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Tips for Home ­Renovation Success

Increase the odds of a happy ending by doing your part

It’s been three weeks since my home-improvement job was finished and I made the final payment.
    Now comes the test: In the first rain since replacement, my gutters leaked. I made the call and waited.
    Within an hour my call was returned. A few hours later, a craftsman was fixing the problem.
    All contractors are responsive when they’re trying to win your business. The good ones remain that way during the job. The exceptional ones return your calls promptly even after the final payment.
    How to find that exceptional contractor for your job?
    My experience has shown that success or failure is determined before you even sign the contract.

Document what you want done
    Even the best contractors can’t read your mind. Decide what you want done, and describe it. Drawings and sketches are good. Even with drawings, specifics are a must. The more detail you have, the better. Use placeholders if required. For example, if you’re not ready to specify exactly what hardware you want on your new kitchen cabinets, go to a home improvement store, choose a line that might work and specify that in the contract. You can always change it later (though there might be a change in cost). Don’t leave it unspecified, or use nebulous terms like contractor grade or premium. Prepare a documentation package for each contractor who will bid on your job.

Make a list of contractors
    The conventional wisdom to get three bids is a good starting point. But not every contractor will give you a good proposal, so your list should include four or five. Recommendations from friends and neighbors who had similar work has proved my best bet.
    When the contractors visit your house, you need to be there. They will go over the scope of work and examine your house. They will make comments and recommendations about your job, often filling in important details. If you agree with these, update your paperwork to reflect the changes before the next bidder visits.
    Between these updates and the details each contractor adds to a proposal, you will likely end up with multiple proposals with not only different costs but also different work and materials. Decide what you want and ask the contractors to update their proposals. Don’t be surprised if the price changes.

Choose your contractor
    Don’t assume the most expensive bidder will do the best work. Check each contractor’s references, and couple this with your own impressions.
    Any contractor you are finding it difficult to work with at this stage, cross off your list. All things being equal, I will choose the lowest bid, but there have been times when the builder’s reputation and my gut feeling overrode price.

Negotiate your contract
    The first edition of every contract I have received has had terms and conditions heavily weighted in favor of the contractor. Remember, everything is negotiable.
    Often the contract will require one-third on signing (which could be months before the work starts), one-third when the work starts and the final third spread out as the work is performed. This is not fair to you.
    The other extreme is expecting to pay the contractor nothing until the work is complete. This is not fair to the contractor. Fair lies somewhere in the middle. As best you can, develop a payment schedule that will keep you even with the value of the work performed and the materials delivered on site.
    Every contractor I have worked with has been willing to negotiate over the payment schedule. If they won’t talk, walk.
    For protection in the rare situation when the contractor fails to pay suppliers and subcontractors on your job, you will also want the contract to require lien releases lest a mechanics lien be filed against your property. Make the final payment or series of payments contingent on receiving these releases. I have never had a contractor who wouldn’t agree to this; refusal is a big red flag

Changes are inevitable
    No matter how carefully you plan the job, there will be changes. You will change your mind about details. You will realize it is much cheaper to do something now rather than in the future. There will be unforeseen circumstances. Be wary of the just-one-more-little-thing syndrome. Little things add up to big changes.
    The contract should clearly state how changes will be handled. Typically the contractor will notify you if there is a potential change and provide a change proposal that will specify the work and cost.
    When budgeting, set aside funds to pay for these unknowns. Ten percent might be a good figure to start with, more if there are many unknowns, less if everything is well defined and surprises are unlikely. In my 40 years of owning seven houses, I’ve never had a job completed for the original contract amount, but usually I finish within my reserve.

The work gets done
    I have heard of people who sign the contract, then leave on a three-week vacation while the work is done. There is certainly temptation to avoid the noise, dirt and day-to-day hassle that comes with having work done on your house. But you need to be there.
    How much there is a delicate balance. You don’t want to hover over the workmen, watching their every move. But you need to keep an eye on things. There are always questions; you need to be there to answer them. The longer it takes until you flag a change, the more likely it will mean a costly contract change.
    Be prepared to pay the contractor what you owe, when you owe. Sometimes, jobs don’t end cleanly as planned; there are a few details to finish up. If the work is not quite complete, don’t make the full final payment. Hold back an amount that fairly reflects the value of the work yet to be finished.

Final words of wisdom
    No matter how careful or detailed you are with the paperwork, you still need a contractor you can communicate with and trust to achieve success. Don’t sign on the dotted line until you feel comfortable with both.