Here's a malady homeowners want to avoid: The "while you're at it syndrome."
It refers to the propensity to cast budget aside during major home remodeling and improvements. The result is sharply higher costs, leaving homeowners to ask themselves, "What happened?"
What happens is a faulty budget process, inadequate bid review, and a lack of budgetary restraint, according to a project expert for the Home Service Store, a home maintenance, repair and improvement provider.
To upgrade and add on after the project is started is often a big temptation. The additional cost of upgrading a faucet might not be much in the context of a $10,000 project, so it's easy to say, "While we're at it we might as well..."
"Let's say a contractor is remodeling a bathroom, he's installing a vanity, and the budget is $12,000," says Rod O'Dell, a construction expert for the Home Service Store. "Many times the homeowner will tell the contractor 'While you're at it, why don't you install a marble vanity in place of a porcelain model?' They have just added hundreds of dollars to the costs. When you total the add-ons, the mid-job upgrades are budget-killers."
To building professionals, these requests are called "change orders" -- midstream amendments often made at the whim of the homeowner. Item by item, change orders beef up the cost of the job. O'Dell recounts a bathroom project that went $3,200 over budget on hardware alone. The homeowner was stunned at the self-inflicted cost overrun. Most remodeling and improvement budgets exceed the intended amount by around 10 percent, with 30 percent to 60 percent overruns not unheard of.
The problem, according to O'Dell, is that homeowners meander through home store aisles noting the cost of materials. Those cursory visits serve as budget guidelines but they miss key cost elements a contractor includes in bids.
"Budgets frequently don't meet with reality," says O'Dell. "Homeowners don't take into consideration what the contractor would take into account." For instance, the homeowner sees a bathroom with sparkling new fixtures and features. The contractor sees a wall that needs to be moved 3 feet, a floor that needs reinforcement to hold a whirlpool tub, and wiring a 220-watt electrical circuit to handle the tub heater. O'Dell says a good way to get a general idea about the cost of a remodeling job is by using an online home-improvement cost calculator.
Homeowners who automatically accept the lowest bid also invite a different kind of trouble, says O'Dell.
"If there is a big disparity between bids, there has to be a reason," says O'Dell. "Usually, the contractor is not including something, such as using lower grade materials or skipping inspections. It's up to the homeowner to ask those questions. It's not always a matter of the lowest price. Labor and material costs won't vary widely enough to be the cause of most disparities if the scope of work and materials are the same. You have to ask, 'What's missing here?"'
O'Dell counsels HSS customers to insist contractor bids be very specific in terms of materials used and construction steps to be taken. Better contractors will also include a detailed, written description of the job to include functions such as removing walls, reinforcing floors and other factors the homeowner might not be aware of.
He also urges homeowners to set realistic budgets. "It's fine to walk home stores to check material prices," says O'Dell, "but if you do, be sure to account for all items. That's what a good contractor will do." Most budgets should include a 15 percent to 20 percent overage contingency for the unexpected -- unseen damage or other conditions and change orders.
"The more detail the homeowner knows, the better," says O'Dell. "They need to watch out for all the little changes that can balloon costs. The only way to cure the 'while you're at it syndrome' is to make sure you set a realistic budget and stick to it."
(The Home Service Store manages home maintenance, repair and improvement tasks in more than 130 markets nationwide and can be found at www.TrustHSS.com.)
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