Part 9d: So You Want to Buy a House and Fix It Up? Thirty Suggestions for Survival
[30 suggestions over 10 sub parts, starting with Part 9a. -ed.]
10. Look for the big picture
The mistake I made with our renovation was to leap in, rather than step back, take pause, and consider as many options as possible before making any major decisions. I recommended an initial job to my wife — redoing the drainage — that although reasonable enough in itself, was a decision made in isolation that closed the door on other options later. My wife and I should have talked to more people up front, especially construction industry professionals. I didn’t foresee the extent to which the renovation would evolve, and I didn’t have much of a plan. In short, I didn’t look for the big picture.
When we had the drainage redone, the drainage company, quite rightly, installed the perforated drainage pipe just below the level of the original basement slab, near the base of the foundation walls. The problem, I later realized, was that this initial decision married us to those foundation walls. And, as it later turned out, the walls have no footing beneath them, a footing being a horizontal expanse of concrete designed to displace the weight of vertical foundation walls (imagine an inverted concrete ‘T’), and a house above. No footing — common for houses in Vancouver of a particular age — means that adding additional weight, such as a second storey addition, is risky because it can cause a house to sink, or go off kilter, and therefore it’s not something a structural engineer is likely to approve. In our case, the problem was further compounded by the fact that the foundation walls don’t extend down to the hardpan, the hard-packed clay layer about two-and-a-half feet down in our part of Vancouver. The walls rest on material in the layer above — softer, more compressible, more water permeable brown soil.
The foundation walls also extended only an additional six or eight inches below the level of the original basement slab. What this situation meant when replacing the slab was that we couldn’t excavate very much soil beneath the house, and the new basement slab, although constructed to modern standards, is no lower than the old basement slab — and it couldn’t be any lower anyway, because of the height of the drainage pipe — leaving the headroom in the rental suite at around seven feet, a foot less than the standard eight.
A much better approach than the ass-backwards one I instigated would have been to jack up the house and support it on blocks, completely demolish the old foundation (slab and foundation walls), excavate down to the hardpan, pour a new foundation to modern standards, and redo the drainage at the same time. We would have had a full-height rental suite, and the option of a second storey addition at some future date. Despite that initial, fateful drainage decision, we could have gone this route, but it would have meant sacrificing a one-year-old, $11,000 drainage job, which wasn’t something we could stomach.
Prior to making any major, house-related decisions, even a casual chat with a competent construction industry professional could have alerted us to the issues.
Here are some similar ass-backward scenarios to avoid:
• Re-roofing a house to which you subsequently add a second storey.
• Painting a house that you subsequently re-side. (We caught ourselves out on this one as well.)
• Replacing windows and doors in a house that is then redesigned by an architect, which often involves changing the size and/or position of windows and doors.
• Replumbing a house and then later renovating kitchen and bathrooms, including moving fixtures.
• Finishing a basement and then discovering the foundation should have been moisture proofed.
• Drywalling a basement ceiling as part of installing a rental suite, and then discovering you should have installed soundproofing in the joist spaces above the drywalled ceiling.
• Doing some quick, cheap, do-it-yourself redecorating or light renovation upon first moving in — vinyl flooring or peel ’n’ stick tiles, cheap light fixtures, cheap kitchen cabinets, amateurish tiling and wood trim, and so on — which then looks tawdry in comparison to better quality work done later by professionals.
• Leaving an unused chimney or masonry flue in place, which sabotages floor plans and gobbles up precious square footage while you renovate around it. (This one we did get right, removing our unused masonry flue as part of our renovation, but we vacillated a lot over whether to take on the extra cost and mess.)
• Not doing any seismic upgrading while a house frame is exposed after gutting. (This one we also got right, at least to some extent. I discuss seismic upgrading in a separate section below.)
• Re-sodding a lawn, or doing other landscaping or making garden improvements, prior to exterior renovation work that involves large stacks of lumber sitting on lawns for weeks, and big, size-12 work boots tromping through flowerbeds. (Us again.)
Most of these mistakes would seem easy to avoid, but only if you are truly able to see the big picture from the start. In an unfamiliar realm, many of us can’t, not without first gaining some experience. In general, we tend to get embroiled in our lives, staring out at time horizons that vary from a couple of days to a few weeks. We often don’t know what’s really possible, or preferable, or what constitutes the most efficient use of time and money. We make decisions based on incomplete information, or an incomplete vision.
If my wife and I had made our initial job the search for a really good general contractor, and perhaps an architect, our renovation from earliest planning to final completion would probably have taken a year, instead of dragging out for three, would have been much less stressful, and would have added future possibilities rather than taking them away. All for about the same money, especially if you factor in the two additional years of rent we would have collected.
11. Find a really good general contractor, one you can trust
When it comes to general contractors, take what I’ve said about the importance of finding a good home inspector, and multiply it by ten. In Make it Right, Mike Holmes states, “next to you, the most important person in your renovation is the general contractor.” And he is right. If you do nothing else, do this one thing correctly and it likely won’t matter. Because you’ll have hired a really experienced person to do all the worrying.
We made what turned out to be a disastrous decision with the first general contractor we hired — and subsequently fired. We figured out fairly quickly how badly we’d gotten it wrong, and acted relatively decisively to remedy the situation, but not before we’d wasted $25K on poor quality work that had to be redone. We also lost $15K in rent we weren’t able to collect on the unfinished rental suite because getting rid of the first general contractor, and finding and waiting for a new one during the height of the construction boom, stretched out the renovation by an additional year. Dollars aside, our poor hiring decision added a huge amount of additional stress to an already stressful situation.
Conversely, when we found an ethical, competent general contractor, and he and his crew eventually went to work, nine-tenths of the problems just melted away.
How can a general contractor help?
• A general contractor will have a master plan in mind, and can see all the moving pieces and how they fit together: organization, scheduling, daily supervision and management, why it makes more sense, and is more cost effective, to do one thing before another or to do certain things together (sequencing). Based on plenty of past experience, a good general contractor can see three steps ahead, whereas a relatively inexperienced do-it-yourselfer, or first-time renovator, generally cannot. It’s the difference between driving a treacherous stretch of mountain highway the first time, versus the one hundredth.
• A general contractor is connected to a network of people in the building trades and larger construction industry. Our good, second general contractor told us that it had taken him twenty years to assemble his group of trades — framers, plumbers, electricians, drywallers, finish carpenters, painters, spray foam insulators, even the guy who specialized in laying vinyl on outside decks. He’d gone through a lot of unsatisfactory people to arrive at the solid group he can now call on. He also had connections to good structural engineers, and probably architects as well. As a homeowner trying to act as your own general contractor, you might have two or three word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family — whose standards and requirements may differ from your own — but for many aspects of a large renovation project you may have to resort to the Yellow Pages, and perhaps querying companies on the Better Business Bureau’s web site. Not a very reliable method for finding good people. (The trustworthiness of the Vancouver BBB has been called into question. See the CBC link at the end of this section.) If you’ve encountered some of the mediocre tradespeople who are out there and operating, you’ll understand the trepidation I felt, the acid in my stomach, every time I had to open the Yellow Pages and roll the dice. And during a boom, it’s very hard to get any tradespeople, good or mediocre, to show up or take interest in your one-off job. Why? Because the general contractors and larger construction companies with whom the tradespeople have a longstanding business relationship are their first priority. And you can’t really blame them. In a notoriously cyclical industry, that’s where the best chance of steady work lies, or at least some work in the lean times.
• A good general contractor knows the local building code, and the inspectors. The inspectors know the general contractors, and the quality of their work. Good general contractors are going to have far fewer failed items on inspections, and far fewer challenges from inspectors over construction details that may be open to interpretation. Inspectors know good general contractors aren’t trying to evade building code requirements, and therefore the whole inspection process — which on a larger project involves multiple inspectors and multiple inspections — goes much more smoothly. There’s much less chance something will have to be ripped apart and redone.
• A general contractor has access to a greater range of building supplies, some supplies of better quality, and commercial supplies, not generally or easily available to the homeowner. Typically, general contractors deal with building supply companies and lumber yards, not with the neighbourhood Rona or Home Depot, although they may deal with the consumer-oriented, big box stores for certain items, or on an occasional basis for time savings.
• A general contractor gets building supplies, bathroom fixtures, kitchen cabinets, flooring, even appliances, at the contractor’s price, which can be anywhere from 10% to 40% below the regular retail price. Suppliers give this discount, again, because of a business relationship, one that equates to an ongoing volume of sales, and also because much of the time and hassle, the overhead, of dealing with the homeowner inexperienced in construction matters is absorbed by the general contractor, not the supplier. This discount is not going to be passed directly to you, but some of it can be, depending on the type of contract you have with the general contractor and whether or not the person is ethical. If a renovation contract stipulates cost of labour and materials plus a 15% contractor’s fee, a 20% contractor’s discount on materials still leaves you ahead ($100 x 0.8 x 1.15 = $92). What you have to watch out for is double dipping. The unethical contractor who gets a discount, charges you full retail price, and then adds the 15% contractor’s fee. Seeing the actual invoice from the supplier can help in this regard.
• A general contractor knows what constitutes a reasonable price, or at least the current market price, for subtrades like plumbers and electricians. This knowledge protects you from gouging — the inflated prices that some subtrades charge when dealing directly with homeowners.
• A general contractor knows what constitutes a reasonable standard of quality. With certain general contractors — the ones you want — the trades know they’ll be called on sloppy work, and may be risking future work if they let standards slip. Some tradespeople may be tempted to cut corners when working directly for homeowners, under the assumption the homeowner won’t know the difference.
If you really know what you’re doing, and you have the necessary time and energy, you can act as your own general contractor and probably save some money. For the other 99% of people embarking on a major renovation, finding a competent, trustworthy general contractor is absolutely the way to go.
Inspecting a House: A Guide for Buyers, Owners, and Renovators, by Alan Carson and Robert Dunlop. Toronto: Stoddart, 1999. Part Two provides a good overview of home renovation, and includes a section on the pros and cons of hiring a general contractor versus going it alone.
“Better Business Bureau accused of biased ratings”, CBC News, 23 Nov, 2010.
12. Consider hiring an architect and a structural engineer
Depending on the size or complexity of a renovation, or the existence of any special requirements, in addition to a general contractor, it may be advisable to engage a couple of other construction industry professionals: an architect and a structural engineer.
A good architect understands possibilities. He or she can look at an existing structure and see how it can evolve into something more usable, better suited to the occupants’ particular lifestyle, and more attractive to look at, both inside and out. Better traffic flow, rooms better sized for their purpose, more efficient use of space, better noise control and privacy, smarter storage solutions, better light (natural and artificial), better integration with the outdoors, exciting and interesting use of finishing materials and finishing details, and an overall harmonious feel, are all qualities that an architect can bring to a renovation. Attempting a second storey addition, or a rear extension, without using an architect or a designer, is risking joining the legions of the lumpy and the visually unappealing. Without an architect, your new layout may be less than optimal — or you may not even realize that moving a wall or two can make dramatic improvements.
We didn’t use an architect when we redid the layout of the rental suite, and we really struggled with the size and placement of the two bedrooms, and the bedroom closets. Partly owing to the City’s refusal to let us alter the size and position of two side windows, we were stuck with either one inappropriately large bedroom, or two small bedrooms. We eventually decided on two small bedrooms as the better choice from a rental return standpoint, and the result is reasonable, but not ideal. Once beds are in place, moving around the rooms is pretty tight. We also changed aspects of the overall suite layout several times, some of the changes mid-stream. Hiring an architect probably would have helped.
An architect, or the City, may require that you hire a structural engineer. You may want to hire one, regardless. Details like the placement of load-bearing walls, the adequacy of foundation support, the necessary size and placement of beams, the allowable span of joists, roof design, and in a place like Vancouver, seismic considerations, are all the purview of the structural engineer. The structural engineer is concerned with the skeleton of the house, the bones, ensuring that it’s strong enough to withstand the force of gravity acting upon the overall weight of the house and its contents, and additional loads like snow, and also the lateral or shearing forces of an earthquake, or depending on where you live, a hurricane, should one occur. Competent builders understand these issues as well, but the degree of specificity required, and the need to engineer an entire structure as an integrated unit, go beyond the expertise typical for a builder — especially for structures that are more complex.
An architect and a structural engineer don’t just disappear once the plans are drawn up. The architect, especially, often continues to act as an overall project authority, working with the general contractor to ensure that the renovation yields the intended results. And the structural engineer checks back at regular intervals, performing inspections to make sure the structural elements are built as specified. These multiple layers of oversight, and complementary forms of expertise, can go a long way toward avoiding the type of renovation and construction disasters we’ve all heard about, or personally suffered through.
Again, as with a home inspector and a general contractor, if you’re going to hire these professionals, it’s crucial that you spend whatever time and energy are necessary to find good ones. Don’t rush the decision as I did when hiring the structural engineer for our reno, and then spend the next six months or a year regretting it.
13. Get permits
People who don’t get permits, and attempt to evade city inspectors, aren’t screwing the City, they’re screwing themselves. Okay, there may be some small jobs that technically require a permit, where the hassle and expense do seem unwarranted, but for renovation work of any significance, getting a permit, quite apart from being the law, makes a lot of sense.
Permits and inspectors provide an important layer of protection against substandard or even dangerous work. Is unpermitted electrical work done under the table really a deal? Or a basement reno with incorrectly installed insulation and vapour barrier that breeds mould? While there are plenty of stories about obdurate, hair-splitting inspectors, in general they’re a reasonable bunch, and a valuable resource. Having an experienced set of eyes review the work as it progresses protects against ineptitude, or shortcutting associated with greed. During the early stages of our reno, the dialogue I had with the building inspector helped expose our first general contractor for the borderline conman that he was.
If you’re doing the work yourself, an inspector can answer questions in advance, before you do the work or commit to a particular approach. A reliable method for passing an inspection is to ask the inspector how the work should be done, and then following the instructions.
Permits, inspectors, and inspections are an interface with the local building code and the building by-laws. Building codes are not random assemblages of arbitrary requirements. They’re a living body of best practices that develop over time in response to increasing knowledge and experience. They’re not perfect. As I’ve already described, the leaky condo crisis in coastal BC is perhaps as much a result of previously inadequate provisions in the building code as it is a result of sloppy, profit-driven building practices. But past failures and inadequacies lead to improvements in the code.
Many tradespeople, general contractors, and other construction industry professionals won’t work on a job without the proper permits. Contractors who actively dissuade you from getting a permit are contractors to avoid. Under the guise of saving you money, they’re probably trying to get away with something — which could come back to haunt you, not the contractor.
Permits also provide a record that work was done properly and to code. This paper trail can help with the subsequent sale of a house — especially in a down market when buyers have the upper hand.
Coming soon: Part 9e: So You Want to Buy a House and Fix It Up? Thirty Suggestions for Survival – Suggestions 14 – 16.
Part 9 subsections are posted every Tuesday and Friday.
Read them all before you call for the ‘dozer. -ed.