What about the ones at the bottom? Are they for sale?

There are 3 facets to this post:  1.  Low bids from contractors   2. Acting as your own general contractor  3.  What can make your project cost more

Firstly:  You have construction documents and you are getting bids from contractors.  You get three bids.  One is $100, one is $500 and one is $350.  Do you take the lowest bid?   NO!  There is probably something wrong with that bid and you should scrutinize it with a fine-tooth comb before signing over any money to that contractor. 

What are you checking for, you ask?  Does the bid cover everything on the plans?  Vinyl windows,  radiant heat flooring, tankless water heater, down draft stove, barrel ceiling, basement wine cellar?  Have you told him/her that you are having a tile floor in the laundry room or a vinyl floor?  Granite on the counters or soapstone?  Copper sink or stainless steel?  Special ‘green’ products?  The list is a long one and the possibility for a project- (and heart-) stopping problem is high!

If you really like the contractor, then review the contract very carefully, maybe even have an attorney review the contract with you to make sure you are protected.  You don’t want to have a contractor coming to you during the project and say that the triple pane windows aren’t included or that he didn’t price trenching the electrical conduit to the garage or that the upgraded electrical panel isn’t happening. 

Better than an outhouse, I guess...

I’ve seen contracts that said very little – like “Patio deck, $5,800, 40x20sf”.  Nothing else!  Where’s the info about the step and the railing and the materials and the amount of money to be put down as a retainer and the turn-around-time for the project?  I rewrote the contract with the original information and added all the stuff I wanted included in the contract (and that we had discussed).  Then I presented it to the contractor, he and we signed it and off we went.  He did a great job and we are very happy with the deck.  Contracts are not his strong suit, we know that, and we are so satisfied with his work that we use him over and over – and recommend him to others.   But, would I feel comfortable doing that with someone I don’t know – absolutely NOT.

Was it really gonna cost too much to redo the ceiling lights? Apparently so...

And, don’t you do it, either!  A client just emailed us asking for a referral for an electrician.  Their electrician has done some financially questionable things, claiming items aren’t included in his bid even though they are on the plans and so they’ve lost confidence in him. 

Always, ALWAYS check on the contractor’s license with the Contractor’s State License Board.  Check references, check YELP, check the Better Business Bureau, check anywhere and everywhere you can to try and head off any problems.

Hopefully, you’ve talked with contractors during the ‘design’ phase of the project to get a feel for the contractor and an idea of the construction cost and then you meet again when you actually have the construction documents.  And you meet a third time to go over the bid.  This way you’ve begun to develop a relationship.  Remember, it’s a marriage and each party depends on the other to hold up his end of the bargain.

Another story from Rick…quite a few years ago a client up in the hills talked with Rick about the bids he’d received from contractors.  The low bid was 35 grand less than the other bids.  Rick had never heard of the contractor and told our client to be sure the bid included everything.  The homeowner said “Yeah, but $35,000!  That’s the price of a Mercedes!”.  He hired the low bid and, guess what?  That’s right, the contractor started work and after a while, the homeowner noticed that certain items weren’t being done, like trim around the doors.  The contractor didn’t have that stuff in his bid.  But it was on the plans.  The homeowner hired Rick to come to the job site each week to monitor the work and they started pushing the contractor to do what he was obligated to do.  The contractor ended up going bankrupt and leaving the project.  The homeowner had to hire the subs himself to finish the work.  In the end, not only did he pay the $35,000 in real money, he paid much more than that in frustration and headaches. 

Secondly:   You know the old saying ‘he who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client’?  Well, that can apply to acting as your own general contractor, too.  We have a few clients each year who are doing their project ‘on the cheap’, so to speak.  If they’ve never managed a construction project before, then they might be in for an unpleasant surprise.  The cost of their construction might not be reduced as much as they’d like.  Here’s why: 

1.  Subcontractors will have little confidence that a newby homeowner can manage the project.  There are many aspects of the job that dovetail together and timing can be critical.  Subs don’t want to be scheduled, then put off, then called in ASAP.  They are working on multiple projects and their timelines can be drastically affected and they could even lose a future job due to a homeowner’s ineptitude. 

Shoulda called the plumber to come extend the pipe to the shower head, beFORE tiling.

A competent general contractor knows how to schedule the flooring, painting, cabinet installation, etc. so that one subcontractor is less likely to damage the work of another subcontractor.  You don’t schedule the cabinet installation when the floor tile is still drying.  You schedule the painter to come in twice, once before the cabinets are installed and then again to do the fine work afterwards.  And the general contractor knows how to handle a conflict between subcontractors, do you?

2.  When a homeowner is a beginner, the subs end up training the homeowner and it costs them time and money to hold his/her hand.  If a subcontractor knows he’ll be dealing directly with the homeowner without the usual buffer of the general contractor, he might charge more for that inconvenience.  There are subcontractors who specifically choose NOT to be general contractors because they don’t want to have to deal with homeowners.

One contractor told me of a client who had researched how to frame a wall and didn’t feel that the contractor was doing it right.  The contractor had to take the time to explain the rules for California, and the rules for the city and why the wall-framing info he’d found online didn’t apply to his job.  Aargh!  What a waste of time and now the contractor is frustrated.  You want your contractor to WANT to come to your job –  if he hates your job, is making no money on it, then watch out. 

The only way to turn off the fan is with the wireless remote. If you can't find the remote, you lose your hand.

3.  Discounts.  General contractors frequently receive discounts with suppliers from whom they buy frequently.  Many contractors pass those savings along to their clients.   Some contractors will use those savings as their buffer for when other costs go up, so they don’t have to turn around and charge the homeowner.  A discount here can offset a price increase there.  Homeowners aren’t going to obtain those same discounts.

Thirdly:  Your project might cost more because you are on a hillside or using products that are unusual or hard-to-find with long lead times.  Maybe you’re in a city that is a pain to deal with – reduced counter hours, grouchy inspectors, weird requirements.  And, yes, pretty much if you’re in Los Gatos or Palo Alto, you’ll be charged more than if you  live on the ‘east side’ (hey, I was raised on the ‘east side’ and loved it…Go Silver Creek Raiders!).  It’s a fact of life – similar to the fact that Macy’s in Valley Fair has different products than the one in Oakridge – it’s the demographics, baby. 

They cut through the plexiglass window rather than go through the wall.

Here are more reasons why a project might cost more:  Look in a mirror.  Can you make a decision?  Are you always looking for a better deal?  There is always a different product, different price, different color, different idea, different size, different EVERYthing.  STOP . LOOKING . AND . MAKE . A . DECISION!  Your inability to decide costs the contractor money.  The contractor wants to be sure you can choose the oven or paint or whatever, when the time comes.  Late product delivery holds up the job.  Don’t let the myriad of choices render you immobile.

Another contractor told us of a client (not one of ours) who couldn’t decide what she wanted and would have him build something, then decide it was too small or short or something and change it, then go on to the next area.  That type of work is fine if you are a contractor without a pipeline (other jobs coming up), but it really only works if the contractor has nothing else to do.

Frequently, it’s the clients who try to bargain like they’re at a flea market who are the ones causing problems in the future.  They drag their feet then try to rush with self-imposed deadlines created because they dragged their feet in the first place.  They use the cheapest contractors, then come running to us to save them when something goes wrong.  They find fault with others and always assume the worst.  Everything is a problem, everything is an emergency and its all someone else’s fault. 

Too cheap to pay for big enough support posts?

We had a client call us to say he was ticked off that there wasn’t a fireplace in the master bedroom.  He’s already in construction.  He’s reviewed the plans and reviewed the plans and gone over them with the contractor when getting the bid.  When did he tell us he wanted a fireplace in the master bedroom?  Even if he told us and we forgot to put it in, he’s been looking at the plans, too.  It’s not something that goes in every house, like a refrigerator!  If we don’t know you want one, you better make sure to tell us.  And don’t act like its our fault, cuz it isn’t. 

Count on your job costing at least 10% over what you think it will cost.  Things happen, products you want are no longer available, paint needs a third coat, the window arrives broken and waiting for it delays something else.   Plus, a general contractor can choose to ‘eat’ a small change order in the name of client satisfaction, whereas having no general contractor on site means the homeowner gets to pay for it.

A tunnel between 2 rooms, what's with the curtain? The paneling, the cardboard? Accomplishing what, exactly?

Well, I guess I got into ‘parental mode’ there for a while.  But sometimes, thinking over the ridiculous things people say can make us, and by ‘us’ I mean ‘me’, irritable.  One client got all huffy because he saw that Rick didn’t hand draw the details for his job.  He felt he wasn’t getting the superior level of service because Rick used a standard detail.  Rick asked the guy, do you really want to pay me to hand draw the plans?  Using standard details means that the contractor won’t have to charge the homeowner for the process of learning how to do something in a new way just for this one job.  Standard details mean less chance of error and standard details means we can charge less because we didn’t have to spend time putting pencil to paper. 

Fun movie...I love what Haley's best friends, who are guys, say the first time they watch her and her teammates compete 'How did we NOT KNOW about this sport?'

Have you ever seen the movie ‘Stick It’?   One of the girls that no ones likes is always mangling words and phrases.  She is going off to do school homework and tries to put down another girl (our heroine)  for not ever graduating.  The other girl says she got her GED when she was 15.  The first girl spouts another put-down and then says “and I don’t see what ‘driving under the influence’ has to do with it.”  Sigh, GED, not DUI, but, really, have you ever tried to correct someone who is so completely wrong?  You start to, you open your mouth to say something and then…you just shut it again, because they simply aren’t going to get it.  

Yeah, that hand-draw-the-details-guy was like that.  He wanted to feel special and felt we were gypping him.  How do you explain to him that hand-drawing these days is not necessarily top-of-the-line service, but probably, in this 3-D design software world, quite the opposite!

This is a creative reuse of an Apple product!

One of the things Rick stresses to his clients is that there is a soft cost to all projects.  That cost is the tuition for learning how to live through a construction project.  It’s not easy, not for the faint of heart.  You’ll do better if you have a good attitude, a sense of humor, the ability to adapt, a rainy-day fund and patience. 

Construction projects are stressful.  Hopefully, by anticipating problems yours will be less so.   Part of the reason I provide these goofy examples is so you can learn from them.  Don’t be afraid but don’t run off half-cocked, either.  Like the Boy Scouts say “Be Prepared”  😉

Photo credit:  www.ThereIFixedIt.com