CONSUMER

Abode just a little too humble? Now’s the time to remodel.

Now that it’s chic (and well-nigh imperative) to save, most of us are learning or remembering how to make do. And with every forkful of dirt and board-foot of lumber carrying a double-digit price tag, we’d best learn to love the houses we have – even here in tear ’em down, move ’em out country. But if your abode is just a little too humble, now’s the time to think about remodeling. Like building a house, remodeling is an expensive proposition; and every month you delay brings the price up a little more. Cement prices have doubled in the last two years. Copper wire has nearly doubled in the last two months, and nobody outside Sunnybrook Farm expects the trend to reverse.

There is some good news, though. Because home improvement, unlike homebuilding, has been among the least cyclical business for decades, you can probably get the wherewithal for your project from a lending institution. Generally, shop for fix-it money first at a savings and loan association, then at a credit union or local bank.

Wherever you get your money, you should be clear about why you’re spending it. If you’re rehabbing for resale, paint the inside and outside of your house (lean towards boring in your color choices), carpet rooms that really need it, fix what’s broken, clean everything else, and leave it at that. You should consider remodeling only if you plan to stay where you and want to make your house right for you. It’s too much to go through for somebody else, anyway.

If you’re planning a room addition, garage conversion, or anything that will require the services of plumbers, electricians, and other tradesmen classified as subcontractors, you should think seriously about getting a general contractor to choreograph the job. Acting as your own general contractor can save you from 25 to 35 percent of the total job cost; it can also send you over the hill to the poor farm. An absolute: If you are your own contractor, carry workmen’s compensation insurance to avoid personal liability for any injuries sustained by the people you hire. A probable: Unless you can plumb and wire well enough to instruct your sub-contractors about how you want their jobs done, you should hire a general contractor.

Business has never been better in the home improvement game. The national industry’s revenues totaled a record $38 billion in 1978, and are expected to hit $50 billion this year, $90 billion by 1985. High energy costs and tight mortgage money are contributing to the boom: Fewer new construction starts result in an aging housing stock that requires updating, repair, and insulation.

Which brings us to the caveats. All that home renovation money has attracted some jobbers with more ambition than skills. The failure rate is close to 90 percent for general contractors in their first two years of business. Extensive renovation could well be the biggest hassle you ever pay good money for. It’s an onerous undertaking at best, and it’s really scary unless you know you can trust the general contractor or subcontractors you hire to do the job.

“There’s no state licensing for general contractors in Texas the way there is in California,” says Marcia Thompson, a Dallas contractor. “I’d say up to 80 percent of all homeowners allow themselves to get cheated. Too many homeowners are dreamers, unaware of current costs. If they’re going to be dealing with remodeling professionals, homeowners have to become more professional in their approach.”

The term “professional” is fairly new to the essentially blue collar building trades. In 1956, when the Eisenhower Administration attempted to ease a housing and mortgage money shortage by making better use of existing housing stock, a group of contractors, building material manufacturers, and lending institutions consolidated to form the National Home Improvement Council, Inc. (NHIC). Their intentions were to build a network of professional, non-profit chapters whose reputations would be bolstered by the NHIC code of ethics, and to educate consumers about the ways and means of home renovation. The Dallas chapter of NHIC was chartered four years ago and has become an important organization within the community. There are many reliable, highly qualified contractors in town who are not members of NHIC. “But when you’re dealing with one of our members,” claims Dick Halleck, Dallas NHIC chapter president, “you are guaranteed that he will use the proper materials, that he is properly insured, and that he will do a fine job with whatever remodeling you hire him to do.”

Before calling a contractor in for a bid, you should prepare a list of activities for which the new room or addition will be used. This is the time to think creatively. Consider the way you’d like the room decorated. Clip and save pictures from home improvement magazines. Think the project through so you’ll be able to describe accurately what you need. Once the contractor meets you and listens to your plans, he may give his own ideas. “I prevent my customers from making mistakes,” says contractor Tom Martin. “I can’t think of a project I’ve completed without changing it a little at the planning stage.” It’s a good idea to request bids from three or four different contractors, but be sure they’re all bidding on exactly the same project. It may be difficult to get several professionals interested in seeing you since the best contractors are very busy. Keep trying; it’s worth it.

When the bids are in, remember that the low one is not always the best. Contractors like to tell the story of the woman who received two bids for the same job, one for $15,000, the other for $19,000. The high bidder got the job when he explained: “Lady, I could do that job for $15,000. But then you see, I’d be working for myself. At $19,000, I’ll be working for you.”

The NHIC outlines the following rules for selecting a qualified contractor:

1. Employ a contractor with an established place of business.

2. Be sure he has adequate financialreferences.

3. Request references of satisfied customers. Check them out.

4. Check with the Better Business Bureauto see if there is an adequate file on thecontractor.

5. Observe carefully how precisely he”sizes up” your proposed project, take noteof his suggestions and discuss them thoroughly with him. Don’t be rushed. He hastime, and so do you.

6. Be sure to have a written agreement onplans and specifications of major projects.

7. Have a thorough understanding of thequality of materials and workmanship required.

8. Don’t haggle with him on prices of materials or labor rates. He knows his business, and he wants yours.

If a contractor comes on too strong with his sales pitch, if he cuts something off the top of his price “just for you,” don’t use him. A common sales tactic among unreliable contractors involves offering the homeowner a special price under the phony stipulation that your project will be used as a “model home” for subsequent viewing by his prospective customers. The visitors will never materialize because the contractor has only succeeded in flattering you into buying his work. Avoid anyone who “just happened to be passing by and noticed that your house needs work.” Don’t shop for contractors in the classified section of a newspaper. Don’t sign a contract calling for a down payment over 30 to 40 percent of the total cost.

Of the 94 business categories at the Dallas Better Business Bureau, home remodeling contracting ranks second in complaints registered (behind mail order and ahead of auto repair). Last year, 67 percent of the dissatisfied customers resolved their problems with the contractor, but the resolution rate fell to 61 percent during the first half of 1979. An arbitration committee has been organized under the auspices of NHIC in conjunction with the Better Business Bureau and Attorney General’s office. The committee brings the disputants together and tries to resolve the issue.

Professional guidelines and an arbitration mechanism should give confidence tothe builder and to us, his customers andsuppliants. Now we have some recourse ifthat new room starts leaking like a sieve. Asthe industry matures and dons the mantle ofprofessionalism, maybe we’ll get away frombad jokes about aluminum-siding salesmen. By the way, have you heard the oneabout the doctor, the lawyer, and thegeneral contractor?

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