Ask an Expert: Interview with a Home Renovation Contractor

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Rick & Bernita Leonard, Heritage Building & Renovation

Rick Leonard is the founder of Heritage Building and Renovation, a Montgomery County, MD firm that designs and builds renovations and additions, and specializes in turn-of-the-century bungalows and Victorian homes. Since he has more than thirty years of expert experience, we asked him for his advice on working with a contractor—including how to save time and money, as well as ways to ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible. Here’s what he had to say!

When should a homeowner renovate their home, rather than sell?

That’s a very personal decision. People tell me all the time that they couldn’t find just the right house in the right location. Sometimes people don’t want to leave their neighborhood and neighbors. Many people buy a house that’s a little too small before they have a family—especially in older neighborhoods where houses don’t have master bathrooms, family rooms, or bathrooms on the first floor. If the house can be enlarged or rooms can be rearranged—and if it’s also possible to get the desired space without the hassle and disruption of moving—then a renovation makes good sense.

How much does budget factor into the decision?

A lot for most people! The value of the house compared to others in the neighborhood and how long the owner plans to stay in the house are important considerations. Most people do have an upper limit in mind and shouldn’t be concerned about sharing that information with the contractor.

Kitchen

via Heritage Building and Renovation

How expensive is renovating compared to buying new?

It’s not necessarily cheaper to renovate than to move. It depends on many factors: how extensive the renovation is, what kind of house you’d buy instead, the location of the new home, and so on.

Renovating is actually more expensive than building new. It’s always easier to build on an open construction site. You can work more efficiently and move men and materials more quickly. Plus, there are fewer hidden problems. There’s always an interface where old and new rooms come together, when you’re matching the existing finishes and trim, as well as painting and floor refinishing. Working around a family who is continuing to occupy the house requires more dust protection and clean-up. All those things can make the project take longer, which increase costs.

You’re a “design/build” firm. Can you explain the advantages of that arrangement?

Ultimately, it allows more early control over plans and budgeting. It can save the homeowner money and can also speed up the entire renovation process.
The builder and the architect work as a team from the beginning to design a project that fits the client’s budget. The builder also takes responsibility for the design.

In our case, the design agreement goes through our firm. We meet with the architect at the job site and stay involved in the design process. We make sure the homeowner likes the preliminary design before the architect draws up the permit drawings, which are used to get all the construction permits required. We don’t give the client a complete budget until they’re happy with the preliminary design.

Custom railing, brackets, ridge cresting, gable ornaments

via Heritage Building and Renovation

How does the permitting process figure into home renovation?

The permitting process is different from county to county and state to state. Building or renovating in Montgomery County is highly regulated. Licenses are required, and there are several inspections for each project. We work in historic districts, which have their own set of permits and requirements to meet. The permit process is very exacting.

At what point in the planning phase should a homeowner pull in a contractor?

Most people have a pretty strong idea about what they want to do, but they don’t know what’s possible with their house depending on its age, location, zoning restrictions, structural considerations, and so forth. I may get called in early to talk about the possibilities and help them consider issues they may have overlooked.

Do you stay on top of all the energy efficiency developments?

I am interested in building science, which is continually evolving. I try to stay current. The building code is also evolving, and there are new requirements in each revision. Regulations concerning insulation requirements based on climate, zone, glass used in windows and doors, and the efficiency of furnaces, air conditioners, appliances, and general requirements for air sealing the structure are vastly different than when I started in the early 1970s. There are also strict guidelines for reinforcing the structure to resist wind loads and earthquakes, depending on where the house is located. Electrical codes are much stricter, and there have been many changes to safety codes for such things as stair design, decks, railings, etc.

What about other areas of green building?

We promote green products and processes in our work. We discuss this during the design process and try to find a comfortable balance between sustainability and affordability. We use ecologically friendly products such as Boral Tru exterior trim, which can take the place of exterior wood window and door trim, fascia boards, etc, and is also rot-proof, fire resistant, and made of 70% recycled content. We use Roxul Mineral wool insulation, which is made from natural stone and recycled steel slag. We also use LED recessed fixtures and under-cabinet lights.

How can a homeowner avoid some big mistakes when working with a contractor on a renovation?

Know your budget and be honest about it. Also know that when it comes to an older home, building an addition or renovating is a very complicated process and requires years of experience. Producing excellent results so that the work blends with the existing house, functions well, and is executed with craftsmanship is something that deserves careful attention. Too often, projects go to the low bidder with predictable results. We have been contacted to come in and redo seriously ruined projects several times.

Not picking materials early on is another mistake. If you don’t choose your appliances, fixtures, and paint colors during the design phase, they have to be determined later, which can slow down your project and can impact the budget. That’s why I always advise homeowners to choose as early as possible. In fact, at the contract stage of our projects, we will often provide a schedule with deadlines for these decisions.

Sometimes it may be beneficial to work with an interior designer at the very beginning if you’re having trouble making certain decisions and need advice or encouragement.

Barrel Vaulted Ceiling and renovated kitchen

via Heritage Building and Renovation

What about the time frame for completion of a project?

Time to completion is often a concern. Once we start a job, we keep a crew there every work day. I’d recommend that homeowners have an agreement with the contractor that work will be performed every day possible.

Also, the contract should include a realistic estimate of the time needed to complete the job. We try to provide schedules, but there are so many variables that can alter plans. Every house is different. Every old house has issues that can’t be predicted until you open up the walls.

How can both the homeowner and the contractor keep the budget under control?

The best way is to have an accurate budget to begin with. Keep changes to a minimum, especially if they involve actual construction.

As for payment, most contractors divide payment into several installments: the deposit, scheduled payments throughout the process, and then final payment.

What recourse does the homeowner have if the quality of the work is inadequate or the project goes over budget?

Contracts should be specific in describing the project. There should be a warranty for the work and provisions regarding the change order process and how disputes are handled. The American Institute of Architects has sample contract forms on their website. Maryland has a home improvement commission that licenses contractors and can provide assistance.

What are the challenges of working in a historic district?

There are additional requirements and approvals before you change or add anything to the exterior. Historic district construction tends to be a little more expensive because of the materials required. For example, you cannot install vinyl siding or windows. Materials need to match or be compatible with the time period in which the house was built.

Are there tax breaks for homeowners renovating a historic property?

Definitely check with your jurisdiction. Here in Montgomery County, MD, you can get tax breaks from the county as well as from the Maryland Historical Trust. But check in with the agency or entity before you begin construction. They may need to preapprove your construction documents and, in some cases, the entire house will need to be documented before you start the project.

How can a homeowner find a reputable contractor to work with?

Ask your friends and neighbors who they’ve worked with and who did a good job. The National Association of the Remodeling Industry is a national organization that lists reputable contractor members. The National Association of Home Builders has a remodeling division. Remember to check references on any contractor you’re considering hiring.