Regular readers of my column will recall that approximately six months ago, I entered renovation hell. I’m pleased to announce that by the time you read these words, I’ll be back living in my new/old house.

Not that everything is done. But we’re far enough along to have earned our Certificate of Occupancy.

Like every other renovation or new construction project I’ve ever heard about, ours was rocky, full of unexpected turns. This surprised my husband and me, especially since we spent three years planning it.

But it’s the unexpected stuff that gets you every time.

For example, we didn’t think we’d end up demolishing and replacing every single wall in the house.

And we couldn’t have foreseen taking over the general contracting job from our contractor slightly more than half way through the job, leaving him as our site manager and chief carpenter.

“General contractor” sounds like a much more fun job than it really is. According to the National Association of Home Builders, more than 50,000 individual items go into the building of a new home.

Being the general contractor means you’ll make at least that many phone calls trying to schedule and reschedule sub-contractors, order parts, materials and appliances, check on the items you ordered, investigate other items when your shower head turns out to be defective, and talk to plumbing inspectors to make sure the shower head you finally installed in fact will pass.

Despite the fact that I’ve been writing about the housing industry for the past dozen years, I was surprised by how inefficient the renovation business actually is.

Material orders frequently came in wrong, or not enough was ordered to begin with. Some sub-contractors wouldn’t talk directly to us, even though we had hired them. They would only tell the president of their company what they needed and if that person didn’t get back in touch with us, precious time was lost trying to connect and then reorder necessary materials.

One sub-contractor decided to take a pre-planned vacation in the middle of our job, even though we’d been told the job would be completed start to finish.

Despite the inevitable frustrations, there are things you can do to make your renovation flow more easily:

  • Take the time to plan it out. The worst thing you can do is dive right in and buy appliances, cabinets or tile before you’ve had a chance to work out every aspect of the design. Take the time to make as many decisions as possible before you officially break ground.

    • Hire the right team. If your renovation will require major structural alterations, or if you’re adding onto your house, you might need an architect. Unless you’re already involved in the building industry, you’ll probably want to choose a contractor and perhaps even a designer. If you’re set on doing it yourself, start with something small, like painting a bathroom and replacing fixtures, until you gain the confidence to do the entire job yourself.

    • Keep your eye on the budget. Although your general contractor may give you a fixed price, you’d be wise to ask for a detailed list of sub-contractors and their costs. Require your contractor to put all change orders into writing, so you have a paper trail.

    • Don’t pay everything upfront. Set up a payment schedule that is fair to both you and your contractors. But hold enough back to protect yourself just in case the contractor or sub turns out to be a lemon. If you pay everything upfront, you may not have enough to pay someone else to finish the job if you fire the individual half way through.

    • Get lien waivers before you pay. A lien waiver is a piece of paper in which the contractor or sub-contractor agrees to waive his or her right to place a mechanic’s lien against your property. Materials suppliers may also place a lien against your property, so be sure to get a receipt written “paid in full” or a materials lien waiver before you make your final payment.

    • Take responsibility for your project. If you don’t like how your renovation is going, and you keep silent until it’s done, you’ll either be profoundly unhappy with the end result, or you’ve set yourself up for more months of mess and expense, as things are ripped up and redone. Instead, be an active participant throughout the whole project. If you’re not living on site, visit your home at least four to five times a week. Talk daily with the contractor about how things are going, and what is getting done. Ask what help they need from you. Then, provide the contractor with what he or she needs.

If you take these few simple steps, you’ll feel more involved in your project, and happier overall with the result.

October 11, 1999