Moving Out During Construction

Should you move out during construction on your house? It seems like a total pain and an unnecessary expense at a time of mounting expenses, but we have decided to move out during a good part of our construction for a variety of reasons. These are some things you may want to consider:

1) How extensive is the construction? Will it affect your existing kitchen and bathrooms for extended periods of time?
2) How long is construction expected to last? More than 4 months?
3) Do you have kids? Pets?
4) Are short term rentals prevalent in your area?
5) Can you afford the rent and your mortgage payment?
6) Do you deal well with messes and disorganization?
7) Do you or does a family member have dust allergies?

Our builder told us that we could stay in the house but that it would most likely extend construction by 1-2 months. In addition, we have a daughter and a dog, and I'm expecting our second child in May (2 additions in one year may be the end of me!)... The choice was clear. We consider ourselves pretty easygoing but pretty much everyone we have spoken to who has lived in their house during construction has told us to move out. They said that their marriages were already stressed from the hassles of construction, but coming home to a dusty disaster every night (or living in it every day), was almost more than they can handle.

The challenge is to find a place that will work for you and your family for the time you want. I have yet to find a place relatively close to my daughter's daycare but we still have 6-8 weeks until we need to be out of here (mid-February - approximately 6 weeks after the start of construction). I am also checking with real estate agents and property managers in the area. Several have some leads for me and are checking on others. Despite the imminently changing administration, the rental market seems to be pretty weak so properties that are available now are likely still going to be available in January.


The Decision: General Contractor

The final decision on who your general contractor will be is a big one. Like a lot of things in life, you have to do a lot of research and then go with your gut decision. Often it will probably be a combination of stellar recommendations, a lack of complaints reported to the state, a start/finish schedule which seems reasonable and meshes with your desires, and a good feeling when you met him/her. When we were choosing our contractor, I was divided between the final two until we met each at a final meeting and then it was clear to both of us, as well as our architect, who should be at any final meetings.

Once you choose your contractor, you will probably meet again to go over some final specs and sign your contractor. This meeting took an hour or so and he made some suggestions that may save us some money. He then worked through final questions with our architect (mostly without us but we were informed of any changes which affected our plans), and then submitted our plans for permits with Arlington County about a week ago. We expect the permit process to take about 3-4 weeks. Hopefully we'll be ready to break ground by the first week of January. Fortunately the down economy and the holidays may work in our favor and we'll hopefully be ready to go in early January.


The General Contractor Bidding Process

So you've interviewed a few contractors, and now you have a few that you would like to bid on the project. We asked 6 contractors to bid on our project and 5 submitted bids (the 6th called after we asked him and told us that he had taken a conflicting project). We gave each contractor a set of our plans and an additional list of specifications and variables that we wanted them to factor into their bids. For example, we gave them the option of including a bid for finishing our basement and we wanted a price for a recycled rubber slate-look roof.

You can either let the contractors submit what they want to submit as part of their bids. Be sure your plans are extremely detailed and you should make choices on tile, cabinets, countertops, windows, etc. in order to get the most accurate bid. Whatever you don't choose, the contractor will give you an allowance which means that they estimate how much it will cost and when you pick the actual product and it costs or more or less, then that affects your price proportionately.

You can also ask you contractors to provide you with their standard mark-up on labor and materials. So, if they pay a sub a certain amount, they may charge you that amount plus 15% percent or more. Mark-ups in Northern Virginia seem to range from 15-25%. Those that charge 15% may do more of their work with their own employees (such as framing, drywall, etc.) and then only subcontract out other trade work (plumbing, HVAC, electrical, etc.). If your contractor works on a mark-up basis, you should ask to receive receipts and invoices for everything you pay a mark-up on.

Each contractor should sign a standard bid form which includes their bid as well as any allowances. They should be instructed to attach additional pages if necessary.

You should give your potential general contractors 2-3 weeks to return bids.

The bids you'll receive will likely vary widely. Some will be extremely detailed and some will not include a substantial amount of information but will include a complete price with certain allowances. From there you need to assess the bid price and the allowances to see how the prices compare.

Don't be surprised by how far the bids range. Once you look at the allowances, you'll see where some of the differences are but some contractors are just more expensive although they may not necessarily be better than another less expensive contractor. Things such as office expenses and other factors I've mentioned in previous posts impact price. But, some reasons for the prices are unexplained and you should definitely ask if that contractor is under serious consideration.

You'll probably throw out the lowest and the highest, and then pick from there. We narrowed it down to 2 possible contractors after the bidding process based primarily on price (neither the lowest or highest) and personality. We then interviewed both with our architect for an hour each. I also visited the job site of one of the finalists who we were leaning towards. After that, it was very clear who we should pick.

Again, this process takes a lot of time (about 8 weeks for us), but it's worth it if you can spare the time. Meeting with the contractors multiple times was well worth every minute, and will hopefully lead to a well-informed choice and fantastic final product.



Interviewing General Contractors

Once you have narrowed your list to several prospective general contractors for your project, I recommend meeting with each for an hour or so and ask them about their work style and so you can get a general feeling for what they will be like to work with for an extended period of time. Even more so than with you architect, it is very important that you see eye-to-eye with your contractor in a general sense of how things should be done.

Here are some sample questions to ask prospective general contractors:

1) How many jobs do you work on at once?
2) How often are you on site at a major job?
3) Do you have project managers or site supervisors on your staff who manage the project?
4) Have you worked in my county/city in the past 2 years?
5) How do you handle change orders?
6) Do you often work with architects? How do you like to interact with the architect?
7) Do you have an office staff?
8) What is the best way to contact you in the course of the project?
9) How do you handle disagreements with homeowners?
10) Do you work with the same subcontractors for every project?

We met with eight potential contractors before asking them to bid on the project (more on that in my next post). All had great references and the proper state licenses (which you can check online). We met with large firm as well as smaller firms. In 2 cases we knew that we did not want to ask for bids after meeting them. One was a large firm which had an overly extensive design phase which we felt would be an extraneous cost for us. The other just had a different philosophy.

This is a very critical juncture in the project and the decision should be taken seriously.


Finding a General Contractor

Once you have hired an architect (instead of a design/build firm), you will likely spend a considerable amount of time hammering out your plans. I recommend researching contractors throughout this time and gathering names of contractors that you hear about. We received several contractor recommendations in the course of finding an architect.

There are good and bad ways to find a contractor. You may find someone good either way, but your chances are much better if you choose a the traditional route of referrals. You may have noticed a theme here that I work mostly off referrals. Frankly, why wouldn't you use trustworthy referrals if they are available to you? Here are some good sources for referrals: 1) Friends, family, and neighbors in your area (preferably in your city/county); 2) neighborhood listservs; 3) Consumer Checkbook or Angies List; 4) subcontractors who you have used before (plumbers, electricians, HVAC, etc.); 5) your architect; 6) your realtor; and 7) yard signs (but ask the owners before you dive in).

In the case of the last category of yard signs, this is the least likely to yield the best results because in some cases the project is in full swing and the homeowner won't fire the contractor because of the delay that may follow. I asked a neighbor who I didn't know about construction being done on their house and whether they were happy and they vehemently told me "NO" and gave a list of about 15 reasons. I scratched that construction company from my list! You may get some good referrals this way, but I would take the other routes first.

In our case, I once again used my local moms' club listserv and recommendation list to gather a list of 15 or so builders. I checked and double-checked referrals and finally came up with a shorter list of contractors that we wanted to call and meet with.

There are several types of GCs. Some GCs prefer to work with particular architects and some will work with anyone the homeowner chooses (the latter is more common). There are GCs that are part of larger companies that handle multiple jobs at once and there are one-person shops where the GC is on-site every day and managing your project directly.

Although some people gain a lot of comfort from GCs that have their names on signs all over town, that also means that they are doing a lot of projects at once so you are going to be dealing with a project manager (who you may not choose) who runs your project and not the owner. We preferred to go with a smaller company where the owner manages the projects and gives you all the attention. I think you also get a better price from these types of operations because you are not paying for several levels of hierarchy, office staff, etc. You also can be sure that your money is going to your project and not another project that the builder is behind on.

More on interviewing GCs next time...


Do I need a General Contractor?

You may be asking yourself if you need a general contractor to manage your home addition. My husband and I considered GC'ing the project ourselves to save some money. My husband is very handy, as are my father and my father-in-law so we figured between the three of them and our contacts in the area we might be able to handle it. But after talking to a few others who done the general contracting themselves, we started to hear horror stories of only being able to get second rate subs, long delays, and extensive days off from work to deal with the problems on the project. After hearing a few too many of these stories, we began to wonder if we really would save money and whether our marriage would be worse for wear at the end of it all.

So, we decided to hire a general contractor. We actually decided this before we even hired our architect but the complexity of the project revealed itself as we went through the design process. This only confirmed our decision.

Another important reason to hire a general contractor is the type of financing you plan to use for your addition. If you plan to get a construction loan (basically, a loan based on the future value of your home), most lenders require that you hire a general contractor. If you plan to use other forms of financing, you should check with your lender to see what the requirements are for general contracting.


Renovation: Where to put the Christmas tree?

For many people where to put the Christmas tree isn't a plaguing decision but for those of us who live in apartments or close-in suburban homes often have this issue because there is not an obvious place - fireplaces, stairs, doorways, etc. Today we are going to cut down a Christmas tree in Maryland. Hopefully this will be the last year we'll have this problem. The new space should provide ample opportunities for Christmas tree placement.

This is probably as good a point as any to give you a little description on what exactly we are adding to our house. First, we are tearing down our existing brick garage and rebuilding a new garage in the rear right corner of our 7000+ square foot lot. We're building an 1800 square foot 3 story addition on the back of our 1800 square foot (on 3 stories) house. The basement will be unfinished but will have rough-in for a bathroom. There will be room for a bedroom and recreation room. Our current basement will be converted entirely to a wood shop for my husband, Jim.

On the first floor, we are adding a kitchen and family room. Our existing kitchen will become a half-bath, coat closet, and butler's pantry. Our dining room will also be expanded by 2 feet. As I explained in my last post, our current stairs are being removed and new stairs will be built in the addition.

On the second floor, our existing 3 bedrooms are basically remaining the same except for new closets being built. Our current hall bathroom is going to be untouched (I still love the black and white tile!). In the addition, we're adding a master bedroom, bathroom, and huge walk-in closet. We're also building a laundry room which I am really excited about!

The new attic will not include storage space other than for a heat pump and a tankless hot water heater (more on this later).

So, that's the plan!


Major Design Decisions!

If you have chosen to hire an architect, then you probably have some design dilemmas that you need help with solving. It may be a structural problem such as how to open or move a structural wall, or how to fix a previous design mistake (either your own or a previous owner's). In our case, our major issue was our stairs which affected everything about our overall design because of their current central location. As you can see in the picture, our stairs go up the back of our living room. Our addition was planned to go off the back of our house because of the configuration of our lot. I have always loved our stairs and how they look from our living room.
Our hope was to cut the stairs back about 4 or 5 steps where there would be a landing and then the steps would turn towards the back of the house into the new addition. After several drafts of the plans, our architect (Kaye), Jim, and I all realized that it would be impossible to make the steps work that way and that we would either have to leave them as they are and just have a step up and down into the addition, or move them entirely.
Although it took me a week to get used to the idea (I am a very visual person so I had to think abou it a lot), I eventually realized that it would be the best thing for our house because the stairs would not be a dividing line between the old and new house. We wanted a seemless transition between the old and new so this certainly would help that goal.

Our stairs are now going to be completely within the addition, starting from the basement and going all the way up the attic (no more pull-down stairs!), including a landing on the driveway which will be the main daily entrance for our family. This also solved the issue of having a direct basement entrance from the outside which was important because Jim has a wood shop down there (his new one will be MUCH bigger!) and a 5th bedroom some day.

Another advantage is that our current third bedroom (former office, now a nursery), is very small because the stairs go "through" that room now. Ironically, that room has the best closets in the house (yes, 2 closets in a tiny room). But, now that the stairs will be moved, that room will become a good-sized bedroom which would be able to accomodate a full-size bed which is not possible now.

Now, I love the plans for our stairs and see that it will become a memorable feature in our house. The moral of the story is listen to your architect, I think I'll like them even more because I won't be carrying large loads of laundry up and down any more either!


How long will the planning take?

My husband and I are surprised about how much time it has taken for us to get to the point where we are now - 1-2 months from breaking ground. As with many things, this takes longer than anyone would expect, but it's well worth taking the time to put the time in before the project because you may be able to avoid some delays during the project. Not all delays of course!

Although this has been a busy year for both Jim and I work-wise, we have made a special effort to push through certain phases of the project, but at other times we have not pushed as hard as we could have. We were focused the entire time on the January/February start date so it was not important to move very quickly. Unless you have already chosen your architect, I would estimate a minimum of four-six months from architect interviews until ready to break ground.

Here is the timeline that we have worked on to give you an idea. We slowed down considerably in the summer until mid-August when we started interviewing contractors.

January-February: Choosing and interviewing prospective architects
March: Initial meetings with our architect
April - July: Weekly or biweekly design meetings with the architect
Late August: Meeting with prospective general contractors
Early September: Finalize bid set of plans
Mid-September: Putting the plans out for bid with contractors
October: Break
Early November: Meetings with two finalist contractors and our architect
Mid-November: Select general contractor; talk to lenders re: financing
December: Finalize plans for permit; secure financing for project

This is just a brief picture of our timeline. The process was never overwhelming for us because we were not under tremendous time pressure. As a result, we did not feel rushed into any decisions and continued to feel like we had time to rethink design decisions that were already made.


Your First "Real" Meeting with Your Architect

So, you chose your architect, now it's time to get down to business. Our architect for this project is Kaye Orr (let me know if you want her contact information). I highly recommend that you set up weekly meetings at your house to keep the project moving forward. We often traded emails with Kaye between meetings, but we found we made the most progress with in-person meetings. Your architect may do things in a different order, but generally these are the next steps.

1) Without a doubt, the very first step will be signing a contract or engagement letter with your architect. Read it carefully (I am a lawyer after all) and be sure that nothing looks fishy. This is probably not a lengthy agreement (a few pages) but should include the terms of how he/she will charge you for your time, how often you receive bills (this should be at least monthly), and any additional expenses that you may be charged for (photocopying, printing, engineering consults etc.). Most reputable architects work off of the American Institute of Architects form agreements so the language will be fairly standard. You can ask if this is they use the AIA form.

2) Measuring every inch (literally) of your existing house. Your architect will be able to tell which walls our not plumb and which floors are not level when he/she is all done. I highly recommend giving your architect a key to your house and just let him/her do the measuring when you aren't home. We told her to move anything or go into any closet she needed to go into to measure. Later she had to come back and rip up floor boards in the attic to understand the structure of our house. Probably not something yours will need to do at the outset, but something to prepare yourself for so you can avoid surprises when you start construction.

3) Meet with you to get more specifics on your ideas. At this meeting, you'll have to give her as much detail as you can about what you want from your space and how you envision the finished product. It's equally important to give her information on what you do NOT want because then she won't waste time drawing things that you are dead set against. At the same time, you don't want to close off options which could open up lots of other ideas. We started a wish list which included absolute must-haves (e.g., walk-in closet, laundry upstairs, spacious kitchen, 5 bedrooms, 1st floor powder room), nice-to-haves (e.g., permanent stairs to the attic, new basement bathroom), and don't-wants (e.g., master bathroom jacuzzi tub, fully finished basement). We also gave her our idea notebook to look through to get an idea for our/my style.

4) Give you initial rough plans for discussion purposes. Some architects may provide very rough sketches at your initial meeting just to get a feel for what you like and don't like. This is probably more likely to happen at the first meeting if your project is relatively small and the measurements of the existing house are not as critical to the addition plans.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to tell your architect everything you are thinking about the project at any point. Even if you aren't at the relevant point in the process, the thought has been relayed and your architect can keep the idea for later as well as better understand your style. As you move towards getting bids from contractors, everything down to choice of tile, kitchen countertops, and shingles should be included so you can have very detailed plans and get more accurate bids (more on that later of course).


A few notes on interviewing architects

Here are a few pointers that we learned in the process of meeting with architects which may help you with your process. As I said before, I think we met with 6 architects, 1 of which was a design/build firm (although we didn't know that when we first contacted him) and 1 also did some of his own design work although he was not an architect. Although time consuming, meeting with each of the architects was fairly enlightening because we learned a lot about how they work and their general thoughts and ideas for the project. We had all of the interviews at our house so that we could give them a tour of our house, tell them our ideas, and they could get a feel for space.

Here are some questions that we asked the architects:

1) How many projects do you work on at one time?
2) When would you be able to start working on our project?
3) Have you done other projects like this?
4) How many years have you been doing residential design?
5) Do you generally work on new or old houses?
6) Do you have experience with Arlington County?
7) How often do you like to meet with clients?
8) How involved are in the building phase? Do you regularly visit the build site?
9) Do you have builders who you work with regularly? (Side note: You may want to get builders' references for your architect as well. We did not, but it wouldn't be a bad idea.)
10) What types of projects do you like working on the most?
11) Do you charge a flat fee or by the hour?
12) Do you have other employees who may work on this project?
13) Do you work with an engineer to confirm structural details?

Feel free to post additional questions which may be helpful to ask architects. Since we found all of these architects by referral, we found that we did not know quite a bit about how they worked, so we were really just assessing personality and compatability.

Preparing for your first meeting with your architect

Once you have made the leap and chosen your architect, the real work begins. At the outset, I would say that the process of researching, interviewing, and choosing an architect took us 6-8 weeks. This was in the winter at the beginning of a relatively slow construction season so most of the architects were able to meet with us within one week of our initial contact. Also,

How to Find an Architect?

I think the only way to get a good architect is referrals. You can get referrals in a lot of ways though. First ask neighbors and friends who live in your area who you know have done projects. Write down names of architects on yard signs in front of on-going projects in your area. Also, post requests for recommendations on listservs or blogs that you subscribe to. I received a lot of recommendations through my local mom's club, Mothers of North Arlington (MONA). There are also several larger firms which are well-known in our area which I also added to the list although these were generally design/build firms.

These recommendations yielded a list of about 10 architects to consider. We called and emailed about 8 of these and then set up in-person interviews with about 6 architects and design/build firms. We were able to narrow from 8 to 6 based on the telephone conversations or lack of return communication (not the way to do business!). We then interviewed each of these candidates which included one design/build firm which came highly recommended. We liked certain things about all of them, but ultimately we went with the person who we thought would give us a lot of attention, had some creative ideas, and who would also listen to our ideas. She also doesn't work for a large firm so her hourly rate is very competitive. She gave us 8 or so references (with addresses and phone numbers). We spent a Saturday morning driving by several of the houses that she worked on and all of the additions were beautiful. She also worked on a neighbor's project which was very similar in size and scope so we were able to see that project as it was going up last winter and get a lot of feedback from our friends. This gave us additional comfort because she had to be very current on the constantly changing Arlington County codes.

Please feel free to comment on how you found your architect.


Add or Move?

Before you get too far "down the road" the first question you should probably consider when you are considering a home addition is whether you can get what you want by moving instead of adding onto your existing house. Financially, you have to consider what you could sell your current house for and add that amount to how much you plan to put into your addition +5-10% fudge factor. You should then look for houses in that price range which may satisfy your needs.

For us, a big consideration was street, neighborhood, and school district. We love our street and our neighborhood and didn't want to leave it if possible. We can walk 3 blocks or less to several restaurants, drug stores, coffee shops, shops, etc. There is even a community center about 1/4 mile away. There is also a bus stop close by. The school district is fantastic and our commutes to Washington, D.C. are about as good as it gets from the suburbs. So, we limited our house search to our neighborhood and several surrounding neighborhoods with similar offerings. This is a popular neighborhood though for all of the reasons I listed above so houses that had what we wanted either required more work (and money!) to get what we want (and could get with an addition to our house) or were out of our price range. So, we continued with our planning process and continued to look throughout the design phase. You should do this too. In fact, I still did a web search today on Homes Database to see if there is anything that we would be interested in - we still haven't signed the contract with our builder.

We also love the basics of our house. It sits nicely on the lot which is also reasonably sized at about 7000 square feet (fairly large for Arlington actually!). We'll also still have a small backyard when we are done with the project.

So, we are still moving forward...