the right person for the job, get everything in writing, and handle disagreements calmly.