“What Your Contractor Can’t Tell You”

August
14
2013

Book Review

 

I was surprised to learn that you can expect to make 1500 decisions when you are building a new home.  Scary!  Especially when you don’t really like making decisions anyway! The author tells us, “Your choices are infinite when you start, so design is more a process of de-selecting than selecting.” The author, Amy Johnston, guides us through this process.  She says owners will be entering a culture that is much less straight forward than it appears, and everyone in that culture knows more than we do. And added to that are all the new relationships, deadlines, quality standards and more money than we’ve spent on probably anything else, and it becomes a huge undertaking that most people don’t know how to prepare for, and few have wanted to tell us. Until now.

If you are planning on building a house, (and by building I mean hiring contractors and builders to do the actual work) or even if you are just thinking about building your dream home, this book is a must to have on hand.  Ms Johnston says, “This book is not about how to swing a hammer, or even how to be your own general contractor.  It is about how to be a savvy consumer of design and construction services and a competent participant in your own project.” And she does not disappoint.

Her advice covers how to start a project, including picking the people on your team, from bankers to surveyors. It also talks about the project plan, how to keep good notes and information, and how to distinguish between needs and wants.  She also suggests (and this really is great advice) be true to yourself and the way you really live, accept your own lifestyle.  For instance, if you spend the evenings watching TV (like we do), don’t make the fireplace the focal point in the room the TV is in.  And I don’t know about you, but I can’t really understand the TV over the fireplace design element.  I would think your neck would hurt by the end of the evening, plus it seems to “take away” from both items!

My well used book

My well used book

Ms. Johnston suggests not to ignore the tried and true.  Yes, newer and sometimes even more efficient designs, materials, supplies and equipment come on the market every day, some are great, but some will be off the market in a few years.  You don’t want to try to replace a broken part or find someone to fix it then, which is especially true in heating and air conditioning.

She discusses and helps with how to work together as a couple and make more balanced choices, how to provide more details so the project runs smoother and how to work well with a contractor and/or architect.  Also, what gets you the most bang for your buck, and cost estimating and budgets.  She talks about contract structures (I spoke about that in a previous post), putting the contract out to bid, insurance, rules for change orders (there are 4 kinds), permits and the way to monitor your project.  Her advice is invaluable and will save you both time and money.  And hopefully, you (and I) will be a more educated homeowner, and wind up with a project that runs much more smoothly than it would have.

Enjoy the sunset.

 

Sunset on the Little Choptank River

Sunset on the Little Choptank River

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.

 

American Flag Houses

July
4
2013

We’re going to be out of the country on July 4th this year. It’s sad in a way, because I love July 4th!  I love watching the fireworks, any fireworks, but especially the TV shows from Boston and New York.  I can be in the comfort of my own home and have a great view!  Yes, not the same as in person, but I love it anyway.  Which do you prefer?  Watching in person, or on TV?    Anyway, John has a business trip to Prague, and I’m going with him.  I couldn’t pass that up, could I?  So in honor of the holiday, here are some interesting flag houses I found for you to enjoy:

Patriotic_house_#1

 

Patriotic_House_#2

 

Patriotic_House_#3

Those three pictures came from www.rogersfamilyco.com.

This next one is from www.bicycletouringtales.com:

Patriotic_House_#4

 

And from carolyncholland.wordpress.com:

Patriotic_House_#5

 

This one is from www.thegazette.com:

Patriotic_House_#6

 

And last, the American Flag house that is probably the most famous, right from our future retirement city!  There were many stories about it around the internet, supposedly the owner, builder Brandon Spear painted it this color in protest because he couldn’t fly the flag on his house.  But that story is not exactly true.  He wanted to restore the home, but the windows he chose weren’t up to “historical code”, and the local building inspectors wouldn’t let him put them in.  The windows he was supposed to use would have cost one-third of the restoration budget!  So, since the building code didn’t say anything about what color the old Victorian should be painted, and as a sort of protest against what he said are unfair regulations, he painted one of his homes black, and one this way, with an American flag theme.

Stars and Stripes housewtmk

It’s my favorite!    Hope you have a wonderful holiday!

Building Advice and Tips

June
19
2013

 

After John read my blog on Monday, he thought it would be useful to have some specifics about the garage and Crab Shack, and about building in general.  So I’d like to share some of our experiences with the hope that they’ll help you make more informed decisions.  We were total novices.  We’ve remodeled.  We’ve put on additions.  But we had never taken on a job of this magnitude.  So in other words, we knew nothing.  And we made mistakes.  Maybe this will help you avoid them.

Before we even began doing anything, as mentioned in a previous post, we had to take down two buildings.  We found out, through a contractor, that our local Fire Department would consider burning them down, and use the experience as a learning session for new recruits. We gave these wonderful people a donation, and it was a win-win experience. I’m not sure if they do this in other areas, but if this is at all a possibility for you, it’s truly a great way to go.

Little Choptank Dec.07 004

We began to “design our retirement” with the stand-alone garage.  I like to say we started the building process backwards, doing the “out” buildings first, and leaving the house (which we won’t start probably for another year) till last.  But we had our reasons.  (We needed a place to put the “stuff” from a PA vacation home that we sold, and we knew we wanted this garage for the tractor, and the other vehicles right away.)  For this building John found plans online that he liked, and we had them tweaked a bit by a draftsperson.  (Also known as a Residential Designer.)  After we decided that Thom Huntington (of Huntington Construction) would be our builder, he drew up a contract (Time & Materials) and he built it.  It was a very smooth operation and there were no surprises and no cost over-runs.  As for the structure of the building, we went with 2×6 lumber for strength, regular roll insulation, a large propane heater, an on-demand hot water heater (more on this another time) and because we are building on the water, we needed to raise the garage up, which meant building up the soil all around the building to allow for a gradual incline – expensive, but a necessity for a place where hurricanes and flooding storms are likely.

Little Choptank copy 020

The second, and more “exciting” building was (going to be) the Boathouse. (Blog post here.)  This was where we made many of our mistakes.  We had a dream, a vague vision, and needed to have someone draw up this vision for us.  Of course, we again used Michael, the Residential Designer we used on the garage.  Now, because of our inexperience, the costs of these plans (in total) were sky high.  We kept changing things, and having the plans re-drawn.  Many, many times.  (At great expense.)  Then, in one instance, Michael was doing “due diligence” making sure the ground would support our Boat House, and had our soil tested.  I can now tell you what our soil looks like for 16 feet below sea level. It’s interesting, but we weren’t expecting that charge.  And, as already mentioned, this all happened during the collapse of the economy.  So, $20,000 later, rather than scrap all of our plans, we scrapped the building, and bought plans online from Lowe’s at a cost of $500!  (The Crab Shack.)  I’ll speak more about house plans another time, but here’s another tip:  if you can find plans you like online or in a book, use them.  Believe me, you will be saving yourself a ton of money.  Even if you just use them as a starting point.  Or cut out parts from different plans. You’ll thank me later.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

For the structure of the Crab Shack, we again used 2×6’s, but went with the spray insulation.  And I can definitively say this type of insulation is excellent. The building cools down instantly when we need the air conditioning, and heats up and stays warm in the winter when we need the heat.  For both buildings we decided on the strongest metal roof available, which has many, many benefits.  It’s great against the elements, being rated to withstand over 200 mph winds; it saves in home heating and cooling energy costs;  there are energy tax credit incentives available; it’s good for the environment , (considered a “green” solution) and comes with either a 30 or 50 year warranty – depending on the roof you buy.  All this, and of course it has that “coastal” look.   In the “con” list, the only thing I could say is that it costs more initially to put in than a traditional asphalt roof.  But it pays for itself in other ways.  I was worried that it would be noisy, especially during a rain storm, but I can tell you honestly, it’s absolutely not.

We also built it up high, knowing the area could possibly flood if there was a bad storm, (like Hurricane Irene and Super Storm Sandy) and built it with flow through vents in the foundation that allows the water to literally flow through and prevent any structural damage. (You can see them in the photo.)

We used vinyl siding on the Crab Shack, for one reason, to keep the costs down, but next time – for the house – we’ll go with Fiber Cement.  It will be stronger and better looking.  We’ve had a few pieces of the siding come down in both storms, and although not a huge deal, we had to have someone repair it.  We went with Anderson windows that are strong enough to withstand hurricanes and have shutters inside just in case anything should come flying through.  On the house, however, we’ll look into getting something installed on the outside of the windows also, either workable shutters, or hurricane screens.  The decks are made of composite material; we want our semi and real retirement to be as low maintenance as possible.

I hope some of these ideas will help you, and if you have any tips or ideas you’d like to share with me, I’d love to hear them!

 

Little Choptank 2013 May 20-22 115wtmk

 

Burning Down the Barns

April
24
2013

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You may remember that we had two old barns, in addition to the house, that needed to come down.  Because of zoning and building laws, which we’ll get into in another post, the main house has to stay until we are actually ready to build the “new” main house.  But these two barns we wanted to get rid of right away so we could put up a new garage, and a guest cottage, which we thought of at the time as the boat house.  Not really a boat house to house a boat, but we liked to call it that anyway.  As it turns out, the plans and cost of that boat house became so astronomical, we had to change it all completely, and we would up with what we now term, “The Crab Shack.”  But I digress…

The two barns were, to say the least, disgusting.  I don’t know why I don’t have pictures of the inside because I usually take pictures of everything! (Like the shed snake-skin I found in a bush– in its entirety!  I thought it was amazing, although nobody else but John thought it was impressive.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Anyway, we had a dock builder over to give us a quote, (hey, we all have our priorities) and the guy gave us a wonderful tip…. the fire department in town would burn down both buildings for a nominal fee, and use it as a learning experience for the new recruits.  We thought that was a great idea!  As it turned out, our builder/contractor did have to tear down one building because the fire would have been too large!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So, the first building comes down.  Then it got pushed over to the other one.  The fire department showed up very early one morning.

Little Choptank Dec.07 002wtmk

 

And started the blaze.

Little Choptank Dec.07 003wtmk

 

They were all ready with hoses in case it got out of control.  They had to monitor the weather of course, we didn’t want a windy day!  And here it is full-out…..

Little Choptank Dec.07 005wtmk

 

It’s all over…..

Little Choptank Dec.07 010wtmk

 

Little Choptank Dec.07 013wtmk

Next, we’ll start building the garage!