Proper care and feeding of a residential construction project – Part 2 Working with your contractor

Amy Musser

You’ve hired a contractor to build your dream home, hopefully using my advice from a previous blog.  How do you make that relationship work for you? Trust them. They know the building code and they will have subs and materials that they feel comfortable using. I won’t say that you should never push a contractor out of their comfort zone or ask them to do something new, but you should do so very thoughtfully. On any given job, if there are more than one or two major over-rides, you may have selected the wrong contractor. If you strongly feel that they need to do something differently, discuss it with them, and take their concerns seriously.

Don’t work directly with subcontractors, and involve your contractor in any conversation that you have with subs. Many homeowners are under the mistaken impression that if they call subs directly they will be able to get a better price than their builder can. The simple economic truth is that a good contractor will get a better price every time because subs want to do future work with them and because contractors are more savvy clients who usually require far less hand-holding. Subs certainly want to make the homeowner happy and they want you to tell your friends what a great job they did for you. But you’re not a big source of future business for them. Your contractor is.

If your contractor is working on a percentage basis, working directly with third parties to avoid paying their percentage may be a violation of your contract. I would also be concerned that it could void their warranty responsibilities, even beyond the work that you specifically manage, since building systems are often intertwined. It’s also likely to damage your relationship with the contractor.

In a related point, don’t show up onsite and make changes without having your contractor there. First, it confuses the subs in terms of who they’re working for, making everyone uncomfortable and the job more expensive. It’s also usually the case that even a minor change will have implications in terms of schedule or the building code that your contractor understands better than you do. This is why you hired a contractor, so use them.

If your budget is tight, try not to make many changes. This always costs money. Spend time planning up front, and use a 3-D sketching program to visualize the house beforehand. Also, if something isn’t important to you, ask your builder if that’s an area where you can save money. If you really don’t care what the plumbing fixtures look like in your guest bathroom, I guarantee that your builder will leave the plumbing store with something cheaper than what you would pick out.

Don’t bid shop. Bid shopping is when you get a price from one sub and you show it to another sub and ask them to match it. It’s highly unethical and is actually illegal in commercial construction. If you do this, you will instantly convince everyone that you don’t know much about construction. I understand the temptation, because we’re used to taking ads from one store to another for price-matching. Construction services are a much more complex product. Bid shopping is like giving one person the answer to a test. If you can find someone willing to go along with it, rather than giving you a better deal on the same services, they’re likely to alter what they provide to you in a way that drops the quality but makes the numbers work. If you really want to go with one company over another, it’s probably because you perceive their services to be of greater value to you. Let companies know they are bidding competitively and ask them for their best price. Get more estimates if you need to, or ask subs if there are ways to lower the cost (but understanding that this will sacrifice quality).

You’re not going to save much money as you think by doing things yourself later, and you risk quality by doing so. The trickiest rooms in a house to insulate, manage moisture, and condition properly are basements and bonus rooms. Guess which rooms homeowners always plan to finish later by themselves? The brutally honest truth is that there are a lot of contractors who don’t do a great job on these spaces, even with code officials doing inspections and licensed subs installing materials. You can realistically assume that you’re not going to get it right. These future spaces are also subject to what I call “code creep”. You decide to have them insulate the bonus room. So you might as well wire it. And a lot of insulation products now require an air barrier or ignition barrier, which means you might as well drywall it. So really, you probably ought to have them finish the drywall and just paint it while they’re there, because it really doesn’t add much at that point.

Avoid the temptation to create “partially conditioned” rooms. Homeowners love these and builders and code officials don’t do enough to talk them out of it. You should be able to walk through the framed house and identify whether each space is “inside” or “outside”. If it’s inside it needs insulation on the bottom, sides, and top. All holes out of it need to be sealed using something other than stuffed fiberglass. And, it should be conditioned. If it’s outside, there should be insulation and air sealing between it and any adjacent “inside” spaces. It should have code-compliant venting or another appropriate means of dehumidification (for example, in a sealed, unconditioned crawlspace). As soon as you start to confuse this, people forget where the insulation and air sealing is supposed to be and you get a really bad building envelope. If you’re going to insulate that area where the Christmas decorations are stored, do it right and put some supply air in there. Otherwise you’re likely to end up with a big moldy closet or a big patch of snow melt on your roof.

Finally, step away from the window catalog. There is a phenomenon that I call “window panic”. Homeowners become very fearful that rooms will be “too dark” and they put in too many windows. You don’t need floor to ceiling windows because you’re only looking out the middle of it anyway. And you don’t need a window on every wall, especially if you can use South-facing windows, which are brighter year-round. Avoid commercial metal windows on a residential project – they are not usually designed for the energy efficiency that homes need (and the ones that are cost twice as much). Windows are really expensive and reduce the efficiency of your home. Try to stay below 18% window to floor ratio.

These are the biggest things I see homeowners doing to sabotage their own success. If you choose a contractor wisely, watch out for these pitfalls, and communicate regularly and constructively with your contractor, you will increase your chances for a successful project outcome.

Copyright 2014.  Amy Musser