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Even Seemingly Small Changes Carry a Cost

Remodeling 101. Last of 10 parts


What are the four most expensive words in the English language?

"While you're at it," says Kermit Baker, director of the remodeling futures program at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Just ask Steve and Linda Velasco of Costa Mesa. They started out figuring thatthey'd replace some flooring--a minor remodel that was set to cost them less than $10,000. But, while they were at it, they decided to remodel a bathroom, replace the kitchen sink, resurface a few more floors, paint and they're not done. But they've spent more than $25,000 so far.

"The project kind of grew as we went and so did the budget," says Linda Velasco. "We started saying that this carpet has been here for a while. We need to do something with the tile. . . ."

The Velascos are by no means unique. Roughly 10% to 30% of the cost of any remodeling project comes from change orders and add-ons started during construction, experts note. Though some changes may be needed, they're rarely competitively bid, which can make them unduly expensive.

Wise remodelers try to limit last-minute changes before they start. But when changes can't be avoided, you should at least understand precisely what's being altered and what it's going to cost. All too often, homeowners fail to get clear estimates or contractual guarantees on the cost of a change. As a result, their projects go way over budget.

Additionally, those who are trying to remodel within a tight time frame should realize that multiple change orders can drastically alter the schedule.

There are two types of changes that you're likely to encounter during a remodel--voluntary changes like the Velascos made and involuntary changes. By and large, the changes that are more difficult to deal with, and more important to plan for, are the involuntary changes, which crop up because something isn't clear on the plans or because something behind the walls or under the floors isn't in the condition that you or your contractor expected.

The only way to reduce your chance of having a laundry list of these involuntary changes is to spend time, in advance, with your plans and your contractor. Ask whether the plans are complete and clear. Are there any elements of the drawing that need to be clarified by the architect? Are there details that the contractor believes will cause problems during construction? Does the contractor anticipate any problems tying the new construction into the old? If your existing structure is very old, for instance, standard sizes for everything from beams to braces may have changed.

A Laundry List of Potential Problems

Are you going to have to bring untouched parts of the house up to code or current standards? Is your contractor going to have to do somersaults to make the old framing work with the new?

If one contractor that bid your job highlighted a laundry list of potential problems, make sure you ask about those things with the contractor you hire. How will these problems be handled? If they're dismissed as unimportant or unlikely, ask if your contractor will agree, in writing, to handle these specific things without any extra charges if they do prove to be problematic.

"I've lost jobs because I told people about the problems on their plans," says Rob Rosebrugh, a general contractor with RR Construction in Thousand Oaks. "Somebody else comes along and says that everything is rosy--don't worry about it. But, you can just look at a set of plans and see there are huge mistakes here. If somebody doesn't tell you about them, you are going to spend a fortune on extras down the road."

Contractors note that many behind-the-wall problems, such as dry rot and termites, are unexpected but not unpredictable. If your house is more than 20 years old and you know that what's under the floorboards or behind certain walls is going to have an impact, ask your contractor whether you ought to break out a piece of drywall or pull up some linoleum so the contractor can have a look. Don't do this without the contractor's supervision, though. What you don't want to do is pull out drywall that would otherwise remain, or test your floors in the wrong spot.

Some Needed Changes May Still Crop Up

Even when you are exceptionally careful, it's still possible that you'll have some necessary change crop up. If so, make sure you get an estimate of the cost, and the time needed to fix it before work begins.

Some unscrupulous contractors will provide low-ball bids at the start to get work, but then use change orders to boost the price of the job. Change orders are rarely competitively bid, so lots of extra costs can get folded into one change if you're not careful.

When your changes are voluntary, the risks can also be great if the homeowner and contractor don't communicate effectively. For instance, a homeowner might ask whether a contractor can make a specific change.

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