How many estimates should I get?

The conventional wisdom is to get two or three estimates. However, more important than finding the lowest price is finding the right contractor to work with. I usually recommend that a homeowner call a few contractors and interview them over the phone and when you find someone that it seems you can get along with well, have them come out and look over your project.
I also recommend that you ask them if THEY do the design, because most contractors don’t, and in that case they probably won’t be able to give you many ideas and therefore won’t be able to give you a bid until you have a design done.

At Skandia, we do our own design work, and the person who comes out to talk with you about your project can discuss different ideas with you and then, if you desire, work on a design for you. A contractor really can’t give a definitive price until he has a detailed design to estimate from because there are so many variables such as size of room, location of windows and doors, types of cabinets, what kind of countertops, floor covering, light fixtures, tile, etc., etc..

Do I need a design?

When a contractor says, “Oh, it’ll be about forty thousand dollars,” and he doesn’t have a drawing to base his estimate on, he is literally shooting in the dark. It is important to establish a budget early on in the design process so that the design doesn’t get too complicated or too large for the pocketbook. We use our expertise based on years of doing similar projects to help you determine what is a reasonable budget for the project you want, and then we do the design to come as close to the budget as possible.
Sometimes we have to adjust the design even after it is partially drawn because there might be unforeseen expenses that are discovered during the design process, such as roof design tie-ins, structural surprises found out in the measuring and examination of the building done before or during the design is underway, or even serendipitous opportunities that arise as a result of inspiration on the part of the designer or homeowner. It’s not uncommon for a design to “grow” in cost because of such changes, and we try to advise the homeowner of when this is likely to occur so they can keep abreast of what the approximate end price will be.

Do I need a designer or architect?

Obviously, since we are a design/build firm, we believe the most efficient way to design is to work with the person who will also be building the project for you. There are several reasons for this such as, the communication process is more immediate and direct when the designer is the contractor. From the first meeting on, you are establishing a relationship that will continue throughout your project and when you both know exactly what the design is supposed to accomplish it makes everything go smoother.
Additionally, because the designer is also the contractor, the designer is more aware of remodeling costs. This is important because it is estimated that over 60% of the designs drawn by architects and designers never get built because they cost too much. Usually this is a great disappointment for the homeowner who has so much invested in the design, both emotionally and financially. Whereas, the independent architect or designer is perfectly happy collecting his or her fees for drawing a project that you cannot afford to build.

When we do our design we always bear in mind the budget because we are motivated to build the project too. This works to your advantage in the long run, because designing is a time-consuming task that usually takes several meetings spanning weeks or a month. Why waste time and money dreaming up something that is too expensive or elaborate for your neighborhood and is really just a monument to the architect’s ego?

How do I find a design/build firm to consult with?

We are one of Portland’s well-established design/build firms. We have designed hundreds of projects and know the process inside and out. We have worked on all kinds of remodeling projects from basements to second floor additions, from ½ baths to $100.000 kitchens. We do it all.
There are a few other contractors who do their own design here in the Greater Portland area, and they are excellent resources to consult via the phone or on the site. The greatest advantages of using a design/build firm is the one-stop-shopping it affords the homeowner and the fact that a contractor who also designs is more in tune with the costs of remodeling than a person who just does design. If you are looking for such a contractor you can check in the yellow pages for a “Design/Build” firm or one that calls itself a “Designer/Builder.” Even in these situations, the person who comes out is not usually a designer, but rather an “estimator” or salesperson. Be sure to specify that you want a designer who is also tied in to the estimating process, or who is actually the estimator. This may save you many headaches in the whole process of selecting your contractor.

Should I go with the lowest bid?

I can answer this question with an emphatic, “Heavens no!” My Dad is an old-time contractor, and whenever he was informed of not getting a job because he wasn’t the lowest price, he’d answer, “Well, I guess the other guy knows what he’s worth!” This is true more often than not.
There are thousands of contractors in this area, and hundreds go out of business every year. Remodeling contractors are number two after used car salesmen for complaints filed with state agencies and organizations like the BBB. Craftsmanship and honesty are key ingredients you should be looking for in the contractor you choose to work on and in your home.

If you get “bad vibes” about a contractor, don’t go with him or her because as the work proceeds situations naturally become more intimate and intense since your own stress level increases with the inconveniences of remodeling and oftentimes the remodeler and his or her crew become like extended family members after weeks or months on the job. Imagine your favorite cousin or your most annoying in-law working on your house. They can either be conscientious and thoughtful, or they can become a real headache and nuisance.

Always check out the contractor by calling references and looking at previous jobs. There are so many “flakes” out there that you can not be too careful. If a contractor has to “buy” a job by being the lowest bidder, there is always a reason.

Be sure the references you get (and check out) are for projects similar to the one you want to get done. I had a lady once who got references to do a second floor addition, and the references she got from one contractor were for minor bathroom remodels and the like. The other contractor had never done a second floor addition, and he intended her to be his “guinea pig.” This kind of thing goes on all the time, so be sure to specifically ask the contractors if they have done the kind of work you want done.

Should I check on referrals?

Absolutely. This is the best way to insure that the contractor you are considering is up to your expectations. Always ask about the contractor’s honesty, thoroughness, timeliness, craftsmanship, the quality of his or her employees and subcontractors, how he handled problems (which almost always arise) and how easy he or she was to work with. Try to set up an appointment to see the work and meet the past client.

Whenever we give out referrals, I try to give out names of past customers for whom we did jobs that are similar in scope and complexity to the one the new potential client is considering. I usually give out three or four names and list how long ago we did the job and what the job entailed. I will often give out names of people we worked for eight or nine years ago as well as some recent jobs that we have completed.

I try to rotate the names I give out so that people aren’t calling the same past clients all the time. This way the potential client can be comfortable calling them, knowing that the past customer won’t be annoyed with having been called too many times recently.

When you check the job out, pay close attention to the quality of the work, because your job won’t be any better. So if you’re not pleased with what you see, be assured that you won’t be pleased with your job either.

Sometimes (that is usually) there is a difference in “taste” between you and the previous customer, so realize that if it’s the color of the Corian, or the wood species of the cabinets that you don’t like, yours can and will be different. But if the sheetrock texture is sloppy and the mitre joints are gapping, or the quality of the cabinet finish is poor, this reflects on the attention to detail of the person in charge-the contractor.

By the way, I once had a nationally known consultant and remodeler tell me, “No one can do a one hundred percent perfect job that is affordable. Ninety six percent is doable however.” I remind you, a “96” is still an “A” and if you see four jobs that are “96’s” that is a “four-point” contractor. You can feel good about his or her quality of work.

Also, you might consider asking the contractor to see one of his or her jobs in progress. Pay attention to the amount of debris laying around (especially if it is after working hours) and the way the job is tarped off from the living areas and secured against the elements. This may also give you a good chance to meet “the guys” (or gals) who will be working on your job too. They are an important part of the whole equation.

Sometimes homeowners do parts of their own projects, (especially painting or things like tile work). If you see unprofessional looking painting, or tile or trim work, you might ask if the contractor did that part of the job. Be tactful though! You don’t want to get thrown out on your ear for insulting the owner’s work!

Another good question to ask referrals is how did the contractor do following up on any warranty work? All contractors must warranty their work for one year, and there shouldn’t be any problem getting them to come back to adjust things or fix something that was overlooked. If the contractor is concerned about repeat business, he or she will take good care of his past customers.

How long will the project take?

This varies tremendously with the scope of the work, and sometimes with the weather or other complications. When the economy is booming and the weather is good, contractors are at their busiest, and that includes subcontractors. Therefore, sometimes scheduling can be more difficult in the height of Summer and one little missed deadline or subcontractor not finishing when planned, can throw off the projected completion date. A good schedule depends on everyone following through or there can be a domino effect during the hectic building season.

There are some generalizations that may apply to time frames for specific kinds of jobs however:
An addition may take three or four months. A kitchen two or three months. An interior project or a bathroom will be one to two months-generally speaking! If there is a lot of structural work, an interior job will take more time, and if there is a lot of detail to be installed whether in cabinetry, trim, tile, or any phase of construction, obviously the job will go longer.

It’s not uncommon for an ordered part to come damaged , defective or just plain wrong! When this happens, it can also prolong the job. One must realize that the contractor is coordinating dozens of people and components and this is an art-not a science. (Is anything a science?!) Whenever there are people involved (especially people other than me-yeah right!) there is the chance something can go amiss.

I used to work in Seattle and I worked for a lot of Boeing engineers. One engineer once told me a fable that illustrates the type of difficulties that affect scheduling: The first 747 took a year to build, the second six months, and the third took three months. Since then they all take two months. The more repetitive the work the easier it becomes. However, in remodeling, every job is different, and all the “bugs” have got to be worked out as-you-go. It’s like building a 747 for the first time every time. Patience is a good quality for anyone to have who is involved in remodeling.

Should I sign a contract?

State law states you have to sign a contract if the project is over $1000.00. The best contract includes detailed specifications and a completed plan. This protects everyone, and saves a lot of questions and frustrations down the road.

We will normally provide the preliminary design before signing a document, and we will write up three to ten pages of specifications on a normal project. These specifications address every single element of the project and they are broken into fifty separate “phases” so that we don’t miss anything important. I have been using the same system for over fifteen years, so I’ve got it down pretty well. We often forget a small item or two, but the major issues are addressed and discussed.

The actual contract we use is a simple two page document that I’ve been using for over ten years. Many attorneys have signed it with no modification whatsoever, and I once had a law professor and customer compliment me on the actual document. If lawyers will sign it without hesitation, I guess it must be a fair contract. The document is available for anyone who is considering hiring us to peruse prior to signing.

In addition to the plans, specifications and contract, there are several other documents that the Federal and State governments require to be signed. One is a three day right of recission, which states that the customer has three business days to cancel the contract without penalty. Another is a form which explains the state lien laws so the customer is informed of his or her legal rights and obligations.

A third form which all contractors are required to provide homeowners is one that explains the licensing procedures for contractors in Oregon or Washington. This form does not need to be signed, but I always have the customers initial a copy for my own files, certifying that they have received it.

These documents are essential and/or required to be a part of a remodeling agreement. Any contractor that does not provide these is either dishonest, ignorant, or disorganized and should be avoided like the plague.

Also, never pay a contractor in full before he has finished the job! (Duh.) I haven’t ever asked to be paid in full before I have completed everything I said I would do in writing. I have heard lots of horror stories about trusting customers who paid their contractors and the job was never finished and they never saw the guy again. I always have a five or ten percent retainage at the end of the job to help the client feel secure that he or she is going to get the job done the way they want it done.