By Tracy Hanes
Keeping a reno rolling smoothly from end to end
A home renovation guide from the professionals
Even the most straightforward renovation project usually has bumps along the road before it reaches a successful completion. Juggling a host of subtrades, each with different skill sets and levels of ego, while managing clients’ expectations, is a fine balancing act.
We asked four veteran renovators, all members of RenoMark, to share their views on what stage of the home renovation process creates the biggest headaches and how to make a project move along as seamlessly as possible.
In each case, advance planning is critical. Chris Phillips of Greening Homes says many homeowners don’t appreciate the time it takes to prepare an estimate—usually 40 to 60 hours of unpaid work—but it’s important not to rush it.
“I can’t walk around a house and give someone a perfect price in 15 minutes,” says Phillips. He says the industry unfortunately has renovators who will say what the client wants to hear in terms of pricing and then make up the money with change orders. Phillips believes honesty is the best policy from the start.
“If a client has plans for a $1-million job and only have $400,000 to spend, I’m going to say you can’t do it,” says Phillips. “It’s a huge challenge because I’m incredibly transparent. My industry is one-offs and sometimes I want to take the client by the lapels and say, ‘I’m telling the truth.’”
Benefits of A Project Manager
Mark Jackson of Jackson & Associates says the home renovation project start-up is the biggest pain for him, and that’s why he has a project manager on staff to set the schedule. “Our project manager has four to six weeks to set up a project. He’ll determine timelines, line up our staff and start calling subcontractors to make sure they’ll be there when we need them. It’s an issue if they don’t come through on the day they are supposed to. Dealing with subs and our own staff is likely the most difficult challenge.”
That’s why it’s important to speak to all subs and make sure they are in alignment, Jackson notes. “You give them the time frame at the front end of a project. Most have worked with me for 15 to 25 years and I’m used to how they work and they’re used to how I work. If they are too busy, they’ll say so, then I have two or three other names on a list I can call. The odd time I have to hunt for a new sub. When you have enough lead time, you can overcome most things that happen on day-to-day stuff.”
Joel Scopelleti, partner in Carick Home Improvements, agrees it’s important to allow ample preparation time. “Get your subcontractors lined up as early as possible. In a perfect world, get all the sub prices first, then determine your price.”
Scopelleti also orders and procures materials before a job starts. “For instance, the client wants hardwood floors and it might take six weeks to get it. It eliminates stress and delays if you have the materials in hand first.” Scopelleti’s contracts include numerous details that are mainly for the homeowner, but they can also help the job proceed more smoothly with trades as they spell out where the parking is, where the dumpster will be located, what washrooms can be used by the workers and what hours they can be on site.
Jackson does what he calls ‘exploratories’ early in the process to see what issues might be lurking behind the walls or under the floors that could create unexpected problems down the road. “As long as we have an agreement in principle with a client, we’ll absorb the cost of the exploratory,” Jackson says. “We can’t find every issue, but we do a bit of demo in the area where we feel there are red flags. There might be pipes we didn’t know were there, for instance.”
Sometimes You Have To Nudge
Scopelleti says even if subtrades are lined up, it’s important to remind them of the job coming up. “Don’t expect them to remember the date you need them,” he advises. “If a plumber is scheduled for the 21st of the month, call him on the 16th, 18th and the 20th. It’s your responsibility to remind them.”
Scheduling home renovation trades and suppliers and making sure they stick to their schedules is a constant headache, confesses Joe Gatti, an owner of the Gatti Group Corp. “Once there is a delay with one trade, there’s obviously a ripple effect. It’s a loss of time and a loss of profit.”
To mitigate issues, Gatti and his brother Tony become “glorified babysitters” who are constantly on site to monitor work and make sure it is being done correctly. But they also provide their trades with scopes of work that are as detailed as possible. “We don’t get as detailed as saying, ‘The piping is three inches apart.’ We can’t get that specific. But we try to write down as much as we can.”
Joe says he and Tony will get hands-on if they think it’s warranted. “We ask a sub, ‘Can we help you?’ Some guys are okay with it, and some aren’t. Some don’t want to do what we’ve asked, and those are the ones we want to weed out.”
Subtrades often try to find the easiest path and have to be monitored, agrees Phillips. A renovation requires management and clearing areas to make way for the trades to do their work. That’s why Greening Homes relies on both its project manager and site supervisors to keep jobs on track.
“We have site supervisors who spend about 70% of their time on tools and the rest of the time managing trades,” says Phillips. “Our project manager is more office-based and orders materials, schedules subtrades, meets with clients. It’s sometimes seen as an expensive luxury, but when you have someone devoted to the communication aspect, it makes the project successful.”
Carick Home Improvements takes a lead-carpenter approach, designating one lead person who controls the job. “Everything funnels through him. The pull and tug of this business is you can’t get things done by relying on individual trades, as they won’t take responsibility for anything except their exact work,” notes Scopeletti. “Pay a little more for a lead carpenter to be the specific point man on the job to make sure it all goes smoothly.”
Gatti finds trades often don’t respect each other’s work and educating about the processes may help. “For example, the plumbers or the HVAC guys will start cutting up the framing. They are not framers and are not mindful of the process.”
Scopelleti tries to foster a teamwork atmosphere, even with subcontractors.
“Number one, always have your trades’ backs,” he recommends. “Whether they are right or wrong, never throw them under the bus in front of homeowners. Talk to them about an issue in private. Never belittle them.”
And pay them as quickly as possible, as they’ll be happier to work for you and to go the extra mile, Scopelleti advises.
“Don’t micro-manage them,” he adds. “I’m hiring them because they are professionals and I believe in respect and treating them well. You have to have good trades to do good work, Conversely, you have to have lots of work to keep good trades. Having the work gives you power.”
He says respect extends to being reasonable about small stuff and not trying to outsmart a tradesperson. “If an electrician scratches the floor, don’t charge him $500. He’ll make it up in the back charge. Think long-term. You can put a little money in your contract upfront to cover those types of things.”
When It’s Time To Let Go
Gatti says finding good subs is challenging, as is weeding out poor subcontractors in a home renovation market where there is a shortage of skilled trades. He had to fire a roofing contractor that didn’t deliver on their promises and didn’t follow proper safety procedures.
“They were always late and sometimes did not show up at all. As a result it started to delay other trades, such as aluminum work and exterior painting,” Gatti recalls. “I heard all the excuses and gave them many opportunities to comply with safety regulations and to finish the job. It didn’t work out, so I let them go and paid them up to the work they had done.”
Gatti says letting trades go is difficult, as his company is small. “We’re not a production builder with people lining up to work. What we do is specific and custom. We take time, we try to educate our guys and we want to create an elite team.”
Jackson also recently had to let subcontractors go who weren’t adhering to the policies outlined in his company’s subcontractor agreement. They weren’t doing the work properly and after they were approached, they starting not showing up, says Jackson, who also learned those subs hadn’t been paying their workers. “The lack of integrity in this industry is phenomenal at times,” he says.
Jackson’s project manager Cory Norris alerts him if he thinks a sub isn’t doing what’s required. Then Jackson decides on the course of action. If he has let a subcontractor go, the client is informed and told that it may take three or four days to get someone else in.
“Most clients are relieved and thankful that we are looking after their best interests,” Jackson says. “I usually give subs a couple of chances, as they may have worker issues of their own. Strike 3 and they are out, unless Strike 1 was so severe we can’t keep them on. I have been doing this for so long that I tend to have good instincts and a feel for a person and how they will operate.”
Jackson says he usually knows by the third job if a subcontractor is going to work out. “With the first job, they are trying to impress us, so do their best. On the second job, a few flaws may show up. By the third job, they’ve straightened out or gotten worse.”
Finding a replacement quickly isn’t always easy. At times Jackson’s staff will step in, clean up and keep things moving until he can find a replacement. Although it can be a headache, it’s important not to keep subs on that aren’t doing the job. It’s the renovator’s role is to protect the client and the substantial investment they’ve made in their home renovation.
Home Renovation Guide – Is Everybody Happy? Originally published in 2019 Reno issue of Ontario Home Builder.
Become a member of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association.