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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.

Five things I’ve learned in our first year of laneway living

The beginning of December marked our first full year of laneway living.  We have completely settled in, are thrilled to be living so close to our kids, and are looking forward to the coming new year of life on the lane.

Our house is a very, very, very nice house

Our house is a very, very, very nice house

During this time we have learned some very important lessons — hard won sometimes — that I want to share:

1. We did not need all the stuff we had.

Ergo: You do not need all the stuff you have. This is the hardest lesson to learn and you will never really learn it until you downsize.  Because……..

2. You will never get rid of your extra stuff until you have to

Maybe you are looking around you now and thinking that you have too much stuff.  Nah, just kidding, you are not thinking that at all.  You’ve just ditched the Christmas decorations and your place has a nice, stripped down look.  No way could you ever live with less.  There’s a reason you bought everything you own, just as there’s a reason why people gave you stuff.

Gradually you will stop using that gadget, stop wearing those clothes, but YOU DON’T GET RID OF THEM.  Because you have the space to put them.  And you tell yourself (those fatal words), “I might need that”. And into the closet or the storage room they go – to be forgotten.

So you will never realize how little you can live with until you get rid of everything (or nearly so) and start afresh.

This is an incredibly difficult thing to do.  Please don’t think I’m going to get all obnoxious on you because we are still getting rid of stuff.  We have a storage locker full of stuff we don’t use.  How do I know we won’t need it in the future?  Because we haven’t needed it in the past year.  When I was unpacking kitchen boxes at move-in I put a large salad bowl and some platters into some of our precious, precious kitchen cupboard space. And there they sit, unused this whole year.  I have to get rid of them.  But I haven’t.  Because I don’t have to.

But now I want to unpack some of  our storage space stuff and will have to have room for that, and those unused items will have to go, go, go.

Baby steps, my friend, baby steps.

3. Design trumps size

Up at the DD and DSIL’s big house BIG plans are afoot.  The kitchen and bath are being stripped back to the studs and rebuilt, fixing many problems (more on this later).  The rooms will not be any larger, but will be much, much more efficient.  Because DESIGN.

Ask anyone who lives in a mobile home or a houseboat — or even a small condo.  You can find storage room that you never dreamed of. Space for your shoes in your staircase. A lift-up bed for linens and more.  A half-height mechanical room off the deck with room for our Christmas decorations.

So if you are thinking living in a small house is just taking your current space and shrinking it, disavow yourself of this notion.  You can get your designer and builder to put in much more storage per square foot than you currently have.

4. Living outside of your house has its rewards

We used to spend a lot of time cleaning and primping our former place.  Two full bedrooms, two baths, plus a living room and two halls to vacuum.  Lots of open shelving to dust.

But now we have lots of time to spare after our clean-up routines.  Time to take walks.  Get on the Skytrain and go. Get out to the gym.  We are looking forward to some travel this year.  We’re getting lots of exercise and having fun.

5. A small home IS all you need

While the laneway was being built we used to drop by and watch the progress.  At every step, from the concrete pour for the foundation to the finishing touches on the moulding, we told ourselves that the place was going to be soooooo small.  It was too late to turn back, but we were worried that our home would be constricting and claustrophobic.

But we were wrong.

It’s cozy.  It’s comfortable.  It’s bright and cheery. When the rainy weather stops us from go out for a walk we are happy spending the day indoors — there’s space where we can each hideaway and do our own thing.

PS: The financial situation is pretty good, too

We consider ourselves pretty lucky that we found the laneway solution to living in a too-expensive home too far from family.  Every month we are just a little bit farther ahead financially, rather than the other way around.  We save on power, water, gas living in such a small, energy efficient home.  We buy fewer things (that we would end up not using anyway) because everything we bring into the place has to earn its space.

It’s win all the way.

I’ll have a small Christmas, thanks.

Holiday-Cartoon-Slideshow03-690

 

Thank you, New Yorker magazine!

The word came down from on high this year:  just one small gift is expected for our granddaughter.  And keep away from anything pink and plastic.  (“On high” is the main house where our little darling resides, and her mother gave us the word).

Speaking as a grandparent, it’s easy and fun for us to stroll the aisles at the toy store, picking out expensive and adorable toys to give DGD.  And it’s wonderful to watch her little face light up as she rips off the wrapping.

But then what?

We’ve seen it many times.  Scenes around the Christmas tree where the parents (or more usually, the grandparents) have bought out the store, wrapped them up and given a mountain of gifts to children barely able to say their address. The tykes are overwhelmed with the amount of toys.  They don’t know which they want to play with first, and which will be discarded or broken within a month.

I’ve heard the excuses “We don’t have the chance to spend more time with the kids so we want to make sure they remember us.” “I never had a lot of toys when I was a kid, and my grand-kids will never want for any!” Or the ridiculous “But all their friends have them, I don’t want them to feel deprived!”

No, no, no, and no.

You may be giving objects, but you are teaching them all the wrong lessons.

It’s hard to find data on the effect of too many Christmas presents on the young mind.  Not a lot of parents want to sign up for lab tests to determine that they are, indeed, ruining their children’s lives.  All we can do is look back on the presents we received when we were children.

Remember them?  I bet you don’t.  Oh, maybe that one year you got the exact present you wanted.  But all the other Christmases?  I’m betting you remember that game of snap you played with your grandmother; building a tower with your Dad with that Erector set; singing the old songs with the old folks, someone at the piano and the rest gathered around. I remember the smell of new books, not the books themselves. (I love books.)

We recall those goofy traditions, like everyone sitting around the tree in their pyjamas (no opening presents until Mom and Dad have their coffees in their hands) or taking a walk around the neighbourhood while the turkey roasts.

Build your own traditions.   Make your own memories.  The nicest things we get at Christmas don’t come from stores.

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