Morningside Renovation

Our Journey Through The Renovation Process Of Our Future "Forever Home" In Morningside (Atlanta,GA)


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Advice on Hiring a Contractor

“Many times what we perceive as an error or failure is actually a gift. And eventually we find that lessons learned from that discouraging experience prove to be of great worth” – Richelle E. Goodrich

Ok, 1 project, 2 years and 2 different general contractors. We obviously didn’t get it right the first time and the second attempt was a failure as well, so while I can’t give you a fool-proof method or checklist on how to go about finding and hiring a great, ethical, morally fit and competent general contractor; I can share with you what worked and what didn’t. Basically lessons from the University of Life.

Sure, we read and followed all (most) of the great and insightful advice given on numerous websites (most probably written by someone who has never been through this process) but we still got scammed. Two professional and business savvy people victimized by contractors who seemed to be not only one step ahead of most of the advice but most importantly the system, the system specifically put in place to protect homeowners.

I’ve said it before; the crooked ones are smart and good at their game. Most homeowners hire a contractor for a major project only once or twice in their lifetime, however these guys are juggling numerous jobs at any one time – who do you think knows the game better? And if you think you can depend upon your local governmental authority to monitor or punish these donkeys think again. Most of these agencies don’t have the time, finances, capacity or desire to do so and the laws; well if they’re anything like the ones in Georgia then you’ll find they’re structured to mostly protect the contractor, not the homeowner. (Any guess on who has a bigger lobbying group?)

So here it is; suggestions on what to do, or not to do, in no particular order:

 

Have an Attorney Review the Contract.   It’s a no-brainer that you should always have a written contract between the two parties. It doesn’t matter the size or scope of the project there should always be a contract specifying at least the commencement date, estimated completion time, total cost of the project, payment method and plan, insurance coverage, detailed specifications of the project as well as what constitutes a default (BOTH parties) and the possible remedies. Of course there needs to be additional language covering delays, change orders and termination language for both parties as well as various other sections addressing permits, inspections, utilities, etc…however what most don’t take into account or stop to realize is that the contract is usually supplied by the contractor. That’s right; it’s the contractor’s contract, written for the benefit and protection of the contractor. See why you should have an experienced attorney review it? And by experienced I mean someone who deals in construction law. Believe me, the few hundred dollars spent having the agreement modified to offer you the same mutual protection is well worth the alternative. Last, despite what you might be told, there is no standard contract and they all can be modified. If your contractor tells you he won’t accept changes or that it can’t be done then you need to find someone else.

Insurance.    Require that the contractor provides you with all of the proper insurance coverage for your project. Make them supply you with proof and make a copy of it. Call their insurance carrier and verify the amount of coverage & type. Also keep track of the expiration date of the policy to make sure that it covers you throughout the construction period. Last, have your insurance carrier review the insurance language in the contract as well as the coverage carried by the contractor.

You Control the Money.   Meaning, if you’ve obtained a construction loan to finance your project, make sure that only you have access to receive and/or order a distribution. Believe it or not but giving the contractor the authority to withdrawal funds is a somewhat common practice or request – but you’re only asking for trouble if you agree to it. Thankfully we didn’t, and while both of the contractors weren’t entirely please with our resistance they eventually got over it. If your contractor requires such – RUN!!

Lien Waivers.   Make sure that you receive a lien waiver from the contractor each and every time you provide them with a payment. A lien waiver stating that they indemnify you and your property and that their business (& them personally if able to achieve) will take full responsibility if ever a claim of non-payment appears. Also, make sure that your attorney reviews this agreement prior to the final execution of the Construction Contract/Agreement. Better yet, try to obtain the ability to pay any subs directly and require that they indemnify you via a Lien Waiver; you can still pay your contractor his percentage fee separately.

Only Pay for Completion. Pretty self-explanatory but only pay for completed work. When things started to get off-track with our second contractor we arbitrarily decided to only pay for work which was 100% complete and only on rare occasions would be pay for work which wasn’t, then paying a percentage which was less than the percentage of what was actually finished. Example, you receive an invoice for the labor of installing sheet rock throughout the house(100%) however only 90% of it has actually been hung, you would only pay 50% of the invoice, with the balance being paid once that particular job is 100% complete. I sure wish we had implemented this from the beginning, as once we did a number of unfinished items were quickly completed.

Do Not Pay In Advance for Materials.   Looking back the only way that I would agree to altering this stance would be for specialty ordered cabinets or something similar with a higher dollar value. If your contractor is unable to afford to front the initial expense then his bank account is probably a little too lean.   We got stuck on this one – our second donkey told us that it was required by the vendor for us to pay for half of the cost of our exterior doors upfront and the balance would be due on arrival. Stupidly we did, and once we released him and went to pick up the doors from the vendor we were quickly told that they never received our initial “down payment” and they’ve never even had such a policy. Trust is a two-way street.

View Completed Projects, but More Importantly View Current Job Sites.   Fairly self-explanatory but when viewing current jobs don’t just stop by during arranged times; go by unannounced at odd times so you can see the quality of the work as well as the condition of the job site.

Don’t Just Check References.   Of course ask for and actually call the references supplied to you but know that those are most likely cherry-picked, as I doubt anyone would provide less than stellar references. Go one step further, most municipalities allow you to view permit information online where you can search by address, owner’s name, contractor’s name, etc… Run a quick check for permits pulled by your contractor over the last few years and see if there are any names/jobs which weren’t given as references by the contractor and then reach out to them. At the same time some municipalities even go so far as to list online which inspections passed and which ones failed for each job – great info to have. Sure wish we had known about this in the beginning, our first contractor had a less than stellar inspection history.

Get a Detailed Bid.   It may seem like overkill and it’s a lot of work on the contractor, and potentially for you, but the more due diligence done on the front-end the less chance for surprises down the road.

Don’t Fall in Love, Trust that Little Voice.    It’s so easy to get swayed by the fast talk, fancy promises and flashy pictures and websites. Most contractors aren’t there to bring to life your dreams; they’re there to win the job, and some at any means necessary. Most of these guys could have a successful career as a politician so only trust less than half of what’s coming out of their mouth. Remember, they just want the job. If the promises or prices seem a little too good and aren’t in-line with those you’ve received then move on to the next guy. Nobody can pull a rabbit out of a hat without fooling you, don’t be that fool.

Third Party.   While some general contractors now offer in-house architectural services I would strongly advise that you hire an outside source. Why? Some in-house architects are great but you have to remember who they ultimately work for on a daily basis, even after your job is complete. Ask those in your neighborhood who they would recommend and then interview each of them until you find one that fits your project. I would also recommend finding one that is experienced with project management and who will be actively overseeing its progress. If you’re going to have a considerable amount of structural work performed then I would also highly recommend that you hire a structural engineer to overlook the architect’s plans as well as the work being performed. Most architects have a few which they work with regularly which is fine, just make sure that your contract allows for you to have the ability to hire these advocates and then follow through with doing so. Nobody likes having someone look over their shoulder, especially when they “know” how to do their job. But despite what you might be told, the extra money spent on hiring a third-party is well worth the investment and can not only save you money but can also save your project. While we used our contractor’s architect, big mistake, we did hire a structural engineer on our behalf and it was beyond worth it and ultimately ended up salvaging our dream/home.

Careful with Fixed Priced Contracts.   So the appeal of a fixed priced contract to homeowners, or at least to those which I’ve spoken with, is that you know the price will never be over the agreed to construction cost. Won’t be under and it won’t be over. The general mindset or fear of most is the possibility of the cost getting out of hand and potentially becoming unaffordable, the Fixed Priced concept is supposed to eliminate these fears; with the homeowner thinking that any cost over the contractually agreed to price will be the responsibility of the contractor. Think again, these guys aren’t idiots. Somewhere in the contractor there will be very liberal language discussing unforeseen conditions as well as change orders. One guess who pays for any extra expenses associated with these unforeseen conditions and change orders? Yep, you. And they’re quick to list something they should’ve taken into account on the front-end and label it as an unforeseen condition, sort of an extra layer of protection for them.

Keep Everything Tidy.   Make sure that there’s language in the contract requiring the contractor to maintain a clean and orderly work site with all trash and debris being swept up and deposit in a dumpster at the end of the day.

Take Pictures.   I’ve mentioned this before but take pictures throughout the process. Besides being able to look back on the progress being made these are also provide a great piece of evidence if ever needed in the future.

Hold Some Back.   Make sure that the payment plan is structured where you’re not required to pay the last 15-20% until after the job is 100% finished, punch-list items are completed and all Lien Waivers have been executed. You’ll definitely experience some resistance over this one but try to hold back the same percentage as what your GC is charging for his fee.

Sober Up.   It’s so easy to become intoxicated over the initial excitement, but try to step back and view this as a business decision. Take all emotions out of it and if you feel comfortable doing so, maybe use a trusted friend as a sounding board and then ask for their advice. Did we do this? Nope, we stayed “drunk” for the first several months and then finally sobered up before it was almost too late.

“Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from mistakes of others.” – Brandon Mull

 

This is by no means a comprehensive list but just a few of the items which immediately come to mind.  Please feel free to add to it or share some of your past experiences.


Time Flies, Group Effort and Angels

Time certainly moves quickly and unfortunately I had to set some things aside but I’m back and over the next several days I’ll try to give an update on where we are in the renovation process.

We’re still moving forward and even though the weather hasn’t been overly cooperative, and we’ve been constantly reminded that others move at their own pace no matter how much you try to prod them along, progress is being made.  As mentioned, I’ll post updates on what we chose for insulation, installation of windows, outdoor room decision, drywall installation, exterior paint decision and where we are with the kitchen countertop decision.

Six months ago I never envisioned that we would actually be this far along.  While I had every desire and intention to turn this house into our home there is no way that if back then I somehow had been able to step aside and remove my tunnel-vision goggles I would have bet even a dollar that this dream might actually be achieved.  Of course it would probably be somewhat rewarding to feel as if I had singlehandedly brought us to this point but it’s been quite the opposite and has taken a total team effort on numerous fronts.  But even with this team effort we’ve also, and thankfully, encountered a few angels along the way that have provided us with invaluable guidance and assistance.  My hope is that I’ll be able to provide an adequate account, acknowledgement and thanks through the next several posts, but realistically I can’t imagine how that will be possible.


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The Value of Capturing the Moment

It probably goes without saying but I never knew the true value of it until our ordeal.  Take pictures if you’re in the process of or about to begin a renovation/building/remodeling project – lots of them. Pictures can be extremely helpful if there is ever a dispute about the quality of work that was performed. I imagine most people generally take a few “before and after” pictures as well as when their project reaches certain milestones.  However I would strongly recommend taking pictures more frequently, possibly everyday if there is a lot of work being done – and make sure that you take them covering all aspects and phases of the project.

These pictures can potentially save you thousands of dollars in the future by showing proof of inferior workmanship. Unlike our first experience, and quite fortunately, the vast majority of General Contractors are admirable, trustworthy and competent professionals, but they’re humans.  Everyone makes mistakes and some of these mistakes could end up costing YOU a tremendous amount of money in the future, especially if it’s critical to the structural integrity of your home. Also, it would be great if we could all depend upon our local municipality’s building inspector to catch these mistakes but that doesn’t always happen and in most areas they’re indemnified and can’t be held financially liable. All of the more reason to do everything you can to protect yourself.

Of course you want to be mindful of those working on your project and not get in their way.  And you don’t want to be viewed as a homeowner that is just trying to find a mistake and looking to build a case – sure fire way to destroy a contractor/homeowner relationship. At the beginning of your project start with an open and trusting mind while giving the professionals you hired the benefit of the doubt since they do this a lot more frequently than most of us – we hope. These pictures should just be viewed as insurance, same as we have for our cars and house.

Now, if you do find a mistake make sure you take detailed pictures of it along with the surrounding area.  Keep in mind that if these pictures are ever presented to a third-party in order to make a judgment you want there to be undeniable proof of your claim– remember that the burden of proof is always on the homeowner.

From the beginning of our project I took a lot of pictures out of pure excitement, not even thinking that I might need them one day. Every day I would stop by the house and take pictures of the progress.  A few of them I’ve posted on this site and Flickr however that is a small percentage of all of the pictures which I’ve taken. When I started finding mistakes I made sure to take a lot of pictures from all angles and views.  For instance, after the initial framing was completed and we discovered that the ceiling height in the basement was going to be at least 6” shorter than what was on the plans I made sure to document this by taking pictures and videos showing the error and I even used a tape measure which gave more accurate proof of our claim.

Keep in mind that any litigation will be an uphill battle for a homeowner. Unfortunately when going before an arbitrator or a judge homeowners are often at a disadvantage and at times prematurely viewed in a negative light before a hearing even begins.  The contractor has more knowledge about construction(most of the time), knows the jargon and depending if your contract includes arbitration language with an arbitrator already identified, they could possibly already have a relationship established with those determining the outcome.  While not a guarantee of victory, pictures can certainly help to even the playing field and take away some of your contractor’s argument.  They say pictures are worth a thousand words and in these instances it couldn’t be truer.

Thankfully most people won’t have a similar situation as we experienced however these pictures can still come in handy years from now by serving as an x-ray of what’s behind all of the sheet rock and finishes.  This alone could save you hundreds of dollars.  One too many times a contractor has probably said to a homeowner “we have no idea what’s behind those walls until we open it up”, your pictures will eliminate some of the guess/exploratory work and expense. 

There it is and pretty simple, take pictures and lots of them – before, during and after your project. If you have a video camera it’s not a bad idea to utilize it as well.  Download the pictures and/or video to a disk or external hard drive and keep them someplace safe.  Hopefully you’ll never need them but if you do they can prove to be invaluable.


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Velux Sun Tunnels, Are They Worth the Added Expense?

The Velux Sun Tunnel

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Originally I was planning on having these installed in the Master Bath, our walk-in closets, Kitchen, Boys’ Bathroom, and Laundry Room but since can lighting is less expensive and we’re cutting costs this is one of my “wants” that had to be eliminated.  Unfortunately I can’t seem to let it go, meaning that I’m trying to find a way to justify the added expense.  Of course I know the argument that “they’ll pay for themselves overtime with reduced electrical use however that just isn’t enough. So basically I’m asking you, “are you familiar with them, have you used them and are they worth the added expense?  I’m also concerned about the potential of them leaking.  They seem to be an amazing product, adding a lot of natural light and at this point I’m totally sold on them, I just need either more information, a cheaper alternative or to know that they’re not worth the it. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find very many contractors around the Atlanta area that are familiar with them. Let me know your thoughts if you have any experience or history with them.

So we’re moving along with framing, completed the majority of the interior frame-work, closets, baths, fireplace, stairs, etc…as well as the sheathing on the roof.  It is beyond exciting to see it actually all starting to come together.

Fireplace in the Great Room

Fireplace in the Great Room

Stairs - landing in the new basement area

Stairs – landing in the new basement area

View from Great Room into the Kitchen Area
View from Great Room into the Kitchen Area
Great Room

Great Room

       

Back of the house
Back of the house


Batman and Robin

What a week.  Halloween and continued progress on our house, this blog has been a rollercoaster of emotions over the last several months. 

Halloween!!  If you know our oldest son or if you’ve read some of the previous post then you know that Max is crazy about Batman.  So of course that is who he dressed up as for the big day.  But his biggest feat was convincing his little brother that they didn’t make Elmo costumes in his size…only costumes of Robin.  So our sons were the Dynamic Duo: Batman and Robin

At first it was a challenge convincing Brendan to try on his costume, but once he had it on he took to it better than anyone could have expected.

  Of course we had to carve a Batman pumpkin and since Bren didn’t get to be Elmo I ended up trying to at least carve one for him.

It was a long night but the boys had a great time.

As for our house; all of the plaster has now been removed from the walls and ceilings as well as all of the old corroded plumbing and original wiring. It’s amazing the amount of work that has been done in what feels like such a short period of time…or at least from what we were use to with our prior GC.


Reality Check

Patience is defined as the state of endurance under difficult circumstances. Blah, Blah, Blah!!!  I’m ready to move forward!!

Beautiful day so I decided to knock off a little early. Julie and the boys were at a “play-date” so I thought I would take advantage of the weather and split more wood – by now I probably have enough firewood to last us through 4 or 5 Atlanta winters.

Of course this provided me with a little Reflection Time.   I received a thank you note today from a guy who interned with our company this past summer. This is a kid who lost his dad when he was 6 months old and mom when he was in high school, both tragically unexpected.  Prior to his mom’s death he lived a life that I’ve only read about or seen in movies; there were times when they had no utilities and the only food in this growing boy’s body were those provided by his school.  His mother worked 3-4 jobs as life continued to present them with challenges that would sink most. So one day over lunch I asked him how he managed to stay out of trouble and not get caught up in such readily available negative influences, his response – that wasn’t his focus.  It was there, all around him, he easily could have taken another route and more than likely ended up being a statistic that we all pay little attention to on the nightly news, but that wasn’t his focus. 

We’ve communicated a few times since he left to go back to school but this young man who is half my age left quite an impression on me.  The odds were more than against him, life couldn’t have dealt him a worse hand but he never let that stand in his way.  Today he’s a sophomore at Harvard and one of the standouts on their defense; one amazing and determined young man, a true inspiration.

Sort of puts life into perspective for me…Best of Luck Zach and Thank You!!


Step by Step

Not a lot to add since my last entry.  We’ve basically been meeting with several contractors as well as their sub’s to explore the possibilities of moving forward. I really wish that we knew our future course however some of them are all over the board when it comes to pricing.  Interesting enough, it seems that those with more experience on our type of project tend to be more reasonably priced than the others.  We shall see though.

I won’t even go through all of the various mistakes and omissions pointed out by these GC’s and subs on the “work” that has already been “completed” by our former GC.  However they all say that we were extremely fortunate to have caught these mistakes when we did and that all work has ceased – versus discovering it later in the process…or 5-10 years from now.

As you know our former GC left the site in quite a mess: pieces of discarded boards lying all around (with nails sticking up), empty drink bottles everywhere, huge pieces of concrete rubble scattered around the backyard, etc… So last week I decided enough.  First up replace the tarp that was put on the house by our former GC, which has been slightly more effective than a window screen… with the result being that we now have to replace the ceiling in a few rooms and have lost the hardwood floors in a couple of them as well.  I had no idea who to call but somebody referred Bell Roofing.  So I called late one afternoon and by 10 am the next morning our house was securely covered (tarped).  It just doesn’t make any sense why it wasn’t tarped properly in the first place by our former GC when he was still on the project?  We told him numerous times that water was getting into the house.  Plus, he’s the one that opened up the back as well as top of the house.  No doubt he would have tried to charge us for the damage, “change order” is probably how he would classify it.

Next up, the foundation slab.  Max and I spent a few hours on Saturday morning cleaning it up by removing the various pieces of discarded lumber, nails, broken pieces of concrete and trash. I know, not your typical father and son activity but it was his decision; his favorite playground, swimming or helping me clean up the site.  He loves working over there, he seriously can’t get enough of it and of course I love the one-on-one time with no outside interference or distractions.  I wish this time in his life would slow down but in reality I know that before long there will be a 1 in front of his 3 and these moments I so enjoy with him will become less often as they will eventually take a backseat to his friends and other more “cool” activities.  (At least he has a younger brother)

Next on the list; getting all of this stuff removed from our property.  If you know of a place that rents those roll-off dumpsters and has a cheap rate PLEASE let me know.