Wednesday, March 14, 2007

On Home Construction

This project is wrapping up. I'm living in the house now.

Periodically someone asks me if being the general contractor on this renovation has been hard. Well, it's not hard like quantum physics is hard. And it isn't hard like running a marathon. And it definitely isn't as hard as finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It's more that it is time-consuming. And it requires organization. And lots of patience. And perseverance. Coming from the IT industry, the speed at which I get things done at work is more or less limited by the speed at which I work. In construction, you spend a lot of time waiting around. It's not necessarily someone's fault, though sometimes it is. Sometimes you are waiting in the car as you drive to the local DIY big box store. Or you are on the phone on hold. Or you are waiting on contractors. Whoever said patience is a virtue was thinking of home construction.

The actual process is very well known and for the most part well documented. Check out a good book from the library and you'll have the basics down in an evening. Most of the contractors I've worked with know what their role is, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of tasks where everyone points fingers and says it is someone else's job. The rub is when the contractors don't hold up their end of the bargain. I looked around and tried to find good subs, just like all the books tell you to. And for the most part it worked out pretty well. But when you get a bad apple, or just a disorganized, poor planning, late arriving apple, it makes things a lot less fun. And it really sucks if you get someone incompetent. That's infuriating. So check references. Or better yet, hire someone who has worked with someone you know and trust.

If you are just going to be the general contractor, and not do any of the work yourself, figure you're going to need to spend an hour or so a day working on the project. I typically went by the house every morning, and frequently in the evenings. Many of my lunch breaks were spent calling contractors, surfing home construction sites, or shopping. Lowe's and Home Depot really love me. There was some weekend work, and the trips to IKEA took some time.

I suppose my biggest mistake of doing this myself and for the first time was an inability to properly gauge the cost of the renovation. I did create a spreadsheet at the beginning to scope out my costs. But in large part because the scope of the project expanded so rapidly in the early months, but also because I didn't have the experience to accurately estimate all the little things that add up to a whole lot, the budget expanded quite a bit.

Here are just a few examples of things I didn't put in the original budget: dumpster rental and waste disposal fees, shoe moldings, new interior and exterior doors, and a couple of new windows. There's more, but it gives me a stomachache if I think about it too much. If this had been a new construction, the costs would have been much, much, more predictable. The variables in a renovation are caused by deciding what exactly needs to be renovated.

There were some disappointments too. I had to tear down the old fireplace and chimney. It was too unstable to leave up. There were things that didn't fit the budget such as an intricately patterned wood floor or an energy recycling ventilator. The book Freakonomics tells us that houses with the words "granite countertop" in the real estate listings sell for more money. So that would have been nice too.

There are also a few things left to complete. Luis is installing gutters this week. The exterior still needs to be painted. And I'd like to get a deck built too. But for all practical purposes, the renovation is complete. The rest is just icing. Now is a great time to go back and see what it all looked like when I started. It's kind of an amazing transformation. Follow this link. I'll wait.

In the end, I'm really happy with how things turned out. The house is completely new on the inside, everything was done the way I wanted it, and I've turned a well worn old bungalow into an up-to-date house with a modern twist.

I'd do it again.