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7 Ways to Prepare to Remodel Your Home If You Act As Your Own General Contractor

You can read articles by experts on remodeling, but sometimes it’s even more useful to hear from someone who has “been-there-done-that” in terms of his or her remodeling experiences/horror stories. Real estate blogger/copywriter Dena Kouremetis and her spouse spent the past 8 years in the “slow burn” process of remodeling their home following an insurance claim that started it all. She offers some insights for those just starting their remodeling journey.

“When we started our remodel, we worried we would get ripped off, left with a shoddy job, and have to begin doubting every word a contractor told us when something started to go wrong. Yet, since we are not DIYers, we relied on what we hoped were experts in their fields to fulfill our visions, communicate at superhuman levels, and fill in all the gaps we didn’t know about construction (which were many),” says Kouremetis.

After a black-water flood prompted the couple to dig into savings to update a number of things within their 25+ year old house (while the insurance company paid to repair much of the flood damage), they went on to have their kitchen replaced with a sleek, modern design. “That was the hook,” she says. “We quickly made the decision that the rest of our house would someday have to match it.”

Since then, she says they tackled projects ranging from bathroom remodels to hardwood flooring to landscaping. She admits nothing in or about her house now remains original except for windows, roofing, and the electrical system. For each project, they acted as their own general contractors, overseeing every bit of the work, since her husband is retired and she works from home. In Kouremetis’ mind, it was a scary prospect. “Would we have done that again, if we had 20/20 hindsight? Not entirely sure. But we learned a LOT in the process.”

Kouremetis considers herself as having a “dangerous knowledge” of construction after having worked in the new homes industry years ago. She felt that if a given tradesman messed up their part of the remodel, she would be the one he would have to fear — not her diplomatic husband. “I have little patience for ineptitude and a keen radar for BS,” she says.

Kouremetis offers some words of personal wisdom, along with a few tips in order to form a more perfect union with your contractors-to-be.

1. Do you have a vision for what you want your remodel to look like, or do you assume your contractor is psychic? If you don’t identify your likes/dislikes in style, room layouts, colors, and textures before getting bids, Kouremetis guarantees you will pay more because you are making the contractor do ALL the design work, and time is money. She uses an analogy: “Imagine going to get a haircut in a salon in a city not your own for the very first time with someone you don’t know and saying, ‘Just cut it and color it. I don’t know what I like,’ then finding out after the fact that it cost $300 for their time AND your hair looks terrible.” For design ideas, she suggests Pinterest, HomeAdvisor, and Houzz as a start. Sift through websites to determine your tastes, helping you form an intelligent list of questions and design ideas. While HGTV home improvement shows can prepare you for tragedies that can affect your budget, their time frames and dollar amounts are rarely realistic in the real world. Things that look simple (like removing a wall) may cost gargantuan amounts of money and things that seem complex (like adding a window) may turn out to be simple fixes, but you won’t know until you ask.

2. Allow a reasonable length of time for this process. Become comfortable with the fact that seeing before-and-after photos of your new master bathroom or kitchen won’t happen anytime soon. Ideas take time to simmer, minds can change and couples can disagree on budgets, aesthetics and time frames. Kouremetis suggests that if you just moved into a house with the plan of ripping out an outdated but functional kitchen, wait a bit – or at least plan a stiff drink to soften your hate of its current condition. Tour a few appliance stores, paint stores, model homes, and big box home retailers. Snap smartphone photos of things you may want to incorporate into your project. Then sit down and make up a bullet list of things you want included. “Before looking for bids for our master bath remodel, we hired a plumber to identify where waste lines were if we opted to relocate a toilet,” she says. “Preparation will get you a better-run project and a better bid before you get your house or yard torn apart,” she advises.

3. Be as detailed as possible. Decide if you want structural drawings (actual measurements for everything to be done), conceptual drawings (a generally scaled artistic rendering of the idea), or just want to flesh out your idea on a piece of printer paper or graph paper with the contractor you would hire.

4. Learn some of the lingo. When you go to buy a computer, you may already know the terminology that just a few years ago seemed like a vocabulary only tech types might know. Now it’s time to learn the language of construction. Study up a bit so that when a contractor talks about shear walls, arc faults, balloon walls, trusses, or lath and plaster, you don’t have that proverbial look in your eyes that gets deer killed. The more the contractor knows you know, the more intelligently he can speak with you, and the less likely it will be that you will be taken advantage of.

5. Get referrals from friends and co-workers, but vary your sources. “We have a rule that we look for at least 3 bids and then narrow down our choices,” she says. You may have been inside a friend’s house whose remodel was to die for. They may have eagerly handed over the name and number of their designer or contractor. Even then, it’s wise to do your own due diligence about the contractor. Check on proper licensing or liens/complaints (there is a look-up tool on every state’s state licensing board website) and look for reviews of them or their company at places like Yelp.com, Google reviews, or HomeAdvisor. If there are a number of negative reviews about them but you still want to consider them, don’t be afraid to ask them about what you saw online. “If a contractor does not pay attention to what is being said about them online, it’s not a good omen in these days of social media feedback,” warns Kouremetis. You may also want to ask your favorite Realtor for referrals. Wherever they come from, these are people you may someday trust with your money, your time, and your precious home. The ideal? “If they are able to take you into the homes of people who would gladly show off their handiwork, it’s a great sign those people would use them again,” she says.

6. Communication is key. Good rapport is important, and many contractors can seem like a “good ole boy.” But how often and what type of communication they offer their clients is vital when the project gets started and money begins to change hands. “I am a fan of email instead of phone calls going back and forth. I need a contractor who uses texting at a minimum because I’m a stickler for having a written record of our exchanges,” says Kouremetis. “So I tell any contractor I am interviewing about my preferences and ask how adept and timely they are at either of them. I need to know what to expect even when NOTHING is going on.” Even if you are not the communication maniac Kouremetis is, however, think about how much you want or need to know about what is going on. Will you be there when workers are in your home or will you be arriving after they leave? Are there only certain days of the week they can be there? How does that affect their time frame? Living with zippered doors and plastic covering your life for an undetermined length of time is not a fun prospect. What about your dog(s)? Your security system? The use of your driveway or garage for a dumping ground for building supplies? There are dozens of things to talk about with a potential contractor before deciding on which one you’ll hire.

7. If you have a design in mind, tape it or mark it off. About six years ago, Kouremetis and her husband spent months working with a landscape designer they met at a garden/remodeling show. The woman drew up some preliminary design drawings for the front and back yards, but they were not to scale. So Kouremetis’ OCD husband decided to use marking paint to indicate where all the design elements would go. That proved to be a gut check. “We found that nothing she designed really worked,” she says. Grassy areas were too big. Places for outdoor furniture were too small. “We would have been crowded into only half our backyard.” On paper it looked amazing, she admits. But it was an expensive lesson working with someone who routinely left it up to her contractor to figure out the details. They paid her, but in the end, they hired a landscape architect/designer capable of not only being creative but also doing precise structural drawings of each element they wanted. After that, all the basics (patio, planters, walkways, and grassy areas) were put into place. But because they had wasted so much money on the first designer, they would not see their yard fully completed (irrigation, lighting, and plants/trees) until several years later.

Although her house and yard are now complete, Kouremetis reflects on the process: “Most contractors simply want to do an honest day’s work and continue in their livelihoods by getting you to refer them afterward. Construction and remodeling are never exact sciences, but the power is in your hands. You are the employer and it’s your hard-earned money that will be handed over. Look, research and plan before you leap. You’ll be glad you did.”

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