We get a lot of reader questions when it comes to home owner and real estate issues. Up until now I’ve answered these questions informally on a person-by-person basis. But it turns out more than a few of us would like to read the answers to these specific questions. Call it curiosity, or maybe it’s a desire to know that we’re not the only ones with a question, but reading the answers to other people’s questions helps me make better decisions when it comes to my finances, real estate and housing.
As such, I will now answer your real estate questions through my blog. Don’t worry: I won’t need to include your name or specifics. It’s the question that counts. So, if you have a question, please email me directly (at firstname.lastname@example.org), post a comment below or on my Facebook page. I look forward to hearing from you.
Q: I plan on gutting and remodelling my current second-floor bathroom next summer. This renovation would mean knocking down a wall and taking over a small bedroom so that we could have a larger family bathroom. Even though I’m six months away from starting the work, I’d like to know if I should start planning now? I’ve heard that contractors are hard to find and that permits can be a nightmare to get, is that true?
Dear Need More Sink Space,
You’re a wise, wise woman. Planning a renovation—large or small—is a testament to those famous Brownie or Cub-Scout mottos: Be Prepared.
So, lets take your question one step at a time. First: Finding and booking a good contractor. Yes, this can be hard, but even for last minute jobs, it’s not impossible to find and book a reputable contractor. That’s because in the grand scheme of home renovations, your plan to expand your bathroom isn’t considered a large job. While it will certainly create chaos in your household (for as long as six weeks), and while it will be expensive (good bathroom expansion jobs easily creep up past $15,000 or $20,000), it’s the type of job that many reputable, busy contractors will schedule in at the last minute if you don’t mind being at the mercy of the contractor’s schedule. That’s because busy contractors will often double-book a large and small job during overlapping times in their work schedule. This keeps their crew busy even while they wait for city inspections, delivery of materials, or specific portions of a job to be completed. Keep in mind, though, the completion of your project will probably take a bit longer and the start and end dates will have to work around the contractor’s ongoing schedule.
But you’re a planner and with six months before you start the work there’s no need to wait to book a contractor. In fact, calling a contractor now—when the year is about to end and they are looking to fill their schedule for next year—is often a good strategy for negotiating good deals. That’s because contractors want to fill their schedule with guaranteed jobs so they know there is work for their crew and income coming in to the business. By paying a small deposit now, and securing work for next year, you can be upfront with asking for a discount. For instance, ask if the contractor will throw in a the cost of the bathroom fixtures if you pay a deposit now? Or consider asking for a 5% to 10% discount if you pay a larger deposit now to secure the job next year. You may not get what you ask for but it never hurts to ask, and a contractor will be in a much more generous mood now, while he’s trying to firm up work, then next year when his dance card is already full.
Now, to find a good contractor you’ll need to do a bit of homework. (Try this old but realistic article from the Globe and Mail)
But once you’ve narrowed down your list of contractors to no more than five, then you’ll want to conduct some interviews in earnest. There are a lot of tips on what to ask potential contractors, but I want to highlight two answers you need to know before signing a contract with a home renovator. These are:
1) Ask for a ballpark price during the phone interview.
Sound ridiculous? It shouldn’t. If a contractor knows the business then they should be able to give you a ballpark price, off the top of their head, just be listening to you describe your renovation job. While most homeowners will ask this question, what they don’t realize is the quoted price is not the answer they need to concentrate on. Instead, you need to pay attention to what the contractor says to qualify that price.
What do I mean? To find a contractor, you”ll probably end up calling a dozen or so companies; you’ll describe your job and they’ll either schedule a site visit or discuss the project with your over the phone. It’s during this initial discussion (either in person or over the phone) that you’ll provide details about the job. At this point a good contractor will be able to provide a ballpark cost for your proposed project, but it’s the statements they use to qualify the price that are important. For instance, listen for:
“This depends on the fixtures and finishes you choose,” or
“This is based on standard, builder’s grade materials and finishes,” or
“That’s what a standard job costs, but I’ll need to see drawings to give you a more accurate price.”
By qualifying their price, a contractor is doing one of two things: He is pre-qualifying you as a lead (and this is a good thing as a successful contractor needs to weed out home-reno-tire-kickers: avid-fans of HGTV shows that run for the hills when faced with realistic reno-prices) and he’s helping you develop a realistic budget for your project. Because trust me: if you call a dozen contractors and have this conversation with each of them, you’ll get 12 different ballpark figures. What you’ll find is that there will always be one or two that are really high, another one or two that are really low, and the rest will fall in a similar range—by choosing contractors from this “similar range” list you’re increasing your chance of finding a good contractor that charges a fair price. However, to narrow down that list of potential contractors you’ll need to schedule in-person visits. Alternatively, you can ask each contractor what they will require from you to get a more precise estimate. And this leads me to my next point.
2) Does the contractor ask about drawings and permits?
A contractor that uses licensed, experienced tradespeople (including master electricians and licensed plumbers) requires drawings. An honest contractor will find it impossible to quote you an accurate price for the job without accurate drawings. Yes: It’s an added cost, but it also means your bathroom will be built correctly and to your exact specifications.
Many contractors, like my husband, actually team up with architects and designers to ensure that homeowners work with professionals to get accurate drawings.
As such, don’t be surprised if a contractor starts talking about pulling permits for this job. Yes: it’s a renovation that’s inside your home, but it’s a renovation that involves moving walls (which could be structural) and includes adding or repositioning plumbing and electricity. These are components of your home that need to be done safely and according to the building code—and the city verifies that this is done through the application and inspection of building permits.
Of course, there are a large number of reputable contractors who will complete smaller jobs, like your bathroom expansion, without permits. I don’t condone this practice. But I’m not naive. I realize that a lot of good, quality home renovations start and end in the underground, cash economy. That doesn’t mean you get an inferior job, or that the contractor will cut corners, but it does mean that you need to go into every decision with your eyes wide open.
When all is said and done, if you follow these simple tips not only will you sleep better knowing you have a great contractor at a fair price, but you may even be able to save some money but will reduce the stress inherent with every home renovation.