Home Renovation: A Different Perspective of the AEC Industry

by Jacob Odell

When I bought a house, I didn’t see in the contract that I would have to hold on to everything that came in the front door, but I guess I didn’t read ALL the fine print. This suspicious anomaly has forced me to reserve an entire room for “stuff” like an elliptical, chest freezer, children’s toys, and dog supplies. The worst part of it all is that I’m not sure how it happened. In any case, my wife and I have decided we are becoming too big of a family (or just have too much stuff) for this little house and need some more space to help re-work our existing rooms. Due to the layout, and the size of the kitchen, the obvious choice was to expand on our house into the back yard, adding to the kitchen and our master bedroom. I was very excited about being an owner in the construction process and not a contractor, but how can one position determine the posture of the other?

As a commissioning provider working in the design and construction industry for project owners, I’ve come to understand where project delays can come from, be it materials failing to ship, unexpected equipment issues, or workers falling ill. Each of these means headaches and a sliding schedule for an owner.

Right now, I am in the design phase of my home renovation, working with the architect and our general contractor to get drawings for my house. But getting to this step involved some definite challenges that had nothing to do with the technical decisions of layout, materials, or time. Design and construction is a relationship-based industry—establishing trust, determining value, and setting off down the winding road of renovation with a new person may be the hardest part of the process.

Getting the Right Partner

Choosing a contractor that I was confident in wasn’t easy. I made so many phone calls and only three of them were able to give me an estimate. And they gave me three very different numbers to work with. The range of the estimates was between $45,000 to over $300,000. With such a spread, how was I to know what was a fair amount for the quality of work I was going to get?

Along the way, one contractor told me a typical addition costs about $115 per square foot for the structure alone, which would equate to about $41,000 in my situation. This gave me a great starting point to help work through the estimates.

Based on this average, the $45,000 estimate was very low. We didn’t want gold-plated counter tops, so the $300,000 estimate was a bit extreme. The third estimate of around $85,000 seemed to be the mama bear of estimates and made us feel more comfortable about the remodel overall.

Getting the Right Price

Money can be a great representation of quality, but something could also turn out to be a lemon. This is where the less quantitative measuring and more qualitative measuring needs to be evaluated. While the contractor who gave me the $45,000 estimate was at my house, I found it difficult to talk to him and tell him what we wanted. He gave me quite a few trailing off yeah, yeah’s while looking away from me. This really made me worried that my needs wouldn’t be met, and I would be subject to a lot of unnecessary headaches.

The $300,000 estimate contractor didn’t even come out to my house, but took a virtual tour on Redfin or something, and just kept ramping the price up in $50,000 increments while I was telling him what I wanted. I thought two things here: if he was just trying to scare me off it worked, and what type of control do I have over my own home renovation with this company? If this guy on the phone didn’t even want to come out to my house to get the work, which was only about 15 minutes from his office, I don’t believe he could give a good product while I was paying him.

As for the $85,000 contractor, he was completely transparent, and I mean that in the best way possible. He listened to everything I had to say, he was talking about how the overall house was going to look at the end of the project, and even showed me an itemized bill with the mark-up. His best advice was “If someone offers to do this job for $40,000, run! I can’t even get the materials for $35,000.” In the end, it was his honesty and the fact he didn’t want to hide anything that made me chose him.

The Journey Begins

Once we chose our contractor, we hired him to work as our general (GC) through the design process. Being new to home renovations, my wife and I felt this was a good idea to have an expert on our side. He said he had an architect he usually used, but she was busy. It came down to a reference from his third string architect to get someone who had time for the job. He hadn’t worked with this reference before but was confident in the suggestion. I think it’s our GC’s determination to resolve an issue and “take it in stride” personality that has me confident in his ability to ensure we get a good product from anyone he hires.

Being in this position and knowing what influenced my decisions about who to hire for my project, I see where the owners I work with professionally are coming from when they’re seeking a team for a new building, or remodel, or upgrade. There’s a lot of qualified providers out there; there’s also a lot that seem qualified but might not really be up to the task. Pricing is a huge factor as well. Most of us don’t have unlimited troves of funding, so getting value is important. Value isn’t the lowest bid, nor always the highest. It’s all about weighing the options and finding someone you’re comfortable working with day after day. Renovation is a journey. Who will you journey with?

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