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Being part of the team — simple rules to success.

Now that you’ve found your designer and builder, and signed your contract (or at least looked it over and started negotiations), I guess you can just disappear like those HGTV families and come back when it’s all done! (Cue the OMGs!)

No.  That’s not how this is going to play out.

It gets worse before it gets better

It gets worse before it gets better

I’ve heard where people handed the keys to their decorator or builder and walked away (or stayed in a completely different city) while they worked their magic, but these people are either 1) very easy to please, or b) insane.

You have some obligations to the builder and to yourself to be around during the build.  And more.

1.) Be easy to reach.  Whether it’s asbestos in the heating, collapsing plumbing, knob and tube wiring, or a host of other surprises that won’t pop up until the walls come down, your builder will need to get hold of you.  Make sure you are accessible by cell phone or email so problems can be solved in a timely manner. What if you really are in another town?  Skype, email or phone.  And be prepared for a sizeable long distance bill.

2.) Make up your mind.  Don’t take weeks to pore over samples until you’ve made every decision.  Pick out the cupboards, plumbing features, flooring, lighting fixtures, moulding, door handles — and all the thousands of little decisions that you’ll have to make — early in the game.  These choices have to be made quite early on to make sure there are no hang-ups during the build.

3.) Be flexible.  It doesn’t matter how well you plot and plan, some things just won’t work out.  In our case it was bedside lamps we had to switch out partway through the build.  But it could be almost anything, countertop material that’s no longer available.  Flooring in exactly the right colour.  Then your builder will need to get hold of you quickly (see 1.) above) and get an alternate. But

4. Don’t change your mind.  Some things can be returned to the store.  But not walls.  Once you’ve signed off on the plans everything flows from that, the schedule, the budget, the workers themselves.  Changing your mind during the build can cause terrible delays; yes, it’s just a day or two of work, but that could mean the sub-trades are already on their next job and can only get back in their spare hours.  Those decisions should be made during the design stage.

4.) Get out of their way.  You may not have to actually leave the building — although for big renos that’s a darn good idea — but you should pack up your stuff and make sure all your shelves are cleared and your pictures and mirrors removed from the walls. Demo and rebuild can be rather seismic, you don’t want stuff crashing to the floor.  Your builder will put up plastic sheets where he/she can, to keep the mess contained, but it’s also a good idea to cover your furniture with dust sheets.

5.) Pay your bills on time.  You knew that.

6.) Leave a contingency fund.  There will be surprises — and not all of them good.  That contingency fund will come in very handy — and if you don’t spend it (although you will) you can take a nice vacation when all the hurly burly is done.

 

Get the most out of your designer — a four-step plan

designer

Step one:  Admit you need a designer.  

You may think you know exactly what kind of room/reno/addition you want.  And hey!  You can get some software for your computer to help you put together some plans.  So what do you need a designer for?  Well, do you know what size windows you can put in the room (housing by-laws have a window-to-wall ratio you must follow).  Or if you need an engineer to sign off on the removal of that load-bearing wall?  A designer knows.  Plus he/she can bring lots of great new ideas to the project that you would never think of.  So enter into your relationship with this person/team knowing that you’re doing the best thing for your future — and paying up front for a good design can save you many bucks later on.

Step two: communicate, communicate, communicate

Show the designers pictures of what you like to let them know your style and what kind of design you want.  Ask questions — don’t be afraid to question everything at any step of the way.  And let them know what you want in the big picture — not just what kind of dining room, but what you want to do with it, how often you entertain, how you envision the entire family gathered in the den.

Step three: money, honey

Let the designer know your budget at the beginning of the process.  Though you may have champagne tastes and a beer budget they may be able to provide you with some Chablis-grade alternatives.  And your designer will let you know if you can complete your entire renovation now or whether you’ll need to finish it over several stages — plus they can make sure that you’re not taking one step forward and two steps back when it comes time to continue to the next stage.

And remember to keep back at least 10% of your budget for contingencies.  I have honestly never heard of anyone who did not need that money before the project was over — no matter how precise their budget and plans were at the outset.

Step four: communicate some more

With each stage of the design process you will be defining exactly what you want and need.  Changes to the plans will cost much less than a change order at the building stage.  Plus!  Love the look of marble in your bathroom?  Knowing that at the design stage means you can look around for exactly what you want, find the best prices, and order it early in the build stage.  Knowing well in advance what kind of plumbing fixtures you want, choosing the right tile for your backsplash, having a firm idea of the flooring you want will all pay dividends during the build.

Another reason to hire a designer — you can relax, knowing that your project will be wonderful!

What to expect when you deal with a contractor

Congratulations!  You’ve found your contractor!  You are on your way to a better home!

Not exactly as shown

Not exactly as shown

What can you expect from your contractor? And what can they expect from you?

Contract.  A contract guarantees both parties know what is expected of them.  You get the assurance that the job will start on a certain date and will be finished by a certain date for an agreed-upon price.  There are several types of contracts, fixed-price, lump sum, time and materials, etc., plus various combinations of them.  Here’s an explanation of the different types and their advantages and disadvantages.  Depending on the size and complexity of your project, the contract can be very complicated or quite simple.  The important thing is that you HAVE a contract.  You should both know exactly what is being built and what is expected.  Read it, go over it line by line with your contractor, so you know exactly what you are getting.

The contract will also show that your builder has insurance, and will lay out the liability limits.

Permit.  If a contractor tells you they can do a job without a permit, think hard about hiring them.  If there will be any changes to the outline of the house (a deck, for instance), if there will be any changes to interior walls, plumbing, lighting,  make sure your contractor is doing drawings and pulling permits.  Yes, it costs you money.  Yes, it can be frustrating when the project is held up waiting for an inspector.  But permits are a guarantee that someone is watching your project.  Benevolently.  From above.

Deposit.  It’s customary to give your contractor 40% of the project fee up front. Then, when you receive the invoices for the work done (the scheduling of the invoices should be laid out in the contract), the invoice will indicate that 40% of the costs have been paid.  So if you get an invoice for $100, you will pay $60 of that, the remainder having been paid by the deposit.

Holdbacks.  These sound simple but are complicated. If your project costs more than $100,000 it’s mandatory for you to have a holdback account, where 10% of each payment you make to the builder is put aside in an account and held there until 55 days after the contract’s end.  This is to protect you — you can hold back that money if the job isn’t done to your specifications (thus “holdback” account).  It also protects the sub-contractors and suppliers because they can apply for some of that holdback money if the General Contractor didn’t pay them. It’s up to you and your contractor to include this in the contract, so talk it over with them.

Schedule.  Your contractor should indicate what job is done when.  The schedule has to have some flexibility built in, because there will be external forces at work to screw it up, whether it’s a storm that holds up deliveries or one of the aforementioned inspectors who’s sick that week.  But you should have a good estimate of who is supposed to show up when, and as the project nears completion you should be given a firm date.

Meetings.  The contract should set a schedule for meeting with the builder/contractor.  You should get together at the project once every two weeks to go over what’s been done and review any problems that have come up.

Good communication.  You should be able to reach your contractor between meetings to ask any questions you may have.  And they should be able to reach you! Problems may arise that have to have a quick answer.

 

 

Strategies for Coping with a Renovation

DD here again. We’ve been away from home for a few nights and the project at the “Big House” is underway.

For some reason, I underestimated just how stressful a renovation of this size is. Perhaps because we were able to stay in our home for the first phase, I’ve been caught off guard. So here are my top 5 coping strategies for surviving a renovation. Handy for me, too, seeing as we’ve got a few weeks to go yet:

1. Do not underestimate how stressful a renovation is!

Did I mention I’m a bit caught off guard by these feelings?

This dark photo (taken by a laneway dweller) is a hole where my kitchen was. Unexpected sadface took place when I opened it.

This dark photo (taken by a laneway dweller) is a hole where my kitchen was. Unexpected sadface took place when I saw it.

Because our reno was initially discussed for a March start, and we found ourselves with a January start, it was a bit of a whirlwind getting ready. Even without the accelerated pace, any family planning a significant reno will likely have to:

  • Find a new place to stay (we’ve squeezed into my in-laws’ condo in the suburbs), even if it’s just another portion of your existing home
  • Pack up the house, but with a fun twist (disclaimer: NOT FUN) … organizing what will be discarded, what will be stored and left unused, and what will come with you
  • Reschedule family events to sync up with the new location/being away – or plan for being without utilities (cloth diapering? yeah, let’s put that on hold)
  • Purchase items or pick out items for reno (fun at first, but it can wear you out)
  • Meet with the contractor and make big decisions about the future of your home quickly

I wasn’t prepared for how incredibly stressful this process would be. Over the holidays. With two small kids (4.5 years old and 4 months old). Thankfully, my mom lives in my backyard! Still, yowza.

2. Explain everything to the kids. Then explain again.

I have a charge ahead, think things through later approach, which means I often forget about the impacts of major life changes on the rest of the family. Don’t worry, they remind me!

My daughter misses home, and is acting out, with meltdowns a couple of times a day. And just today she turned to me and said “I miss our REAL house. Our yellow house. When can we go back to the yellow house?”

Knowing what I do now, I’d advise other parents to do a better job than we did of explaining the whole process to the kids. Try and share plans and show them materials. Show them pictures that depict what the after should look like.

Do not let your children see the house packed up, or the demo. This is something we did right, and thankfully there were no tears upon departure. We’ve also kept our daughter signed up at her daycare part-time, both to preserve the spot for when we get home, and to keep some consistency in her routine (despite the 1 hour commute, I’d say it’s worth it).

3. Dwell on the deficiencies.

Five days out of my house and I’m looking wistfully at pictures my old kitchen. So cute! So charming! So much like home. I’m … well, I’m homesick. I guess my daughter’s not the only one.

I’ve found that one of the best ways to combat this homesickness, and fear of change, is to dwell on what wasn’t working in the house before we left.

To help with this, I made a video of all the house’s shortcomings. You can view it here.

Smashy smashy! I used to make my coffee here. Now it's a giant hole. My primal brain is reeling.

Smashy smashy! I used to make my coffee here. Now it’s a giant hole. My primal brain is reeling.

And brace yourself! If you’re not home to see the demo, and your contractor (or family member) sends you photos, it can be a blow. It’s your home. There are holes smashed in it. Again, all for the best. But these things can really pack a punch.

4. Ignore the helpful comments/questions from family and friends. Instead, put them to work!

I will preface this by saying that my friends and family are AMAZING. Amazing. But even the best of intentions can lead to comments like:

  • Are you sure you want to sink all of that money into your house?
  • Why don’t you just fix the living room while you’re at it?
  • Why aren’t you taking out this wall?
  • Why aren’t you kicking the kitchen back? Just adding two feet would give you so much more space!
  • Huh, a checkerboard floor. I don’t think that’s going to age well. Why not just white?
  • Cool. A checkerboard floor. But why not just brown?

I had to quickly learn not to take these comments to heart and start second-guessing our plans.

On the other hand, my family has been incredibly helpful. My visiting aunt and uncle helped us throw a bunch of items into our attic and shift boxes around. And did I mention my mom lives in my backyard? When time was tight and we had to be packed and out, she watched both kids so we could get it done.

5. Treat yourself.

Whatever it is you need to do to look after yourself, do it. Reno time generally means time to tighten the purse strings. But don’t underestimate the power of a treat, a yoga class, a dinner out. Be kind to yourself – this is a major, major life event. If you’ve relocated somewhat far from home (as is our case), take the time to check out the local community centre, and ask around about great restaurants, bookstores, galleries … whatever might brighten your mood.

Next time I sign in, we’ll be well underway. For now, I’m going to dip into the Christmas chocolate.

Finding the help you need — contractor and designer

Congratulations!  You’ve decided that you will hire the help you need to renovate your living space.  Now you just have to find them.

build

This will probably take a few weeks (or even longer) so in the meantime be sure to browse the internet and save images of what you’ll want and need in your new space. A picture is worth a thousand words, particularly when those words are cornice, mansard, and French cleat.

In a small community you will only have the option of two or three companies.  But in a larger city…..

Don’t worry about whittling the list down just yet, just get lots of names.  Ask all your friends who have undergone renovations who their contractors are, and if they would hire them again (this helps you eliminate some of the bad eggs right away).  Go online and Google designers, builders, and design/build companies. Check out their websites — just because it’s not a snazzy site doesn’t mean they are not good contractors, but you can get a feeling about their work from what they have up at the site.

What if they don’t have a website?  Well, they are either very old-school and rely on word-of-mouth, or they are brand new to the business. Do you want to work with either of these types?

Go to the Houzz site (which you are probably visiting for reno ideas).  They can help you find local contractors/designers. 

Go to the Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association website.  Check out the Trusted Pros website for more names.

When you have a good list, run the candidates’ names through the Better Business Bureau website.  Again, not necessarily a deal-breaker, but membership is another sign the business is on a long-term professional basis.

Now comes the hard part.  Start phoning and emailing.  I recommend phoning over emailing.  If you can’t get an answer or a reply to your message how will you communicate during the build?

What vibes did you get about the company during the call?  Do they seem professional?  Are they short with you, or even rude?  Remember, you will be dealing with these folks for a long time — pleasant is what you are going for.  If they are a builder, can they recommend a designer?  If a designer, vice versa?  How soon can they begin to work on your project (no kidding, some of these people are tied up years in advance)?  Are they licensed?  Insured?  Ask for several references, preferrably some recent and some long-term.

This is where your list will be whittled down.

Make appointments with the two or three you really like.  If these are eliminated you can always go back to your list.  Do they arrive on time for your meeting?  Are they keen to do the work?  Are you comfortable with them?  Do you feel they are really LISTENING to you? Talk to them about the project.

Be sure and check the references.  Did the client like working with the contractor?  How did they handle problems that came up?  Were they easy to reach? Did they keep to the budget and the timeline?  Would they hire them again?

Look, really look at the bid when it arrives.  Does it cover the entire scope of the job?  They should also have some rough plans to show you — and give extra points if they have some ways to save you money, or how to improve the plans with a few of their own ideas.

We needed design services when we built our laneway home — more than what a contractor could provide.  So we went with a design/build company – Novell.  It worked out really well for us, and I think it’s a good idea for most people.

When the designer and the contractor have worked together before they know how each other work. And most importantly, if they have any differences YOU will not be caught in the middle.

And when the bids finally start coming in,  as this story from Apartment Therapy reminds us, remember: fast, cheap, good.  Pick two.  A good contractor can deliver fast and good, but at a premium.  Or affordable and good, but not on a tight schedule.  And no good contractor will promise fast and cheap — because you can’t get a quality job with those constraints.

At the “Big House”: Big Changes

Hello!

DD (dear daughter) of your favourite laneway dweller here.

Oh, barf. The only good thing about this tub is that my son was born here. Beyond fixing. Impossible to clean (moulding from behind).

Oh, barf. The only good thing about this tub is that my son was born here. Beyond fixing. Impossible to clean (moulding from behind).

Recently we decided to bite the bullet at the “big house” and finish off the next phase of renovations we started at the same time the laneway house was built.

If you recall, we only had enough money to finish the basement suite (half of the basement), leaving us with half a gutted basement, and lots of deficiencies in our living space on the main floor.

Vancouver is a pretty tight market, and our budget is relatively modest, so our 1950s bungalow includes some peculiarities we’d been living with for some time.

In the kitchen these are:

  • Only one drawer (forcing us to use baskets in every other cupboard)
  • Less than three feet of counter space
  • An oven with tilting elements and a door that won’t open
  • A single sink (which gets tied up every time the portable dishwasher is on)
  • A faucet that rotates when in use
  • An awesomely big, but fairly ugly utilitarian fridge
  • A door to the back deck that won’t stay closed, and sits at the top of a steep staircase (to the basement)
  • Overhead lighting that doesn’t always work (there are three lights on a track and different ones light up each time)

And in the bathroom we have:

  • A medicine cabinet with warped shelves (and UGLY.so.very.ugly)
  • A fan and vanity light on the same circuit (ugly and LOUD)
  • A tub with cracks in the bottom, and a mouldy hole along the caulk line
  • Tile with rotting/mouldy grout (moulding from behind)
  • A sink with no counter and a cabinet with doors that are falling off
To me, this kitchen almost looks charming. But! Single sink. Loose faucet. Oven of uselessness. Sticker backsplash. Nope. No.

To me, this kitchen almost looks charming. But! Single sink. Loose faucet. Oven of uselessness. Sticker backsplash. Nope. Nope. No.

So some serious issues along with cosmetic ones, including the fact that the backsplash mosaic tile in the kitchen is, in fact, a sticker (one of my interim solutions).

And by finishing the basement, we’ll be able to increase our living space by about 400 square feet, giving our family some breathing and growing room.

A few people have asked us, for the amount we’re spending in renovations, why not tear down and build a new house? Great question. Some of the reasons (in the six years we’ve lived here) include:

  • We couldn’t foresee vacating the property for the amount of time needed
  • We want to keep some of the neighbourhood’s original character
  • We don’t need a bigger house, just a smarter one
  • We didn’t have the $250,000 + ready at the outset, and now that we’ve started down renovation road, there’s no turning back

So stay tuned for updates on the progress, or lack thereof, as we work through this next phase.

DIY? Or hire a pro? Ask yourself these questions.

If, like me, you have been watching the season marathons at the DIY&HG stations, you are probably looking around your place and wanting to make a few changes.  (Unless, like me, you moved into a brand new custom-built place a year ago).

Don't try this at home, kids.

Don’t try this at home, kids.

And you may even have good ideas about what you want, and you’re feeling like maybe you can do it yourself.  How do you know if you should tackle the job by yourself and when to hire a contractor?

1. Have you done it before?  Yes, you helped your brother replace his toilet.  Sure, you repainted your summer house.  OK, you are good to go.  You know the scope of the job and you’re prepared for a realistic amount of work and mess.

2. Do you have to buy or rent new tools to perform the task?  If you’re putting in a new backsplash, for instance, scoring and clipping a few tiles to make that corner fit is something most handy homeowners can handle. Hiring a tile saw takes a little fix-it job to another step.  Drilling a hole in concrete to hold a bolt is one thing, hiring a pneumatic drill is another. Got a compound mitre saw?  It’s a pretty tricky thing to operate. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, but the more complex the tools, the more complex the job, and maybe it’s something you should leave to someone who has used those tools before.

3.  How much mess can you live with?  And for how long? I have friends who wanted a new ceiling ladder installed so they could have access to storage in their attic.  It wasn’t a big job, so a friend of a friend with considerable home reno experience said he would do it.  But he ran into problems.  And instead of asking my friends if they wanted their contractor to handle the now-larger job, he took it upon himself to do it.  Of course, he was working weekends and evenings, with the occasional afternoon work.  Short story long, six weeks later the ladder is still waiting to be installed and there’s a big ugly hole in their back bedroom ceiling.  When you DIY, you can be living with mess for weeks because the work is usually performed in someone’s spare time.

4. Does it matter if the job isn’t very well done?  Not a crazy question.  If you are having a complete kitchen reno in the next few years, just stick on some tiles on the floor and the walls and smarten the place up for a quick fix.  A cute mural on a wall that will be repainted when the child is a few years older doesn’t need to be Disney-approved.  A DIY slipcover on a sofa that will be tossed when your reno is done next year does not have to look perfect.

5. Does the pro who does the job need a license? Never do your own wiring.  Don’t do more than the simplest plumbing jobs yourself.  You are not only jeopardizing the future value to your home, you could be risking your life.

Now here’s something you may not have thought about

6. How much will the job cost? For larger jobs, you might want to borrow some money.  There’s a payoff to borrowing money for projects that will increase the value of your home (I’m talking about bathrooms and kitchens).  Not many lenders will let you walk away with their cash unless you have a professional doing the job.

7. What will it look like? Even if you are making minor design changes, I recommend hiring a designer.  Even after years of poring over design websites and magazines, I could never have found the creative solutions to our space problems that our designer did.  Unless you are an architect or a designer you just don’t have the knowledge to provide the best results.

Now we know whether or not we want to hire someone, I’ll have a few suggestions on finding the right person to help.

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