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11 renovation myths

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You'll want to read this before swinging the hammer

Andrea Calo

Reality television isn't just the provenance of singles looking for a mate, singers trying to best each other, and would-be or quasi-celebrities seeking attention. A good number of programs in this genre deal with another kind of elusive state: The experience of a perfect home renovation.

Like relationships and fame, renovations are seemingly made-for-television. We fantasize about them, dreaming of a beautiful home whose transformation is easy, fast, and affordable. According to the pros, the reality can be a lot grittier. We went to contractors around the country (all members of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, or NARI) to help pull the veil off the process and reveal truths.

Myth #1: Remodeling is easy

Tom Miller of Tom Miller Remodeling in Portland, Oregon sums it up this way: "If remodels were easy, everyone would do their own." At the beginning of every project, he tells his clients that their kids and dogs will be the only occupants who miss the crews when they depart (children like the excitement, dogs enjoy the extra attention and treats workers sometimes provide).

"Reality television makes it look so simple. Major remodels are done in the space of 30 or 60 minutes while the homeowner is out. What the viewers don't see are the hundreds of people working on those projects 24/7 to make it happen," he says.

"The truth is that it takes longer than that, and that it requires time and emotional energy from the clients. What the clients don't always realize is that the process is going to be unavoidably messy and will intrude into their lives, although a good contractor will minimize that as much as possible. The kids and dogs get excited about it, but the owners will be glad when it's over."

Myth #2: Remodeling is inexpensive

David Pekel of Pekel Construction & Remodeling in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin notes that reality television and articles on budget remodeling have conditioned homeowners to believe that renovations can be done inexpensively as well as quickly.

"If you want to buy cookware, you can go to the store and check out the price on a set you like. You can then look at an unlimited number of retailers online to see if you can find the same thing for less," he says. "You can't think of remodeling in those terms, as it's harder to put a price point on it. The materials and products you are putting in are only a portion of the cost, the skill of the labor behind the installation is a very significant part of it."

A remodel usually costs twice what the client thinks it might.

He notes that on TV, the labor cost is not always factored in, so when homeowners are quoted a price that includes labor, they feel like they are being mislead. "It's not just the labor either," he says. "A good quote should factor in project management and all the associated things that go along with it. In my experience, the remodel usually costs twice what the client thinks it might."

Myth #3: You can do it yourself

Pekel says people who wouldn't think of trying their hand at surgery or dental work might be persuaded to take up the hammer, and that it's not usually advisable. "Doing things like demolition or electric work can be deleterious to your health," he says. "Professionals should have a lot of experience and training on how to do things safely."

Pekel, along with the other contractors interviewed for this story, all mentioned occasions when they've been called in to correct a DIY project. "I'm not saying there aren't things you can do yourself," he says. "But it's unrealistic to think your regular citizen will be able to spent the weekend safely gutting the kitchen."

Myth #4: The low bid is the best value

Dale Conant of Atlanta Design & Build has a theory: If three contractors possess similar experience and a skilled crew, their project bids should all be about the same. "You don't want to overpay for a project," he says. "But I contend that going with the low bid and then paying to fix mistakes is more expensive than the highest bid."

Myth #5: Products that look the same, are the same

Pekel uses the analogy of a diamond to illustrate this point. "You can have a large stone that looks good until you get it under a microscope and you see it's not really clear and it has a lot of inclusions. Then again, you can have a small stone that looks like a rainbow in the sun. In those cases, the small stone might be one third the size but five times the cost," he says.

"Locally, we have a store that sells a Moen faucet for $200 and, a few shelves down, offers what looks the same thing for a price of $89. The difference is one is metal and brass and the other is mirror-covered plastic. In the lifecycle of the product, the less expensive one will end up being more expensive because you will have to repair and ultimately replace it."

Myth #6: Remodels always take longer than planned

Robi Kirsic of TimeLine Renovations in New York City notes that many clients seem to expect tardiness from their contractors. "I am punctual. Ninety percent of my clients express shock and surprise when I arrive on time for the initial meeting. They seem to be expecting me to be late because of my profession," he says.

He notes that most contractors want to finish on time so they can move on to the next gig. He says that the antidote for delays is good planning and organization. "The key is starting with a good understanding of what you want and the scope of work. That will insure that project goes smoothly and wraps up on time."

He says that change orders (when homeowners want something different from or above and beyond the original plan) are big reasons for time overruns. "Here's an example: If we have a plan for a door style, we order them right away as they can take four to six weeks to arrive. Later if the homeowner decides they want a different style of door, then we have to reorder, and that results in a delay." It also ends up costing more, which brings us to our seventh myth.

Myth #7: Remodels always cost more than bid

Kirsic feels that sticking to your plans is key to holding the monetary line. "If you can decide what you want and stick to it, you can stay in budget," he says.

"The problems happen when you allocate $10 per square foot for tile, but fall in love with tile that's $25 per square foot while shopping. Or you allow for $10,000 worth of appliances, but you decide later you want something higher end. Obviously, that will add costs to the project."

In his mind, leaving as little to chance or imagination as possible is how to end up at the figure you expected. That said, all the planning in the world can't eliminate the element of surprise.

Myth #8: Good planning can outwit surprise

The only way to combat the unexpected is to, well, expect it. "Every home, new or old, can hold a surprise. Undetected slow leaks, pests, handy person fixes—any of these can end up in hidden flaws that you don't see until you pull a floor up or take a wall down," says Miller. "The only way to deal with surprises is to try and budget for them. If no surprises come to light, then you can go shopping with the money."

Myth #9: You can make it up as you go along

By now, it's clear that starting with a solid plan is a good idea. However, it's important not just for cost and timeliness, but for general outcome as well. Years ago, I was writing a story about a kitchen remodel. The contractor rhapsodized about the incredible "mind meld" he and the client experienced, making the design up as work unfolded.

I called the client expecting a similar feel-good story, but much of her response is unprintable. She was unhappy with the time it took, the amount it cost, and deeply regretted some last minute field decisions. Conant says it's a good idea to ask a contractor for a copy of project plans and then talk to the homeowner to see how closely they were followed. "It's important to see if the goal set was the goal met," he says.

Myth #10: Fancy trappings make a good contractor

Conant says that it's easy to be fooled by appearances. "It takes more than a fancy truck with your name on it," he says. Conant suggests that people go about hiring a contractor with the same thoroughness they use to hire someone at their place of work. "Check these people out," he says. "Are they licensed? Do they have legit credentials? Check out their references."

The renovation the process is like childbirth: The pain fades in time.

Both Conant and Kirsic says that when it comes to hiring contractors, it's better to do an Internet search than to be swayed by slick marketing materials. "A quick Google search will tell you if the owners of a contracting company have filed bankruptcy or have had liens filed against them," Kirsic says. "You will also find a lot of reviews, but what I find more helpful is to check city databases [many cities have the information on the planning department website] and see if there are any old open jobs under the company name. If there are, you can assume there's a history of walking off the job."

Myth #11: You will be bitter when it's over

Conant says that the process is like childbirth: The pain fades in time. "We've had a few projects where something unexpected was discovered that led to a long, expensive, and difficult job," he says. "Yet, these clients have come back to us again, given us multiple referrals, and allowed the project to be photographed and published. If the end result is great, they are happy."