Friday, July 21, 2017

Lessons Learned in Renovating

I'm not a contractor. Nor am I a DIY kind of person, and can't even claim novice status on that front. I am a consumer, an informed one. My husband and I recently went through a couple renovations - updates to our kitchen, and a complete gut job in the bathroom. From a consumer's standpoint, I have some lessons learned in renovating to share today. They're written primarily for me to re-read if I decide to tackle another big project, lest I forget all the gory details. If you are a consumer also, you may benefit from this list. If you are a contractor, you may glean some knowledge of a consumer's perspective, which is a benefit in dealing with your clients. If you are DIY-er, you may want to read this too, as you may someday become either a contractor or just plain consumer.

Lesson #1:  If you are strictly a consumer, then someone on your spending team needs to be involved in your renovation projects, managing the activity.  I was that designee in our household. I think there is probably a direct correlation to the level of satisfaction with end results of any given project and the amount of involvement with the project management.

Lesson #2: Find reputable contractors, get references, and get to know each one enough to feel comfortable in engaging one (or more) for your job. You absolutely need to be comfortable when interacting with your designers, contractors (especially their crew!), and even salespeople (when sourcing from chain or big box operations). The bigger your project budget, the better you should get to know these people. Ask pointed questions, and don't be afraid to express your expectations. Their responses will help you decide whether you want to work with them. Sign contracts, know what you're willing to invest and at what stage of the project. Never prepay an entire contract; always retain at least enough to satisfy issues related to the project as it progresses.

Once the work begins, get to know your workers by relating in conversation on project matters. Let the crew know your expectations right up front (such as daily cleanup, hours of work, use of facilities), and be open to give-and-take exchanges (such as sequencing of tasks, etc).
The crew's daily dropcloth ritual
Lesson #3: Involvement in the project management is like a job, and you need to show up for the job every day. It may mean researching materials prior to any work ever starting (or shopping for them while work is in progress), creating a budget with ongoing actual to budget comparisons, engaging more than one contractor before signing with one, making snap decisions on a daily basis, and/or handling issues as they come up (they will come up).
Comparison shopping mid-project
You may find, even after the crew does their best to satisfactorily follow your expectations, you still want to clean up after them. That's okay. After all, they're not likely to go to the detail you might in getting all the sawdust out of every crevice, or to shake out and fold (or wash!) the dropcloths the way you would. ;)
My cleanup after the crew's cleanup
You don't need to make the crew lunch or bake for them (their time is your money), but when they take  breaks, an occasional interest on some small, personal level will have them appreciating you more, and wanting to do a good job. Trust is a two-way virtue, and increases when nurtured.
The daily crew
Lesson #4: Keep a change order list - things you altered from the original design/estimate - whether they subtracted from or added to the original design. Communicate changes in writing with your contractor(s). Also, keep a running list of issues or, minimally, the punch list (things you want completed before the contractor leaves for good). All of these potentially will either cost you or save you in the end - whether it's time, money or sanity. I actually kept a daily journal of who worked, what hours, and a brief description of what was accomplished. It helped, particularly when there were issues, potential or real. I also kept a list of things the crew did as extras, not even on our original project lists.
List of extras
Lesson #5: Be an educated consumer. Whether it's learning a high level overview of building techniques, or reading product specifications - do some research. Even if you are willing to let professionals make recommendations or choices for you, you should be aware of best practices and products for what it is you're undertaking. Research can be found on the internet - Consumer Reports.org, Angie's List, manufacturers' and retailers' websites, social media - just to name a few. Facebook even has a 'looking for home recommendations' under the "choose a feeling or activity" icon on the post block of your profile page where you can solicit friends' opinions. Be sure to read the highest and lowest reviews whenever possible and available (you can often click to arrange them either way on websites). This way you'll be able to form your own educated opinion as to choices, whether you rely on others or make them yourself.
Research material
Lesson #6: You can do all the research you want (and should!), but in the end, you need to make selections you can live with. They may be inexpensive, big-box selections, or they may be custom-made, high-priced selections. If you let someone else make your selections, refer back to Lesson #1 and results.
Process of making paint selections
Lesson #7: Even all the research, money, attention and best selections in the world can still produce an occasional bad apple. No one thing or person is perfect, and the chances of getting less than perfect - in anyone or anything - are pretty good. Just hope your entire project isn't a bad batch, which would definitely lead to a sour stomach and outlook.

Lesson #8: You need to learn (and gauge) what your personal tolerance level is, and manage your expectations in project-related matters. Things will go wrong. They may be little things (the proverbial bad apple), they may be big things. If you are altering plumbing and/or electrical, there may likely be issues unknown until the walls come down and the floors are pulled up. Don't be afraid to escalate situations if they can't be or aren't being handled to your satisfaction with your work crew, their boss, or even the owner of the company or manufacturer. No one wants a bad review, and depending on your involvement, determination, and documentation, you can make a big impact on future business of those you engage with. By the same token, choose your battles. You don't want the contractor to walk away. You also don't want to live with an outcome you regret or resent later. If in a partnership - marriage or otherwise - you also need to have a good understanding of whether you'll be managing your partner's expectations and to what extent.
Project issues, big and small
Lesson #9: Organize all the paperwork for project-related operating instructions, warranties, contracts and invoices, canceled checks or other proof of payment.  Many manuals can be downloaded from the internet and maintained on your hard drive or an external drive. If not already maintained throughout the project, do this organization when the project is complete. It is advisable for at least the invoices to remain separate, in a permanent file related to the home purchase. Many of these contracts and invoices become part of your tax basis in your home investment. You may choose to scan and store those documents electronically, but you need to keep the original documentation at least through the period of statute of limitations from the date of sale or disposal of the [home] property. You may also need them for insurance or creditors, but it is your responsibility to find out.
Organizing paperwork
Lesson #10: Provide feedback. If your level of satisfaction as a consumer is high, give positive feedback. Let the contractor, designer and workers know (a little monetary bonus for the latter is nice but not necessary) you appreciated their work, and ask them if they would be willing to do future work, should you ever need or want it. Make recommendations and give referrals - honestly. Contractors may want to promote their business with your project, but should not do so without your permission. If your level of satisfaction is low and you've taken steps to try to correct matters, it's also okay to let the contractor know you will not be making recommendations or referrals (if they ask you to). Just be circumspect if you choose to provide unsolicited dissatisfaction publicly - it could come back to hurt you in the long run. Remember, trust is a two way thing. If your situation ends up a legal matter, then follow the advice of your attorney.

I actually have concrete examples for each and every one of these lessons learned, details of which I have spared you. If you want details, feel free to fire away your questions or note your own renovating lessons/observations in the comments or by emailing me.

If you have any additional things you think are important from a consumer's standpoint while renovating, let me know. I'll add them to the list. I personally don't want to get into any more big projects anytime soon, but if I do, you can bet I'll keep this checklist handy. ;)

Rita C. at Panoply