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Remodeler's Diary

Of Planning, Timetables and Endless Delays

November 05, 1989|EILEEN HEYES | Heyes is a Times copy editor.

What's worse than having your house under construction?

Still not having your house under construction after months of planning.

My husband and I didn't think we were asking for all that much: a third bedroom, a second bathroom and an expanded living room for our small but rapidly appreciating Mar Vista house.

We set a cost range for ourselves of $80,000 to $100,000, and our architect told us we were not in fantasy land.

Flashback: It is January, 1987, and I am three months' pregnant. Our kitchen is in desperate need of renovation, and we don't want a house full of noise and dust and strangers when we are trying to learn how to change diapers.

We go to a kitchen designer and tell her we want the kitchen remodeled, and it has to be finished before the baby is born. She looks at my still-flat tummy and fails to suppress a smile. Ho, ho, she scoffs. Don't fret, she soothes, it won't take anywhere near that long.

But . . . by the time the kitchen is measured and the new layout planned, and by the time the cabinets are shipped from the factory in Pennsylvania, and by the time we have shopped around for appliances and a sink and flooring and light fixtures, and by the time we pick a contractor, and by the time he finally has a free day to start our kitchen, it is June 1.

The job will take three weeks, he says. It takes five.

The afternoon of July 2, 1987, the kitchen is finished. The evening of July 3, I go into labor.

The experience leaves us skeptical about estimated timetables.

Flash forward: It is January, 1989. We have been watching remodels in our neighborhood--some of which seem to happen over the course of months, some of which have been in progress since we moved in three years ago. We know it takes time.

We tell our architect we don't want our home without a roof during the rainy season. He looks at a calendar and fails to suppress a smile. Ho, ho, he laughs. Don't worry, he assures, it won't take anywhere near that long.

His estimate is that from the first meeting with him to the end of construction, we are looking at about nine months. That's four months to draw plans, get city approval and pick a contractor, then about five for actual building. We can possibly celebrate Christmas in our sparkling new house.

We hasten to a bank and refinance, because we know this takes time, too.

But even though we fancy ourselves remodeling veterans, we are still surprised by the endless series of delays.

Nine months have passed now. We don't have a newly remodeled house. We don't have city approval. We don't have an acceptable bid from a contractor. We don't have a place to live during construction. All we have are new, improved mortgage payments: The bank alone moved with dispatch.

And we are wondering if construction can even start before Christmas. Ho, ho, ho.

We allowed for delays, we really did. Back in the spring, when the drawings were coming along, my husband and I decided we need one last nice vacation before it becomes clear to us that we cannot afford nice vacations for many years to come.

Hawaii, we decided. And we'll wait until the remodeling is well under way because we will certainly appreciate a break from the hell of construction.

Hawaii in mid-autumn. We made our reservations. We paid for the trip.

We started packing boxes and putting things in storage, knowing we would be moving out soon. But as the weeks wore on, our standards for what could be stored shifted.

At first, we thought we should store anything we can live without for four months or so. Now, we ask ourselves: Can we live without this for nine months or, Fates forbid, a year? Our books? Camping gear? Holiday decorations? Baby clothes?

About a week after three contractors picked up the plans, the first bid came in. It was a single number on a vaguely worded single-page contract. No timetable for construction, no start date, no cost itemization, no materials allowances.

All it said was: $178,000. One hundred seventy-eight thousand dollars.

That's about $200 a square foot.

To his credit, my husband did not lose his lunch over this. Instead, he called the architect, who characterized this as "not a serious bid."

We had high hopes for the second contractor: He recently broke up with a partner, and we knew he needed the work.

The bottom line on his two-page bid said: $197,600. Moving to the Midwest began to look very attractive.

Another contractor visited. He was concerned about waste water draining from the new bathroom and wanted to check under the house for the existing drainage pipes. It was something that never would have occurred to me. I thought water went down the drain and away, and that was the end of it.

His itemized bid, three weeks later, lifted our spirits. Just a little. After warning us that he tends to be expensive, he said he could remodel our house for $148,000--and on examining this contractor's cost breakdown, our architect said there was about $10,000 in extras that could be trimmed immediately.

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