Home & Garden Columns

About the House: The Practical Realities of Remodeling By MATT CANTOR

Friday February 17, 2006

Our friends the Shnozzles (names herein will be changed to protect me, the person I’m always most concerned about) are in the throws of a major remodel and the festivities attending this blessed event are reminding me of all the things I learned back in the days when I engaged in this most cruel and unusual of professions. I’ve been giving them a little advice here and there and hearing about their woes-du-jour so I’ll pass along a few of each in the hopes that you might be spared just a little of the misery that so often accompanies the day when our houses change. 

Nina Schnozzle came over one day and said that when she visited the job-site, it turned out that a major window that looked out over the bay was about a foot too low. She was genuinely shocked and assumed that this sort of thing couldn’t happen unless the contractors were drunk or recently lobotomized. It wasn’t necessarily so, I told her and continued to iterate the well known capabilities of this particular contractor (who charges all the arms and all the legs). That’s just the way it is. 

Contractors make mistakes, everyone makes mistakes. Not all of the time and everywhere but some of the time here and there. Therefore, I said, and this applies to all of you as well, keep an eye on the work. Go there often, being sure not to get hurt or get into fights with the help and look. Do not be afraid to ask if the light fixture is where it is supposed to be. It’s not an extraordinary question. If things look wrong, you might well be right and you might also be doing the contractor (and yourself) a big favor by point it out earlier in the process than they might otherwise figure it out.  

Contract work proceeds in phases and the earlier one identifies a problem, the easier and cheaper it is going to be to fix. In fact, if you find a mislocation or improper choice of some other type late enough, it might not be reasonable to fix it at all, given the expense and complexity. 

Construction is sort of a layering process. We being with ground-work, staking out the earth and deciding where things will end up being located. Mistakes made at this level can result in violations of set-backs that can result in having to tear off exterior walls and rebuild them. This is really expensive and you don’t want this to occur. 

Cities can be forgiving but they don’t have to be. Assuming the site work is done properly, foundations are dug and formed with reinforcing metal laid in place. This too must be laid out properly and inspected fully by the city because it is very hard to remove and replace a foundation once it has been poured. Next comes framing which is generally wooden and takes days or weeks to install and is followed by wiring, plumbing and heating. 

When we have the sheetrock in place and someone says, “Hey, that window is a foot too low,” it’s not any fun at all. There are so many layers including exterior siding, trims, framing and possibly electrical or plumbing that now will have to be changed and this can cost a lot.  

Many folks will, at this point, say, “Well, too bad. It’s their own fault” and they will be right. But being right has only so much going for it. If you can smooth the path for your contractor by pointing out things that you are aware of, you might stay out of trouble or at least lessen the trouble that is almost synonymous with remodeling a house (especially one you’re living in). 

If the contractor has the sense that you are on their side, you will be welcome at the jobsite and your participation can be beneficial in other ways. Contracts rarely give us a sense of all the small design details that make up a house, such as the way a trim is crafted and installed by the carpenter. If you see these in the early stages and don’t like the detail, it might be very easy to change them. If you only seen them after a thousand board feet have been installed, it can be very expensive and much less friendly.  

This is, however, very tricky business. It is important to keep a constant sense of friendliness present in these interactions, with compassion and respect. If these things are not present, it is very easy for the contractor to begin pointing out the limitations of the contract. It is likely that your preferences were not all written in and that the contractor has a certain amount of latitude in doing things the way that they prefer. 

This is a hard nut for many homeowners to crack. They assume many things and if it’s not in the contract, the assumption may be worth nothing. Therefore, calm, friendly exchanges are worth gold. Also be prepared to pay a change order fee if you want something different as you move along and it wasn’t specified in the contract. 

Be cautious about saying, “Well, I though it would so and so.” You will not be in a defensible position and you may find yourself shutting down the lines of communication. You may also end up getting passable work but not the kind of quality that this contractor is capable of and only provides when he or she is feeling appreciated. This is true for all of us, isn’t it? I certainly do better work when someone is stroking my ego and staying on my good side. 

So keep in mind that your contractor is, like you, just human, and that a little vigilance and a lot of pleasant communication will always produce a better finished product. 



Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor, in care of East Bay Real Estate, at realestate@berkeleydailyplanet.com.?