Lessons Learned from a House Remodel in Culver City

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Drive around any Culver City neighborhood and new construction or remodels are popping up, as evidenced by a preponderance of wire fences and port-a-potties. The in-construction houses become a neighborhood topic of discussion, as neighbors speculate on if the house will be flipped, or built for the new owners.

Our house was such a home. We purchased our “fixer” two years ago with plans to remodel pre-move-in.  We knew our house had “good bones” and we were excited about the prospects of making the home our own.

We heard familiar horror stories of other people’s remodeling projects, including problems with the contractor, or going over budget. Since we’d previously undergone remodeling projects in a previous home, we thought, optimistically, our CC project would not run into major issues, but the best-laid plans…

Lessons Learned

Lesson #1 Do Due Diligence when choosing an architect

A critical component to help with a remodeling project is to choose a qualified architect–but–and this is critical–someone with whom you can get along since you’ll be spending a lot of time with him (or her).  

Our biggest mistake was hiring an architect without thorough due diligence. Although chosen based on personal recommendation, we did not check with previous clients or colleagues. Save yourself from months of relentless frustration–do Due Diligence.

Lesson #2 Be open to objective opinions about your budget

Is your budget adequate? Listen to outside opinions. Of the three architects we interviewed, the two we did not choose, told us our budget was too low for the work we wanted to be done.

We wanted to hear someone say the project could be done within our proposed budget. If two of three professionals say your budget will not work for what you want to be done, be open to their opinion, and question the architect who says that the project can be done within budget.

Ultimately, our final costs came back at 40% more than the original budget. Since you may not be able to rely on your architect’s assessment, it is wise to have a 25% buffer of the total project costs.

Lesson #3 Prepare for a longer timeline

It always takes longer, period. If your contractor tells you that your project will take X amount of time, add a few additional months.

Delays can be caused by unresponsive or tardy subcontractors, the time to pull permits and CC inspectors to check the work, or any number of potential unforeseen issues, once walls are opened. Remodeling projects always take longer than you think.

Lesson #4 Prepare for unforeseen circumstances

Our Lindberg Park-area house was built in 1950. Once walls were opened, we discovered no insulation and extensive termite damage, and that meant additional costs. Always expect the unexpected.

Lesson #5 Consult a lawyer for your contractor contract

Make sure a lawyer reviews your contract; terms should be very clear as costs can be prohibitive.  

The following contractual provisions are essential:  

1) have a flat fee contract for the entire project rather than a cost-plus margin contract and

2) put in a penalty if the contractor is not able to make the estimated timeline.  

Paying a lawyer a few thousand dollars to review a contract is money well spent for a project valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A flat-fee contract ensures the contractor sticks to the budget and that there are no hidden costs.  The contractor bears the risk if costs come in higher than the contract’s estimate. Be detailed regarding deliverables. Even though our contract was a flat fee, our contractor had put that the materials would be “standard.”  

He did not delineate what was “not standard” from our bid, and we soon discovered that many items that we chose were “not standard.”

For example, we ordered a marble-patterned Caesarstone quartz slab, which was premium and cost more. Had the contract been clear as to what materials would not be considered standard, these additional costs would not have been a surprise to us.

Include a penalty in the contract if the contractor is not able to finish by the deadline helps to ensure that your project is on track. Unfortunately, the contract we signed did not have this provision.  Our contractor was confident that the project would take four-to six-months.

It took 10 months. There were several days when nothing happened at our house. A lot of our stress would have been alleviated, had there been penalty provision in our contract so that our contractor would be held accountable for making the deadline.

Lesson #6  Hire a dedicated project manager

Contractors typically juggle several projects at the same time. The contractor may not be at your house to see progress on a regular basis, or to make sure subcontractors are on time.  A dedicated project manager is critical to help the project move.

A project manager is always on site and can follow-up on missing subcontractors. Our contractor did not have a dedicated project manager.  I believe we would have been within the original estimate time-frame if we had a dedicated project manager.

Lesson #7 Ask Questions of the Culver City Safety and Planning Division.

The bright spot of the remodeling process was the efficiency and helpfulness of the Culver City Safety and Planning Division.  

We had a lot of questions for each step of the process. Employees answered phone questions and emails and were prompt in pulling records.  Additionally, employees were receptive to listening to issues arising from inspections and gave helpful advice on how to remedy.

A major remodel is unquestionably a daunting task, but it was important that our neighbors considering one were better prepared–and the result is satisfying. We are home proud.

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