Your chaos is their gain.
Renovators feast on clients who don’t know what they want. “I want to fix up my kitchen” is not a renovation plan; it’s a recipe for disaster. A reputable contractor will discuss the exact specifications of the job before a deal is made. But many others will give an estimate based on what they think you want done. Work then is almost guaranteed to cost more.
The more detailed you can be about your desires, the easier it is to compare quotes. If the cost seems overwhelming, remember you don’t have to do everything at once. “Lay out what you want to do, then prioritize,” advises Paul Gravelle of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association (CHBA). A detailed plan will help you schedule the work in small, affordable stages.
Help is available, some of it for free. The CHBA web site (www.chba.ca) has a Home Renovation Resource Centre that’s full of good advice and printable work sheets. And some suppliers offer no-charge design consultations if you buy your materials from them. Argue was able to work with a Home Depot kitchen designer for free because she ordered her new kitchen cabinets from the reno chain.
Things most renovation companies won't tell you
If you’re having a hard time visualizing what you want, consider hiring a registered interior designer instead of an architect. These professionals are sometimes less expensive and trained to marry your desires with your budget, and they can often handle the structural planning for even an extensive addition.
While designers’ fees vary widely, you should expect to pay seven to ten percent of your overall construction costs to the designer; the larger the job, the smaller the percentage. Insist on someone who belongs to the interior designers’ association in your province. Log on to www.interiordesigncanada.org for more information.
A home inspector can be your best friend.
Like many folks, you might have hired a home inspector before you bought your house to ensure there was nothing seriously wrong with it. But some inspectors are also available for prerenovation consultations.
They can assess your home’s condition before you start planning or advise you on how to make that new addition structurally possible. Your home inspector can also help make sense of different estimates, assessing each quote and translating the jargon into plain English.
An inspector can visit your job throughout the renovation to ensure it’s being done properly. And when the renovation is done, the inspector can eyeball it for potential problems before you hand over the final cheque to the renovator. Fees for a simple inspection usually don’t exceed $500.
Hire a renovator with professional qualifications.
“Anybody can grab a hammer and call himself a builder,” says Brent Cliff, president of the Fredericton Home Builders’ Association. But how can you tell who’s qualified and who’s not? These tips may help:
Judge them by the company they keep. In most parts of Canada, home renovators don’t need a license to ply their trade. At a minimum, you should insist that a contractor produce a GST registration number or business number. Ask for proof of insurance. Inquire, too, about whether a contractor is a member of local, provincial and/or national home builders’ associations. Many of these groups require that members sign a code of ethics and will field client complaints and questions.
Use the rule of three. You should get references from three renovators before deciding which to hire, but once you have those references in hand, get on the phone and grill each of them. To help you, the CHBA web site has a printable reference-check work sheet you can use with every call. Log on to www.chba.ca and seek the on-line tool kit.
Be aware that longevity is preferred but not essential. If a renovator has been in business for years, that’s a good sign. But don’t dismiss newcomers. “Some people who are new in the business are going to cut their prices to build up a client base,” says Cliff. “Referrals are the most important yardstick.” And choose a contractor whose previous work is very similar to the work you want done.
Sometimes a quote is a guesstimate.
The best contractor isn’t necessarily the one with the cheapest estimate. A low quote may be a sign of inexperience, but it may also indicate a failing renovator who will bid low to get your gig then hike up the price as the job progresses.
One way to avoid these problems is to go to a home inspector or, if you’ve been working with an interior designer, give each bidder a copy of the renovation plan, outlining precisely the materials to be used and the amount of labour involved. This forces each candidate to bid on the same job and allows you to compare quotes.
Some designers, like Candice Olson of Toronto, work with a stable of builders they’ve grown to trust over the years. Now that she knows who the “bad guys” are, she can steer her clients away from them.
Good work needs ongoing communication.
If a problem crops up halfway through your renovation—and it probably will—you’ve got to be able to negotiate a solution. And that’s easier done with a willing communicator than a brick wall.
Finding a good fit is especially important if your renovation is going to stretch through weeks or even months. In those cases, you are going to be living cheek by jowl with your renovation crew, and it’s a lot easier to negotiate the boundaries—Are they allowed to raid the fridge? Where can they leave their tools?—if you’re on comfortable speaking terms.
You can save a bundle by pitching in.
The more you pitch in, the less you have to pay a contractor for. When working out the details of your renovation contract, figure out the parts of the job you can handle, and have the contractor do the rest. Even with zero construction experience, you can rip out carpet or swing a sledgehammer.
Rennie Soogrim had never built anything until four years ago, when he and his wife became owners of a 1960s-vintage house in Brampton, Ont. The deck was in desperate need of patching. Fearing he’d have to repeat his labours in the years ahead, Soogrim decided to replace the deck, by himself.
The key was investing a few hours in education. “I went to a couple of seminars at a home-renovation centre,” he says. “Those things are helpful, and they’re free.” If, like Soogrim, you’re the hands-on type, renovation centres such as Home Depot and Rona offer no-charge, step-by-step lessons on common renovation jobs ranging from garden fencing and decks to wall framing and fancy paint finishes.
Availability isn’t always a good thing.
Well-regarded renovators have no shortage of clients, which means they have jobs lined up for several months. Says Olson, “I try to have clients get their permit in hand one year, shop for the builder over the winter and plan for their renovation to begin in the spring.”
Every job needs a contract.
“Let’s shake on it” is the last thing you should say to a renovator. Every job must be laid out in writing in a legally binding contract. Make sure yours includes these elements:
Full disclosure. The contract should detail the scope of the renovation (including work you intend to complete yourself), what materials are to be used, as well as warranty coverage (one year is standard).
Start and finish dates. While writing estimated start and completion dates into your contract can’t guarantee when you’ll get your house back—renos almost always take longer than you expect—it at least gives you a yardstick for measuring progress.
“If you’re going in for a bathroom changeover, the project shouldn’t take more than a day or two longer than expected,” advises Fredericton contractor Brent Cliff. On a larger renovation, however, unexpected problems or last-minute additions could tack a week or two on to your time line.
Payment schedule. Insisting on staggered payments can give you the upper hand in middle-of-the-job disputes:
If you don’t like the way things are going, you can withhold payment until they’re back on track. Always pay by cheque and insist on a signed receipt. With no proof of payment, you’ll be up the creek if something goes wrong and you’re dissatisfied.
Holdbacks. If your renovator skips out on a payment for supplies or subcontractors’ services, the firms who are owed money may place a lien against your property until they get paid.
Ensure you don’t get stuck with your renovator’s debt by holding back a portion of each payment until the final job is completed. How much you should hold back, and for how long, depends on where you live, and it should be stated in your contract. In British Columbia, for instance, a holdback of ten percent of the full payment amount for 55 days is standard; in Ontario, it’s ten percent for 45 days. Check with your provincial government for details.
Permits are not optional.
If your contractor has promised to take care of your building permits, make sure he has them before work begins. Because building renovation requirements vary from city to city, check with your municipality while you’re still in the planning stages if you have any questions. If a city building inspector discovers that a permit was neglected, you could be forced to tear down your renovation. Just as grim, the lack of a permit could affect your homeowner’s insurance.
Any time you’re going through a rough patch, remember that the banging and dust will eventually come to an end. Your contractor will go home, and you’ll get your privacy back. And if you heed the advice in these pages, you will still have enough money left over to toast your new digs.