Sanity Among the Ruins of Home Renovation, Part Two

Photo by Karl Solano on Unsplash

In Part One, we covered Steps 1 through 3 of DOING your home renovation…while maintaining family sanity.

If you like starting at the beginning, feel free to read Part One. If you like background, click here…or if you want to know why you are likely to find a home construction project in your future, click here…or if you like jumping in at a super-important step, read away!

These steps address the HOW of home renovation.

Eventually everything comes down to DOING.

Step 4: Ask, “Is this project going to disrupt our family’s life?”

People usually think of “scope” in terms of project cost. That’s legitimate, but we should go a step further and ask, “Will this project interrupt my family’s daily life for more than a short time?”

Many home repair projects are minimally-invasive: a new asphalt roof, new cedar shingles on the back of the house, or the quick replacement of a faucet. Some “expensive” projects — a guest bathroom or a new room off the garage — can actually have little impact on the day-to-day life of your family.

A project that has a “low family impact” — minimal dust, noise, blocked hallways, etc. — gives you freedom of choice.

Low Family Impact Projects: Low impact projects can be done in almost any way, taking virtually any amount of time, using virtually any method, your family’s time or that of any number of contractors.

The exercise room steadily being constructed in our basement can be done by any method that minimizes cost while delivering sufficient quality.

The only real risk for me is my daughter’s complaint, “Dad, why are you taking so long?”

I can respond by saying, “It will be finished in less time than the bathroom!”

Photo by author. The basement exercise room being built by homeowner.

High Family Impact Projects: When a project will be disruptive — forcing a single bathroom to be shared by five, interrupting zoom calls with the sound of saws all morning, coating the kitchen floor with dust every day — we should choose a faster, intensive method if at all possible.

Tackle super-disruptive projects in the most effective way possible. Move them along rapidly.

Minimum Cycle Time: It is important to understand, though, that every project has a minimum cycle time.

No matter a team of painters’ expertise, the process usually takes multiple steps: prep — prime — coat 1 — coat 2 — touch-up. These can require a minimum of a few days of elapsed time, even on the tiniest of projects.

Larger projects face the challenge of multiple, integrated cycles plus inspection requirements. Many add on top of one another. Our 35-day kitchen project finished almost as quickly as it could.

Step 5: If the project is highly disruptive and/or significantly beyond what we can do ourselves, find a General Contractor (GC) recommended by someone we trust.

Be willing to wait for a great General Contractor.

Be willing to pay for the best.

The best general contractor I have found came from a reference. They had done work for a friend. I could trust the judgement of that friend because I knew them to be an exacting technical project manager.

Word-of-mouth is the best way to identify a contractor for the attributes that matter most to you.

Why?

  1. It is nearly impossible to judge contractor “quality” from anything other than personal experience or a close personal recommendation.
  2. Once a GC’d project gets underway — barring huge, obvious mismanagement — it is challenging to alter its direction significantly. If the foundation is shaky, the project will likely end up so-so.
  3. Construction markets are feeling pressures that make quality execution harder than ever: massive demand, fewer builders, lower quality materials, slow delivery times, high costs, Covid requirements, and limited construction worker supply.

In early 2021 we had to remodel our kids’ bathroom.

Everything was falling apart. Only cold water flowed at the sink. The floor tiles were so broken they were hazardous to bare feet. Mold was growing because there was no exhaust fan.

I contemplated managing the project myself but decided not to when I couldn’t secure one of the two carpenter/installers I had faith in. (They were too busy.) The market seemed so crazy that I thought I could benefit from an expert who would help navigate our current environment.

I asked my favorite GC to do the bathroom — for pretty much any price they would name.

My favorite general contractor replied to me, “I would love to help you, but my teams are full out. And I can’t recommend anyone to do a small project like a bathroom. None of those guys are any good!”

Ahh…I should have known. I reached out to multiple “small” GC’s who do work in nearby towns and my own.

Step 6: When we hire a General Contractor, get out of the way.

If you really, really can’t effectively manage or execute the project yourself, hire a GC.

Sign the contract and step aside.

Say, “Tag! You’re it!” And get out of the way.

You should be deeply engaged around design choices and quality approvals. Little else.

I knew this lesson going into my bathroom project…but still failed.

Sending out a request for bids, I provided a detailed design of the bathroom with multiple drawings, explained the materials and the finishes, and declared that I had ordered or would be ordering all the fixtures and tile. I encouraged the GC and their sub-contractors (electrician, plumber, plasterer, carpenter, tiler) to make recommendations based upon their experience and current conditions.

Only one potential GC came back certain they could do the job. Their reference list was long, and they could start in May. The price was high, but I knew that the market was crazy.

For no clear reason, May slipped into June. And if you’re in June anyway, you may as well wait to start after July the Fourth. Right?

Finally the demo happened, and the first of many hiccups struck.

The bathtub ordered to meet the mildly special requirements of the space had sat in the GC’s plumbing supply facility for almost eight weeks. When the tub was unboxed at our house, it was declared broken beyond repair. With guidance from our GC’s team, we selected another brand that could arrive “quickly.”

Thus began the odyssey that took us from July 2021 through February 2022 — for a bathroom that we had been told would take “six weeks, eight at the most.”

When you hire a general contractor, let them do the work.

  1. Tell them, “I’m excited to have you leading this project!”
  2. Meet to review the plan and agree upon the payment milestones.
  3. If you have any obligations (selecting tile, fixtures, paint, etc.), execute them ASAP and encourage the GC to own the ordering of the items. Keep any items that you personally are delivering to a minimum. The more cash the GC invests in the project, the more motivated they will be to hit their “check due now” milestones.
  4. As the project progresses, communicate directly with the GC. Encourage them to talk with you onsite. It is certainly good to speak with the sub-contractors but send each day’s exact message to the GC immediately via text: “The electrician asked how many overhead lights. I pointed to the drawings and told them ‘3’ evenly spaced along the middle of the ceiling. Thanks!” You might throw in, “I think they might have some other questions for you, too.”

There are great general contractors out there. Find them. Let them do their jobs and earn their fee.

When my general contractor and I spoke on a frigid Sunday morning about the bathroom’s last big problem, we walked through the history of the project.

It was painful to recount the amount of re-work and extra-work required due to poor short-term planning or lazy execution. We listed them. There had been problems with the wall board, wall-tile (3 re-do’s), shower hardware, carpentry (2 big re-do’s), vanity plumbing, return plumbing, electric box, and the door. That’s almost everything.

To me, the project management had been nightmarish — something that shook our sanity. The timing was terrible. The net quality was so-so. The effort I had put in was no less than if I had managed everything.

The GC, a decent person, shocked me by saying, “I agree. I wasn’t at your job site much. I told everyone on my teams to talk to you directly, rather than me. I guess they didn’t really talk much…I probably put too much pressure on my guys to do too much at once. It’s a crazy time in construction. I’ve never seen anything like it. But fortunately it all worked out fine. Your bathroom looks great!”

Despite admitting the problems, the general contractor saw no reason whatsoever to reduce his bill. With all the re-work to meet the specs I had requested — which I, of course, thought to be reasonable and largely common sense and laid out nicely with pictures in the drawings — this had become a low-margin project for them.

I could hardly bear the fact that I was paying more than $10,000 extra for the GC to have applied for the building permit, arranged for the tradespeople, and offered a bit of expertise here and there. Not much else.

That $10,000 could have accrued to the equity in my home.

The extra sanity would have been priceless.

I absolutely, positively, should have managed the small bathroom project myself.

I should have filed for the base permit, done the demo, executed some of the carpentry and all the painting, hired and scheduled the plumber, electrician, plasterer, finish carpenter, and the tiler (or maybe done the tile myself).

By ordering the big items (tub and vanity) through a local supplier I would have paid a little more. But it would have protected me if the product had to be returned for defects.

It would have taken me longer than the best general contractor but far less time than it has. The project *likely* (you can never guarantee the future) would have been far smoother and produced a more solid, beautiful, and satisfying project.

Sanely.

Over the next few years Americans will start an enormous number of home improvement projects. Once finished, these projects will make life better for our families and help increase the equity in our homes.

Completing them in these challenging times will, however, be challenging.

Homeowners should work to get as much joy as possible from these projects. They should strive to keep life sane for themselves and their families.

Happiness comes from the journey, not just the destination.

The Steps for Sane Home Renovation

Step 1: Ask, “What do we care about most?”

Step 2: Ask, “Can we do this work ourselves?”

Step 3: If we cannot readily do this work, ask, “Can we break the project down into smaller pieces?”

Step 4: Ask, “Is this project going to disrupt our family’s life?”

Step 5: If the project is highly disruptive and/or significantly beyond what we can do ourselves, find a General Contractor recommended by someone we trust. Be willing to wait for excellence. Be willing to pay for the best.

Step 6: When we do hire a General Contractor, get out of the way!

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In addition to years in product and people management, I am a veteran of decades of apartment/old condo/old house renovations in one of America’s toughest regions for construction. My family has worked for generations in the building trades.

Today I am spending most of my time writing. I would love to share insights with you!

Even better to begin a conversation.

Until then, be well!

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J. Andrew Shelley

J. Andrew Shelley

People working with people. Sure, it’s business but it’s also personal. About you and me. Book: American Butterfly on Amazon.