Part 9e: 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.]
Even with the best people working for you, you still need to inspect the work closely, and regularly — ideally daily, so you catch any problems or issues before they magnify, or before they get covered over with subsequent work. Nipping problems in the bud is typically a lot less expensive and less time consuming than trying to fix them retroactively. And requiring that contractors or tradespeople fix deficiencies while they’re still working on your job, and before they’ve been paid — in other words, while you still have direct, face-to-face communication, and some leverage — is much more effective than attempting to call people back. Of course, some problems emerge only after the fact. Reputable contractors and trades will come back and fix problems promptly, and usually graciously. But even the best may need some nudging. In which case, persistence and psychological tactics may be required. After a year and a half of sporadically trying to get a tiling company to return to fix a problem, dealing primarily with the sales guy, I eventually phoned the owner and told him I was “frustrated and disappointed.” Translation: We’re no longer talking about the relatively minor fix. We’re now talking about your company’s reputation and what I may say to other people. That worked. Because they are in fact a reputable operator.
Scrutiny will also reveal, relatively quickly, when you don’t have the best people working for you. If you let people know, early on, that you won’t put up with second-rate work, you may see significant improvement. However, in the case of truly incompetent workers, you won’t, because they’re incapable of improvement, at least in the short term. In the case of unethical workers, you won’t, because they have no interest in improving. It’s not about the work, it’s about the money, and how quickly they can make it. In both cases you need to recognize you hired badly and act decisively. If you allow things to continue, and make excuses to yourself about why you shouldn’t fire someone, because you lack the courage to fire someone, the grief and the stomach full of bile will be all yours. Don’t do it to yourself. We learned the hard way that some people don’t deserve a second chance.
A major renovation contains hundreds of details. The average homeowner is unlikely to be knowledgeable about all of them, or even most of them. But if you look closely at things, from a variety of angles if possible, you really increase your chances of catching things, and progressively improving your eye. Something that doesn’t look right probably isn’t. Ask the question, diplomatically, and listen closely to the answer. It will typically be one of three types of response. Yes, you’re right, and we’ll fix it. No, even though it may not look right it is in fact right, and here’s the very specific reason why. No, even though it may not look right it is in fact right, and waffle, waffle, waffle. In the case of this third type of response you need to ask specific follow-on questions, again, diplomatically if possible, with the subtext being that you will no more put up with bullshit than you will second-rate work. If the waffling and lousy work continue, then it’s time to act decisively.
It is possible to be too picky. Our second general contractor, the competent, ethical one, told us about a former client who asked him if the crew would be vacuuming out the stud bays of newly framed walls prior to installing insulation. A certain amount of sawdust and wood chips, a known byproduct of cutting and drilling wood, typically collects in stud bays — that is, the spaces between the vertical 2×4 or 2×6 studs in a framed wall. A quick sweep to remove any significant accumulations is normal, but an archival level of dust removal is not. The sawdust and wood chips are harmless and are hidden forever beneath the insulation and drywall. However, the former client, even while admitting the request was probably unreasonable, couldn’t stand the idea of even the spaces behind the walls not being immaculate. The dust and chips might be hidden, but she would know. Our contractor explained that the project budget and schedule didn’t really allow for this level of obsessiveness. (He probably used a different word.) The client agreed, and spent the weekend vacuuming all the new framing herself.
Asking questions, and listening carefully to answers, falls into the larger realm of communicating. Successfully conducting a major renovation, whether you’re acting as the general contractor, or whether you’ve hired a general contractor, requires a steady exchange of detailed information among a number of parties: homeowners, spouses or partners, families, neighbours if they might be impacted by certain activities, general contractor, trades, suppliers, architect, structural engineer, and inspectors. The general contractor is the communications hub, which is why they live on their cell phones and their pickup trucks are mobile offices. If you’re acting as the general contractor, that becomes your role, and a cell phone, something I didn’t have during our reno, is going to be very useful. There are going to be plenty of real-time decisions that need to be made, and if you’re unreachable, the decisions will often be made for you, sometimes not to your liking.
But communicating isn’t fundamentally about communications tools. It’s about ensuring, on a daily basis, that timely, complete, and accurate information is transmitted and received. And the basis for that requirement comes back to being informed. The homeowner is the decision maker, and good decisions require good information. So don’t be shy about asking lots of questions, well in advance of critical decisions, and asking that unfamiliar construction terminology be explained. Once you understand the terms, you’ll be able to use them yourself, realize the usefulness of a specific and succinct way of referring to a particular construction component or detail or process, and communication, especially over the phone, when you can’t point to things, will be much easier and more reliable.
Don’t assume your wishes will be known. You need to make them known, in concrete terms. Contractors and tradespeople have to keep moving. It’s how they make money. If the marching orders are vague or non-existent, they’ll take their best guess at what they think you want, or what, in their experience, makes the most sense. Better that they know exactly what you want based on detailed prior discussion.
Spouses or partners also need to communicate on an ongoing basis throughout a reno. You’re not going to agree on everything, but those disagreements need to be reconciled before you start issuing directives to a general contractor, or an architect, or tradespeople. Mixed messages from twin decision makers can be problematic.
16. Document everything as you go
Keep a good record of all renovation work. Save all plans, permits, invoices, and any other associated paperwork. Take before, during, and after photographs. Take photographs of walls after all systems work is complete, prior to drywalling.
A good record of a renovation serves several purposes. There’s nothing like a photograph of wiring or plumbing or gas lines to assist with subsequent maintenance, repair, or alteration, or to reduce the chances of hitting something vital when drilling into walls or ceilings to attach things. If you’re planning a phased renovation, photographs of underlying framing and systems can be very helpful to an architect, structural engineer, or general contractor working on subsequent phases, or to you, if you’re doing future work yourself. Old invoices serve as a good benchmark when assessing quotes for new work, or the cost of materials. If you resell your renovated house at some point, you can package everything in a renovation binder that illustrates and documents exactly what work has been done and at what cost — evidence to back up your claims about the house, and increase the confidence of prospective buyers. The package will also be very useful to new owners as they become familiar with the house. And before and after shots can be interesting and enjoyable to look at, a gallery of the possible, of dramatic alteration.
Coming soon: Part 9f: So You Want to Buy a House and Fix It Up? Thirty Suggestions for Survival – Suggestion 17. Seismic upgrading — the cheapest insurance you may ever buy
Part 9 subsections are posted every Tuesday and Friday.
Read them before you try to bolt your own foundations. -ed.