What the Experts May Not Tell You About Building or Renovating Your Homeby Amy Johnston
Creating a dream house shouldn't be a nightmare, but you've all heard the horror stories. Hiring a contractor is an enormous investment and a high-risk endeavor involving decisions that will last a lifetime. This book is a practical survival guide for anyone trying to make it through the construction, expansion or renovation of their home while keeping their dreams,… See more details below
Creating a dream house shouldn't be a nightmare, but you've all heard the horror stories. Hiring a contractor is an enormous investment and a high-risk endeavor involving decisions that will last a lifetime. This book is a practical survival guide for anyone trying to make it through the construction, expansion or renovation of their home while keeping their dreams, budget and sanity intact. With wit and expertise Johnston reveals the secret pitfalls that can trip up even the most careful homeowners, while equipping them with information and strategies they cannot find elsewhere. Chapters include detailed coverage of critical topics: design, selecting and supervising an architect or contractor, cost estimates, budgets, plans and specifications, contracts, dealing with town officials, as well as methods to keep track of everything along the way. Johnston offers insider tips and discusses pitfalls to be avoided in this step by step guide to help every savvy homeowners learn how the pros set up a project, select the perfect team,and manage it all from start to finish.
Read an Excerpt
What the "Experts" May Not Tell You About Building or Renovating Your Home
By Amy Johnston
Warner BooksCopyright © 2004 Amy Johnston
All right reserved.
Chapter OneReady, Set, Think
How the Savvy Owner Starts a Project
This chapter takes the broad view of the project and answers a lot of important questions. What's your job as an owner? Is your project feasible?
Is the money in place? Whom will you encounter? How do you keep control of this project?
The Mind-Set: How to Approach a Project
The Players List: The People Who Will Be on Your Team
A Gleam in Your Eye: Can You Build?
Don't Bank On It: Is Your Loan Officer Your Ally?
The Scary Money: Down Payments
If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn't lead anywhere. -Frank Clark
The Mind-Set: How to Approach a Project
I see construction projects as being made up of five elements: the existing building or site where the construction will take place, the owner, the designs, the contractor, and the budget. I have come to expect that, on average, two of these things will pose big challenges. More than that and I'm in trouble. Fewer than that and I'm in heaven, but I have been on only one perfect project in my life. No one could believe it. We all just kept basking in our own glow and saying how much we loved each other. There must have been something in the water.
You, the owner, are the fulcrum around which your project revolves. You have the money and the dream. You are the final arbiter of the form and function of the design. You will monitor the execution of that design and live with the results. You will also rely on others along the way. You will provide the money, but it will likely flow through a loan officer and appraiser. You have the dream, but an architect or designer might shape it and then convey it to a contractor. You will watch the construction, but it will be done by a team under the contractor you hire.
You're about to enter into several new relationships, and there's a lot of your hard-earned money at stake. You will make hundreds of decisions and maybe a few mistakes. You will learn more than you can imagine right now. You must navigate through risk and guard against those who are incompetent or may seek to take advantage of you. It's a big undertaking and a lot of responsibility. Try to embrace it and be proactive. Educate yourself about the tasks ahead and how you'll lead this group to achieve your goals. Do this and you will not only get the end result you hope for, you will also be that rarest of creatures-the savvy owner who's an indispensable asset to the project.
If they had one, the professionals' mantra to make this all work would be "foresight good, hindsight bad" as they approach each task that will make their projects secure. They manage the owner's risk by defining as many things as possible up front. They do their best to make sure that each project will be financially, aesthetically, structurally, and emotionally sound for all parties involved. And you can do that too.
THERE ARE NO COINCIDENCES
I have yet to hear about either a great project or a terrible project that happened by dumb luck. When people regale me with horror stories of their home construction projects, I bite my tongue and offer sympathy, but where they went wrong is evident in under a minute. What a nice surprise, then, when I met a woman whose building project was a job well done. It was no coincidence either-just less common an outcome.
I was introduced to her at a party. The host told me she and her husband had built a great house. He explained to her that I was writing a book on that very topic. To that she said kind of sheepishly, "Well, I'm sure we did it all wrong."
I asked, "Are you happy with the house?"
"We love it," she said. "We've been in it for a year and wouldn't change a thing."
I said, "Well, then, you must have done something right."
"We had a great contractor," she said. "And how'd you find him?"
"We'd been thinking and dreaming about building a house for almost ten years. We live in a small town with only three contractors who are really appropriate for that kind of work. So every time one of them finished a project similar to what we were planning, we contacted the owners and talked to them about it. We ended up dropping one of them from consideration. When it came time to build, we interviewed the other two and chose the one that seemed more in sync with us."
"Sounds perfect so far. And what about your designs?" I asked.
She said, sounding more confident now, "We drove around a lot, took lots of pictures, and jotted down things we liked about a bunch of houses. Then we started looking at those house plan magazines. We ended up buying a set of plans for about $500, took them to a local architect, and he made some minor changes. He offered to come supervise the work every other week and answer questions by phone. He was a great bargain, really. We couldn't have done it without him, or our lawyer either. She drew up our contracts with the architect and builder, but kept the cost down by starting with stock contracts. It was crazy once the work started, but we liked the guys on the crew. We had some problems with the plumber, but the contractor straightened him out. We all met with the architect every other week, but my husband and I were there almost every day."
"Did your budget hold up?" I asked.
"We did pretty well. The plans were complete, so there were no surprises with that, but once the framing was up, we made a couple changes. We widened a hallway and moved a closet in my daughter's bedroom because it was blocking the light."
"And you love it?" I said. "Yup, we just love it." She beamed. "And was the contractor at the housewarming party?" "He was the belle of the ball!" she said. "He was so proud of the place, and he's gotten other work from it since."
I told her she and her husband had managed the perfect project. So what exactly did this couple do right?
They educated themselves before each step in the process.
They gave great thought to what they wanted and needed.
They researched other homes and used periodicals to find the design elements that suited those needs and wants.
They got very detailed plans at a bargain price.
They weighed their risks and benefits and chose only the most valuable services they needed from an architect.
They called contractor references.
They interviewed contractors.
They had a contract with the builder and didn't reinvent the wheel doing it.
They were a constant presence on their own project.
They monitored what was built and made the necessary changes to get it just right.
They were social with the crew members but let the contractor supervise his people and solve problems.
I'm sure if I'd pumped her for more information, I would have found they had a sound budget, insurance, and meeting notes too!
The Players List:
The People Who Will Be on Your Team
You will be amazed by the number of people you come in contact with over the course of a construction project. Some you will employ, some you will answer to, some you will befriend, and some you might rather live without. As you read through this list of players and their roles, keep in mind how your current definition of your own role may change and expand. Like they say, where you sit is where you stand.
The owner is you, the one who requests, monitors, pays for, and lives with the work done. From the point of view of others on this list, the owner also includes your budget, your family and friends, your kids and pets, your competency, your availability, and your attitude.
Loan officer: processes your construction loan and mortgage.
Appraiser: determines the value of construction work planned and later completed.
Staff members of the town clerk's office, the Planning and Zoning Department, and the Public Works Department: assist you in getting through the permit process.
Members of the boards of design review and planning and zoning: review your project for appropriateness and compliance with town ordinances.
The architect is a designer of buildings who is licensed to practice in your state and provide stamped drawings. Members of an architectural firm may include:
Principals: partners in the firm.
Associates: employee architects.
Draftspeople: those who turn ideas into blueprints for your project.
Office personnel: administrative workers who will call you for appointments or send you things.
These are designers licensed in your state to provide stamped drawings on specific aspects of the project.
Civil engineer: addresses the site.
Structural engineer: addresses the structure of a building.
Electrical engineer: addresses electrical systems.
Mechanical engineer: addresses plumbing, heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems.
This is the designer of terrain and exterior architecture.
Whether working for you, an architect, or a contractor, this person reviews your plans and prices the work.
This is a very broad term meaning anyone who designs. Find out what meaning this service provider is giving that title, and consider what it means to you. While an architect is a designer, a "designer" is likely not an architect. This person may or may not have any credentials and is not a licensed architect. Of course, it's fine to use a designer's services, but keep in mind that a designer is to an architect what a homeopath is to an AMA board-certified physician.
This is a designer who creates the finished look of the space, including colors, furnishings, and window treatments. The decorator is often brought in early in a project to specify materials that will be installed by the contractor, like cabinetry, plumbing and electrical fixtures, flooring materials, and paint colors.
This person measures land to determine its location, volume, form, and boundaries.
There are several outfits that specialize in testing different things related to buildings. You may be required to perform a perk test for drainage, or a soil test for contamination. You can have the concrete for your foundation tested to ensure it meets density standards. You may be renovating an older home and want the old furnace and pipes tested for asbestos or the paint tested for lead.
CLERK OF THE WORKS
This person is the eyes and ears of someone who wants the project monitored from a technical perspective. The "clerk" can be hired by you, an architect, the bank, even the contractor- anyone with a vested interest in ensuring that things are built according to the plans and a record be kept. Clerks are rare on residential jobs, but they don't charge a lot for the service they give, so just know they are an option for you.
This title can be confusing, since people in several jobs use it. (1) A construction manager (CM) is like a clerk in that he can monitor the project, but he usually has much more authority and responsibility. A CM representing owners could guide them through all facets of a project from design review and cost estimating to construction completion. (2) More commonly called a project manager, a CM employed by a general contractor provides the same services on the general contractor's behalf. (3) Architects may employ a CM to provide monitoring services during the construction phase. (4) CM is the title of a contractor working under the contract structure called construction management.
A builder who works under contract is a contractor. A general contractor is a builder who coordinates other workers, sub-contractors, and suppliers involved in a construction project. He is the ringleader responsible for the labor and materials for his crew and all those it takes to get the job done. Depending on the size of his company, the people who work directly for him are:
Superintendent (super) or foreman: on-site person coordinating the project, managing the crews, interpreting the plans, ordering materials, setting the pace. He is the owner's on-site link to the contractor.
Carpenters: the folks swinging the hammers. "Framers" do rough carpentry, and "finish carpenters" do things like building a mantel for your fireplace.
Laborers: the foot soldiers of the site. Their work is unglamorous but essential. They are the gofers, the cleanup crew, the heavy lifters, and the extra set of hands. They are often hired on a job-by-job basis and are not long-term employees of the general contractor.
Office personnel: administrative workers, bookkeepers, receptionists.
It is imperative to know that in many small companies, there is only one administrative person: the spouse of the contractor who is carrying out your project.
These are non-general contractors who specialize in specific trades. They are called subcontractors because their work is often part of a larger contract, in which case they work "under" a general contractor.
Excavators: operate heavy equipment like backhoes and bulldozers to dig foundations, install septic systems, and shape the land.
Masons: lay brick, block, stone, and tile to create structural work like block walls and chimneys, as well as finish work like fireplace hearths and walkways. If it involves mortar, chances are it's a mason doing it.
Roofers: apply the four layers to the top of the house that make a roof: sheathing, felt paper, metal flashing, and shingles, or tile, membrane, standing-seam metal, etc.
Ramers: do the rough carpentry using dimensional lumber such as 2" 6"s to create the studs and rafters that are the skeleton of your building project.
Electricians: install everything that uses electricity, including electrical panel, electrical wire, light fixtures, thermostats, alarm system, even phone lines and fiber-optic wire.
Plumbers: install everything that uses water, including sinks, tubs, showers, toilets, water meters, and water-flow restrictors, along with incoming water pipes and outgoing drain pipes.
Mechanical subcontractors: install heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. Many companies provide both plumbing and mechanical services.
Sheetrockers: install or "hang" Sheetrock (drywall, gypsum board). They apply tape over the edges that butt together, using three coats of compound, which is sanded smooth to appear invisible once painted.
Painters: prepare and paint surfaces. In renovation work, their preparation ("prep") work can be the bulk of their job and includes sanding, burning off old paint, lead-paint abatement, and/or priming.
Excerpted from What the "Experts" May Not Tell You About Building or Renovating Your Home by Amy Johnston Copyright © 2004 by Amy Johnston. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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