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REPAIRS/RENOVATIONS By Don Caldwell (Article)


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Don Caldwell

Ah, renovations. What a wonderful word. It conjures up notions of fantasy - a promise of change to newness within the context of your already comfortable, if somewhat outdated but happy existence, with dispatch and little or no pain. After all its not like your are starting from scratch – building a new house or garden. You already have the house and garden. You are simply going to make a few improvements - upgrade some elements, add some new ones, sand a little woodwork, dab a bit of paint, hang some wallpaper, throw down a new carpet, install some new appliances, widen a doorway, throw in a nice Jacuzzi tub. And, you are going to get it all done in a week-end or two so that you can get back to the important things in life - golf, entertaining, grandchildren, golf, holidaying in the Caribbean, golf.

In reality however, renovation is a disease. This disease, unfortunately, can strike almost anyone at least once and once contracted can be difficult to cure completely. Some carry the virus for an entire lifetime along with the ugly scars. Some on the other hand can shake it off rather quickly but usually not without some serious after effects including nightmares that can induce paranoia, cold sweats, and the shakes – sometimes all at the same time.

If you or your partner has been demonstrating symptoms of this malady it may not be too late to prevent it from developing into the full-blown disease. Tell-tale symptoms include: expressing an uncharacteristic interest in the neighbor’s new gourmet kitchen; concern that the avocado green bathroom no longer makes the desired personal statement; shear disgust at the dank smell coming from the unfinished basement; worry that the kids might get hook-worm from the mud where grass is supposed to be growing in the back yard.

You will know that it is already too late to stop the onset of the disease when you face the following indicators: your lovely robin-egg-blue range is sitting in the driveway; there is a large hole in the back yard in the shape of the pond you, in weak moments, dream about; the old bedroom carpet is rolled up in the front hallway; there is a large hole in any wall; or there is a dumpster on the front lawn.

This article is designed to help you avoid the pitfalls of renovations and provide hints to ease the pain if you can’t avoid them. Get ready, because the road ahead may at times be rough. Don’t despair. Others have been there before you and are still alive and, on balance, well. Some are still living with the partner they started with before renovations.

Avoiding Pitfalls

The first pitfall is to actually get started on a renovation project. To avoid this, as soon as the above noted symptoms appear, you should get on the phone to a good real estate agent and put your faulty place on the market. At the same time, preferably using the same agent, you should begin the search for a less faulty place not requiring immediate renovations. In a good market this exchange transaction can take as little as a two months – much shorter than the average renovation time.

This is also a good time to put a specific value on renovations. Your new place will ideally have that recently upgraded bathroom and kitchen you covet. Discuss these upgrades with the agent and their cost (the seller will have gone to great length to point out to the agent what renovations have been made and what they have cost). Subtract half this amount from your offer on the new place.

Tip: You can often live happily for as many as ten years in your newly purchased home before the renovation disease shows further symptoms. When the symptoms show up again you will know that it is once more time to move on. Do it!

Easing the Pain

If it is too late to avoid the first and most important pitfall, i.e. getting started, and your harvest gold fridge is already sitting on the front lawn or you find your partner in the middle of the kitchen in a cloud of dust, busy with a hammer and cold chisel, breaking up the blue and yellow floor tiles that no longer match your self-image, then here are some helpful notes on easing the pain.

Essential Planning

Planning renovations can be almost as much fun as actually doing them. This is a time to dream, after all. You may even wish to go down to Busy Bee (2251 Gladwin Cr) and blow a couple hundred bucks on some fancy drafting equipment. (You could wait for the same stuff to come available at a garage sale for $10 but you are probably in a hurry.) Part of the fun will be spending several hours looking at all of the neat woodworking tools and equipment they have on display. You will also want to whip over to Staples or equivalent and get some drafting paper and ‘oh, what the hell’ might as well pick up one of those fancy laser measuring tapes, because you know you are going to need it to get the planning measurements right.

Tip: It would be smart to begin keeping track of costs even at this early stage. This is optional of course. By the time renovations are finished the costs may not be the most important worry.

Staples probably have some neat computer software for just this kind of accounting problem. If not, just drop in at Future Shop on the way home. You may be tempted there to invest in some drafting software such as 3D-Home – the advanced version. This is ill advised unless you are planning to build a new house or add a major extension, (and to do it all yourself), or unless you are secretly a geek. 3D-Home is marginally useful for renovations and will burn up endless hours of your valuable planning time while you install it and get a feel for its many interesting functions. It is a lot of fun to use however, and it even has little fridges, stoves, chairs and sofas that you can insert into your drawings to judge better the size of your plans. It also looks very professional when printed out. It can draw straight lines very well but does not allow rectangles with unequal sides.

Tip: When it comes to things like kitchen/bathroom fixtures, cabinets, windows, doors, etc. the 3D-Home software won’t allow you to plan anything that does not accord with standard appliance size, construction codes and building practices. This can dampen your natural creative instincts significantly.

Now that you have the basic tools you can get started with the plans. Draw them up as neatly as you can although this too is optional as even the best initial plans will inevitably have to be done over, particularly if a building permit is required or you are expecting a contractor to follow them. The standard rule used by those who require drawings is to ask that they be redrawn.

Tip: You may not wish to waste too much time on this planning stage. What you want initially is just enough detail to allow a contractor to estimate the job. You can choose the new door handles and floor tile at a later stage, (once you have seen the bills from the first few weeks on the job), and thus be less disappointed by the inevitable need to economize. Going back over detailed plans, e.g. to downgrade the lovely $700 bathroom sink fixtures you had set your heart on to the $45 ones you can afford, can be demoralizing. On the other hand, planning is a relatively inexpensive part of the renovation process and the smart house owner may wish to drag this stage out over several months or even years.

Tip: For those planning to do the whole job themselves the planning stage can be skipped entirely. Remember that planning a renovation is just like planning a war. Once the first shot is fired (read: wallboard ripped off, tile mutilated, cabinet removed, hole dug), all the plans go out the window. So if it is entirely your “war”, why bother with a plan at all? Why not wait until you have an opening in the kitchen/dining room wall you can actually measure before going out to examine door options? This is particularly sane advice if the building is and old one.

Tip: Never make assumptions about what is behind wall plaster or wallboard, under a floor covering, above a ceiling, or beyond a depth of six inches in your yard.

Estimating Cost and Time

Use this simple formula when planning the cost and duration of renovations: 1) invite at least three local contractors in to estimate the cost in dollars and the time involved in hours, 2) take the highest cost estimate and the highest time estimate, 3) convert the cost estimate to US$ at par and the time estimates to days at the rate of 4 hours per day, 4) divide the estimated time in days by 3 to convert it to “contractor’s weeks”, 5) multiply that cost estimate by two and the time estimate in weeks by three, 6) convert all cost estimates back to Cdn$ at the market rate, 7) take a large glass and fill it to half full with the best whiskey you have, 8) drink it quickly and check to see if there is something worthwhile on the TV.

Tip: Two glasses and twice the amount of whiskey will be required if you are sharing this planning stage with a partner.

Tips regarding contractors:

• If you can find anyone who is satisfied with their experience with a contractor it would be good idea to ask how they are related.

• Finding 3 contractors to give you estimates in a reasonable time frame can prove frustrating. On the positive side, it can extend the planning stage substantially.

• Never, (repeat never), have a contractor do a large job on a cost plus basis. Get a firm price for all of the work you want done. This will take time and may require an architect, or that you go back to your plans and draw them more precisely. If changes come up as the job progresses get the contractor to tell you what they will cost and have him sign a contract adjustment.

• Never, (repeat never), get into a situation where you have to sue the contractor or vice versa. You will lose.

• Beware of contractors who remove their tools from the job at the end of a day. It may mean they are not returning; i.e. “walking”, leaving you to finish the job yourself, or worse, hire another contractor.

Doing It Yourself

Having completed this first planning step, but still reeling from the cost and time estimates, you may want to consider how much money and time you could save by doing the work yourself. Here is a useful formula for making these estimates: Take the cost numbers arrived at above and subtract 50%. Take the time estimate and multiply by 2. Now multiply both numbers again by two. Remember these are only rough estimates and each job will bring its own surprises.

Finding the tools and materials to do your own renovations is easy in Ottawa where we have box stores like Home Depot, Rona and Reno Depot across the river, not to mention specialized stores like Lee Valley, Busy Bee and the Metal Supermarket among many others. Look in the yellow pages for complete listings. For antique hardware and used door and window fittings you can easily blow a few hours at Cohen and Cohen on Merivail Road. To match hard to find older fittings and for used cabinetry and other kitchen and bathroom fixtures, don’t miss the Habitat for Humanity resale store (2370 Walkley Rd). If it is specialized wood you need The Wood Source a few miles west off the end of Albion Rd can make a nice day trip and a dandy refuge.

Tip: The time required to find fittings that match your favorite ones is directly proportional to their cost.

Remember that the big box stores are there to make you think that renovations are so easy that even you can do them.

Tip: Before being taken in by the subtle marketing strategy of the box stores you should consider going back to the section above entitled Avoiding Pitfalls. Take that advice along with half the cash estimated in the section on Estimating Costs and Time (see above), and invest it in the stock of one of these box stores. This will make you a richer person and give you much more peace of mind.

The good thing about doing it yourself is that it provides an ideal excuse to invest in some good tools. You will want to be careful not to include these costs in the cost of your renovations (except perhaps depreciated values) because they will of course be used over many different jobs over their lifetime and yours. Besides, they are expensive and would inflate your cost estimates well out of proportion. Good second-hand tools can sometimes be found through the classifieds, pawnshops and sometimes at garage sales, often at half the price. Buying tools this latter way is not advised for novices because they typically come without owner’s manual and therefore cannot be adjusted to the high precision standards you demand. Ideally you will look for an estate sale, a divorce situation or for someone being deported to find a whole workshop full of good tools at bargain prices. Keep an eye on the classifieds.

Tip: You should not be in a hurry when looking for good second hand tools.

You may also want to invest a little time and money to make yourself a decent workshop where you can store your new tools and keep them in good working order. A good sturdy workbench is also essential. This little project can perhaps get rid of half of the problem of the unfinished basement and can often take one’s mind off the renovation projects long enough for them to become moot.

Get it done on the Weekend

Some jobs are so simple that they can be done on the weekend while the rest of the family is away at the cottage. This is a common error in renovation estimation. Should you find yourself drawn into this myth you risk the rest of the family coming home to find there is: a) no water (just going to reverse the feed on those taps upstairs so the cold water comes out of the blue one and the hot out of the red); b) no electricity (going to get that outdoor light on the patio moved to where it is not in everyone’s eyes and no longer a head-bashing hazard for people over 5 feet tall); c) no back yard (going to install that little pond where the grass won’t grow and finally get me some fishes); d) no back door (going get that sucker to swing the other way so I am not always stubbing my toe on the fridge door); e) no window(s) (it’s about time we installed some decent double glazers and stopped heating the outdoors); or f) a leaking roof (a nice skylight over the upstairs hallway will pay for itself twice-over on resale).

You also have to live with the inevitable lies you will have to make up about how you spent your weekend. Would anyone believe that you spent two whole days on your back-side with your head under the sink trying to get those fittings switched – and that they still don’t fit? Better to warn your various bosses of your plans so they can call ahead to see if they should stay another day or two at the cottage or expect you to extend your weekend by a couple of days.

Tip: Murphy’s Law is a regulation when applied to renovations!

Timing and Payment for Large Renovation Projects

If (in spite of the above advice) you still intend to undertake a significant renovation project you will wish to plan it around your other life activities to ensure the disruption is minimal. Clearly it would be inconvenient to have large holes in your outside walls or roof in February. Accordingly you should plan to have contractors do the work at a time and in a timeframe that fits your schedule. Convey these instructions to your contractor in a straightforward manner. He may nod sagely in apparent agreement.

Tip: Sage nodding by a contractor does not mean he has agreed to do the job according to your schedule! It simply means that he has heard what you have said.

Regardless of the staring schedule you think you have agreed with your contractor (read “partner” if it is a do it yourself job) and notwithstanding the agreed finish date or the degree of completion or non-completion of the project, the rule is that the work actually begins when workers first arrive at the jobsite with tools and finishes when their tools disappear from the jobsite.

To avoid misunderstandings that often arise over such issues it is best to begin planning your life when the workers first arrive with their tools and for you to be on the jobsite to ensure that a few expensive tools are left behind at the close of work each day until the job is more or less finished.

Tip: Your showing up only around the close of work each day will be interpreted suspiciously unless you bring a six-pack or two.

Tip: Never, never, never pay a contractor for work he has done until it is all done. Partial payment for large projects is normal but ensure that the balance owing is as significant as possible.

Tip: Be sure that your slowness in paying is not interpreted as an inability to pay, i.e. you are broke or your assets are tied up in divorce court. This will inevitably cause a contractor to “walk” – usually with his tools.

Clean up

Renovations are messy. It is often worthwhile noting this in the planning stages to avoid misunderstandings regarding sensitive electronic equipment, designer clothing and the like that has to be thrown away or sent out for extensive professional cleaning after project completion. These latter items can of course be included in the cost of renovations but both the act of disposal (or cleaning) and their inclusion in project costs can test a relationship. It may be prudent to locate a “safe room” somewhere in the home where such cherished items can be safely stored behind a well-sealed door for the duration. Note however that you will still have to eat, sleep, bathe and run your life during renovations. You might want to think carefully about this during the planning stage. If you or your partner have allergies or a particular aversion to dust in the bed clothes, the shower and the morning cereal you might want to reconsider the section on Avoiding Pitfalls above, or plan to be away for the project duration yourself.

Tip: To calculate the time you or your partner will need to plan to be away, please refer to the section on Estimating Cost and Time above and for safety purposes, given Murphy’s Regulation, multiply that number by 2.

Renovations can add significant value to your home and the joy derived from the finished product can sometimes outweigh the stress and disruption caused by the project. No one can guarantee that a renovation project will leave you better off, but it is guaranteed to change your life. If it does not work out more or less as planned do not despair. You will have learned some interesting life skills and you will be left with some neat tools with which to begin the next project or that will make your next garage sale significantly more interesting.

Don Caldwell

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