By Mike McClintock
Special to Tribune Newspapers
July 14, 2012
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, a 1946 bestselling book and classic movie, made great fun of a truism of construction: It's going to cost more than you thought. Blandings stretched the budget to buy an $11,000 farmhouse in such bad shape it became a tear-down, replaced by a new house that cost five times as much. There were a slew of unexpected charges — just the way there are in budget-busting projects today.
Remodeling jobs in older homes are the worst. Walls may have layers of wallpaper, paneling and drywall, and hidden behind them inadequate framing and outdated wiring. A job price that anticipates the worst case scenario would cost a fortune. That means many remodeling plans have gray areas, and almost always some extras. Here are a few ways to handle them.
Excluding items, marked NIC for not in contract, is one way to deal with unknowns. For instance, there will be steps off the deck but you don't know yet on which side or how wide or how many. There's no way a contractor can price that. If you don't know about the bank of recessed lighting yet — the old ceiling may come down, maybe not — NIC means we'll see when we get there instead of guessing at a price for work that may be done as planned, or have to be altered, or even canceled. But exclusions are sometimes exploited by contractors as a way to reduce the estimate. Closets are included, but not shelves inside; work from start to finish on an addition but not the costly permits; a new furnace but not carting away the old one. Everything you expect must show up in the drawings or be listed in the specifications or by default it's NIC.
This is the other side of the exclusion coin, typically used on work that will definitely be done one way or another. But instead of treating it as an extra, an estimated price for materials and labor is included in the contract. Allowances are often used to cover products that will be installed but haven't been specified yet like finish hardware, light fixtures, and appliances. For example, installing mechanical lines for the new clothes washer and dryer is included and work can proceed with an allowance for the machines that may have to be raised or lowered depending on which ones you select.
There can be hang-ups even if you decide every detail ahead of time. Suppliers have the flooring you want in a color and finish that's close but not the one you specified, or eight of your nine windows, or that new range is so popular it's backordered and due in a month. The solution in contracts is the phrase 'or equal'. The guideline is price, meaning if not this one another that's similar and costs about as much. 'Similar' and 'about' leave room for discussion, but it's a safeguard against a contractor substituting high-cost replacements that require extra installation charges.
On remodeling jobs when a lot of new materials come in a lot of old materials go out. Some can be recycled. Some, like old wallboard or plaster coated with lead-base paint, require special handling. And many trash services and town waste centers do not take any construction debris. Carting costs can add up quickly, like $500 to keep a dumpster on site even for a few weeks. It's wise to have them itemized in your contract, with a standard phrase that says the contractor is responsible for removing all debris and leaving site broom clean.
Permits and fees
Permit costs vary widely, but increase with the job value, and typically are higher where building is denser — $25 for a roofing job permit in the country, $400 for a plan check plus $250 for a permit on a new deck in the city. Building permit cost should be part of the contract, with a phrase making the contractor responsible for securing it — and any others, such as a utility fee to turn the electrical service off and on. Experienced contractors know the system, the inspectors, and can handle the paperwork and approvals faster than you can.