Ready to renovate? Careful planning can save money, headaches

 

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 credentialsEven 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 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 gutTrust 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.

Budgets are a moving targetThe 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 negotiateGetting 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 surprisesWhen 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 writingNo 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.

Guide to online home-services directoriesOnline home-services directories can provide hundreds — or even thousands — of user ratings for contractors, plumbers and other pros.

Consumer Reports looks at four popular sites to guide you in your home improvement research.

Angieslist.com* Good for: User review reliability. Number of Pros: 1.2 million. Coverage: National. Cost: Currently about $10 per year; reviews and ratings will be free starting this summer.

* Unique features: Has a proprietary process for verifying that reviews are authentic, including an annual audit by an outside company to prevent service providers from reviewing themselves favorably or their competitors unfavorably.

* What Consumer Reports likes: 10 million verified reviews. A test search for kitchen remodelers in a Chicago-area ZIP code turned up companies with hundreds and thousands of reviews; user review sample sizes of that magnitude lend credibility to the resulting letter grades.

* Caveats: Contractors who advertise on Angie’s List show up first in search results when the default search option “with coupons” is used. Using the “Recent grade: A-F” search option is a way around that.

Checkbook.org* Good for: Price guidance and independent ratings not influenced by advertising. Number of pros: 45,000. Coverage: Boston; Chicago; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Philadelphia; San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose; Seattle-Tacoma and Washington, D.C., areas. Cost: $34 for two years.

* Unique features: Completely funded by its members and accepting no advertising, Checkbook surveys its own subscribers as well as those at Consumer Reports (which provided early funding in the 1970s) about their experience with local contractors. Home improvement pros can’t promote themselves by buying ads or evade scrutiny by opting out.

* What Consumer Reports likes: Instead of using letter or star grades, Checkbook shows the percentage of users who rated the pro as “superior” or “recommended.” Provides price info based on apples-to-apples comparison by secret shoppers.

* Caveats: Available in only seven metro areas.

Homeadvisor.com* Good for: Cost guidance and prescreening of pros. Number of pros: 116,000. Coverage: National. Cost: Free.

* Unique features: HomeAdvisor matches you with up to four highly rated pros who are actually available to do the job. It also uses third-party sources to perform background checks of every service provider it accepts.

* What Consumer Reports likes: The “true cost guide” provides detailed cost estimates for hundreds of projects and jobs. Service providers cannot buy their way to the top of search results; all pay a $250 to $300 membership fee.

* Caveats: Checks for criminal convictions go back only three years; its search of civil judgments goes back only one year. The company also has limited ability to search criminal records in 22 states (including Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan and Virginia), and it does not check for complaints filed at state attorney general or consumer affairs agencies.

Porch.com* Good for: Finding contractors rated by the Better Business Bureau. Number of pros: 3.5 million. Coverage: National. Cost: Free.

* Unique features: Offers descriptions and photos of roughly 138 million home projects, which consumers can use to gauge what their budget will buy and browse lower-cost alternatives, such as a cabinet facelift instead of a full kitchen remodel. The Ask Porch app provides free do-it-yourself advice from pros.

* What Consumer Reports likes: Easy access to BBB ratings and convenient links to contractors’ websites.

* Caveats: “Guaranteed professionals” rise to the top of search results, but that badge is available only to service providers who pay $100 or more per month (varies by ZIP code). Guaranteed pros must pass a “comprehensive background check,” but CEO and chairman Matt Ehrlichman told Consumer Reports that it’s based on user reviews, licenses, project history and “anything we can find on the Internet.”

To learn more, visit www.ConsumerReports.org.

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