Thinking of doing a home remodel or addition? For a job that encompasses several different trades — think tile, plumbing and painting — it may make more sense to hire a general contractor to run the job as smoothly as possible. We spoke to Doug Hanna of S+H Construction in Boston to find out what he recommends homeowners know before they get involved in a large project.
Many homeowners attempt large projects in an effort to save money. "We have seen homeowners attempt all types of projects — or portions of projects — over the years," says Hanna. "Many times young, energetic people, some first-time homeowners, want to try to do some of the work themselves to defray costs, but also for the satisfaction of being physically involved with the job and 'getting their hands dirty,' but there is more involved than you think."
When you're tackling a large project, there's usually some demolition involved. This seems like something the average homeowner could take on, right? "It used to be that demo and trash removal was quite simple, and we would encourage people to take it on if they were up for it," says Hanna. Demolition is quite a bit more complicated now, due to rules about hazardous substances.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has had strict rules in place since 2010 regarding the containment of lead paint. "This means complete separation of the work zone from living area, the use of negative air machines, HEPA vacs and many other techniques that are taught in RRP training courses," says Hanna. "Only people certified in these courses are qualified to perform demolition in structures where lead may be present. The EPA is very serious about adherence to these rules, with good reason. Even one-time exposure to high levels of lead can affect a child's brain for life," he adds.
Many homeowners attempt their own renovation, but soon find themselves in over their heads. "Most of the ones that we see are not successful, since we are called in to bail them out when things go wrong. By the time we are called, either the owner has given up in frustration or the local building inspector has issued a stop work order," shares Hanna. What could have been a straightforward project can quickly turn into an expensive rework by a professional.
Knowing the building codes in your area can be tricky. "The problems we've seen range from multiple and blatant code violations (low ceilings, narrow doorways, incorrect stair rise and run, etc.) to inaccurate layout of walls, or things out of square, level and plumb," says Hanna. A licensed general contractor knows exactly what the building codes are in your area.
If you truly want to be involved in your renovation project, choose an area that you have some knowledge in, like laying bathroom tile or painting. "We strongly recommend leaving the core elements of a renovation project in the hands of your general contractor," says Hanna.
One way you can save some money is to do a bit of shopping. "Go out and buy the tile (but get help measuring and account for waste), lighting fixtures, bath fixtures and appliances and avoid the contractor markup on all that," Hanna recommends. "But leave the major subcontractors for the general contractor to manage. That's what he or she gets paid for and you will sleep a lot easier."
Often homeowners cut themselves a very narrow window of time in which their project needs to be done. "Leave yourself enough time to plan your project carefully. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to get as much information figured out ahead of time as possible," he shares. "This means plans, sections, elevations, fully developed window, door and finish schedules, as well as a full set of specifications," he adds.
You will be living with this project, so you want it done right. "Interview and check references on multiple designers. Get a designer or architect involved early and develop a clear set of plans and specifications so that when you go to solicit estimates, the contractors will have a very clear understanding of what is to be expected of them, both in bidding and executing the job," Hanna recommends. Find out early in the project what the cost estimates are and make sure that it's not beyond your budget.
"First and foremost, do you get the feeling that you will be able to develop a good working relationship with the contractor? Obviously, you want to get and check references, but if you have the time, ask to see a couple of completed projects so you can assess the level of workmanship. Is this company you are hiring a profitable company? How long have they been in business? Do they mostly do their own work or mostly subcontract the work out? If the contractor drives up in a Porsche, look elsewhere," he adds.
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