46 Housing: Repairs and Remodels

Repairs and remodels are rare, but the costs can be breathtaking. You need a plan to control expenses, because those you hire have incentives to squeeze as much money from the project as they can. The next time you face a fix-up, follow these strategies and tactics.

46.1  Rent Instead of Own

By renting, you sidestep all repairs—and they become your landlord’s problem. For a great calculator that weighs the merits, visit NYTimes.com/interactive/business/buy-rent-calculator.html.

46.2  Consider Lower Cost Alternatives

   46.2.1  Avoid Major Repairs and Remodels

□  Tread Lightly.
When you take it easy on your home, things last longer and you incur fewer repairs. Good luck convincing kids of this.

□  Perform Maintenance.
Avoid costly repairs through regular inspections. The National Center for Healthy Housing publishes a “Healthy Homes Maintenance Checklist.” Visit HUD.gov.

□  Investigate.
Check out any suspicious creaks, weird noises, odd smells, or water stains. Address problems early and save yourself from huge repair bills later.

   46.2.2  Procrastinate on Big Projects
You don’t have to immediately begin an expensive kitchen, basement, or bath remodel. Stall before you install.

□  Adopt Temporary Fixes.
These buy time to find long term fixes.

□  Wait Until Off-Peak Times.
Repair furnaces in the summer and air conditioners in winter. Tackle remodels while school’s still in session.

□  Wait Until the Next Downturn.
Labor costs will plummet and qualified craftsmen will anxiously take on your small project.

   46.2.3  Plan Ahead

□  Track Your Infrastructure.
Research home systems that are due for replacement or repair before they fail. This buys time to make better decisions.

□  Anticipate Emergency Repairs.
Prepare as suggested in 8.4.7.

□  Hire Advisors.
Many contractors and architects provide advice for lower fees. Since they’re experts, you’re almost guaranteed to learn helpful information.

□  Procure Early.
If you procure your own materials, get them early, especially if you order from internet-based suppliers. Delivery problems are common. Avoid costly delays by having all supplies onsite when work begins.

   46.2.4  DIY

□  DIY Diagnosis.
The more you know about the repair or remodel, the more low-cost solutions you can find. Immerse yourself in details. Quiz bidders about how to get the job done for less without sacrificing quality.

□  DIY Entire Projects.
The modern DIYer enjoys access to more educational resources than ever. Even if the project exceeds your current competence, that doesn’t mean you can’t get up to speed with DVDs, manuals, and expert advisors. To learn more about how to frame new spaces, tile bathrooms, and add dry wall, volunteer at Habitat for Humanity.

□  DIY In Part.
Do the easy parts yourself and pay only for what requires expertise. If you have the time, volunteer to move materials, run to hardware stores, or load dumpsters. You can also demolish, clean up, sand, and paint as well as any contractor—and do it for much less.

   46.2.5  Save on Materials

□  Procure Supplies Yourself.
Ask service providers for lists of necessary materials and estimated costs. Run them through Appendix 1 and see whether you, the incentivized owner, can get them for less. If the basement remodel calls for two-by-fours and particleboard, buy them at stores that sell reused building  materials (visit Habitat.org/restores).

□  Reuse What’s There.
Cannibalize what you can. Reuse mirrors and cabinet hardware. Save bathtubs and toilets.

□  Look for Stock Sizes and Solutions.
You can pay someone to make a vanity cabinet from scratch, or you can buy a prefabricated model for less at a box store.

□  Sell or Donate Old Stuff.
Cut your project’s net cost. Sell old fixtures, doors, and cabinets on Craigslist or donate them to a local reuse store (and receive a deduction if you itemize).

   46.2.6  Avoid Discretionary Remodels
Determine whether your decision to remodel is based upon a real need (water leaks, structural problems, mold, failed systems) or merely a desire to update to the latest decor. If it’s the latter, consider a postponement. Ancient pink bathrooms are popular again (visit SaveThePinkBathrooms.com) and your own color scheme might be due for a comeback.

   46.2.7  Limit the Scope of Work
A few early decisions can cut your costs significantly.

□  Keep Plumbing in Place.
Retain all water lines and drains for sinks, showers, bathtubs, and toilets. Moving them adds thousands to your remodel.

□  Keep the same Electrical Scheme.
Contain electrician costs. Keep lights, appliances, and outlets in their current positions.

□  Love the Walls You’re With.
If they stay where they’re at, you avoid big expenses.

□  Reface Instead of Replace.
Bathroom tiles, bathtubs, and shower stalls can be re-glazed with fresh colors. Instead of installing new floors, have the current ones sanded and refinished. Replace cabinet facades and doors, but retain the frameworks.

□  Install Light Tubes.
Get your natural light for less with flexible reflective tubes.

□  Spend More on What You Use Most Often.
Allocate remodel dollars so they deliver the most bang for your buck. If you shower instead of bathe, pick a cheaper bathtub. If you fire up the oven on holidays only, you don’t need to buy the top of the line.

□  Decline Upsells.
When we remodeled our master bath, the contractor suggested a heated floor (price tag: $1,500). We opted instead for a $50 solution: a small radiant heater on a timer that warms the room automatically on cold mornings.

   46.2.8  Trade or Barter
As always, beware the tax complications of bartering for services (see IRS Publication 525).

46.3  Run Background Checks

Unless you’ve used the service before, spend ample time on this step to avoid problems later.

   46.3.1  Review Qualifications
Choose from among the same tactics for miscellaneous services. For details, reread 8.3.4.

□  Consider the Time in Business.

□  Look for Trade Memberships, Certifications, and Licenses.

□  Know the Level of Specialization Required.

□  Know the Level of Experience Required.

   46.3.2  Review Customer Feedback
Again, the same ideas apply here as on the miscellaneous service checklist. For details, reread 8.3.1.

□  Consider Your Own Experience.

□  Seek Recommendations.

□  Read Internet Reviews.

□  Visit the Better Business Bureau.

□  Check Out the Service’s References.

   46.3.3  Review Samples of Work
For more expensive projects, ask to see samples of workmanship.

□  View Finished Jobs.
Many services maintain portfolios of past projects on DVDs or websites.

□  View Work in Progress.
Ask to visit a current worksite. If it’s a sloppy mess, maybe you should hire elsewhere.

□  Try Before You Buy.
If you can, hire prospects for smaller tasks and see how things go.

   46.3.4  Learn the Prospect’s Policies

  • Bonds. Ask whether the service is “bonded.” A bond is a promise by a third party—someone other than the service itself—to make good on the contract’s performance. Bonds vary in language and scope, but they often cover such matters as payment of subcontractors and material suppliers, fulfillment of deadlines, and reimbursement for employee thefts. Ask to see the paperwork.
  • Worker’s Compensation. If a worker on your property gets hurt, he can file a claim for compensation, but only if his employer has coverage. Without a policy, the worker most likely will come after you, and your homeowners coverage might be inadequate. Before you hire anyone for work that involves risk to limb or life, ask to see a declarations page that proves the existence of coverage. You pay more for companies that carry insurance, but at least you don’t bear the risks of a mishap. And if a company skimps on insuring its own employees, how else does it skimp?
  • Property Damage and Liability Insurance. Any contractor you hire should carry property damage and liability coverage. If you suffer losses, this funds a recovery. Ask for a copy of the policy’s declarations page.
  • Rates and Fees. Ask what they charge on the specific tasks your project entails.
  • Subcontractors. If any subcontractors are involved, find out their abilities, experience, and qualifications.

46.4  Find the Best Rates

   46.4.1  Use Online Cost Estimators/Calculators
Online estimators give a ballpark idea of what your project will cost. Choose sites that don’t require you to enter any contact information—you need estimates, not solicitations from eager contractors. Search the web for “[enter name of project here] cost estimator calculator.” CostEstimator.com provides estimates for a wide array of home improvement projects, including kitchens, baths, roofs, painting, decks, patios, flooring, floor refinishing, furnaces, and air conditioners.

   46.4.2  Seek Multiple Written Bids
For expensive projects, obtain multiple bids in writing.

□  Only Seek Bids From Acceptable Sources.
Don’t request bids from those you’re unlikely to hire, you only waste their time and yours.

□  Prepare Your Own Scope of Work.
Break the project down into small parts and provide the list to bidders. For example, on a bath remodel, state the work you want done for each separate area: shower, toilet, vanity cabinet, tub, floor, wall, electrical, etc. This makes it easier to compare bids and forces you to define the scope of your project at an early stage.

□  Seek Detailed Bids.
Ask for the anticipated hours and materials needed for each step of the project. These details help in later negotiations if you’re able to do some of the work yourself.

□  Ask Questions When Bidders Visit the Site.
Complex projects require back-and-forth discussions. Favor contractors who are good communicators.

   46.4.3  Haggle
Remember that nice guys finish first. Show respect and kindness. The potential dialogues are endless, but consider these possibilities.

□  “Can you match your competitor’s bid?”

□  “Why is your bid higher than this internet estimate?”

□  “If I did some parts of the job myself, could you drop your bid?”

□  “If I supplied materials myself, could you drop your bid?”

□  “Would you add one small project at no extra charge?”

□  “Would you trade or barter services?”

   46.4.4  Review the Form of Contract
Any projects that cost more than a few hundred dollars should involve written contracts. Ask to see the contractor’s typical forms and look for these terms.

  • Payments. Any schedule should allow you the leeway to withhold the last payment until you give your final approval of the work performed.
  • Building Permits and Inspections. Who notifies the building inspector or pays for inspection fees? If these are your responsibilities, add them to the cost of the project.
  • Warranties and Guarantees. What promises does the contractor make to back up its work? If they’re inadequate, they could cost you money down the road.

46.5  Avoid Common Consumer Traps

The best way to avoid problems is to hire someone with an established reputation for honesty and fair dealing. If you’re still worried, revisit the common pitfalls (see 8.5).

46.6  Monitor Work

As work progresses, follow these steps to control costs.

   46.6.1  Keep Communicating
Talk is cheap. Additional labor from misunderstandings isn’t.

   46.6.2  Review Work Daily
Visit the worksite each evening. Discuss the latest with your contractor in person or by phone.

   46.6.3  Use Change Orders
Obtain written descriptions of any proposed alterations along with a detailed statement of what they will cost.

46.7  Follow Up

The miscellaneous services checklist covers this in detail (see 8.6).

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