9. Choosing the Right Contractor
How will you know you hired the right company? Chances are more likely that you will notice when you've hired the wrong one. I recently bought a house, and if I were going to build it, the cost would have easily quadrupled. That's because the cost of building correctly always exceeds the appraisal value of real estate at current market. Builders who build for $100 per square foot build garbage, and $200 per square foot doesn't guarantee better results.
Hire the contractor who isn’t afraid to say, “No. We won’t do that”. Trust me, you don't want a contractor who will blindly do anything you ask of him. I hear often from homeowners about how they don’t want the work to exceed the appraised market value of the surrounding neighborhood. Then, quite simply, don’t.
Don’t look at the house as a one sided input output machine, with a single return, the sale. Houses provide a diverse array of returns on investment as does the work done on them. Don’t think you’re going to get rich by owning a house. That isn’t a good reason to own a house. It is and will continue to be something you invest in. If you are more concerned about market ceiling than the quality of the changes you think you want, then please, do the rest of the world a favor and don’t try to be the innovator. Don't be the one who changes the market value of your entire neighborhood.
Or do. But, do it in the right neighborhood for the right reason. Do it based on sustainable values. Do it for your community, your future, your kids or grand-kids. I promise you that you will never lose money on quality work, unless you do it for the wrong reason.
Straight talk here: you will likely never see a cash Return On Investment on a quality renovation within the first market cycle, maybe not even within the tenth. What happens with quality work is that it starts paying you back when the work you paid "the other guy" to do starts falling apart. Work that lasts will survive several market cycles providing you with form and function while you own it and market readiness when you do cash in. Legitimate improvements(permitted and documented) can be deducted from capital gains during a sale.
This undertaking of investing in real estate is where networking with an intuitive and knowledgeable real estate agent, a competent builder, and an investment advisor would be ideal(make sure they aren't all the same person). Hire a contractor whom you trust to be flexible, and who has the management resources to acknowledge and execute the three stages of a project: pre-construction, construction, and post-construction. The job doesn’t begin with demo and end with paint. It really doesn’t.
8. Doors of Selection
How many of us have doors which don’t shut, don’t open, don’t keep the breezes out, or which you could roll a golf ball under comfortably? Sometimes design is disguised as execution. The hiring of qualified persons is a step in pre-construction, as is design. They are closely related. If you don’t hire the right hands to do the simple things, all your planning is for naught. Of course with older houses,
time is to blame for these infractions upon function. It takes an artful craftsman with experience in maintaining and restoring these not-so timeless beauties. This all comes down to choosing the right hands. Which is a cousin of design, called subcontractor and labor selection
How will you know you hired the right company? Will you know because you have spent a lifetime focused on building and renovating homes and other structures? Probably not, chances are that even 95% of those who claim to have been in the trades their whole lives still don't know how to install a door. Why would they? Poorly installed doors take years off their own service lives. Will you know you hired the right company because you watched a YouTube video and then hung out with the contractor all day? You will know if you hired the wrong company when your hard wood flooring darkens, or your threshold snaps loose. If you hire the right company, chances are you'll never find out, because like everything else that's "right" in your life, it will fade into the background while a cacophony of "things gone wrong" take precedence.
Let's say you get home after work to find that the door you paid to have installed "rubs" hard on the threshold. You call the installer up and ask him, "hey, what gives?" He says what they always say, "oh, that'll loosen up over time..." Duh, no sugar. It will "loosen up" when the threshold rubs the sweep off the bottom of the door and you find little rubber tails hanging out of the bottom every time you open or close it. Eventually you cut them off to complete the installation, right? No, This door will rot out of it's frame before it is ever installed correctly, and it will never keep the weather out. Doors opening correctly are absolutely vital to your survival in an emergency. Doors that shut and latch properly are a necessity for your feeling of security. Like anything in life, be cautious when someone says something is "easy". When 3 out of four companies want $500 to install, and number four wants $1500, It's probably not pure greed motivating the disparity. Think about how much you are going to be using it, how much potential for frustration, and do not settle for less.
I have heard some "contractors" purport that gutters are a risk or that they cause damage. That's like saying that seat belts don't save lives when they are made of chenile stems. What they are telling you in reality is that they have no idea how to install a good gutter, and rather than learn or promote a fellow tradesperson who does, they are just going to decry the entire science like a flat-earther at a globe manufacturer's convention.
Properly channeling water away from the walls of your home is the only way to protect them from chronic weather related rot. Water splashes back up two inches for every one foot it falls. It goes right up behind your siding, don’t think it doesn’t. Now, your siding could be installed in such a way that it ventilates and dries naturally, but it probably isn’t. So let’s get a real solution. Gutters, like anything, have elements of design to their system. A slew of them actually, from the elevation below the drip edge, to the hidden pieces that complete the system, to basic maintenance. I know that’s a dirty word nowadays. Maintenence. Are you getting goosebumps? Don’t worry, we can install a leaf guard. Look seamless aluminum gutters are not cheap, so don’t pay just anyone to screw it up. They should be installed by a professional providing a warranty(25 years or more). Don’t attach them to a piece of garbage rotten facia board either. Your contractor can tell you if the trim should be replaced, painted, or modified to protect your investment in gutters.
6. Interior Staircase
How many of these have you encountered where the top step is an inch taller and the bottom step is an inch lower? That’s a problem of design, sometimes it’s the initial build, often it’s a lazy renovation.
How many times can you build up the floor before you change the top step? Zero, zero times. I get a lot of calls about this type of issue. Believe me, once a stair-way is built, very few times is it ever moved or changed without incurring a hefty expense.
The rabbit-hole goes even further than simple lazy and clumsy renovations. If your average master carpenter could be compared to a well regarded applied physics professor at a state college or university for his knowledge of math and forces, a custom stair builder takes those basic elements and adds a the equivalent PHD in experimental geometry, and teaches sculpture classes at night. There is just no comparison.
A carpenter can not build a stair-case. It’s like asking your residential electrician to fix the wiring harness in your 86’ Audi. You might get the headlights on, but you’ll never get that one brake light to go off. Design makes the difference.
That said, not everyone needs a stair-case, but, everyone with more than one floor needs a stair-way, and it needs to be safe and usually wants to be attractive. There are a lot of people who "think" they know how to do it. That's how you end up with the butchery pictured above. Believe it or not, someone tried to pass this off as a high quality finish! It takes experience, teaching through practice to get good enough at the craft to make a passable attempt at it. And passable is good enough for many of us, but if merely being passable is a challenge for a well rounded carpenter, you can probably guess how many unqualified persons get hired to do the work.
A good carpenter can dress a stair-way, and to the undiscerning client this can be indistinguishable from a true stair-case. Most homes built since the 1950's have a stair-way and not a stair-case, and you probably cannot tell the difference. It's in the design. A stair-way is a brutal translation of the surface form into a reverse engineered structure. It is built on framing stringers like your deck steps. A true stair-case is made only of itself. It has no framing lumber involved and it should fit together like the puzzle-box from "Hell-raiser". ALL of its fasteners are hidden. It does not squeak because it is wedged tighter than me in my summer pants in the month of January. It's structure comes from its precision and accuracy.
It takes a lot of time to assemble either a stair-case or a stair-way, especially if you have a design with open balusters. What we end up with can be both sturdy and striking, functional and formal. What we never want to do: move it, or redo it. A stairway or staircase should be forever. Your family's safety depends on it. Start with a solid design. The stair-way below is one which we dressed this year for our client. You can probably tell it's a stair-way because of the details we've gone over today. When it's done, the client will be happy and safe for years to come.
5. Tile is Forever
I'm going to 'steal' an anecdote I heard recently, and butcher it beyond recognition. The point should still be conveyed. When Picasso was an old man, he liked to sit in the cafe and draw on his napkin. An observer once asked him to buy one of his doodles. He replied, "sure, that'll be $20,000." Aghast, the fellow cafe patron exclaimed, "but it only took you ten minutes to draw!" Picasso replied, "no, it has taken me a lifetime." Do you get it?
Tile is forever, at least, it should be. Bad design and poor execution plague tile installations almost canonically. How many times do I get the call that a homeowner just spent five thousand dollars on a tile shower and it leaks right through the floor? Well, it’s a tough lesson to learn, a tile shower costs fifteen thousand dollars, not five. It’s tile, how hard can it be? Arrogance and cavalier know-it-allism hath wrought upon us many a porous shower and cracking tile floor.
The cheapest tile available is about $0.65 per square foot to buy. It is ugly. It not worth the cost of installation. Considering the cost of professionally installed tile and specialty underlayment is around $18 per foot, does it make sense to put down the cheapest, ugliest tile you can find? It’s a waste of money. It’s a bad investment. Similarly, buying an expensive tile and hiring a bargain rate handyperson or overconfident contractor to install it is also a bad investment. Instead, consider where you really want the tile. Minimize the use, don’t cheap out on the cost. It should be as carefully used as it is installed, after all, it’s not going anywhere. Make it an accent, make it a presence, just be prepared to invest in it. Otherwise, just go with vinyl or laminate on the floor and an acrylic shower surround. Then, when you replace it every few years, it won't feel like you are ripping out an investment.
Tile installers are often artists. Like Picasso, the longer they have worked at their craft, the more valuable their work. It's details that you or even I wouldn't think of. It's in their ability to cause the tile to transcend mere blockish building material and become something greater than the sum of it's parts. Look at the abomination in the photo above. The tile screams, "I am a big green f'ing tile! I am everywhere, and I am ugly!" It looks like a bathroom built in "Minecraft", yet, it's probably a 3/4 million dollar new build from 2002. Good design saves time and money. Bad design takes time and money to fix. Could you imagine ripping out that jade pixel potty palace, or having a flood in your kitchen ceiling everytime your partner takes a shower, how about cutting yourself on a carelessly sharp edge, or having to look at rough exposed cut ends? If you look, you'll see this garbage everywhere. Stay sharp, #askmeanything
4. Finished Attics
In New England, we have a lot of cape style homes, the old one and a half story castle. We squeeze a lot of use out of those finished attic spaces, but they are usually done cheaply, and end up causing long term damage to the roof of the house from structural instability and condensation related issues.
Insulated roof planes either need to be sealed or ventilated, and they often cannot be both properly insulated and ventilated. This leaves us with the only realistic option being spray foam, which is anything but cheap, but then again, a rotting roof, pooling condensation, and mold induced anaphylaxis are not cheap either.
The expense of framing dormers is greatly underestimated, and as a result many dormers are collapsing the roofs they are supported by. Your average gable roof is a two-legged stool. It relies on the attic floor to tie it together. It isn’t a magic trick, but if you remove structure and add load, you will get a “poof, and it’s gone” result. Again, good design saves you time and money.
If you are making changes, be sure you consult with the right professionals. Finishing an attic or dormering a roof are absolutely not a "three quotes and go" type project. You will need at a minimum: a designer or architect; an engineer; and a general contractor. Start with either a designer or a contractor as an entry point, and confirm that your project will be built with engineer stamped plans if changes are structural, and to energy code compliance standards. If you can't afford the designs, you definitely can't afford the work.
3. Interior Design
Let's not pretend we have problems. Some people do, but most of us just have choices and challenges. Sometimes we don't like to admit it. We like to pretend that we are victims of circumstance, when most of the time our choices lead us to these circumstances. I personally live with every choice I have made. Some of them were based on some questionable values, especially early on, and the reverberation isn't all that pleasant. Interior design is like that. I often see evidence of homeowners and builders making choices based on questionable values.
Bad design costs you time and money. These choices steal value from a design in the present and future and create unnecessary challenges for the use of a space. How many master baths in developments full of mc-mansions are clogged by behemoth drop-in whirlpool tubs set in massive tiled boxes? Nobody uses that tub except the house sitter, who finds it a novel place to make out and probably doesn't even put water in it. Short doors, low ceilings, narrow passageways all portend a complete lack of forethought. I encourage you who are considering making changes to engage with yourselves and inquire within about your own values. Then hire a contractor who works with a designer, both of whom share your values. Your home should be a reflection of these.
What I value has evolved throughout my career. I value humility, because with humility I am able to learn what I do not know. I value responsibility because fixing mistakes is the best way to avoid making them. I value compassion, because it is the only truth which serves us all. I look around at all the results of hasty, arrogant, and careless changes and note that the effort required to arrive at those results needed only to be amplified or slowed down by say ten percent to give the project the direction it needed to arrive at a truly valuable result. The last thing I have to say I value is a challenge, because showing up and making improvements is all about accepting and cherishing the challenges life gives us.
We live with our choices, or we sell them to other people. Let's commit to not buying anybody else's changes based on questionable values, and to building strong values into the changes we make moving forward. I guarantee, they will be much easier to live with.
Good design saves you time and money. “Water finds a way” is the maxim by which we should be guided. Water finds a way in through poorly considered cheek walls positioned at the bottom of massive valleys(as in the picture below). Water finds a way in under windows positioned too closely to cheek intersections. Water finds a way in behind siding and trim when the roof has a negative overhang. Snow finds a way in ridge and gable vents facing drifts in windy areas. It finds a way to crush a roof built with too little timber and too little pitch.
The photo above is from a home which is less than a year old. The left side of the header supporting the rafters above is not even nailed to anything. On the right end, which you can plainly see, one member of the beam is a full inch shy of touching the rafter it should be nailed to. The whole structure sits atop a dormer wall plate jutting out over absolutely nothing, and if the dormer walls are bearing any weight, they are transferring that weight to OSB plywood in the middle of an open joist bay. This is a brand new home in a neighborhood of approximately 3/4 million dollar homes. I've recently hired a structural engineer to evaluate it. This is lowest bidder work. This is what you get with many builders who compete for square foot residential pricing. How will you know if your builder did it right?
At least someone appreciates it!
All these calamitous and nagging problems aside, the roof is a visually impactful aspect of the overall
design. Too many angles can look downright disturbing. Mismatched angles can create a sense of vertigo. Additions, shoehorned in to existing architecture also can be striking in an unhelpful way. Remember that your roof is number one protection against the elements, but it is equal parts art and architecture and should avoid clashing with your existing design. Beauty is often the first victim of budget cuts, but often ugliness is the most lasting contribution to a neighborhood or individual property.
The number one project people cheap out on is their deck. Whether it’s a last minute Builder’s special, built when all the money’s been spent, or a handyman special, commissioned by overly optimistic homeowners, a cheap deck is likely to damage your home and your body. Improperly flashing the deck where it attaches to the home is a standard mistake which will rot the wall at the point of attachment and can be very costly to fix. Railings, stairways, and landings which are improperly layed out, or insecurely fastened will provide years of inconvenience, repetitive stress injuries, and even instant tragic consequences. The whole structure must be on a sufficient size and
number of footings, or it will sink and heave. The framing should be engineered at the very least by a competent designer or design program which takes into account local conditions like snow load and use, like live loads generated by a group of persons dancing the Macarena(I’m so old). If you are going to go cheap, I recommend you throw some pallets in the mud and nail some plywood to the top and call it good, otherwise you will be costing yourself or the next homeowner seriously. These underbuilt decks can be found on 9 out of 10 builds. Beware, bad design costs you time and money.
It’s time for a personal post, feels overdue. Here we go :)
In this album(Green), a band (REM) expresses a massive depth of emotions which I speculate are often buried under louder sounds in both life and art. So many contemporary artists, if they even take the plunge of exploring the introspective with their audience, do so with only the most extreme or shocking versions of themselves, or layer it with sarcasm, cynicism, or cheeky cleverness. I love all that stuff. It can be authentic in my opinion, in as much as it is on a case by case.
In the album “Green”, by REM, the band finds and maintains a stance of bravery among multiple uncomfortable and scary emotions. For perspective, it may be comfortable to feel rage or depression, and PLEASE, know I am speaking of my personal experiences and not having any part of moralizing legitimate psychological conditions. It just doesn’t feel as comfortable to me to feel genuine anger or genuine sadness, which for me are much more powerful emotions than their supposed extreme cousins. The range of the album goes wide, anger and sadness are easy to focus on, but their is so much nostalgia, hope, love, and fear, the least liked of the bunch. This album tells me a story of things I don’t want to hear, but desperately need to in order to be ok.
I’ve always hated this album, and now I know why. Lately, I can’t stop listening to it. It is a candid and open challenge not to subvert a feeling into a change of subject. The words can seem silly, until I ask myself, “Do I know what he’s talking about?” and have to answer, “yes”. It’s not comfortable listening to his bare and awkward vocals, and the music isn’t distracting enough, in fact, it points out his sentiments perfectly. More relevant than the technical quality of his voice are the ways he incorporates the guttural, the poignant, and the sublime, without an ounce of mockery, smugness, or cynicism.
I hate this band, and I hate this album so much, I won’t mix it with any other playlists. It stands alone. I listen to it in order and often from beginning to end. It seems dangerous to stop in the middle.