Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Choosing a remodeling contractor

With the recent (past) housing boom, there was a huge need for construction services of all types. Anybody and everybody who could swing a hammer flocked to the business to make money. ( I've experienced this in Alaska in the post oil pipeline boom)

Just about anybody can get a contractors license in the state of Washington. There is no test and all you have to do is be able to qualify and pay for the bond & liability insurance. Then you go get a state business license. In a boom economy that makes it easier to attract contractors into the market. In a down economy many of the "fly-by-night" low quality contractors fade away. The challenge is that consumer pays the price for this strategy.

Uneducated public: When I grew up, almost everybody was a little bit of a handyman. I learned to build and fix things from my Dad and Grand Father. In today's world, it seams that pass down trade knowledge has faded away. Consequently, a lot more people hire handymen, landscapers and remodels to work on their home and property. The knowledge or experience gap, makes it difficult for the consumer to gauge the qualities of the contractor.

How do you choose? There are a few sources out there to help, but the final responsibility rests on the consumer. You can go to the Labor & Industry and look the contractor to see if they are current with their insurance & bond, and also see if they have any outstanding offenses pending against them. References from past work, referrals from trusted sources all help, but I believe it's also a matter of using your instincts.

Referral programs (Web and other): There are untold numbers of referral programs out there (Mostly on the internet). Very few really do a thorough check into the contractor. Again, you have to do your own do-diligence.

Local Master Builders Associations: Usually, but not always, if a contractor is a member (and involved) in a local organization, it shows a concern for quality in their industry. It costs money and time to be involved in an organization and you are usually serious about your trade to do that.

Estimates and Contracts: The quality and detail of the estimate and the contract. says to me, that the contractor is experienced and cares about the details. The estimate becomes the project plan and the contract is the relationship between the contractor and the client. Those documents usually represent a higher quality of ethics.

Remodeling and landscaping projects are fraught with potential unforeseen issues and change orders. Remodeling is very different than new construction. As a remodeler, I am building a new component and connecting it to an older existing structure that I didn't build and very likely, isn't built to today's CODES. On larger remodels that require structural changes, it becomes a matter of design work, engineering and permitting. Small remodels and Home Repair projects are a little more straightforward, but the large design-build projects require a contractor and a team of other skilled professionals. My company has a design-build team of experts to work on larger more complex projects requiring structural changes.

When a contractor comes to your home and looks at a large remodeling project, ask a lot of questions.
  • Have you done this size of project before?
  • Is this project going to require permits?
  • What is it going to take to get the permits for this size of project?
  • Is this project going to require an architect and/or an engineer?
  • What is the process you need to go through the give me an estimate?
  • Who does your design work? (i.e. Architect, Draftsman, Interior Designer, Engineer, Green Consultant)
  • What are the potential unknowns that may create changes or add-ons to the project?
  • How do you manage those changes?
  • Do you have a project management system?
Example of a potential project my architect and I went to:

I had a customer who wanted an estimate on a project that required a two story extension over open space, so they could extend their kitchen out. I went in the first time by myself and immediately told the customer I needed to come back with my architect. I also knew there were other contractors showing up to look at this project. I explained to the customer that nobody on this earth could give them an estimate without proper construction documents (i.e. Blueprints, engineering specs, etc), and that he needed to hire a qualified Architect and engineer to do those plans.

The details: Either he just didn't get it or he was playing all the contractors against each other. I know one of the other contractors who looked at the project and they basically told him the same thing that I told him. Then an award winning design-build company came in from Tacoma and their salesman told them something else. And then, another contractor showed up with a quick-design program on his laptop and he was able to produce a conceptual drawing on-the-spot for the customer to see. That's a neat feature to have to impress the client, but that still doesn't make him an architect or engineer. And, a architect and engineer is exactly what this customer needs on this particular project.

My perspective and opinion on this scenario:

First off, let me give you a little background. I learned to build in Alaska where you had to build to survive severe elements, Plus, I have an Architect on my team who is both an Landscape Architect and Architect with 13 years of formal education and 30 plus years of large scale building experience in 10 countries around the world.

That being said, here's my opinion of what happened on this potential project:
  • The award winning Design-Build company came in with a very high bid. My guess is that they saw what I saw. The project was laced with complex issues that needed proper architectural work and engineering and they were covering all the bases in their estimate.
  • The quick-draw guy had a neat selling feature, but he's not an Architect. He actually told the home owner that my world class architect's idea wouldn't work.
  • The third came back at half of the estimate of the Design-Build firm. (There was a $70K difference in all the estimates)
  • Basically the client still didn't have a solid plan he could trust to make a decision on and go to the bank with.
This is a classic situation, where the client is expecting the contractor to be a designer. It doesn't work because everybody is going to have different ideas on how to do it. This project required proper architectural work and engineering, which typically cost 12% to 15% of the total construction costs on a residential remodel. So, if it is a $70K project his design fees will be approximately 8K to 10K.

In a complex remodel like this, if the customer gets the design work done first, they can get accurate estimates from multiple contractors based on one design. (Apples to apples) This is how it is done in commercial construction. Basically, every contractor who walked on this site had a different idea on how to do the project.

I also was concerned with erosion issues because the house was built on a hill above a lake. Plus, the septic system was very close to the build area. There were stress cracks in the block foundation that required an engineers impute on how to repair and stabilize before there was extra weight built onto the structure. I wanted an engineer to tell use what was causing the cracks, before we added additional structure to the house. Essentially, there were questions that required experts that couldn't (or shouldn't) be answered by a contractor.

So, after a month the customer still didn't have a clear plan or budget he could get permits with or go to the bank to get a loan with.

I went and talked to the county planning inspector to find out if I was on track with my thinking on this project. I also wanted to find out if "omission estimating" was a common practice with remodeling contractors in this area. He told me that it happened a lot, but the more high-end companies did the accurate design work, then the estimating. He also told me that contractors who came in low on a bid, typically had a lot of change orders and re-inspections. Another way you can evaluate a potential contractor is to look at their last project and see the inspection reports. (They are public records) This is one more point that proves once again that you get what you pay for and the lowest bids isn't always the lowest price at the end of the project.

My perspective and how we choose to do business, is very simple. Everything on the table; design fees, engineering, permitting, construction documents, and an accurate budget-driven estimate. Remodeling, and even landscaping, is laced with hidden issues and typically has customer changes. The initial estimate needs to be as accurate as possible to prevent huge cost and schedule overruns.

One of the first questions I ask a potential client is, "what is your budget". Then my designers and my construction work is designed to fit to that budget. My goal is not to blue-sky price people's ideas, that's a waste of my time and doesn't help the customer. My goal is to find the budget, get the design work done, develop an accurate estimate off those plans and then stay within that budget as best as possible.

So the moral of this story is to have the contractor tell you what you need to hear instead of what you want to hear. It's a lot better to know up front all the important details, than it is to learn and pay for all the changes along the way. Remodeling is stressful enough without going over budget and over schedule on top of everything else.



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Choosing a landscaping contractor

I've already written many articles about my experiences in the remodeling industry, now it's time to focus on landscaping. I'm a general contractor who does home repair, remodeling, landscaping and green building. Approximately 50% of the projects I do are landscaping.

Quality, Integrity and Customer Service

I have some of the same opinions about landscaping as I do about building and remodeling. I have talked to hundreds of potential clients and have seen overwhelming evidence of a diminished level of quality and customer service in the industry. I have to always be careful when I say this, because there are some quality contractors out there. That being said, I will continue.

Landscaping is more than building on top of the land

This is especially true in Western Washington. We live in a temporal rain forest with a tremendous amount of water flowing under the ground. Plus, all the new development is is impacting the ground water system.

The ground and what goes on under it differs from place to place

My house sits on a alluvial plain of ever changing river rock deposited by glaciers long ago. Last year, I did a one acre project on the waterfront that was clay with springs channeling water all over the place. Each environment requires different planning to make sure what you build, stays where it is built and does the job it was designed to do. The prep work that is done before you ever lay down a paver or stone is vital.

Have you ever seen a paver walkway or patio when it's newly built? Pretty attractive, right? Now, have you sen the same walkway a couple years later after two winters of rain or freeze? The evidence of good and bad landscaping is all around us.

Many of the projects I've look at or repaired, were never prepared correctly in terms of the the ground work. Consequently, the system failed and I am left explaining to a customer, things like; why their $10K natural stone patio needs to be rebuilt after two years.

Science and landscaping

I have a business partner who is a Landscape Architect and he has enhanced my perspective of what it takes to build to the land instead of on top of it. Consulting with a Landscape Architect basically confirms with science and engineering, what should make common sense to a good landscaper.

Consumer beware

I was doing some research on pavers vs. decorative concrete. Both of these are great products and there are strengths and weaknesses to both. I live in an area that dumps most of it 36" a year of rainfall in the fall and winter months. The ground is a mixture of clay and huge deposits of river rocks with high water tables.

One of the things I face in designing the ground work (sub-surface) is that there are places in our community that the ground changes shape during the winter. This is caused by water flow and underground erosion. The challenge with any surface system you put on top of the ground is what is happening under the ground.

Most of the internet research and product supplier research I have done doesn't address these unique conditions. Basically, my conclusion is that you have to go deeper in the ground with the base prepperations and also provide additional drainage for the water to move away from or not to invade the area under the patio or walkway. Regardless of the situation, this takes some serious thought and may even require an engineer to solve.

If you live in a wet area and you don't take these things into consideration and build accordingly, you will be sorry in a couple of years when your beautiful and expensive patio surface starts to move.

Do it yourself type of consumers

In my research, there was little or no information dealing with ground conditions or water control. When you go to a "do it yourself" store all I could find was dig out the dirt, tamp in some base rock, install the edger, install the pavers and presto you a have just saved a ton of money doing it yourself and now have a professional looking paver patio. (Give it two years and we'll see how it looks). If there is anything I can instill in you as the consumer, is do your research on the ground conditions and build the base and drainage correctly. And if you live on ground like I do, then consider stamped concrete.

Decorative concrete

It is amazing what they can do with concrete. It can be made to look like stone or brick pavers. It's strong and last a long time and resists ground movement. I've even seen outdoor fireplaces that look like stacked stone. They even do kitchen countertops and floors. The thing I like about concrete is the durability and the stability on the ground. One thing that has to be taken into consideration is the additional water run-off if you live in a rainy area. In my area, sometimes you have to create a sub-terrain drainage system to allow the water to disperse and drain properly.

Small building lots

With the increased practice of building on micro-lots there is also an increased ground water issue that comes with it. You have to check with your local building codes as to how much ground you cover up with patios and walkways. It could get complicated if you have to build drainage systems to accommodate the increase dump of water off the end of a patio. And, in my opinion the building codes aren't necessarily always helpful. In our area they have made the builders put in bio-swells to deal with high water tables in the rainy winter months. And, I have seen a lot of standing water in people's yards in these new sub-divisions, so do you research and then use some common sense or an engineer to design the drainage.

If your looking for a landscape contractor, make sure they:
  • Licensed, insured and bonded based on your state
  • Speak directly to the conditions of the ground under your property
  • Design a efficient drainage system, that can be cleaned out. (Around walls, patios, walkways, etc)
  • Go well beyond the typical standard of 4" to 6" with the base ground work that the landscaping is going to be built on. (Remember, CODE is the minimum)
  • Give you detailed plans on how they are gong to deal with the water and ground conditions on your property
  • Remember, you get what you pay for
  • What I would want to see is some of their older work. (paver and wall work) That would show me if what they build is done to withstand long term changing conditions

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