Thursday, January 08, 2009

Eight Tips for Remodeling Your House

Tips for Remodeling Your HouseCall me Captain Confidence but I have this awkward habit of thinking projects I jump into will be easier than they usually are. When we first moved into our home seven years ago the plan was to spend our first day putting down new laminate flooring on the main level before moving all the furniture in.

"It'll be easy!" I said with a shrug. For goodness sake, you just throw down the boards and glue them together, right? A monkey could do it.

Well to our credit we did get it done but the one-day project stretched into 30 days as each piece had to be carefully measured and glued. I did the same thing when we went to replace our windows, "What are you worried about? We'll just pop out the old ones and stick in the new--piece of cake!"

Andrew has been a good sport about it all, especially considering it's usually he that ends up doing most of the work and figuring out how to implement my grand schemes. After this latest maneuver of ours I think I may be able to give some real advice about heading into a remodel should you ever think that your life just isn't exciting enough (though if that's the case you really should consider taking up a hobby first).

So here it is, Remodeling for Dummies:

Tips for Remodeling Your House1. Get an architect. This may sound equivalent to saying "Get a chauffeur" but it's not something reserved for the rich and famous. If you're considering building on in a significant way--or even just improving what you already have you ought to look into hiring a professional to design it for you.

Why? Well because they're just that . . . professional. With specific and focused training in the area you need to make a house into a home. When we first looked at hiring an architect (and I'd had others give me this same advice that I'm giving you) I thought it was crazy--why hire someone to put on an extra room? But the design you'll get with an architect will be far superior to whatever you can slap together.

It's not as expensive as you might think. I'm not sure if this is true of all designers but Black + White Studio Architects charged us 10% of the cost of construction. That 10% covered the cost of design and then if they were called in to consult at the site during construction they charged by the hour. While this certainly isn't nothing it's not quite what I expected and then considering that the architects picked out EVERYTHING (conditional on our approval) and planned it out for us it saved a huge amount of time and headache.

If you haven't a clue how to find an architect I'd love to refer you to Black + White--they design things all over the place and not just in Anchorage.

2. Get someone else fight your battles. With a major remodel such as this you have to submit your plans to the city in order to get building permits. This permitting process, while certainly navigable on your own, is like most things related to government. You want to try to avoid any contact as much as possible--which is where the architect comes in again. Part of their fee included helping with the permitting process. Our architects not only helped us apply for our permits but when their designs were initially rejected because of a set-back issue they then worked out the design changes to get things eventually accepted.

Red tape was invented by government so having someone else deal with all those nasty tidbits is really worth it.

3. Get a good contractor. Once you have got the design worked out you'll need someone to build it for you. There are two parts to this really: first you need someone to build it and second you need someone to oversee the project. While your designers are there at the beginning to get things going this next part is where you go to work (and trust me it's not nearly so fun as sitting back and having someone build your dream home on paper).

Black + White had a list of general contractors that they thought might work for us and once they gave us the names it was up to us to contact the individual contractors and get them to submit a bid for the project. Armed with the drawings Andrew called several contractors and we ended up going with Summitview Construction which is a one-man operation run by John DeHart.

Here it gets a little tricky and things depend a great deal on the project you've got and the construction environment of your area. Our project, though huge for us, was really quite small for most contractors. When that's the case it can be hard getting companies to take a look at your job. The bigger companies (the guys that came to look at the house in their Mercedes with their button-down oxfords satin-stitched with the company logos) looked rather professional but they weren't as interested in taking the time for us. Then of course they were more expensive as well--someone's got to pay for those Mercedes! However, with an unusual project such as ours there was the appeal of being able to work on a project that gets some attention so sometimes you can get bids where you normally wouldn't. You just never know.

Summitview was nice in a couple of ways. First, John was down to earth and easy to talk to. When he put together a bid he broke it down for us so that when the bid came in completely over budget (and that's pretty typical) we were able to work with him and with Bruce Williams at Black + White to get the cost back down to where we could breathe again.

Second, because he was a small-time operation he could fit us in better. We felt he did a great job on framing and getting things started but he wasn't very organized when it came to scheduling the more technical work and ordering materials.

When you're looking for a general contractor you want someone who is not only competent to do the work (which John was) but you want someone who is organized and efficient in getting things done (not so much). For a job our size we had an enormous amount of materials that were misordered or not ordered at all and we spent hours pestering him about it to get the job done.

Some of these mistakes weren't the fault of our contractor but nonetheless you need someone who will be on top of what things are arriving at what time and someone who can schedule your sub contractors (such as the electricians or plumbers) to be there at the right times. You need someone who can take charge of a situation when there is an error and make sure things get fixed and back on track rather than sitting on the situation for a couple weeks, doing nothing.

Which is why the next tip is . . .

4. Consider being your own general contractor. A general contractor typically charges another 10% of construction cost as his fee and if you want to save some money this would be a good place to do it. If. Did you hear that? I said "IF." If you are organized, if you have a bit of time to devote to things during business hours while the project is going. If you can get things done and move work forward and if your marriage can survive the strain.

We considered doing this at the beginning to save some cash but then we chickened out. However, towards the end of October when the contract was coming due and still there was no end in sight we took matters into our own hands and in essence became the general contractor. Andrew ended up making those calls to the subs to see when they would have materials in and time to install, he was the one who ended up checking on materials to see if they'd arrived in town and we ended up taking on any parts of the project that we could easily do ourselves--caulking, painting, staining, clean-up, etc.

We really should have been our own generals on this and just subbed out all the labor that we couldn't do ourselves--like the framing, electrical, plumbing, cabinetry, flooring, etc. and it would have saved us quite a bit of money. Our contractor wanted to do a lot of the specialized work himself so as to collect the labor fees for himself (makes sense right?) except that he often got in over his head and ended up running around to look for someone else to do the work at the last minute which wasted time.

5. Look for subs that do quality work. This may sound like a big "duh" but you want sub contractors who are competent and reliable about being there when they say they'll be there. Our electrician--J & L Electricians--was really quite good about getting the work done on time and Cassidy Plumbing was too.

I was, however, quite unhappy with Lowe's, whom we ordered our carpeting from--I'll never make that mistake again. I guess that's what comes from trying to cut costs by going with a less-expensive flooring dealer. They botched our order a couple times so that I had to keep coming down to the store to rerun our credit card and pay for the order all over again, they had the hardest time ordering the carpet properly and then when it came time to install there was horrible confusion about which installer was to show up and then we had two crews here, one of which was telling us that our order had been messed up and there wasn't enough carpeting to complete the project (their error, there was plenty of carpet).

The install took two days instead of the one day they'd scheduled for us--which somehow made our installer grumpy as if it was our fault and not Lowe's--and then as the installers were leaving they informed me they wouldn't be putting our closet doors back on because the doors wouldn't fit over our fatter, fluffier carpeting and we'd need to cut the doors down. After he left, on a whim I tried fitting the doors back on myself to check his assertion and sure enough they went on just fine, he'd just been too lazy to even try putting them back on.

Tips for Remodeling Your HouseOur cabinet maker was perhaps the biggest part of the whole affair because each section of the remodel had huge custom cabinetry. Nowka (pronounced Nahf-ka) Cabinetry took it on and did a great job. I'm very happy with the results--they were pretty slow at times and rarely showed up exactly when they said they would--but their work was wonderful. Check out these handles they designed just for the project:

6. Look for tricks to cut costs. It's important to be aware of where you can cut costs in a project. For example, when originally designed the addition called for these floor-to-ceiling solid beams from the Tongass forest in southeast Alaska. I loved the idea of Alaskan wood in our addition and was all for it--until I saw the $14,000 price tag. Gulp. Thanks but no thanks. We worked around them and saved thousands of dollars.

Then there are the gigantor windows in the front. Anything large and custom will be expensive and we didn't want to scrimp on the size but the original plans called for the lower halves of the windows to be sand-blasted. Beautiful, no? But terribly expensive. Instead we were able to order plain old regular vinyl windows and then called Eagle Glass Enhancement to install a special film over the insides of the windows to create that sand-blasted effect. A fraction of the cost with the same outcome.

And I should mention that the two women running Eagle Glass Enhancement were amazing--of all the artisans and subcontractors we had coming and going they were the ONLY ones who were always on time. Never once did they stand us up. Andrew thinks it must be because they were women but I think he's just trying to score points with me by saying that.

This is just one more place where an architect is invaluable--they're trained to know about these tricks and the corners you can cut.

Tips for Remodeling Your House7. Look for focal points. But, having said all this, look for places where money is well-spent. For example, not only is lighting a critical element of your design--whether it's using your natural lighting to the best advantage or using artificial lighting creatively to supplement--it is often a focal point of your home.

We may not have opted for fancy wood beams from Tongass but we chose to spend a little more than we normally would have on unique lighting systems such as these ceiling lights for the kids' rooms.

Made in Spain they were nearly impossible to get here and we waited for months for them. I told Andrew I really did not want to know how much they cost because I'm sure that it would keep me awake at night--ignorance is bliss you know?--but save money in some areas to be able to create focal points in others.

You won't find a light like this at Home Depot--it's just too cool for words. And the effect it creates in the room is absolutely unique.

Tips for Remodeling Your House8. Dare to be different. And finally my last bit of advice would be "dare to be different." Who cares if no one has ever bought black carpeting before? Who cares if you're the only house on the block painted "French Beret"?

The world could use a little more variety so learn to think outside the box. Just because your neighbors put vinyl siding on their house doesn't mean that's the only thing out there--Black + White told us you can cover a house with anything you can glue or nail to the walls including but not limited to: sheets of aluminum, glass tile, concrete, even that composite decking material called Trex. Why not?

Besides, it's kind of fun to have cars slow down as they drive by our house.

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Technorati tags: architecture, remodeling


Tim Appleton (Applehead) said...

This list is a great reference for planning your remodeling or building project, for both the experienced and inexperienced. Thanks for sharing all your knowledge with us.

Peruby said...

Ah, yes. Mantra around here is "Stay away from Lowe's!"

Anonymous said...

I am trying to figure this out does each kid get there own 'work station' in the new edition?

tjhirst said...

It's been great to read you experiences all the way through the process. And I second the #1 point - Hire an architect. What's funny is that realtors make about the same percentage just selling your home. Kind of twisted isn't it?

Steph at The Red Clay Diaries said...

"Captain Confidence" - I love that. I think it could probably be MY nickname too.

I LOVE the lights. (Forgot to say that in my last comment.) I'm like that too: spend a little for the cool factor.

Mrs. Organic said...

These are all great tips and I've loved watching the progress on your project. It really turned out great. I love the cabinetry.

Chrissy Johnson said...

How lovely! It's hip and warm at the same time.

Although, I'm a bit ashamed to admit, I thought you meant Black + White, like the clothing line in your last post. I need to read your entries more thoroughly. Really, really wonderful list!

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to see if the Black & White Archecture Company charges everyone 10% or if they just did that because of how many times you are mentioning them in your blog. Free advertising goes along way, but if it works it works!

Scribbit said...

Actually, good question--but they gave us their price before they ever knew I had a blog so I would be confident in saying that's their fee for everyone.

Stacie.Make.Do. said...

Your house looks great!
I hope you don't mind if I add that you need to make sure your architect can do the engineering if need be (which depends on the size/scale of the job - and local building codes, etc.). My bro hired an architect to design a new porch for him (and it looked great!), but then had to have it structurally engineered also so it wouldn't fall off his house or sink.

Gray Matters said...

What an incredible and resourceful list - the house we just bought is the first home we've lived in that won't require major remodeling work. I'm a little bummed because I really enjoy the process, but with 3 little ones 4 and under, it's probably best we don't have to deal with mess now.

Heather said...

Good to get your tips. I'll keep this post for future reference!

katkins said...

It looks cool, I'm envious. We had a little detour to Spain along the way to meeting with Black + White, but we hope to get back on track before too long. We coulda picked up those lights for you...

Stephanie said...

I like the "Dare to be different" advice. I love it when I see new and out-of-the-box decorating ideas. I'm afraid that I'm typically more the "cut-out-of-a-magazine-and-copy" type when it comes to decorating, but I love it when I see people who "take risks" with home decor.

~TAMY 3 Sides of Crazy~ said...

Oh Michelle if you're the captain, I'm the co-captain waiting to take your command. I'm the queen of do-it-yourself. When the words, it'll be easy leave my mouth, hubby walks in the opposite direction as fast as he can!

Amelia StoryGirl said...

Love the finished design on the front of your house. My husband loves this kind of contemporary look. Congrats on the finished product!!

Shalee said...

All I can say is that you are a braver woman than me. The idea of remodeling makes my eye twitch and my skin clammy. But I must say, Michelle, that though you've had your times of frustrations, you still handle all the mess and changes with grace and style (even if it's after the fact). :0)

I love your last point the most. It's nice to be ourselves, no matter what traditions tells us to be. Like you, I don't mind if people stop and stare a little bit at my being different.

Janet said...

Marvelous advice. I may have mentioned this before, but around here, Lowe's is nicknamed "Slow's." But it's beautiful in spite of them. I know you'll enjoy living in the space.

HomeSavvi Team said...

Great advice! Along with Finding a Contractor, I'd recommend checking up on a contractor's references, contractor's license, and whether they're included in any associations. You might enjoy this article from last year, about Remodeling Parties.