We have built several homes and offices.  Some because we wanted to and others because we had to (aka Sandy).  Each has taken on a different life of their own.  I am quite sure if you interviewed contractors, architects, and decorators, they would tell you that each project was completely different and none of them were seamless.  It is like building a start-up, nothing is standard and each one, no matter how many times you have been involved from whatever angle, be it the founder or the investor, each one has their own paths.

I have been asked what would my advice be to someone going through this for the first time so here goes.  Culture fit is important.  You will spend a lot of time with each person and you want someone who gets you. Depending on the size and scope of the project depends on who you hire.  If you are hiring an architect, it is sometimes good to bring in the decorator at the onset.  Just like companies are better off with diversity so are projects.  Architects think about the big picture and decorators (if they are good) think about how you live.  For instance, a decorator is going to be thinking about the width of a bed and the size of two side tables in a bedroom and how that fits without a door hitting the table or a table jutting out into the doorframe.  Architects might not.

If the project is large, hire an owners rep.  That person represents you and the cost of that person offsets all the mistakes that can be made.  They oversee budgets, come to a weekly meeting and represent you.  If not, make sure you have a weekly meeting with your architect and contractor on site to hold everyone accountable.  When the job slows down more than likely the contractor isn’t paying the subs (millworkers, electricians, plumbers).  Don’t let your contractor hold the keys to the cash.  You want to approve changes and payments as they happen.  You want to be in front of the contractor on cash not behind.

Before hiring a contractor, make sure that the architect has at least 90% of the plans drawn to price.  If not, there could be big change orders down the line.  We like to make all the decisions before bidding.  Once you move to construction you are also moving from the architect to the contractor, it is the contractor you have to rely on and if the architect didn’t provide enough information, you could be the one paying for the mistake.  Architects come onsite to make sure that plans are being built accordingly but they are not great at overseeing the building of a job.  Your contractor is the person who knows how to build.

Decorators.  I am not a fan of the way most of them charge which is hourly and then 30% of the furniture purchased.  I prefer a flat fee so that you are aligned.  If you buy a $10 table vs a $100k table it doesn’t take any more time to purchase an install so why should you pay 30% for that?

The last two projects we are on now seem to appear to be working really well.  All the knowledge over the years is finally paying off.  We ask questions, we push back, we know what we want and we don’t trust anyone but ourselves because we are going to live there and we are going to pay the bill.  I’d say the biggest piece of advice I’d give is to trust your gut.  Even if you have never built anything before, it is yours so ask a ton of questions and pay attention to the details that work for you not them.

Comments (Archived):

  1. Erin

    Such good info, thx. My mom was the contractor growing up. I don’t know how she did it because she comes across as a softy, but she’s very meticulous and detail-oriented and we always had good houses.

    1. Gotham Gal

      You have to be organized. And you have to enjoy the process

  2. JLM

    .Building anything is done on an amateur basis and on a professional basis. There are good approaches to both. As a guy who was in the building biz for three decades building high rises, tens of thousands of apartments, warehouses — there are some easy things to take from the pros and to apply to the amateurs.1. Get the plans done and let someone in every trade look at them. A good plumber can save you a lot of heartache by looking to see how you would access all the bathroom tub and shower valves after they are built. This is also true of kitchen appliances.2. Get an insulation guy to look at the plans for moisture invasion and for identifying the insulated envelope. Use building wrap and tape. Use insect resistant flashing at the base of exterior walls.Today, people should be insulating the floors and ceilings of their attics to give their AC units a lower temp operating environment.Build thicker walls to accommodate insulation. Use spray on insulation where you can, but don’t be afraid to use blankets in the attics. Over insulate because you will never have easier access than when you build it.Put sound attenuating blankets everywhere. In every wall.Pay attention to weatherstripping everything.When thinking about the energy envelope, know where the sun is all day long. Design in overhangs for the morning and late afternoon sun.3. Buy really, really good windows. Don’t let them get painted shut. Make them be operated as part of the commissioning of the project.Use taller doors. Nothing says “custom” like door height and door hardware.4. Buy really good HVAC equipment and make sure it is where you can get to it. Make damn sure you can get to the copper piping from the air compressor to the coil. Sometime in the next 25 years it is going to fail. If it is hidden in a wall in your master bedroom – guess what?5. Pressure test everything – water, HVAC. Hold pressure for a week. Every time you add something, pressure test again. Pressure doesn’t lie.6. Smoke test your ductwork. Make sure it is anchored. Make sure you have dampening valves on your ductwork and make sure you perform an air flow balance on every zone. Half of the HVAC contractors in the US don’t know how to do this.7. Pay attention to the “sones” – the noise level of HVAC, exhaust fans, kitchen fans, ceiling fans, whole house fans.Make sure your bathroom exhaust fans are properly sized. You should have more flow than you need to drive the moisture out. Locate them in close proximity to the showers and the soaking tubs – where the moisture is coming from.8. Make a complete spreadsheet of the entire job identifying every sub, materialman, the GC’s overhead, and the profit. Make a schedule of anticipated payments – amateurs never do this. Only pay 90% of work in place. Retain 10% for final payment upon final city building permit closeout, certificate of occupancy, insurance inspection, and punchlist completion.9. Only make payments to the GC with a Release of Lien from him and each of the subs. Typically the GC presents his bill and all those of the subs with Release of Liens attached. Every sub should have a similar schedule of payments from the GC to the sub. This is how you make sure the GC is paying his subs.Keep perfect paper and digital files.10. Use competitive bidding on everything. Put up a plan room where anybody can get a set of plans. You can do this at the architect’s office, at the GC Ass’n office, or at a Dodge plan room.11. Get bids from at least 5 competent builders. When I was building high rises, I would see a spread of at least 20% on $50-100MM size jobs. This is found money. GCs will put different markups on the same job depending on what their book of business looks like.Same thing with their subs. Mix and match subs amongst those from different GCs. This can save at least 10%. Use GC A’s plumber with GC B’s drywall guy. This is what an owner’s rep can do for you.The bidding is the key. If you decide to work with a particular GC, then make him get 5 bids on everything including materials. Lots of apartment developers will buy all the lumber on a bid basis and assign that contract to the builder. Can save at least 5-10%.12. Make a detailed schedule (throw in some rain days) and have every sub be in a meeting to review it before the job starts and weekly thereafter. On pay day, the schedule has to be tweaked to conform to the payments. If the plumbing rough-in is 50% done, then you check the schedule – is it 50% complete? You pay for 50% x 90% with 10% retained and you get a Release of Lien.Put together a critical materials purchase, delivery, receipt, installation, warranty system. If you are buying expensive appliances, don’t store them on the job. Make the vendor startup all equipment – pools, appliances, HVAC, everything. They know how to do it and they know when it’s not working right.13. Run a clean work site with a common dumpster and tape off the balance of the yard. Make everyone park on the street. Have a nightly clean up and a weekly heavy clean. A clean job site has a “broken windows” impact on the whole job.14. Have a job board with the name of every sub on it. This makes subs take pride in their job. Publish a job directory with everybody’s cell, night number, email. Have a job DropBox for all the plans and subs.15. When checking references, ask the city building inspectors. They know which subs do shitty work and require tough inspection. Meet all the city inspectors. Give them all a Christmas present.16. Have a really good wood butcher go over the framing plan and add things like additional soldiers at every door frame/window, strong backing where the shower glass meets the walls, plywood flooring under all HVAC equipment and water heaters (go tankless), use longer screws for half of all hinge screws, overbuild all stair risers, use 1″ tongue-and-groove flooring for subfloor, put extra nailers at every edge which is going to have wood flooring, put extra support behind all plumbing and make the damn plumbers secure their valves, put the roof joists closer and use thicker plywood on the roof with a nailer for every end of a sheet of plywood, use Hardie and composites everywhere, add blocking around every light in the ceiling and INSTALL FIREBLOCKING EVERYWHERE.17. Take pictures every single day. Put up a webcam or two if you have the service. I use these cheap Wyze cameras which have audio. It is funny listening to the subs when they forget the cameras are there.18. Use an Italian stone/tile guy. Make sure he uses Hardie board under the floors and the walls. Use roll on waterproofing (this shit is expensive, use 3 coats). Know what kind of shower pans you are going to use. Pre-fab ones are good, but I prefer the old fashioned job built ones. I recently took out a 20 year old old school pan and there was not a drop of water on the subfloor.19. Use really good kitchen, bathroom, utility room hardware. You can buy great stuff – Newport – on the Internet as a package. You can buy it cheaper than the plumber if you buy a package. I have gotten 40% off their already low quoted prices when buying more than $10K which isn’t much.20. Worry about all the odd trades up front – garage doors, technology, whole house vacuum systems, fire protection. Don’t wait until the job is built and try to stuff them in.21. On electrical, have plenty of room at the panels. Anticipate adding power and use a size bigger panel with more breakers – $200 cost. Make damn sure every circuit is marked, have it on a laminated sheet on the wall in addition to the interior panel scheme, make damn sure it is correct. Upsize your power connection.22. Always build a pool.23. Keep a book of everything – GC, subs, materialmen, suppliers, manufacturers, warranties, payments, and ATTIC STOCK on everything. Attic stock is 4 extra boxes of the Carrara basketweave marble you used in the bathroom with the grout color.Take pictures of every room with a legend of every product used and every color selected.24. Do not do detailed finish carpentry until the HVAC is working and the doors are closed. Acclimate the materials inside the conditioned space for a month before using. Cut everything in the same space. Let it all sit for two weeks before puttying and painting.25. Use high end pre-fab cabinets. They are better built and more dimensionally stable than custom built ones. They fit better. They will be slightly more expensive. Use slow close hardware on everything.26. When the GC is done cleaning, hire a professional cleaning crew to come spend a week before the furniture is moved in.27. Put on a metal roof or use 50 year shingles. Make sure you know what the warranty means. Water test all skylights.Further affiant sayeth not because I am in the midst of renovating 6 bathrooms and the stone guys just showed up.Building is great fun. Moreso when you have a handle on what you are doing.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    1. Gotham Gal

      This is amazing. Number 9. Get the lien is KEY!

    2. LE

      That is a great list. Question:To what extent, when you are in the bid phase, do you want to appear to be the guy who will hold feet to the flame?I would argue that being that knowledgeable person could work against you (as much as it works for you) when getting bids. Scare away otherwise great contractors. Most people who bid on work (I used to bid on manufacturing jobs) are not looking, even if they do great work, to deal with super knowledgeable ‘hold feet to the flame’ and difficult customers. If they have enough business I mean.Also this would seem to imply that it would be risky to buy someone elses home or project since there is no way to actually insure that construction was done according to the standards that you are indicating when doing your own project. No?I am reminded of my sister and her house that she bought early 90’s. Her husband, a jeweler, was bragging that there were two brothers of the same family that did construction of houses in that area. But one was known for good quality and did the finer work. The other did ok or good work. Well since my BIL was all about quality (diamond people; jewelers) he was very proud (as was my sister) that they choose the quality contractor. They never stopped talking about it either. My BIL was inspecting constantly. Even my Dad was impressed with that. “See that is what you do you keep on top of the job!!!!”. He never shut up about that it was his mantra. Anyway less than 10 years later the windows failed and had to be replaced in the entire house. Now they are finding all sorts of things wrong including the stucco which would need to be replaced at a cost of over $100k for this 4000sf house. Even the builder at my condo complex here mistakes are cropping up years later. (He did commercial and housing).Actually I forget the biggest and most dangerous failure. The had a TV in their bathroom. (We made fun of that). One day my sister comes home. The TV (tube set; Sony) is shattered all over the bathroom floor. Had someone been in the BR at the time would have been tragedy. What happened? The bracket (the types you used to see in hospital rooms with tv’s on them) wasn’t secured properly behind the wall. And this was (and it really was) the quality builder. I mean I knew that as a kid when helping my Dad. And here a workman just put up a bracket incorrectly. Would you even think to make sure on such a small and obvious detail? Most people wouldn’t.Note also that construction and quality are probably similar to the business I was in. What you have as employees at one point in time is not what you have all the time. Employees (and their attention to detail) come and go. The person working on your project may not be the one who worked on your friends project but someone entirely different and with different standards. But great list for sure.

      1. JLM

        .The most important thing is to have an orderly, open bid process where a contractor knows they will get the job if they have the sharpest pencil. Nobody doing this stuff needs any more practice. I used to open bids publicly for high rise jobs.Contractors want to know you have the money to pay for the job. Lots of contractors like people who are knowledgeable and make timely decisions.When you are building a big project, the GC’s senior job superintendent (often an engineer with an MBA) wants to be able to come to the owner or the owner’s rep, lay out an issue, get a decision, have the owner run interference with the architect/structural engineer/MEP engineer, and know whether a change order is going to be signed or not.I would consider and sign change orders on the spot and I was always fair. A few times I told someone to take a hike, but I always responded right away. I had a contractor ask for a $7MM change order and ended up with a price reduction.When I was directly supervising such projects, I used to pride myself on making decisions the second I had sufficient facts. You have to have balls to do that.The contractor makes more money if they can get the job finished quicker. The GC has daily “general conditions” such as the rental of tools, equipment, trash containers, street closings, labor, supervision, cranes, elevators, which accrue daily.I once built a 40-story building on a 3-shift basis. Would normally have taken 18-20 months to build. Got it done in 12. The GC saved millions on general conditions. It was a learning experience for both of us and we did it again.Contractors like the paperwork – contracts, schedules, schedule of values, payments, releases of lien, punchlist – to be done right away. When I was doing this professionally, I had standard forms for everything. I would pay someone on a Friday by 5:00 PM if I had their bill by 9:00 AM and it was right. I had to draw the money from the loan which took some time.When you pay on time and are accessible, GCs like working for you. It shows up in their markup and they will do you a favor.GCs were always trying to “give” me stuff. One marble contractor delivered an 18-wheeler of stone to my house. I took it, but gave it away to anybody who asked. I was very popular in the neighborhood for a while.People like to work for competent people. They hate working for dilettantes or amateurs who don’t know what they are doing, are ponderous, indecisive, and who whine. I hear this all the time from subs. They put it in the price.There are a lot of women who are very good at building stuff. Not in my day so much, but now. I think if I went back into the biz, I’d hire a lot of women. There are a lot of women doing residential jobs who really know what they are doing. You can figure out who does and who doesn’t in about 8 seconds.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

        1. LE

          Ok makes sense.One other thing though:11. Get bids from at least 5 competent builders. When I was building high rises, I would see a spread of at least 20% on $50-100MM size jobs. This is found money. GCs will put different markups on the same job depending on what their book of business looks like.Probably not as much of an issue today with computer assisted estimates, but isn’t it a problem if a vendor doesn’t allow enough profit in a job and/or makes a mistake in an estimate and is not able to complete the work? We are not talking about buying a flat screen tv where it’s backed up by Sony and quite frankly nothing matters (dealer wise) once the tv is delivered. Or a car who cares if the salesman made a mistake great.I think a common newbie mistake (and I am not referring to building a large building but a homeowner) is thinking that the lowest cost (even assuming quality is equal (a big if)) is what you go with. I had someone recently quote on windows for a condo and also the sliding balcony door. The entire project was about $18.5k all in. Very reputable vendor highly recommended. I said ‘what about just the windows in the bedrooms?’. They said ‘$3500 for only those’. I asked them to check again. I didn’t want a situation where they came back later and said ‘oh that is a mistake sorry’. And either wouldn’t do the work or didn’t do a good job. The price, to me, seemed to cheap. I wanted to make sure there were no errors. And this isn’t a big important thing and the risk is small if the price is wrong.My point is if you are getting multiple bids from reputable vendors how do you insure they haven’t missed something important that they didn’t consider that led to that 20% price difference? That will end up biting them, or you, in the end.(I already know the answer and it comes with experience. I am just pointing out that people who think they can read a list (like what you wrote) and don’t have actual experience will be very surprised in the end.They hate working for dilettantes or amateurs who don’t know what they are doing, are ponderous, indecisive, and who whineAgree with that. Once again that is part of the issue of someone reading what you wrote that hasn’t been around the block. It will be taken and ‘enforced’ much differently. The vendor will be turned off instead of being turned on. You know the nuance of how important all of those issues are. Someone without experience doesn’t know how hard to press or how important each point really is or is a show stopper in a crunch.

          1. JLM

            .When you are dealing with small subs the quotes can be very broad. The question you have to ask yourself is – Is the problem worth it? Will I get the right quality product?I did some floors. All the floors in a 6,000 SF house. The pickup truck, salt of the earth guy with one assistant was less than half of the salesman in a tie, website, FB site, brand new equipment, uniforms guy.I got the same final product, but I had to supervise the pickup guy a bit. I used to call him every morning to make sure he was coming to my job. I had to pay him every Friday. I would inspect every square inch with him.”You don’t get what you expect, you get what you inspect.”I saved a huge amount of money. My wife wanted to go with the big company – less time. I earned the difference which wasn’t hard work for me. Plus, I always like the little guys.Knowing how to buy and who to buy from is a critical element in the building process. This is one of the things that is baked into Trump’s DNA. He knows how to sniff out a good deal.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  3. LE

    If you buy a $10 table vs a $100k table it doesn’t take any more time to purchase an install so why should you pay 30% for that?I would argue (given your example) that there is more at risk for a decorator when a large purchase is involved vs. a small purchase. Also the 30% on a small purchase in no way covers the work involved in that purchase and keeping on top of it. They are taking a hit on that. So they make it up on average on the fee they get for the large purchase (not saying 30% is the right number either, just illustrating a point).Similar situation is paper markup when doing printing. You charge more for the purchase of paper for a big run or for expensive paper. If you mess up the job you need to replace the paper. So even if the client supplies the paper you are still going to typically want more if more expensive paper is being used. Rather than a flat fee or a ‘open the bottle’ fee.Actually that is a good point. If you are a restaurant and charge if someone brings in a bottle of wine you charge a flat fee. But actually it does make more sense (not that anyone would ever do this) to charge more if someone wants you to open a $100k bottle vs. a $10.00 bottle. Why? Well there is always the risk that the waiter drops the bottle etc or some other mishap. And the potential risk of loss (while very small) is higher for sure with a $100k bottle of wine. Also, and this is important, the person dining with the $100k bottle can afford to pay more and offset the loss the restaurant has in other areas in order to keep them in business. [1][1] Oil change in a Porsche? $435 yes really.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Everything is approved by the client so they have zero risk

      1. LE

        Well to that point the larger issue with paying a percentage is that the decorator is incentivized toward buying more expensive items. That part I am definitely on board with.But pricing also controls demand. So for example if your decorator charged less then maybe you wouldn’t even be able to use them because they would have to many clients and no time to do work for you. So they set their profits high and the market determines if the value they provide (whatever the cost is) is worth the price. And that makes sense. If others are willing to pay the markup why shouldn’t they charge it? In the end more important is that you like the final job they do. You do have many other alternatives at a lower cost. It’s not regulated by anyone. Also look at the fact that you are buying someone’s creative taste. Really no different than anything else creative. The good work costs more. Now if you don’t think the difference is worth it (like an overpriced meal) then yes you have paid to much.I would actually try to structure a deal with a decorator as such: A percentage of whatever they buy but capped at an amount that offers them a reasonable profit on the entire project (and I have no idea what that is). But they might say ‘nope I don’t need to do that, sorry’.Added thought:There are plenty of businesses that charge more irrespective of costs for the same product. For example show tickets or concert tickets are more for better seats. And it doesn’t cost the venue any more for the seat in the first row vs. the last row. Right? Movie theaters generally don’t do that. For that matter even restaurants don’t and personally I think that is a big missed profit center. They should. I would pay more to get a better seat rather than take my chances. (Would you?). If you have a wedding affair you will pay more for Saturday night vs. Saturday during the day. And it’s not just because they pay people more to work Saturday night. It’s because they can charge more because of supply and demand and it’s considered a premium time period and they can then have a lower cost for less desirable times and still be in business.

  4. Polyana

    i would add it’s important to have a proper engineer working on your building project, who is working with the architect and contractor – we’ll oftentimes assume there’s already an engineer working in the background, but that’s not always the case. this could save you a lot of headache and money down the line, knowing you’re optimizing building material, within all norms, and know the architect’s plan is actual feasible! i’m 100% biased, because i’m married to a structural engineer, but it’s a fact that a lot of the work he does, involves going in to fix architects’ and contractors’ mistakes because they didn’t hire an engineer before building!

    1. JLM

      .Civil engineer here who passed the structural exam. I used to be a developer building high rises. I would directly hire the architect, structural engineer, mechanical/electrical/plumbing/fire protection engineer.Architects are designers. The designation “architectural engineer” is very rare, but there are some out there. Architects should not finish their drawings until an engineer tells them it can work. Not even a close call.Done correctly, every structural member in a building has a design note. Back in the day, we used to design columns, two-way slabs by hand. Now, it’s all done on the computer.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  5. jason wright

    is that a stock photo, or your project?

    1. Gotham Gal

      stock photo

      1. jason wright

        in a world of inauthenticity you can set an example.