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Renovation Realities: Budget Schmudget

In the next tale of renovation realities, I thought it would be nice to discuss budget realities and how they truly affect the grand plans I had for the house.  As most dreamers, we started out with a fairly unrealistic budget that was slowly increased to account for the changes we wanted to make.  However, even after increasing the budget considerably (about 60%), we realized that we still weren’t going to get everything we wanted and we would be required to do some serious DIY (laying the hardwood floors, painting, etc.). The issue with this “realization” is that there are many things in this renovation that need to be done now and then there are things that make sense to do it the proper way now while we are in the midst of the ugly part of the renovation.  So there is only so much we can take out of the budget to make it work for us while doing a good job in getting the house ready for us to live.

Case in point: The house after 3 weeks of renovation and over $30K in costs:

If it’s not obvious, the house looks the f$#*ing same!  Yes, the house has a new HVAC system, new insulation, new windows, etc. and feels much better and has passed building codes but it’s still ugly.  And I’ve already spent a shit ton of money!  That’s crazy talk!

All that being said, I try to keep reminding myself that this is not our “forever” house and we don’t need to spend a ton of money to make changes that won’t truly impact the feel of the house.  It’s hard to remember this when I’m planning and dreaming but when I sit down to look at the budget I somehow don’t have a problem remembering :).  Here are some of the changes that we’ve made to the plan now that the budget has gone haywire:

  • We will no longer be taking down the wall between the kitchen and the family room.  It was going to costs almost $10K when all was said and done and it just didn’t add that much to the house.  We have a large wall opening between the two spaces and I’m not the biggest fan of a completely open kitchen anyway (I hate looking at the dirty dishes during a dinner party).  So I’ve reorganized the kitchen and can now focus on making the kitchen more functional and pretty.  (I’ll share updated plans soon.)
  • We’re not going to tear down all the walls in the master bedroom suite.  After doing the math, we would lose about 2′ in the bedroom just to gain a separate bathtub, shower, and toilet room.  While those things are important to me, due to configuration issues with the windows, etc., I didn’t love the floorplan and wasn’t terribly excited about the new bathroom.  So instead of spending another $5-7K to create just the shell of this bathroom that I wasn’t terribly excited about, I think it makes sense to keep the current floorplan and create an awesome shower (spending more on tile and other fancy features).  I’ll lose the bathtub but I could take a bath in the guest bathroom and call it a day (I’ve taken maybe 2 baths in the last 6 years :)).
  • The popcorn ceilings throughout the house are not actually popcorn and can’t be removed simply (or for the price initially quoted).  Lucky for me the ceilings are plaster and require several skim coats to make it smooth.  It’s going to take at least 2 weeks, cost twice and much, and totally mess up my schedule/budget.  The ceilings are something I’m unwilling to live with so we’ll be doing this no matter what.

On the bright side, today is the first day of real construction and things will start looking pretty.   I’ll snap some progress pics along the way.

P.S. Would love to hear from readers if they are enjoying these renovation realities posts.  Of course I think they are interesting but what the hell do I know :).

Renovation Realities: Trust Your Gut

So let’s get this week started with a post about some of the renovation realities that I’ve experienced over the last few weeks (and the reason I’ve been away from blogging).

I don’t think I ever explained exactly what I decided to do on the contractor front.  Up until two days before work was scheduled to begin, I intended to go with a general contractor and company to do the bulk of the work in the house.  Due to budget constraints (which will be a completely separate post), I had made some concessions on things that wouldn’t get done during this initial renovation but decided that it would be nice to have someone else deal with the bulk of the behind the wall issues – the electrical, plumbing, insulation, HVAC, etc.  The price was much more than I expected but I decided to go along with it.

This was my decision until I received the final contract and scope of project from the company.  As you work with contractors, you meet several times (over the phone or in person) to discuss the scope of the project.  Obviously, the changes you discuss during these meetings usually results in several modifications to the project scope, the contract price, and timeline.  With my contractor, I would guess that I met with them over 20 hours in 4-5 days to finally decide the scope of the project, final price, etc.  So when the final contract and project scope was sent to me, I expected it to reflect the countless hours (not really countless since I just guessed at the number of hours 🙂 ) of discussion and the final number that we decided on the day before.  But instead, I received a completely new contract price with many estimates/costs now increased due to problems with calculating square footage or other miscellaneous issues on their end.  (I’m not going to even get into the lack of personal accountability among contractors – as if there mistake is your fault and they shouldn’t have to cover it.  This industry is bananas!)

The difference in contract price was not a huge amount – maybe another $2K in a $65K renovation – but it was the principle of the situation along with my gut feeling that caused it to be a much bigger deal.  This was the 3rd or 4th time that these “small” changes occurred without any explanation (in advance) for the changes.  This coupled with the unexplained delays and lack of communication left me with little confidence in working with this company.  (In full disclosure, this company was owned by a family friend and we wanted to support him and minority businesses in general.  If it had been any other company, I would have thanked them for their interest in the project but fired them after the first delay in getting us an estimate.)  Although we were on the eve of demolition and construction, I decided that we would need to delay and I would need to find another contractor to do the work.  That night as I talked with the hubby, we decided that I needed to trust my gut.  My gut was telling me that I would be unhappy with the process and stressed beyond belief if I used this contractor.

Unfortunately for me, this contractor was one of a handful of contractors authorized by the state to perform work under the California Energy Upgrade program which provides homeowners with up to $8000 in rebates for energy efficiency updates to the house.  So I needed to continue to use them for the energy upgrade projects.  Therefore, I split the project into different phases whereby this contractor is in the house finishing up the new HVAC system and other energy upgrade portions with the hope that the inspector will be there later this week to close out the program.  After they finish, the new contractor that I’m working with will take over and get the rest of the house (the pretty stuff) completed (with hopefully a lot less drama).

I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that I was correct to go with my gut as even this short 2-week energy upgrade project with the contractor has given me so much grief.  But I’m trying to be positive and look on the bright side that it will be done relatively soon and they will be out of my hair forever.

Wish me luck that I won’t curse anybody out in the next 4 days.  Every day when I head to the job site (my house), I try to tell myself to stay calm but I usually fail miserably.

P.S. These contractor tales are happening because I’m in a new city and have to find new contractors.  In SF, I had a list of contractors that I worked with and loved.  I hope that going through this process will help me identify a new crop of contractors that I love and can use on client projects in LA.  

Renovation Realities: Finding a Contractor

I think it would be “fun” to start a blog series entitled “Renovation Realities” where I talk about the really shitty parts of renovating my home.  The focus of the series would be on the things that no one discusses (or at least my basic internet research didn’t identify) so that it would be informative for anyone else planning to take the plunge.  Obviously, everything I say is based on my own experience and likely will be pure speculation and opinion but at least we can all be entertained by my heartache.

So my initial understanding was that to start my renovation, I should find a contractor.  (I’ve since discovered that the more appropriate course of action may have been to get my plans worked out and go to the permit department which would then allow the contractors to properly bid on my job…but that’s not important now.)  To find this contractor, I got recommendations from friends who recently completed similar projects as well as friends of friends who had thoughts.  In total, I’ve met with almost six different contractors over the last month.  FYI – this is NOT fun!  I’m not going to get into too many details of each contractor primarily because I still haven’t officially decided on who I’m going to use (and I don’t want them to read the blog and get upset that I called them an asshole :)).

But I will discuss some observations I’ve made after this process:

  • Deadlines appear to be fluid.  If a contractor tells you he will get you the proposal by Monday, don’t actually expect it on Monday….he probably meant sometime during the week that starts with Monday.  And your frustration that they have missed a deadline (without any warning) is completely overreacting.  (If a contractor doesn’t give you a specific date he will get you a proposal, you should assume it will come within 2-3 weeks.)
  • The construction business is very sexist.  It is blatantly obvious that they believe as a woman I don’t know much about construction and that they can say a lot of nonsense that won’t get challenged.  I’m not expert but I’m no pansy either…so step it up contractors as I will be challenging you!

  • The construction business is very “know-it-all.”  The funniest part about this is the contractors also think they know design.  There have been many times where I want to scream “STFU! I didn’t ask you the best way to organize the kitchen in the given floorplan!”  I’m all about a professional opinion to tell me if I can move a wall but I damn sure don’t need advice from someone about the design of the room once it’s finished.
  • Bid proposals are useless without detail, detail, detail!  You need to know the unit price, profit margins, material allowances, etc. before you can adequately compare the bids.  If the contractor doesn’t want to give you that much information, there is something probably shady about them or their method.

Another important point that most people don’t realize is that each homeowner has two options: (1) hire a general contractor (GC) or (2) be your own GC and hire out the work.  With option 1, the GC would be responsible for all aspects of the renovation including securing plans, permits, materials, etc..  For the most part, the homeowner picks the materials and finishes and approves plans but otherwise, the crappy work of dealing with the subcontractors, delivery of materials, inspections, etc. will be dealt with by the GC.  With option 2, at least in California, the homeowner has the option of being the GC and hiring out the work to subcontractors.  The homeowner would be responsible for getting permits and plans from the city, as well as coordinating schedules of the different contractors to make sure that things are going smoothly.  Obviously, option 2 is much more work but also can save you 15-20% of your budget.  (I think this is a conservative estimate for how much you save because usually all-inclusive GCs tend to steer you towards more expensive materials and finishes.)  However, option 1 is the better idea for a novice renovator and someone who didn’t want to have to deal with a ton of crap from different contractors on a daily basis.

As of right now, I’m leaning towards hiring a GC to deal with the bulk of the behind-the-wall problems (electricity, plumbing, HVAC, insulation) to ensure that I’m able to take advantage of rebate programs offered by California.  Once the bulk of the work is completed that makes the home comfortable, and we’ve moved in, I may switch to just hiring out the jobs that need to be done over the next few months.  This decision will greatly impact my budget but given the extent of our renovation, I feel more comfortable ensuring that one person/company is responsible for making the house function properly.  The pretty stuff can happen later.

Of course, it’s now been 3 weeks since we closed on the house and nothing has happened so take all of my advice with a grain of salt.  Hopefully someone will knock some wall down in the next few days!

Let me know what you think.  Do you think this will be an interesting blog series?  Would you like more detail? What do you want to know more about?  I’ll do the best I can to help.