Under construction

Homeowners and building contractors look for ways to keep their relationship on a productive footing.

From the front yard, Alan and Judy Richman's handsome cream-colored Georgian colonial maintains the original classic lines that first drew them to the house 17 years ago. But in the back, a dramatically updated look prevails.

Twice in the past decade, the couple has added more living space for a family of four - first a family room, then a media room, both with soaring windows and skylights. In the process, they have joined growing ranks of homeowners across the country who are hiring architects and contractors rather than real-estate agents when they need a bigger house.

"Financially, moving didn't make sense," says Mrs. Richman, explaining why they have twice endured the dust and disruption of construction. "We love the schools, and we wanted to stay in this area."

Sentiments like these echo through the Richmans' quiet suburban neighborhood, lined with 50- and 60-year-old colonials and Capes. Among 24 houses along their block and an intersecting street, 13 have undergone major construction in recent years, becoming a microcosm of national construction patterns.

Spacious kitchens and family rooms have pushed out walls and spilled into backyards. New bedrooms and in-law suites have created more flexible living. One couple with three children even raised the roof, doubling the size of their single-story house.

Projects like these add up to big business. In 1999, Americans spent $16 billion on home additions, according to the National Home Builders Association in Washington. They spent another $42 billion on residential alterations - remodeling kitchens and baths and expanding family rooms. The association expects these figures to grow 5 percent a year for the next 10 years.

Across the country, this is the season when bulldozers, backhoes, and cement trucks rumble through neighborhoods, and when the sound of saws and hammers echoes through the spring air. It's also a time when homeowners in the throes of construction look at the dirt outside and the mess inside - and at their shrinking bank accounts - and wonder: What have we gotten ourselves into?

The answer to that question can be rewarding or disappointing, depending on everything from the design and quality of the work to the integrity and consideration of work crews. Satisfaction also depends in part on how well homeowners understand the four D's of home additions: decisions, deadlines, dust, disorder.

"They've got to know from the beginning that the period is going to be dirty and dusty," says Ali Talakoub, president of A & Z Corp., a contracting firm in Belmont, Mass. "You have to be patient."

Then there is that all-important fifth D, dollars - many, many dollars. As homeowners soon discover, construction often costs more than they expect.

"Anybody who does any kind of addition should have a cushion moneywise, because there are changes you cannot avoid," Mr. Talakoub says. "No matter how good the architect or contractor, you're marrying new construction to old."

He suggests setting aside "plus or minus 10 percent" for a cushion. "Otherwise you have to compromise and give up some of the things you want or originally planned on doing." Some homeowners think in terms of 20 percent - or more.

Richard McCullough, an architect in Medfield, Mass., emphasizes the importance of being realistic about the potential cost. "It's a long-term investment, and decisions about design and materials should be based not on what the initial return will be, but on the long-term picture," he says.

For the Richmans and most others on their street who have built additions, the first step involved working with an architect. "We had no idea what was involved or how big to make it, so we let him guide us," says Mr. Richman. The couple also got design ideas and names of contractors from other people who have added rooms.

In seeking bids from several contractors, they found a $70,000 differential between the highest and lowest figures. Before committing themselves, they asked each builder for references and went to see their work. They eliminated one name when they noticed that the corners in his rooms were not square.

As Mr. Richman explains, "We asked people: 'Were the workers considerate of your needs? Did they work safely around children, cleaning up nails and so forth? How long did it take compared to what they told you it would take?' "

Encouraging people to factor in more time, Michael Moylan, president of Western Professional Builders in Westwood, Mass., says, "When a contractor says a project will take three months, homeowners should plan on four months."

Delays, he adds, are often not a contractor's fault. "A lot of times the subcontractors won't show up on the day they're scheduled to be there."

One of the Richmans' neighbors, Ed Lynes, is a veteran of three additions - two in the family's current house and one in their previous home across the street. Because of his experience, he did almost all the general contracting for the most recent project, adding living space downstairs and a fourth bedroom upstairs.

Mr. Lynes estimates that he cut costs by about one-third by handling the contracting himself. Still, there were trade-offs.

"It's a hassle," he says. "It's extra work. You have to take care of getting permits, bidding, securing contracts, and keeping an eye on the work." He subcontracted out plastering, wiring, and heating. In Massachusetts, electrical and plumbing work cannot be done without a state license.

Beware the unseen problem

Three doors away, Nancy and Ken Bordewieck doubled the square footage of their colonial, which was too small for their family of five. From the beginning, unexpected problems arose.

They had to replace their old chimney, which was falling apart. They also discovered that their garage did not meet current building codes. It, too, had to be replaced.

"It was like, ka-ching, ka-ching - one thing after another," Mrs. Bordewieck recalls. "Once you start something, it becomes a tidal wave."

Adds Mr. Bordewieck, "Every time we made a decision, we thought: 'We're only going to do this once.' It's expensive."

The couple also learned the importance of standing up for what they wanted. Their architect wanted to put a screened porch on one side of the house, and they voted to have it on the other. "He wanted it to be beautiful," says Mr. Bordewieck. "We wanted it to be our home."

Decisiveness is an asset

To minimize problems, Mr. McCullough encourages clients to make a list of their needs and wants. He stresses the value of making decisions in a timely manner. Dragging them out, he warns, increases design and construction costs.

Contractors also urge clients to keep problems in perspective. Talakoub tells of one project that involved opening up the second floor of a house while the owners were away. Every night, workmen covered the roof with two layers of tarpaulin. But one day it rained and water leaked in, damaging some plaster.

"The people thought the whole house was going to be ruined," he says. "To me, it was three sheets of Sheetrock and plaster, a matter of $50 to $100."

Sooner or later, conversations with homeowners and contractors inevitably come around to the subject of inspectors.

"You have to know the laws, especially local building codes, and the quirks of the inspectors," says Lynes. He recommends hiring a contractor or tradesman who has worked in the town and "knows the peculiarities of inspectors. If inspectors throw a monkey wrench in it, it can really mess you up."

Around the corner in a white Cape, Kevin and Christine Malloy are midway through the neighborhood's latest addition. Like the Lyneses, they hired a contractor for the exterior. Now Mr. Malloy, an electrician, is working on the interior, which includes a larger kitchen, den, playroom, master bedroom, and bath.

"Realistically, look at the cost of doing it, and see if it makes sense financially," Malloy advises. "Look at the cost of buying a house that's already there and compare the two."

Two years ago John and Maura Walsh, the Malloys' next-door neighbors, did just that. They decided to expand their kitchen and add a family room, bedroom, bath, and deck. For them, the worst problem was dust.

"The guys who demolished the kitchen didn't put plastic between the doors and the rest of the house," Mr. Walsh says. "There was dust everywhere. That's just a no-brainer."

To escape, Mrs. Walsh and their children spent several weeks visiting her parents. Big mistake. "You've got to be there every day to stay on top of things," she says.

Another regret: not committing the contractor to an end date. "We should have definitely put a deadline on the job," Mr. Walsh says. "He had multiple jobs going."

Walsh also knows the value of good chemistry between clients and contractors. "You've got to hook up with somebody you're comfortable with," he says. "I liked the general contractor, but I wasn't thrilled with some of the people who worked for him."

Don't pay everything up front

Walsh and Richman both emphasize the importance of holding some money back until all work is complete. Walsh says, "Don't pay everything up front."

It was a lesson Richman learned the hard way when he paid a bricklayer before the project was done. "You'll never see them again," he says. "I called the sidewalk guy about a hundred times." Eventually he had to finish the walk himself.

Not surprising, architects and contractors compile their own lists of gripes. They tell of clients who cannot make decisions. Who keep changing their minds. Who want a $300,000 addition on a $150,000 budget.

Both builders and clients plead for the same courtesies: trust, respect, understanding, fairness, patience.

Even when tensions grow, McCullough makes a case for optimism. "Try to maintain a positive attitude, no matter what," he says. "Be patient and just enjoy the process. It may be the one chance you have to create something just for you."

Not all homeowners would repeat the process. Although they give high praise to their builder, Mrs. Bordewieck says, "We would never do this again. If we knew then what we know now, we would have sold the house and found something else."

Yet when the last workmen pack up their tools and leave for good, most clients find that memories of delays and disappointments fade as they settle in. "Looking back, you do say it's worth it," says Mrs. Walsh, holding their 5-month-old son while their two preschoolers play in the new family room.

Even the Bordewiecks, despite the length and expense of their project, are happy with the results.

"The family room has changed our family dynamics," Mrs. Bordewieck says. "Before, we were on top of each other. Two of us were here, three of us were there. Now we can be together. We can entertain. We can invite people over."

'That's not what I wanted to hear'

Seven comments architects and contractors don't like to hear from clients

Is it too late to...?

I'm thinking about making the following changes...

I'd like my brother-in-law to do the electrical work.

I'll save money by installing the insulation myself.

It will be two weeks before I get over to look at...

We're going on vacation and won't be back for three weeks.

There should have been enough money in the account to cover the check.

Seven things homeowners don't like to hear from contractors

We've run into a little problem...

This is going to take longer than we thought.

That'll add another $4,000 to the cost.

The subcontractors can't make it today.

We'll be back in two weeks. We have to finish up another job.

The building inspector isn't satisfied with...

Can you give us the final payment a little early?

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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