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Seven Steps to Avoid Nasty Missteps on Your Project

Remodeling 101. Ninth of 10 parts.


Two years ago, an attorney and an engineer started a major remodel and moved, with their two children, into a small guest house behind their expansive home. Why the project, which was initially expected to take eight months, remains unfinished is the subject of debate. The couple, who asked not to be named, blame their contractor. The contractor blames the couple.

Though their dispute is worse than most, many construction projects are delayed by poor scheduling and management on the part of both homeowners and contractors.

Savvy homeowners, before breaking ground, would be wise to work with their builder on a viable schedule that can help get the project completed on time as well as get occupants out of the house during the worst days but keep them available when decisions need to be made.

How do you do it? Think of it as similar to planning a wedding or other major event requiring advance notice and scheduling. Even though you're probably anxious to get started, force yourself to plan ahead and take your time. If you try to throw the project together at the last minute, some piece is sure to fall by the wayside. The consequences could be unpleasant and costly.

Instead, go step by step:

1. Start with the weather.

If your remodel will expose any part of the house to the elements for a period of time (you're taking off the roof to build a second story or opening a wall to add on to the front or back of the house), try to schedule the job during months that are normally dry. Naturally, it's impossible to know whether you'll get unseasonal showers, but you'll at least decrease the odds of a weather delay--or of having remaining floors or walls ruined by acts of God that are not covered by your contract.

2. Check your contractor's calendar.

It's in no one's best interest to start a job when your contractor, or his or her subcontractors, are simply too busy to get to your site. If the contractor you want can't be ready for six months, consider waiting. Not only will that allow you to hire the person who you believe is best for the job, it also will give you time to get all your ducks in a row--arranging financing or saving up more money, or picking out windows, tile, carpet, cabinets and knobs at good prices. Realize you don't have to do these things before you start. But, if you don't, you'll have to scramble to complete them when construction is underway.

3. Consider how long you need to pack and plan.

If you're doing a major remodel that will require you to move out of a portion of your house--or even move out completely--be realistic about how long it will take you to pack up things and move them out. Remember that the start of the job sets the tone for the project, and getting things done on time requires a partnership between you and your contractor. If your contractor waits for you now because you wanted to start before you could be ready, you might have to wait for the contractor later.

4. Get a timeline.

Before you start, sit down with your contractor and walk through the timing of the project. When will the major elements start and finish? When must you decide on and order finish materials, such as carpets, cabinets and tile? (If you don't order something ahead that takes time to make or ship, such as cabinets or windows, your project will languish while everyone waits for them to arrive.)

Also, if you plan to live in the house while it's being remodeled, ask whether there will be phases in the project that will be particularly noisy, dirty or difficult for you to live through. If there are, consider taking a vacation to get your family out during the worst of them.

This timeline helps you see whether your project is progressing as scheduled, and gives you warning about when you need to make decisions. If you've set up progress payments based on the start or finish of major elements, such as framing or completing the roofing or drywall, it also tells you when you need money available.

5. Respect the professional you hired.

One of the problems in the seemingly endless project undertaken by the attorney and engineer is that this couple started second-guessing their contractor from the get-go. While they dispute who is at fault, both sides reiterate these same facts: The engineer/homeowner came in during framing and took a level to each piece of wood, demanding that the contractor reframe anything that was off by a fraction of an inch. The contractor, who had successfully framed several hundred houses in the past, explained that tiny differences got fixed later in the process, but the engineer wouldn't hear of it. He demanded that several fully framed walls be ripped out and rebuilt. Then he returned with his level.

The project suddenly got pushed to the bottom of the contractor's priority list. When it was done, the walls were framed with scientific precision, but the beauty of the framing was behind the walls. No one but the homeowner and the contractor knew the difference.

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