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Great Home Design: Avoiding Trouble
Comments () | Published May 1, 2009

Know that once a contract is signed and you want to change anything, you will pay extra. “While you are at it” can become an extremely costly phrase.

Regular client/builder meetings are important, but e-mail and cell phones are terrific, says architect Jerry Levine, owner of Levine Group Architects & Builders in Silver Spring. “E-mail is tremendous for daily communications because you take care of questions that used to be stored up,” he says. “There is also a paper trail for the benefit of the client and the builder.” 

Tim Burch wants contractors and clients alike to understand the emotional stages of the “remodeling roller coaster”: design (excited), plans and permit (emotions dip), breaking ground (excited), framing (all-time-high emotions), subcontractors (low if contractor is a lousy referee), drywall (potentially the most frustrating due to dust and mess), trim (satisfaction growing), and painting/punch list (make or break for projects if the painter is a slob or if the crew won’t finish the last pesky details).

Homeowners should treat workers with respect. Remember, you’re paying for skills you don’t possess. 

In the end, Levine hopes clients will think of renovation “like birthing a child: After a while, you forget the pain.”

A sunroom features the original furniture and light boxes made of Victorian stained glass that Gurian and Anderson collected. Photograph by Judy Davis.

Stressed? Who, Me?

During a renovation, expect to feel threatened, overwhelmed, and financially shaky, says Judith Bernardi, a DC psychotherapist and remodeling veteran. “Remind yourself, ‘I chose to do this project, and it will end someday,’ ” she says. “Try to visualize its completion by pinning a blueprint or a picture of the finished room on a wall.”

You might also hit the gym, says Diana Bulger: “When things got bad, I went from one to two visits a week to a trainer, and I got into really good shape. I didn’t forget the renovating pain, but the workouts made me feel mentally and physically better.”

Realize that renovation can also threaten a relationship.

“I won’t work for married couples anymore. Five out of the seven I worked for got divorced,” says architect Bill Hecker. “I took a job for a guy in Hawaii because he was single. There was no one for him to argue with about chair rails.”

Designing a space brings up a lot of issues in partnerships, says Martha Gross, a DC psychologist and two-time renovator. For example: spending priorities, aesthetics, decision-making styles, balance of power.

“Talk to each other like business partners,” she says. “List your goals and budget. Assume there will be differences. Go slowly, and discuss a disagreement strategy. If she really wants granite counters, let him decide on the flooring.” And try to work it all out before you hire a contractor. 

Energy consultant Bob Linden is a modernist who owns a Dupont Circle Victorian. He’d already turned the third floor into a sleek master suite when he married neuroscientist Nancy Desmond in 2005. For her, he made the second floor more 20th than 21st century. “The real shocker was the kitchen,” he says. “I wanted to open up the whole first floor from the back wall of the house forward and have everything hang out.”

“My idea,” says Desmond, “wasn’t to open the front door of a house built in the late 1800s and the first things you see are all this stainless steel and dirty dishes in the sink. I wanted it closed off.”

Finally, the couple hit upon a Solomonic solution: They would build a compact, conventional kitchen with food-prep and cleanup areas out of sight in a back corner. The rest of the space would be open.

“It was time to move forward,” she says, “because I felt Bob was compromising too much, giving up things that were really important to him.”

Says Bob: “I wanted to make this a place she loves. It wasn’t an intellectual compromise. It was an emotional compromise.”

If a contractor does crummy work or bolts, how do you fix the mess?

You’ve got maximum leverage when the contractor is licensed, says builder Don Sever.

The Virginia Contractor Transaction Recovery Fund and the Maryland Home Improvement Commission’s Guaranty Fund—both financed by contractor license fees—can reimburse ripped-off homeowners up to certain limits. Neither fund covers unlicensed remodelers, and the District doesn’t have one at all.

“It takes a while to get money back, but it is possible,” Sever says. “You can also complain to your local consumer-affairs office; they can take action without the contractor’s participation. The state licensing board is another place to complain. It can fine him, suspend his license, or remove it. If your contractor isn’t licensed, you’re out of luck.”

You can sue the contractor, whether licensed or not, although there may be no assets to collect.

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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 05/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles