Jennifer Villani and her husband, Nick, searched extensively before finding the 1941 Bethesda house that fit their budget and had the potential to meet their remodeling vision. Once they bought the house, Jennifer Villani took the lead on finding the right company to make that vision a reality.
The project they proposed in 2013 was far from simple: They wanted a new kitchen and bathroom on the first floor; renovated bedrooms and bathrooms on the second floor; and a two-story addition with a family room below and a bedroom above.
Nationally, renovations are on the upswing. The National Association of Home Builders’ “Remodeling Market Index” — based on a survey of remodelers — has risen steadily over the past six quarters to an all-time high of 57 this quarter. Anything over 50 shows that remodelers are reporting activity — including requests for bids, work assignments for the next three months and backlogs — that is higher than in the previous quarter.
But watch any home renovation show and you will quickly see all that can go wrong with a remodeling job: conflicts with contractors, disagreements between spouses on preferences, and termites, mold, faulty wiring or other hidden problems that can send costs spiraling well beyond the budget.
After choosing a contractor and enduring several months of living in a construction zone, Villani and her family settled into their remodeled home in February. She says she has “no regrets” about either the renovations or the remodeler. The company did a good job, she says, and it stuck to the budget and stayed on schedule — except for changes resulting from new decisions that Villani made along the way.
Renovations can be daunting, traumatic and heartbreaking. But like Villani, homeowners can have a relatively drama-free experience and a happy ending. The right research, planning and preparation on the front end are essential. Here’s how she did it:
Design-build or construction firm?
The first step in Villani’s decision-making process: researching the types of companies that remodel homes. They are almost as varied as the projects themselves and the homeowners who want work done.
Variations are based on project size and scope, the complexity of design and construction, the homeowners’ budget, the price range of the products that homeowners have in mind, the services the homeowners want and when the project needs to be completed.
Some remodelers do only construction, following plans developed by an architect or designer. Architects often recommend remodeling contractors whose work quality they admire and with whom they have worked well. Other remodelers, known as design-build firms, bring design and construction under one company roof. Most design-build companies use their own construction crews along with carefully selected trade contractors for plumbing, electrical and mechanical work.
“It just makes sense to package the design and construction,” says David Merrick, president of Merrick Design and Build in Kensington, Md.
“We say no to construction-only jobs, because we don’t understand the project as well as when we are the designer, and it’s hard to provide value engineering” — that is, cost-effective design and construction choices — “when we don’t know what went into the design decisions.” Merrick adds: “We build budget through the whole process” of design development, showing costs to clients along the way.
Contractor Vince Butler, president of Butler Brothers in Clifton, Va., designs most of his projects but also partners with a few architects and will recommend architects to clients whose projects present special aesthetic challenges. The goal in all cases, he says, is to establish the approach and the team that is the best fit for the project and client.
Construction contractors, whether design-build or not, run the gamut from large enterprises to truck-and-tool-belt operations. Larger companies may be more expensive but tend to provide strong project management and comprehensive cost estimates. The smallest companies often have lower overhead and fees but may be less equipped to handle complex problems. Less manpower can mean that projects take longer to complete. Every company is different.
Specialized kitchen-and-bath design firms offer targeted design expertise and products. Jim McCoy, owner of the Kitchen Guild and BathExpress in Northwest Washington and Fairfax, says showroom-based companies such as his carry a select number of cabinet lines and have staff designers who guide clients through the design of remodeled kitchens and bathrooms — usually within existing walls — and the selection of products for these rooms.
Cabinet dealers, as opposed to kitchen-and-bath design firms, may have a wider variety of products but feature a lesser emphasis on design services. McCoy has installation teams on staff; some kitchen-and-bath companies use subcontractors for this work. It’s wise to ask about the installers’ experience and how the installation will be managed.
A common belief is that homeowners should get three price estimates before choosing a contractor for their remodeling project. Unless the proposed design, scope of work, products, materials and all other factors are identical in the three proposals, however, this can lead to a comparison of apples and oranges.
Working with architects, designers…
Design-build firms generally try to draft a variety of designs that meet clients’ budgets, or alert the clients if their design wishes exceed their budget parameters. Architectural firms may prefer to provide a wider array of design possibilities at a range of prices, giving the clients the opportunity to see more approaches that achieve their remodeling needs.
A design-build company’s drawings often are developed by staff designers, some of whom are architects. Some design-build companies work with outside architects or designers who work as subcontractors.
Grossmueller’s Design Consultants in Northwest Washington represents a less common, hybrid approach that delivers services for various parties in the remodeling process. The company provides the design component for smaller design-build remodeling companies, assists homeowners with design and product decision-making, and it develops interior specifications and construction documents for architects.
John Heltzel, who owns an architectural firm, John F. Heltzel Architects, and a design and construction firm, Heltzelhaus, in Manassas, says small projects under $15,000 and very straightforward home improvements may not require an architect.
For larger or more complex projects, an architect can act as an agent representing the clients, assuring that they get the product quality and design execution they expect. Heltzel recommends teamwork among the architect, contractor and client from the moment project planning begins. This smooths the notorious adversarial relationship that can develop between the architect and contractor, and it supports a climate in which concerns are aired, problems are solved and the expertise of both designer and builder are tapped.
Villani decided that a design-build firm, with a single point of contact, would be the right choice for her project. After talking to neighbors who had remodeled their homes and checking rating sites such as Angie’s List, she identified 11 companies to consider. By searching the Internet and factoring in her concerns, Villani constructed a list of questions to ask the companies over the phone and at in-person meetings. Using the questions helped her to pare the list quickly.
As Butler says, homeowners should first check licensing and insurance. Does the remodeling company have a license to operate in the state? Does the company have certificates of liability insurance and workers’ compensation insurance? Does it provide written warranties for workmanship? These are musts.
To get a read on reliability and business profiles, Villani asked about each remodeling company’s years in business, availability and time frame for her project, the payment schedule, which subcontractors the remodeler uses, and whether the company representative thought her project could be completed within her budget.
She also asked about issues of particular relevance to her house, such as the cost of refinishing the original hardwood floors. After each interview, she jotted down notes to jog her memory about who said what.
Villani then eliminated the design-build firms that did not have an architect on staff or an outside architect with whom they regularly worked. The list got still shorter when she crossed off companies she felt were too small or too big. By honing the list, Villani zeroed in on a few companies she believed would provide personal attention and skilled project management at an affordable price.
Butler says that references are essential. “I give people a list of everyone I’ve worked with for the last 12 months” and let them choose whom to contact, he says. “I think they should be looking for companies that do projects like they want to do, and that have done such projects recently.”
Merrick adds: “We are seeing people give online survey responses the same weight they would give an in-person recommendation. But there’s nothing like a real referral” to get your questions about a remodeler answered.
Villani selected Smiley Renovations, a mid-size design-build remodeling firm in Silver Spring.
She especially liked the fact that the company has an architect with whom it regularly works. Another plus: The company president, Daren Smith, encouraged her to check out Smiley’s previous jobs.
“I strongly urge my potential clients to meet me at previous projects,” Smith says. “They can see the quality of our work” and talk face to face with the homeowners, not to mention observing that “the previous clients were happy enough to let us back in.”
At his first meeting with Villani, Smith listened to her renovation ideas, expectations and concerns and got a sense of the level of products and finishes she had in mind. Within five days he had given her a rough estimate.
“Daren was the first one to get back to me with a budget estimate,” Villani says. She was impressed by this responsiveness. Based on preliminary design ideas, the estimate also demonstrated to Villani that Smith understood her remodeling goals.
Villani declined to say how much the renovations cost. But Joe Normandy, executive director of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry’s Metro D.C. chapter, says that, in his experience, a project similar to this one that incorporates a 1,500-square-foot addition and a variety of new products might range in cost from $375,000 to $415,000.
Villani checked Smiley’s references and visited one of the company’s recent projects — again with good results. The final, deciding factor in her choice of Smiley Renovations was the intangible.
“I wanted a good rapport with the remodeler,” Villani says.
Both she and Smith agree that good chemistry is important. Remodeling company crews may be working in your house for many months, Smith says, so choosing a company you can “live with” is key.