Archives for 2011

Choosing The Right Contractor (Part 2)

We have our own simple, yet delicate, solution to the problem outlined in last week’s blog entry. I confess: our initial proposal fees tend to be somewhat higher than other bidders. When evaluating a project, we try to anticipate the unanticipated. We expect to spend a substantial amount of time on final details, despite what issues arise in earlier stages.

Rather than bid the project lower and charging clients extra as we progress (or, as explained previously, simply skipping steps in finish work), we give ourselves that 10–20% cushion from the gate. As a result, we have an extremely strong record of staying within budget. Also, we have that flexibility to deliver exactly what clients want and spend that critical time on details without always thinking of our own checkbooks.

Believe me, after spending a month or longer in your kitchen, we want that room to look flawless. Caulk the trim on the recessed lights and outlet covers. Make sure the cabinet doors are plumb and level. Install the dimmers on pendant lights. Running around frantically with a paintbrush is not how we envisioned it from the beginning. And, I’m sure, neither did you.

But what should homeowners do? How do they know why one company charges $10 a square foot to install tile when another charges $14 or $18?

The answer is: take the time and ask. It’s not as simple as getting three estimates and taking the middle one. Unless you can read and thoroughly understand a proposal and anticipate all the variables, ask each contractor to talk you through it in detail.

Make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. How does the heating mat under the tile in your bathroom work? Does every bid include the required dedicated circuit and thermostat for the mat, or are you going to have to pay for them later? Or will one contractor simply skip that step and attach the mat to an existing outlet?

Will he install cheap, lightweight hollow doors or the more attractive, durable and noise-reducing solid-core?

Does the contract specify simple, builder-grade trim and baseboard? If you’d like something a little more interesting or authentic to the character of the home, is there room for that in the bid or will you have to pay extra for labor and material later? Or simply sigh and accept whatever the contractor buys at Home Depot?

Perhaps one bidder will make sure your shower walls are level before tiling, rather than simply building on the existing studs or furring strips. Maybe that’s not important to you. But maybe, in the end, it will be.

No one expects every homeowner to be a remodeling expert, especially in the early bidding phase of a project. It’s my responsibility to educate my clients, and they should ask the questions. Sure I may quietly sigh when the client asks why I’m using green versus blue lid spackle, but that’s simply part of a healthy working relationship.

There’s no science to estimating jobs. It’s an educated guessing game, and both builders and homeowners can easily get into trouble by stacking the odds against themselves.

Remember, it’s your home. There’s no reason to live in a cloud of dust for a while only to see cracks when it settles.

Choosing the Right Contractor

We’re awash in horror stories about contractors. Almost every time I meet potential clients, I feel penetrating eyes search for how I’m going to take their money and ruin their homes. Will they need to call “Holmes on Homes” when the project’s done?

Of course there are those, as in any field, who are dishonest and do sloppy work. What can I tell you — they’re out there.

But I work with Jon because we are impassioned with the craft. We are both possessed of the potential and intelligence (I think) to pursue any number of different fields, yet we genuinely love building and remodeling and seeing projects through from vision to fruition.

So I try to learn from and avoid the mistakes that can leave people so exasperated.

“It’s the details,” people usually tell me. “The contractor didn’t finish it correctly. And when I called him afterwards to come back, he never even returned my call.”

Amazing, I think. Someone does all that work and then ruins a relationship because he doesn’t see it through all the way. At Cumming Construction, we’re blessed to get almost all of our business from referrals and repeat clients. Why would someone burn those bridges — and so late in the process?

The simple answer is, despite how able and conscientious a contractor is, he may not be the best businessperson. Let me explain.

On every remodeling project, the homeowner will get three bids, sometimes more. If I’m a contractor who’s hungry and desperate enough (as many are), sure I’ll bid a job at the lowest workable figure to get that contract and assure steady income for several weeks.

But later, when we’ve gotten 80% of the pay for the job and still have 30% of the work to do, we’ve got big problems. While our work to this point has been high quality, the truth is the finish work is the most critical phase of the project to the homeowner.

Is the grout consistent, are there drips marks on the paint, are the nail holes in the trim filled, is the towel bar installed and level? How does it look? These items, left unaddressed, will ruin a remodeling project.

But when we bid the job at such a low fee, we ignored all the unseen issues that inevitably arise in any job (leaky shut-off valves, sub-standard floor support, mold, shoddy existing wiring, late-stage design changes — the possibilities are infinite). But now that we’ve paid to tackle those issues and are entering the finish phase, we’ve run out of time and money.

The only solution for the contractor is to sign the next contract, get a new deposit check, and begin the process somewhere else.

The result: unfinished work, unreturned phone calls, unhappy clients.

Check back next week to find out how, as a homeowner, you can help prevent being the next remodeling victim.

Roof Decks: Another Story for the City

Groundhogs aside, the coming of spring is marked for us by people calling for new roof decks.

Roof decks are possibly the easiest, least expensive, and most rewarding way that urban dwellers can increase their private living space without the trauma of building a large addition or the aggravation of relocating.

The finished deck with Philadelphia in the background.One of my favorite projects was a roof deck we did in the Fitler Square neighborhood of Philadelphia. The client is a designer for an architecture firm, and he had been creating plans and drawings for his home’s pièce de résistance for several years before we embarked on the project. Its features include a galvanized steel spiral staircase, a corrugated tin roof, granite countertop, working sink and extendable body sprayer to cool off, a barbecue pit with exhaust hood, hard-wired lights, and electrical outlets throughout. We even installed a galvanized steel bucket on a pulley system to easily raise ice, food, and beverages from the first-floor kitchen.

We’ve employed the same structural approach on a half-dozen or so roof decks since then. We remove the existing tar and roofing on the shared “party” masonry walls on either side of house, upon which we form and pour new concrete caps. These footings support the pressure-treated 2×10 joists for the deck. This approach allows the deck to span from masonry wall to masonry wall, with absolutely nothing touching or potentially harming the existing roof below. Also, the weight limit upon the deck is virtually limitless; the deck is framed exactly as the floors within the house.

Finished multi-level roof deck.Except in very rare occasions, the gradual slope of city roofs can result in a cool design element. Rather than a single level deck starting a foot or so off the roof on one end, and ending three or four feet in the air on the other, we build bi-level decks. In the end, the two levels result in a more attractive and sophisticated look than just a single deck anyway.

I don’t think we’ve used pressure-treated wood as decking on an unenclosed space since I’ve been with the company. The new composite decking products on the market are simply too affordable, environmentally friendly, and maintenance-free to consider any other option. And there are new, more attractive lines coming out every day; while we have used the popular Trex and ChoiceDek carried at the large home stores, we like the natural appearance and color choices of brands such as MoistureShield, TimberTech, and others. These decks are created from up to 90% pre-and-post-consumer recycled material and require no sealing, staining, or painting and will not rot or warp from water or sunlight. MoistureShield Decking, for example, contains an average of 289 plastic grocery sacks or 92 plastic water jugs per 12-foot board.

Nothing sings spring to me like the sound of a cool breeze over city rooftops, children laughing in playgrounds below, and the buzz of a circular saw that only we can hear. Seems like most folks enjoy their new rooftop deck more than they originally thought they would

Learn more about our deck and patio services and view more of our portfolio.

Jonathan Cumming Achieves Certified Remodeler Status

Jonathan Cumming Receiving NARI AwardWe’re proud to announce that Jonathan Cumming, owner and president of Cumming Construction, has achieved Certified Remodeler status by the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.

The NARI certification program assesses the knowledge and skill of remodelers in more than 20 categories, including business practices, building codes and construction law, planning and project site layout, materials and installation, and various practical trade skills involved in remodeling projects. A comprehensive, three-hour exam was the final step in a four-month process, which included intensive research and study, online classes and weekly study groups.

“While much of the material was familiar to me from my own experience, I really enjoyed the exposure to new ideas and approaches in the reference material and in my study group,” said Jonathan. “I met some really great people through the process, and it’s nice to receive official recognition by the national trade association.”

For more information on NARI or their certification programs, visit their website.