Wednesday, July 19, 2017

{The reno files} A real-life renovation guide: Choosing a team, getting quotes and the trades you may need





Like every other aspect of every other renovation, how you do this will be different to the next person. I can only let you know what I experienced. Choosing a builder/carpenter/certifier etc might be done at the start of your project before you even get ideas. It might not be done until you have approval for your plans or somewhere in-between. The trick with this is this: you can get a ballpark figure of what something might cost you when you're throwing ideas around. But until the plans are approved, the engineer's report is done and they specify what materials are required to build your place, no-one can you give you an accurate price guide. And even then, there are always (ALWAYS!) surprises, problems, muck-ups and/or changes which will affect your bottom line. I discovered this when I started shooting off my draft plans to some local builders whose work I admired. They couldn't really give me a quote until I had the engineer's report. But I couldn't get an engineer's report until I had council approval. And what if what I had approval for ended up being a lot more than we estimated? Because engineers throw in things like steel, bracing, expensive materials, extra footings and extra... stuff! And with that extra stuff comes extra labour to put all the extras in. And it all adds up. To a lot.

But that part of things aside, how do you find the right person? Well sometimes, it's the one person who actually turns up and gives you a quote. Not even kidding - builders are notorious for just not showing up. I had two not arrive, one gave me an estimate range where the difference was $100,000. Another just said he wouldn't do it until I had all the plans. I thought with such a big build, we should go with a proper top-notch builder and complete team. And they all let me down. So we looked into home building courses and what was required and went back to our carpenter who had done some other works at our house. He was qualified as a builder but didn't enjoy doing it - preferred to actually build than manage. He broke down the build and gave us quotes for each aspect of it as he expected it to be if he had free reign to build. We knew there would be extra things that might come with the engineer, but we at least had a guide as to what wouldn't change (brick footings/roof etc) and what would differ depending on materials we chose (decks, flooring etc). He made suggestions and listened to ours. He was happy for us to go owner/builder and for Steve to labour occasionally when he was able to. We decided to go that route and waited for our approval.

Just before council finally stamped our plans (the first time!), Steve decided he had had it with his stressful job and the travel it took to get there (2.5 hours a day). The money was great, but health and happiness is worth more to us so we worked out he'd be able to take some time to work out what he wanted to do and we could still afford to eat and start our build. We just wouldn't be able to do it all in one hit. He decided carpentry was something he wanted to try - he might as well give it a go while work was being done here anyway, right? We spoke to our carpenter about him labouring full time whenever work started and Darren was more than happy with it. He was excited about being able to teach him and suggested there might even come a time when he could join his team. It turned out his apprentice left soon after and Steve had a job. So while we waited for final approval, then for the engineer, then for the certifier to issue our certificate of construction (this all took months after council's second - and final - approval), Steve earned some money working and learning. By the time it was our turn to start work on our job, he'd had a few months under his belt and was confident on the tools. With his new tradie nickname (Steve-O. Of course!) we were ready to begin.

We have a few bonuses building our house this way: our builder acts as our project manager - he orders everything, organises other trades, liaises with the certifier and the engineer. We don't have to take on those trickier jobs. He also - so graciously - does this for no extra cost to his (special-for-us) hourly wage. Another bonus is he came with a ready-made team of other subcontractors so we don't have to go looking for the right electrician, plumber, Gyprocker, etc. And there are many: so far on this job we have used:
Termite and pest man
Brick-layers
Concrete mixer
Sand delivery
Electrician
Hire shop for concrete cutters, scaffold, giant ladders
Plumber
Window maker
Roofer
Crane driver
Welder
Gyprocker
Fireplace installer
Super special electrician to upgrade mains
Still to come (er, most likely not their official titles): stair man, waterproofer, tiler, tv and sound guy, rain tank dude... They're the ones I know about!
We are also lucky our builder is close with the local hardware and so is able to occasionally negotiate better prices on some materials (also, set up a trade account so you get a tradie discount - every little bit counts!). All this to say, we know exactly what things cost because we get a copy of every receipt so there is no mark-ups on materials which I do know can happen.

In the interest of keeping it real, the downside of all this of course is that we often get bumped for another job - generosity of mates rates can stretch so far! So we've been delayed several times as other jobs have spilled overtime or delayed as well due to weather etc. It's not the best way to build, obviously, but we've happily taken this aspect of it on as we know those in-between times mean Steve is earning money too and it's actually nice to have a break from people in and out of your house every day, the constant cleaning, the noise and the fact I have control issues and don't want to go too far in case someone makes a decision on something without me! Ha!

Now I realise this isn't possible for everyone, so I've included some tips on finding a good team. We've only ever used two carpenters in our renovations of our homes - one did the last one; this team has done this house. Coincidentally, our current builder actually apprenticed at one stage for our first one! My point is: find a good one and you'll likely develop a pretty close relationship with them. They see you at your worst - first thing in the morning, when your house is a tip, when you're yelling at the kids to get ready for school (and when they backchat you and the fun and games that comes after that happens!). They become part of your life for a while and so you want to find someone you're comfortable with and who gets what you're trying to do and isn't just out to take your money. This has become somewhat of a showhouse for our builder - it's become his pride and joy too as it's a good example of his work to show other potential clients. You want someone who is passionate about what they do and who wants to be proud of the work they do for you so much so they might photograph it for their website or portfolio - or tell potential clients to swing by and check out the deck/extension/cladding job they did at this place... How to find that person? Yes, well... it's not easy! Maybe we completely fluked it? Maybe it's because we still live in that small-town-feel-kinda-place where people are just happy to get their weekly wage to pay their mortgages and drink beer? Whatever the reason, we got lucky twice. So maybe some of these will help you too.

Speak to your local hardware Ask for recommendations for a good carpenter/builder - this is how we found ours. Not from Bunnings (Bunnings aren't known to be a trade hardware - they've dedicated themselves to the home DIYer as trades make up such a tiny percentage of their clientele), try the smaller ones or trade chains such as Home Hardware or Mitre 10. These guys know them well - they're in there most days ordering or picking up materials. They chat about the jobs they're working on and they use the hardware as a kind of network to find other subcontractors or labourers if they need an extra pair of hands. The hardware guys aren't stupid - they know the ones who know their stuff, who are down to earth and who are passionate about their work. And they happily pass their details on if you ask them. Same goes for a plumber or electrician - ask at the local plumbing stores (Eagles or Reece Trade) or lighting/electrical stores.

Do a door knock I'm not ashamed to say I've door knocked several people and asked them who built/renovated their house! Turns out one builder who did three homes I loved lived in my street (and gave us a quote but the timing was all wrong. And then he moved!), while another I also really liked was booked out for around two years! But isn't that the best kind of advertising for a builder? Having a highly visible portfolio? And I was able to get first hand info on how happy the client was too. If you love a home nearby, go and knock on the door and chat to the owner. They might not know - maybe they moved in and it was already perfect - but if nothing else, you get to meet someone with taste similar to your own (and maybe even get to have a little snoop inside too!) and will probably make their day with your compliment!

Try HiPages I've heard about this for so long and written about it so often but never really knew how it works. Basically, a builder (or pretty much any other trade) pays a large fee each year to be listed. When someone is after a quote for, say, a deck, they will get three quotes. From your end, you get three quotes for the same job. From the other end, if a carpenter agrees to do the quote, they have to pay a fee to HiPages regardless of whether or not they get the job. This means you're only going to get people who are serious about working - because they have to outlay money no matter what. It kind of weeds out the muck-arounds! It also has a good directory on their site for tradies of all sorts in your area.

Ask for recommendations Oldie but a goodie, of course. If you know someone is renovating, ask them all about who they used, if they were happy with their work and if they'd use them again.

Try out-of-towners I told our builder I think he keeps getting Sydney calls for quotes because they're hoping if they bring in an outsider, they might get a cheaper quote. And honestly, I think I'm right. I'm adamant that our extension and renovation would be close to triple the amount if we lived in Sydney. Everything outside of the major cities is more affordable - including tradespeople.

Good signs...
* They actually show up to your house (seriously).
* They listen to what you want and make suggestions of their own that enhance your idea or offer an on-par alternative.
* They do some measuring on the spot when you're unsure if something will fit and will try their best to make your ideas and plans work.
* They seem genuinely happy to be there and passionate about what they do.
* They will rework their quotes or offer alternatives/options to help you keep costs down or meet a budget.
* They're happy for you to help in some way.

Bad signs...
* They are straight-up negative about what you want to do. "It won't work." "It won't fit". "It's a nightmare job". etc
* They push you towards an easier/more common option because it's less work for them.
* They seem a bit iffy about when they could fit you in - it could be legitimate, but it could also mean they don't want the job.^

Going the owner/builder route
This is what we ended up doing. I'm not going to go too much into it because we kind of cheated and even though we're responsible etc, our builder has taken over this role for us (yay!). But, I'll link you to a section from the Real Living Renovations magazine I wrote for more information. And just FYI, we did our White Card/Owner Builder Permit course via Absolute Education. It's really not difficult at all - the answers are all there, you just have to read it!

^ FYI: if a tradie doesn't really want the hassle of a job (it's really labour-intensive/filthy/fiddly and time-consuming/lots of roof work in the height of summer or a potential landmine of extra nightmares such as an old house that has lots of secrets inside its walls you won't know about until you start pulling them down), then they tend to increase their quote by a fair bit. This is a hint they don't want the work, but it also means that if you agree to it, they are compensated for the crappiness that will come with them accepting. And I've been on the other side of this - Steve comes home completely exhausted and filthy some days. He's been covered in old insulation, stuck in confined spaces or has been jackhammering concrete floors ALL DAY. Compare that to the joys of building a deck or pergola on a nice spring day! I don't know many people who'd choose the former over the latter!

Well, I hope that helps a little. It's hard finding someone good and it's even harder getting their timings to line up perfectly with yours. But you'll find them - I'm sure of it!


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  2. Hi Belinda,
    I totally understand the issues around renovating after coordinating our renovation several years ago. I signed up as an owner builder and then set about finding tradies to do all the various jobs. Seven years later we are at about 95% completion however I can put a lot of this down to starting 2 businesses along the way.

    Good luck with it all, it looks like you are getting lots done.

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