Think 2016 might finally be the year to tackle that big renovation project you've been putting off?
Proper planning is the best predictor of satisfaction and will also minimize the number of costly changes you make once the work is underway.
During the planning phase, follow this advice from Consumer Reports. You could save thousands of dollars on your renovation without compromising quality — or losing your cool.
• Check credentials. Even if they come with a glowing review from your sister-in-law, you still need to check the bona fides of every professional on your short list. Though proper credentials aren't a guarantee of quality, they're a good sign that the general contractor (GC) runs a reputable business. The Contractor's License Reference Site (contractors-license.org) has information on licensing requirements in your state, and a list of licensed contractors.
• Listen to your gut. Trust and a good rapport between you and your contractor are essential. Any negative feelings you have during the initial interview (Too bossy? Condescending? Rushed?) will only intensify as the project heats up. It's also important to understand how a GC communicates during a project and to be comfortable with that method. Ask whether you'll be dealing with him directly, or whether he'll be delegating the job to one of his project managers. If it's the latter, make sure to vet the manager, too.
• Remember that budgets are a moving target. The number you start out with during the planning phase is likely to change when you begin to see what materials actually cost. GCs have to make similar calculations, factoring what they think the job will cost against their own profit margins and unforeseen expenses (more on those in a moment).
• Always negotiate. Getting bids from at least three GCs will give you a sense of the market rate and also provide bargaining power. Conventional wisdom holds that you should throw out the highest bid, but if you think that the GC offering it is the best person for the job, it's worth trying to negotiate a lower price. Combining projects could also save you in the long run.
• Be prepared for surprises. When Consumer Reports asked GCs about job-related (as opposed to people-related) problems that lead to delays or cost overruns, they said that many of the culprits are hidden behind walls — structural damage, for example, or electrical wiring that isn't up to code. Even though most contractors plan for those contingencies, Consumer Reports recommends adding at least a 10 percent cushion into your budget to cover such surprises.
On major projects, it's worth paying a few hundred dollars for a pre-inspection by a certified home inspector. Larger contracting companies might offer a pre-inspection as part of their overall service.
• Get everything in writing. No matter how much faith you have in your GC, Consumer Reports emphasizes that a written contract is an essential protection for both of you. It should specify the full scope of the work, including a detailed breakdown of labor and material costs for each part of the project. For example, the electrical costs shouldn't be a single dollar amount. The contract should list the number of outlets, switches and light fixtures, including all model numbers. It should also state a start and completion date (ask for a penalty fee of, say, $50 to $100 for every day past the deadline) and include a payment schedule, such as a 5 percent initial deposit with the remainder paid at defined milestones — for example, demolition, rough framing and installation of finish materials.
To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org.