We Didn’t Know What We Didn’t Know

November
20
2015

 

First off, now that I’m “back”, I want to thank you all for hanging in there.  (Although truthfully most of the emails I got are questions about our Katrina Cottage – a/k/a The Crab Shack.)  It’s been a while, I know – but I just didn’t feel like writing.  And here’s why…..

As you may remember, we moved down to Maryland a year ago – and we were moving along nicely for a while with our house plans.  Then our draftsman got sick, and we didn’t hear from him for months (and months and months)!  It was very annoying discouraging.  When we did finally get them back, of course, there was another change or two we wanted done, and that took another few weeks.

House Plans

Finally the day came!  The plans were all done and we were going to give them out to three builders.  Two local regular builders and one modular.  Believe it or not, that process took much longer than we anticipated also!  The two local builders had to come to the property a few times to check out the road, or measure something, and the modular builder (who I dealt with only online) hardly ever wrote and didn’t even acknowledge receiving our plans for two weeks!

I’d say it took at least another month before we were able to make an appointment with each of the builders to go over their proposals.  When we met with the first builder, we went over each and every page, with them practically reading each page in its entirety.  When we got to the last page, our jaws dropped – over a million dollars!!  Yep, you read that right.  I mean, how stupid were we?  We never thought it would have been that much!

Now yes, this was the highest bid, and we knew it would be.  The other local builder was somewhat less, coming in around the $840,000 range.  (Between us friends – this was the one we secretly figured we’d be going with.)  And as expected, the modular builder’s bid was the least – however, they did not have a lot of things included in their price that would still have to be added in, like wood floors throughout, and granite counter tops – among many other things.

OLD HOUSE PLANS 1st FloorAfter waiting ALL THAT TIME I was so disheartened.  And I’m not even just talking about waiting for the plans to be finished and the bids to come in.  I had been working on these plans for years!  I scoured probably a hundred house plan books in libraries and bookstores, I bought at least 10 of them, and looked at thousands of plans online to draw up what we wanted in our dream house.  Then we had the draftsman draw them up, and we changed them many, many times making these some of the most expensive plans you’ll ever see.  If we only knew then what we know now!   I was done.  I just couldn’t muster any enthusiasm to continue talking about house plans.  We told the builders the bad news, we were just going to shelf everything for a while and then see what we wanted to do.  John at first thought we’d start planning right away.  But I didn’t want to.  I didn’t have the enthusiasm for it.  It was our first full-time summer down here and I wanted to enjoy it, not only getting a break from all the house plan talk, but I also didn’t want people coming down to the property all the time checking on wetlands, and height requirements, and setbacks or anything else.

By the way, here is the best piece of advice I can give you…..if you are planning to build a house – buy plans that are already made up.  You can always find a draftsman or house designer or even an architect to change them.  But drawing up plans from scratch, and then making all the changes that will be necessary is unbelievably expensive. Trust me on this one.  And by the way, we have a full set of house plans for sale. :)

OLD HOUSE PLANS 2nd Floor

So we took a break.  And enjoyed the summer.  We fished, we went out in the kayak, we took sunset cruises, we toured around the area a little, we barbecued, we had company, and we relaxed.  It was heaven!  And then we decided to get back to business.

Come back next time to see what we’ve been up to.

 

Ten Things to Discuss with your Contractor

July
24
2013

I saw an article on Houzz today, written by Anne Higuera CGR, CAPS, that I thought was very germane to my blog. She lists things to discuss with your contractor before you start any job, big or small.  People wrote in to add their own suggestions, like discuss his or her clean up policy, and ask who will be responsible for minor fixes if any damage occurs during the job. Some people suggested discussing on-site ”behavior”, one crew brought their dog to the site, and others arrived at 6 a.m., and of course we’ve all had the workers who blast the radio the minute they arrive.  All touchy subjects, but if they are of concern to you, discuss them up front.  The main suggestion was the most important, I think: KNOW your contractor.  Get his license number and insurance number.  Get referrals and call them up! Check if your state posts licenses and complaints, see if you can learn anything there. You will have these people around for a while, and if you’re building a house, like we will be, they will be around for a long, long time.  Discussing issues up front, or as soon as they come up will go a long way to having a smooth, successful reno or build.  Here is Anne’s article:

Remodeling or building a new home is a big financial and emotional investment. It can also be a big investment of your time if you want to be closely involved in the decision-making. Knowing what to expect before the project gets started will help you better prepare for the process. Here are 10 questions you should always ask your contractor before starting a home remodeling project.

Little Choptank JAN 09 007

1. What is our schedule? A schedule is more than   just a start and end date. Having a schedule that outlines tasks and timing   will give you a big-picture view of sequencing and deadlines for things such   as tile and countertops. It will also give you a benchmark so that you know   if things are slipping by a day or two.With small projects such as kitchens and baths, schedule is everything. The   cabinet lead time determines the start date and sub-trades need to be scheduled in quick succession, for instance. Don’t start without a schedule that tells you what days and times workers will be on site.

2. Who will be here every day? Depending on the size and structure of the company you hire, the answer could vary widely. Many remodelers use a  lead carpenter system, where a staff member (sometimes called a superintendent) is responsible for day-to-day work on site, and often swings a hammer as well. Ask your contractor direct questions about who will be responsible for opening and locking up, who will supervise subcontractors on site and who to call on a daily basis with any questions.

3. How will you protect my property?This is a conversation best had before demolition, not after you come home and find dust all over the house.There are a number of dust-containment measures that can be taken, and talking about it ahead of time will provide you will a clear idea of how the construction area will be cordoned off from the rest of your home and how you’ll be able to move through your house.

There’s also the issue of stuff — all the books, furniture, drapes, delicate vases and paintings on the wall.It’s helpful to remove them all from the construction zone. This includes anything hung on walls or sitting on shelves in adjacent rooms, since they can shake loose from persistent hammering.If you leave them as-is, it will cost to have them moved and moved again to keep them out of the way, and you risk damage in the process.It’s better to move it all at once and know it’s safe and sound.

4. How will you communicate with me? With every   mode of electronic communication at your fingertips, you may have some ideas   about how you would like to receive information about your project. Your   contractor likely has specific ways he or she likes to communicate, too — daily emails, cloud-based schedules or maybe just phone calls.Make sure you   understand how you will be contacted and receive information. If the contractor’s format doesn’t give you what you think you’ll need, agree on a   method and format so that you’re not in remodeling limbo on a daily basis.   Weekly meetings at a specific time are an effective way to make sure you see   your contractor in person to get your questions answered.

img073

5. What part of my project concerns you? There’s always something unknown about a project, or an area that is most likely to trigger an immediate change order. Odds are, your contractor already knows what that is. Talking about it upfront and running some worst-case-scenario numbers or doing some early, selective demolition to get more information could be the best way to get a handle on what may be ahead.

6. What will happen if there is a change order? Change orders can be easily handled in your construction contract. A common way to document change orders is in writing, where the change in scope of work and the price are noted and signed by the client and contractor. Some contracts also note the change in schedule, if applicable. Make sure you have a plan in place to document the unexpected and expected changes that happen along the way.

7. How will you let me know I need to make a decision? There are many ways to organize a list of decisions — from spreadsheets, to lists, to notes on a calendar. But all of these methods focus on the same outcome: giving you clear direction about what and when you need to make a decision on something. Asking for a list and deadlines will help you keep organized and ensure you are able to shop for materials and make decisions in time to meet your contractor’s schedule.

8. How do I reach you after hours? Knowing how to reach your contractor on an emergency basis is just as important as your contractor being able to reach you. Exchange all your numbers — work, cell and landline — so that contacting each other won’t be a crisis in itself.

Little Choptank Feb 18, 09 007

9. When do I need to be available to meet? Even if you set up a regular weekly meeting, there may still be necessary additional meetings.We usually schedule an electrical walk-through on the day the electrician sets boxes and can lights so that everyone can review their placement and function before wires are run. Another key day is when the tile-setter works on layout .There are a number of ways to set tile, and having an on-site meeting is the best way to make these decisions. It’s also possible to have your architect or designer attend those meetings in your place.

10. What kind of documentation will I receive when the project is done? Contracts frequently call out end-of-project paperwork — lien releases, marked-up plans with as-builts on plumbing and other utilities, copies of inspection reports, etc. But there may be additional items you will find valuable: a full set of mechanical photos before insulation is installed, the operating manuals for installed equipment (and a personal lesson in their operation if you don’t know the basics), a list of subcontractors and contact info, care for things such as countertops and tile and a well-marked electrical panel. Confirming that you will receive these things before you get started will help ensure   that you finish the project with all the information you need.

 

We were very happy with our builder for the garage and crab shack, but since then he and his family decided to move to Vermont!  So, when we start the house, we will be back to interviewing and vetting new contractors, and this information will be extremely handy.

Do you have any other advice, or any good (or bad) stories about your contractor to share?  We’d love to hear them.

 

Builder’s Contracts

July
15
2013

When we first decided to build our retirement house, we were sort of naive.  Sure, like most people, we’ve had some construction done on the different houses we’ve lived in, some renovating here and there.  But a whole house?

In our case, we started with the garage, then went onto the “crab shack”- which of course is a house, although a small one.  It was a good thing actually  that we did do our plan that way, because when we start on the house – probably next year -  we will be so much wiser!

Little Choptank copy 020

We didn’t realize, for instance, that there are different kinds of contracts you can negotiate with a builder.  According to Amy Johnston in her book, “What Your Contractor Can’t Tell You,” (a book I will be reviewing soon), there are about 5 or 6 different types, but to me, many are the same as each other, and some aren’t really “contracts”- but ways of building your house, such as Design/Build – which is you go to one company and they do it all, from designing the house to building it.  Or Modular Construction, where you buy from a manufacturer that builds the house in a factory, again, an option for building, but to me, not a contract with a builder to stick-build your house.  Another option Ms. Johnston mentions is Build-to-Suit.  This is where you buy a developer’s lot, usually in a community, and have a choice from houses that the developer builds.  You can customize it a bit, but basically the plan is already set.  Two that come to mind that are this type are Toll Brothers, and K Hovnanian Homes.  But again, this doesn’t seem like a “builder’s contract” to us.

Little Choptank Aug. 7-14, 09 001wtmk

For the way we want to build, there are two kinds of contracts; Time and Materials, and Fixed Bid. (Meaning we come up with the plans for the house, either from online or have a draftsperson or architect do them, then interview a few different builders, then have each one come up with a price for building the house.)

The Time and Materials type of bid, in our opinion, mostly favors the builder.  It basically is based on the number of hours it will take the builder to finish the project, plus the cost of the materials you specify. The small advantage for the owner is that he will pay for only the actual time worked.  Some of these contracts come with a guaranteed maximum price (GMP) which is a little help for the homeowner.  It specifies the contractor agrees not to go beyond a certain price. The builder may then have allowances for any unknown issues.  Also, a time limit may be written in to the contract, and the builder actually has to pay you if the job takes much, much longer than written into the contract.  Not one builder of the many we spoke with agreed with that portion of the contract.  There are too many variables to predict a building timeline, but I guess if you had to be out of your present place and into your new place, this might be an option you would want to think about adding in.

We actually used the Time and Materials contract when we had the garage built.  And believe it or not, the project came in under budget.  However, it is only a garage… and there aren’t appliances in there that I would want to upgrade, a situation that is all too common when building a house.

We also used it with the Crab Shack, since it had gone so well with the garage.  Well, this was a completely different story, and also the reason why we would not use a Time and Materials contract again.  Yes, we upgraded things as we went along, something we realized always happens.  Really, always.  Then, parts of the metal roofing were missing, and the first go-round they sent the wrong thing.  But our builder had his guys working on it, installing it before realizing it wasn’t the right pieces, and of course, we paid for that time.  Other situations like that happened.  Time adds up very quickly and adds a lot to the total cost.

The Fixed Price Bid includes the cost of performing the work, purchase of materials, plus the mark-up for overhead and profit. With this contract, we feel the advantage is more with the homeowner, since you know the cost up front, and no matter how long it takes the builder to fix issues, the price stays the same.  The disadvantage for the builder is if the job runs long, or if he has underestimated the cost.  If you have a good relationship with your builder and trust him or her, this won’t be an issue, but some contractor’s have been known to use lesser grade materials than stipulated to save costs and increase profits.  No matter what, it helps to be on site regularly to check on the work.

Stipulations can also be built-in to this type of contract, for instance, the specific schedule, or a reporting schedule, where the builder sends regular updates on work completed and even pictures.  We did this with the Crab Shack, but we plan to be living IN the Crab Shack while the house is being built, so we’ll have the advantage of seeing what’s going on every day!

With this Fixed Price Bid, the builder gives you “allowances” for your appliances and other items that must be decided upon.  I have to admit, I didn’t get what this meant at all.  I figured, it’s our money, why does the builder give me an allowance?  But I found out that you let him know up front the range you are willing to spend for your appliances, etc. and after he quotes a total price,  then he lets you know later how much you have allotted for those appliances.  I know, still kind of sketchy.  Say for instance, you specify, “medium grade granite” for the countertops, then later, when the kitchen is ready to be built, he tells you how much money you can spend on the countertops.  I guess it’s helpful, but when you go to actually chose the granite (or whatever), that’s when you (meaning I) usually decide to upgrade.

Here is the first draft of our house plans.  We’ve changed it twice already, and we already have some more changes to make.  We’ll probably do that another time or two before we’re ready to build.  You always think of things later that you should have added, or taken away, and we have the luxury of having the time to come up with the best plans we can.  And get the best contract we can.  The more decisions you have made, the better.  For you, and for the builder.

floor_plans_1st_lookI’d love to hear some of your stories, good and bad, about builders, and contracts, or your house plans and designs. Send me a comment and we’ll chat.

 

We own it!

April
23
2013

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

John and I were like two little kids!  The negotiations got a little difficult at the end, I actually thought we lost the property.  Then Eva called me up a half hour later, all the while I was thinking we didn’t get it, and said, “Congratulations, you got the property!”  The sellers relented and accepted our offer, providing we would close quickly.  In two weeks!  We scrambled, but we did it!  And never had one second of buyer’s remorse!

So, now we had to deal with three buildings we didn’t want, and start thinking (and dreaming) of our plans.  House plans, garage plans, guest house, landscaping ideas, what to do with the pool on the property, rip rap, and life plans.  We found this place a lot sooner than we actually thought we would, so in one way, we had time to make a lot of these decisions.  We both decided (separately) to get binders and fill them up with our ideas.  John did his in “phases”, the order in which we would do our projects.  I did the different aspects of the ideas: floor plans, outside of the house, landscape ideas, inside design ideas, appliances and furniture, like that.  I think I had more binders than he did, but as we made decisions, I pared them down.

We also found this advice in a book by Susan Lang, entitled, “Designing Your Dream Home.”  I’ll review this book in a future post, but I will tell you now that her bylines are, “every question to ask, every detail to consider, and everything you need to know before you build or remodel,” and she wasn’t kidding.  She suggests twelve binders, and she tells you what each one is for.  But, I did it my way, John did it his, and it has worked for us so far.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The first thing we did was hire a builder.  We decided to interview three builders at the property, so they could see the old house and get a feel for the place. (This was at the time “Designer’s Challenge” and “Landscapers’ Challenge” was on HGTV, so like them,  we went with three.)   We met in the house  – it’s a mess, isn’t it?    All three said, although it was a shame, it would be so expensive to fix up the old house, which is exactly what we wanted to hear, if you want the truth.  We wanted to build a house, and we wanted it closer to the water, so we were happy to know the three of them felt the same way.

We met with each builder, two in one day, the third the next day, and we walked around the property with them discussing our ideas.  We showed them our plans for the first building we decided to build, the stand-along garage and asked them each to submit a proposal.  As it turned out, we did go with the builder with the best price, but that wasn’t our only consideration.  We actually liked this builder the best, we felt we had a rapport with him, and that he “got” what we were going for.  He also had another point in his favor, which is something we didn’t realize at the time would be so helpful…. he was local to the town we were building in!  So in fact, we had somewhat made up our minds even before we got his proposal.  If he was way too expensive, we might have reconsidered, but as it turned out, he was the least expensive.  And his knowing everyone in town, especially in the building department at town hall, was a very good thing.  So, now we had our team!  Next time….. getting rid of two of the buildings!