From the Inside of a Remodel, Part II

Michelle Mitchell from ScribbitMichelle Mitchell shared her experience remodeling her home at her blog, Scribbitt. Recently, I interviewed Michelle to see what she learned about the whole process. Read Part I here.

Homeowners need realistic expectations for any building project, she concluded. Her experiences, while not common to all, show that often the process is slower and more costly than homeowners expect.

The design phase excited Michelle and her husband, Andrew, especially, but despite the thrill of planning, they stepped into the next unfamiliar area of  remodeling—finding and working with a general contractor.  Their architect gave them a list of people they could contact, but they still needed to interview and select the right person. In hindsight Michelle now knows what she’d look for in a general contractor:

With a contractor you’re really hiring someone who organizes the project. He’s got to be able to order materials and get them there all at the right time. He’s got to be able to work with the subs and make sure they are all working together.

However, the pool of contractors in their community seemed limited and they “chose the guy that showed the most promise.”  At the same time, the reality of cost overshadowed the excitement of executing the design they wanted. The bids came in over budget. In an effort to keep the design mostly intact, they went back to the architect. He respected their budget, and together with the help of the general contractor, they cut out certain parts and substituted different materials to reduce costs.

The one thing our general contractor was really good at was going through the bids he collected and saying, “Here’s where the cost is.” And then, he got a second bid with cheaper stuff. That was a big help. Otherwise we would have looked at it and said, “We can’t do it, it’s just too expensive.”

Michelle said those measures brought the cost down from a price that was more expensive than they originally budgeted to a price they felt comfortable paying.  Since they knew they wanted to go ahead with the planned addition, they looked at their budget practically and determined cost priorities.

You can keep it in budget but you have to be flexible about what you can give up. It’s all about needs versus wants. Sure I like to have this solid pine beam with wood from Tonga in my home, but come on, who’s going to know, and is it going to make that much of a difference? You’ve go to cut what you don’t need.

They also planned to reduce costs by doing some of the work themselves, including demolition of the garage roof, which they began tearing off in August, anticipating completion by mid-October. With the work started,  the general contractor seemed competent in framing, but as the project progressed, or rather didn’t progress as fast as they thought it should, they identified several problems with his work— wasted time, lack of coordination, and mistakes when ordering materials.

He took time off from the project unexpectedly, leaving early or taking days off, even when he was behind schedule. “It would be different if he took off and came back and made up for it by working harder, but he never did,” Michelle said.

In addition, he didn’t coordinate well with the subcontractors. “We were constantly in the middle of things saying, ‘Why didn’t you guys talk about this earlier?’ “

The design specified a number of custom-made elements that required exact measurements. “There were a huge number of things that were mis-measured. I became frustrated with his inexactness,” Michelle said.

He came to me in the day when I was the only one home and said he had ordered the wrong-sized windows for the big windows in the addition. He said, “Gosh, I framed it and the windows aren’t going to fit. The ones that I ordered are going to be too small. Does it matter to you? Do you want to go with these windows or do you want to reorder them?”

My first thought was, “Gosh, how much is this going to cost?”

But our architect was adamant, “No, you want the full-sized windows. You don’t want to go with a smaller one;  it compromises the design.”

I talked Andrew into telling him, “You’re going to eat the cost on this window, we want the right size.”

But, we told him that if he finished on time we would give him a bonus, where he could recoup some of his losses. I hoped that that would be a nice compromise.  But . . . he didn’t even come close to that date.

The finished addition with the large windows

When his contract was up in October, we expected him to come to us and say: “‘Gosh its been hard and I’ve been behind or anything. And this is my plan for getting it done by this date,” which we would have been very reasonable about.

But, he didn’t. Instead, Andrew and Michelle took over as the general contractors in October. With that experience, they decided they would be their own general contractor on any future remodeling projects. Over the course of construction, their roller coaster of excitement slowed when they realized the contractors weren’t as productive as they expected. Michelle concluded,

The majority of the workmen you work with on a home remodel are not people that are going to wow you with their productivity, by the nature of the business. It was very hard to find people who are  proactive and would call and reschedule. If you do have people like that, they tend to work in bigger corporation. If somebody broke into the industry and was very reliable, communicative, kept you informed and didn’t make you chase them down on the phone, they’d make a lot.

Despite the construction challenges, they love the extra space and storage in their new addition and especially love how it looks and feels now that it’s finished.

Next Monday, Feb. 1, I conclude the series, From Inside a Remodel, with Part III, and how remodeling impacts family life.


  1. Michelle at Scribbit
    Jan 26, 2009

    Would you know that it’s still not finished? Those closet doors still haven’t come in and they’re picking away at things. It’s unbelievable! We’ll be paying off our mortgage before the addition is actually finished!

    But thanks for another write up 🙂

  2. An Ordinary Mom
    Jan 30, 2009

    So much to learn about remodeling a home. I have a lot to learn about buying a home as well!

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