Wednesday, December 23, 2009

remodeling in a down economy: how to save without skimping on design

I have been asked how we are able to do such a large remodel in a down economy. First of all, we have been planning and designing the project for several years. We also purchased the house with the intent of remodeling the basement. As we view this as a long-term investment, it really did not matter when the project took place.

But there were ways that we stretched our dollar that you can too. Below are thirteen pointers that will help you save a bundle on your next project without sacrificing the design.

1. Contain your project to the existing footprint. Additions and large dormers are expensive per square foot, especially in older homes. Adding a floor by raising the roof or building an addition means spending money on an exterior envelope and structure. Instead of building up or out, consider working with what you already have: the basement or attic. In these instances, the shell and foundation are already there, so you can concentrate your dollar on interior spaces and finishes.

It was a no-brainer to finish our full-height basement. By completing the unfinished space, we maximized the use of an under-utilized area of the house, retained the existing landscaping and size of our backyard and economized costs. If we had built out, we would have lost valuable yard space. If we had built up, we would have had to raise the roof, beef up floor and ceiling joists, strap the floors together, add new beams, posts and footings, and increase strength by adding sheathing to the perimeter walls.

2. Plan projects strategically. If you’d eventually like a new kitchen on the main floor, a family room in the basement and want to create a master suite on the second floor by dormer-ing out a new bath, make sure you do the projects in the right order. There’s nothing worse than having to undo some work that you’ve already done. In general, it’s good to work on a house from roof to foundation, and from the outside to inside. In this example, do the dormer and master suite first before working on the kitchen and the family room.

3. Keep existing plumbing fixtures where they are. If possible, maintain the locations of the sinks, tubs and toilets. Moving any of these can add unwanted cost. If the existing layout is undesirable, see if you can place the fixtures back to back or stack them between floors.

In our remodel, we created a wet zone by centralizing all the water in one sector of the house. We placed the new bathroom and laundry right under the existing kitchen and bathroom. By stacking the bathrooms, we were able to tie into the existing soil line, and minimized costs greatly.

4. Visit a store that sells a wide selection of finishes. If you select several products from one store, see if the salesperson can give you a cost reduction. Oftentimes a store can grant a lower price for a larger order. We were able to get a better deal on some of the materials because we got all of our flooring from ecohaus.

5. Ask about discontinued items. When manufacturers change their color palette or style, you can save a bundle on their old stock. The only caution here is to be certain that there is enough material for your project needs. We got our high-end carpet and pad and an incredible price from ecohaus. We also got a great deal on some discontinued lighting from Schoolhouse Electric. Appliances and electronics will have a similar price reduction on last year’s models when the newer lines are released.

6. Look at the ‘seconds’ or ‘scratch and dent’ departments and consider floor models. Rejuvenation offers lighting and hardware in their Seconds and Clearance Department. Schoolhouse Electric has a similar area; ask one of the salespeople to assist you. ecohaus offers some materials like Marmoleum and carpeting in their Seconds and Remnants area. Standard TV and Appliance has a wonderful Scratch and Dent section. Check them out and save!

7. Watch for sales and rebates. Rejuvenation has an annual housecleaning event early in the year and a spring lighting sale. During the course of the project, we took advantage of one of their coupons for our lighting and cabinet hardware, applied a rebate to some hardware and scored a vintage light fixture by using a free shipping offer. We ordered the cork tiles from ecohaus a little on the early side because it was on special. Keep an eye out during holidays as appliances often go on sale then. Some supply stores will also have anniversary sales that are too good to pass up. We waited a few weeks to take advantage of a rebate for our TV. We also took advantage of manufacturer rebates for our window treatments and furnace. Sweet!

8. Don’t forget about those tax credits! The new windows and furnace qualified us for the federal tax credit. These incentives were more than worth it to upgrade to more energy efficient, quiet models. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 includes federal tax credits that encourage homeowners to make energy efficient improvements to their homes. The credit is based on 30% of the cost of qualifying materials (not labor), with a maximum credit of $1500. So, if you spend at least $5000 on qualifying materials between 1/1/09-12/31/10, you should be eligible for the full credit.

See this IRS publication for more information on the 2009 credit.

9. Use some elbow grease. Ask your contractor if you can do some of the labor to reduce costs. If you have the skill and the time, this might be a great way to save a little. Remember to adhere to the contractor’s schedule and level of craftsmanship, and that any work you do will not fall under his warranty. Some past clients have executed demolition, insulated, laid tile, fixed window sashes, installed millwork, painted and cleaned up the jobsite daily. For us, the final cleaning and the denailing of the tongue-and-groove were where we chose to save.

10. Reuse or donate existing materials. Sometimes what is being removed during a remodel is still useable either in your own project or someone else’s. We were able to incorporate some lighting, door hardware and all three existing doors into the basement by keeping the sizes in mind and accommodating them during the design process. We also used the leftover subway tile from an earlier bath project for the backsplash at the wet bar. And because we had saved the base cap and other trim materials, we were able to match the millwork profiles. Although reusing items such as these does not necessarily save any money, it prevents more landfill.

If you are unable to use the materials in your own project, donate or sell them to a company that specializes in the reuse of building materials. Here in Portland, The ReBuilding Center, ReStore by Habitat for Humanity and Rejuvenation are havens for old house parts. The other day, I even walked right past a sink in Rejuvenation that is the exact pedestal in my bathroom. It was weird, but very cool! Although selling items on Craigslist is also an option, first consider donating to a non-profit company, like The ReBuilding Center, as your items are tax-deductible. More often than not, you can claim more on your tax return than what you can sell it second-hand. And you do not have to go through the hassle of posting an ad, arranging a meeting, bargaining and selling the items. So far, we donated lighting and plumbing fixtures, control panels, window sashes, unused tile and some vertical grain Douglas Fir TNG.

11. Talk to your contractor about using salvaged materials. Sometimes contractors and their subs have material leftover from other jobs or from a previous demolition that they are willing to let you use in your project. In these scenarios, you can save tremendously on material costs.

You can also visit those same establishments where you donated your unwanted, deconstructed materials to look for items. If you do reuse old hardware, fixtures and finishes, you will see greater savings if you search for them and buff them into shape yourself. Besides, half the fun is in the hunt. I can spend hours wandering the aisles at The ReBuilding Center looking at all the windows, doors, plumbing fixtures, lights, millwork, hardware and tile. Although you might not save a whole lot by incorporating second-hand items into your project, the more salvaged materials used, the less will go into landfills. And you will be adding to the rich history of your home.

We lucked out by finding the granite slab for the countertops at the wet bar and wine cellar. Normally, the stone itself would cost a bundle, but with our find, we essentially paid only for the labor.

12. Consider phasing your project. If you love the whole design and are unable to afford it all at once, see if you can phase out specific items or portions of the work. It’s always better to save for what you really want rather than settle for second best. After all, remodeling is an extensive use of time, energy, money and resources. It is thus wiser to phase a project into manageable segments than to regret a cost-cutting decision.

We decided to phase some finish millwork, built-in cabinetry, new roofing, some interior painting, gas conversion of the fireplace on the main floor and installation of the AC condenser, and solar water heater. We made sure that everything was pre-plumbed, pre-wired and blocked out for the future installations. By phasing the solar water heater and AC unit, the added bonus for us is that we will be able to take advantage of another round of federal and local rebates when we do the work.

13. Last, and most important, design before you build. If you make your design decisions and finish selections prior to construction, you’ll save a bundle! With a complete set of plans and specifications, there will be minimal change orders and the build-out will go a lot faster and smoother and will be less costly.

Having a clear vision of what you want even before you start designing will also save time and thus money. Write a wish list for the project and prioritize them into three categories: the "must-haves," the maybes and the "if I won the lottery." Assemble images from books and magazines of spaces that you like and—equally as important—dislike. The more ideas you have to share with your architect early on, the less time he will spend developing concepts that may not be to your taste.

We saved on the design fees as I executed the drawings, did the details and selected all the finishes, but you too can hire an architect on a budget by setting some parameters. Establish a budget, specify what kind of design services you would prefer (full or abbreviated), get the contractor involved during design and fully engage in the design process by critiquing the drawings and finish selection. Remember, in the end it is your house and you will have to live with the design, not the architect or contractor. The more feedback you give, the happier everyone will be.

For more information on why you should design before build, please see this previous post.

For information on what to expect during the design process, please see this previous post.

Tune in next time for the last 3%!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

week 34: final inspection

We have been moving things from the main floor and garage into the nearly completed basement. We cleared out the basement prior to construction and lived among boxes stacked waist–high and things piled on the floor while the work was being done. After eight months, I was glad to have things finally put away in their proper places. Now, if I could only remember where I put everything!

One of the things that struck me this week was that it is key to include storage space when remodeling a basement. We saved one small corner of our basement as an unfinished storeroom. Many times, clients want all of their basement to be converted to finished space and forego storage, and then get into a bind when there is not enough places to put their belongings. I was a bit nervous during design when we made the storeroom smaller and moved the furnace and sump pump into it. I feared that we had made our storage too tiny. However, with shelving racks from Storables, we were able to maximize and make our storage room extremely efficient. We have one half-height and five ceiling-high racks, with space for one more full-sized rack.

Now that the project is mostly complete, there are a lot of blank walls. We are redistributing what little art work we have, but will soon need more art. I framed more diplomas around the corner at the neighborhood store, Pratt’s Custom Picture Frames. We also need more furniture. I hope the sectional from Z Gallerie arrives soon.

I thought some plants might help the new spaces feel warmer, lived in and less bare. I visited Garden Fever for some plants and pottery, and came away with a Christmas plant, an airplane plant and a croton. More importantly, they told me how to care for the greenery.

I also found this fabulous little table and bucket at Shogun’s Gallery. They had their warehouse clearance sale this weekend.

The big to-do this week was the final inspection. Our contractor is a member of the FIR program here in Portland. Our inspector came by the house and checked out compliance for all egress doors and windows, electrical plugs, other items pointed out earlier during construction, as well as the head height, width, and the rise and run of the stairs. After about an hour, he signed off on the final permit. Thankfully, Erik, our contractor remembered to secure the gas hose before the inspector arrived. Hooray!

Tune in next time for the last of the plumbing, cabinetry and painting!

Monday, November 16, 2009

week 33: tropical beginnings

This morning I was happy to see the port-a-potty go, as it is proof that the project is near completion.

The guest bed arrived, and I promptly put on the new linens. The room will have an island tropical theme with a little bit of kitsch. So far, we just have the linens and the one requisite hula picture.

Dana of Guillory Construction installed the linen cab chain stops, tweaked the med cab and water shut off doors and attached magnetic stops for them, fabricated one more AV shelf, made a finish piece for the laundry chute, installed the mail slot, re-sat the screen door and fine-tuned the screen door hardware. He installed a floor stop that mimics the shape of the light shade overhead. What made us happiest this week was the new adjustable shelving Dana made for some previously underutilized built-ins. With all the new cupboard space, we now have ample storage space. The finish carpentry is now done!

Daniil of Anctil Plumbing installed the spigot to the irrigation. We now have to determine how to bypass the backflow valve in order to drain the irrigation lines before winter comes.

We heard from the HBA that our house will be on the 2010 Tour of Remodeled Homes, so mark your calendars for the weekend of March 6 & 7, 2010. You too can see this project and many others in person. It should be an exciting tour.

Tune in next time for the final inspection!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

week 32: the blinds are in!

Erik of Ostmo Construction took care of more punch list items. He attached the gutter elbow to the downspout, switched out couple of electrical cover plates, installed the last light shade in the cellar, replaced the filters fabrics for the vents and cleaned up the job site. We are getting there!

We are eagerly awaiting word from ecohaus about fixing the floating floor at the wet bar. The concern is that with the holidays upon us, this issue might easily fall by the wayside.

On a more positive note, we were lucky to have a stretch of good weather. Vitaly, Pablo and Pancho of Aspen Painting, LLC stained the back deck with a solid color stain. It looks like new!

Did you notice the light in the above photo? Aaron of Portland Metro Electric installed the exterior lights. Now that it gets dark earlier and earlier, we really appreciate it. I am glad that we got wet-rated fixtures, as the rain has already demonstrated that the weather can indeed reach the lights. As for the interior lights, Aaron could not install the under cabinet lights at the wet bar because the fixtures were not the best quality and were not fully functional. It looks like it’s another trip to the lighting store for me.

Peter of Classico Marmo returned to install the wine cellar counter, remove a stray glob of epoxy grout from the wet bar counter, and seal both granite counters. Peter did a fabulous job. The stonework is now finished!

Wendy of Bolliger Window Fashions and Interiors was most helpful with our window treatments. She was very knowledgeable, prompt and wonderful to work with. John Kennedy did a great job with the installation. I especially like those mitered returns on the valances. Thanks, Wendy and John, those new blinds do certainly put the finishing touch on the windows.

Tune in next time for tropical bedroom furnishings!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

week 31: moving in already???

Now it gets difficult as a homeowner because the project is close to being done, people are not here everyday and you want to move in but can’t because work still needs to be done. I guess our contractor, Erik of Ostmo Construction, felt sorry for us as the project is taking much longer than originally planned. He let us start moving in while working on the punch list. We were very glad to start putting things near their intended locations, clearing out our over-stuffed garage, and cleaning up and filling the storage room. Thank you very much!

Erik also put in a temporary light on the front porch as it has been getting dark of late. This fixture will eventually go on the garage. He dropped off the cabinet pulls for the wet bar, which I installed. I tried to match the adjacent appliance pulls and found several options in all price ranges. These give the most bang for the buck. And check out the soft-close toilet seat cover. Very nice!

We had a bit of bad news this week. The floating floor at the wet bar is deflecting so much in two spots that it voids the manufacturer’s warranty and will have to be replaced. The trick will be to minimize the collateral damage to the nearby cabinets, painted walls and finish trim. Erik is coordinating with ecohaus who did the installation. Hopefully, the matter can be resolved in a timely manner.

Dana of Guillory Construction put in a bead at the medicine cabinet door to mimic a more traditional way to hold the mirror in place. I don’t know why, but I have an aversion to those plastic little mirror tabs. He also put in the cutest little magnet catch at the electrical panel. Although tiny, it is very strong.

Daniel and Ralph of Premier Plus Construction, Inc. started the fixes on the neighbor's garage. It was a little worse for wear, as seen in the "before" photo (lower left). They’ll get the wall back onto its foundation and strengthen the structure a little before the cosmetic fixes and painting are done. They also rehung one of our sagging gutters. The elbow still needs to be attached.

Pablo and Pancho of Aspen Painting, LLC touched up the interior paint. We spent a good deal of time scanning the walls, ceiling and trim looking for dings and slight imperfections. It’s not that they did a poor job initially; walls, ceiling and trim get bumped during the project and need to be touched up at the end. It looks fabulous now. They also spent some time removing the paint drips from the driveway and egess window wells. Thanks guys!

Tune in next time for the window blinds installation!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

week 30: still inching towards completion

Alex of Crestwood affixed the cabinet doors to the kitchen cabs and access panel to the main water shut off. He placed the knobs and pulls on the stair pull-outs, medicine and linen cabs, and the water and electrical access panels. He made sure the drawer glides on the kitchen and stair pull-outs were smooth. He’ll return with new cabinet doors for the kitchen as the ones he had were warped.

Dana of Guillory Construction switched out the handrail brackets to ones with a more traditional profile. He installed the last of the door hardware, doorstop, medicine cabinet ball-chain stop and mirror bead, AV shelves and custom-made removable return grille. Dana, you’re amazing! We love that grille!

Jeff of Anctil Heating secured a loose wire that was rattling in the furnace, flashed the utility chimney (so that’s why it was leaking) and refitted the dryer vent so that the hoses aligned and the machines could sit flush to the wall. In a tiny laundry room, every inch counts! After a couple of hours, the mechanical work was complete!

Craig of NW Glass Specialties affixed the towel bar and toilet paper holder. It was tricky avoiding the drain pipes. All bath accessories are now done!

Andrei and Val of Vic’s Hardwood Company sanded, double-coated the oak hardwood floors and stair treads and filled a few small holes on the main floor. It looks awesome! Now, all the finish flooring is complete!

Aaron of Portland Metro Electric installed more shades in the cellar and refurbished and installed some old fixtures in the store room.

Seth and Matt of Integrated Technologies returned to complete the finish installation on the AV equipment. They installed the in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, mounted the TV on the wall, installed the remaining coverplates on the phone jacks, ethernet lines and cable, activated all the phone lines, programmed the remotes, installed the antenna in the attic and hooked up and calibrated all the equipment. Now all the low-voltage items are done! Check out the wireless repeater at the base of the TV; that little "eye" enables the handheld remote to communicate through the wall with the AV equiptment. Also, look how tight the drywall and millwork fit around the sub-woofer. Awesome!

Even our own contractor Erik of Ostmo Construction was on site working to get the project done. He attached the cover panels on the undercounter refrigerator at the wet bar.

We have been vacuuming the basement almost daily to make sure that the construction dust and debris do not get ground down into the new carpet. It is amazing that we’ve already filled one vacuum bag. I’ll need to get rid of the three brooms we’ve used throughout the project as the bristles have all been worn to shreds.

We put up the new, wood storm windows from Classic Sash & Door. They look just as fabulous as the new, bronze wood screens, but now we are ready for winter.

This week marks the third time that I have separated the recyclable paper and cardboard from the landfill. It is astounding how much packing stuff there is. I am doing everything I can to reduce the amount of landfill created. The construction industry is one of the biggest producers of landfill in this country.

And I found the most perfect item at Rejuvenation; a porcelain toilet screw cover! It really made me happy to remove those awful plastic ones from the main floor bath.

The HBA came by to assess whether or not our project will be on the 2010 Tour of Remodeled Homes. Keep your fingers crossed! You might be able to see the finished project in person in March next year.

With that, we have substantial completion of the project. Home owners should note that this means the start of the warranty period. We’ll clean the house thoroughly inside and out and "blue-tape" construction-related items we would like fixed or completed. These items become part of what is called the punch list.

Tune in next time for the punch list and the neighbor’s garage!