In life, there are ways that things “should” be done and ways things tend to get done. This is a story of the latter and some of the things I have learned in the process from renovating my house.
After a long period of deferred maintenance — a period that included winter ice dam damage, water leaks, soaked carpets and general exterior weathering — my house of a dozen years was beginning to look shabby. Looking at my roof, I noticed bare spots and that the chimney bricks were loose and leaning. More than aesthetics, I realized I was beginning to have structural problems that could lead to greater problems and greater costs if not addressed soon.
When contemplating significant home repairs, you are supposed to get recommendations for contractors from people you know who have had similar work done, check out those contractors with the Better Business Bureau, then get at least three written estimates before selecting one.
Figuring that the chimney should be taken care of first, I called a guy a neighbor raved about. Including some flashing work and a chimney cap, which I requested, he gave me an estimate of $4,300! I thought that was way out of line, and he was trying to take advantage of me. Discouraged, I put off doing anything for another year.
This spring I decided the best way to avoid getting ripped off was to know exactly what was wrong with my house, a 40-plus-year-old raised ranch, about 50 by 24 feet, with an elevated 21- by 13.5-foot screened-in porch, and what my priorities should be. So I called the inspector I used when I bought my home, Jed Walker, and requested a new inspection, figuring the money spent would be more than saved later. I was offered the choice of a walk-through with verbal commentary or for another $200, a written report as well. I opted for the latter.
Knowing what needed to be done would enable me to know whether contractors were being straight with me. The inspection also provided the opportunity to discuss various corrective actions with an objective party. My biggest decision was whether to paint the exterior, which would require scraping and sanding as well, and would probably need to be done again in 10 years, or to do siding.
Jed informed me that my roof had, at best, another year or two of life left. It also had two layers, meaning it would have to be stripped.
Looking at what needed to be done to the chimney, he confirmed the received earlier estimate was way out of line, too.
He noted that the insulation level was low in homes of my era and that adding siding, which would include more insulation, would increase the R level, reducing heating costs. I decided if I was going to do the roof and siding, it made sense to do the windows at the same time, which would further increase energy efficiency. Additionally, although I don’t know if I will be in my home for another two years or 20, updating the three major exterior components would also enhance its resale value.
The sagging porch
Jed also pointed out that my back screen porch was sagging somewhat, something that had occurred since his initial inspection. While I was always aware of a pitch toward the front, I hadn’t realized it was worse and also sagging in the front middle. He showed me where the original deck frame, with 6-by-6-inch support posts, had been added onto using 4-by-4 posts. He strongly recommended jacking up the deck and replacing the posts and their concrete footings, which were also too narrow.
Due to a leak in the bathroom that had resulted in my opening the ceiling on the lower level, he also discovered that one of my joists had been significantly compromised when the plumbing was installed.
The first estimate
My first contractor recommendation came from a former neighbor who had what I thought was the best-looking house on the block. So I called the man, and in walking around the house, he made a couple of suggestions, including removing an unused and unnecessary second chimney (when the fireplace had been previously added, the furnace ductwork was moved to that chimney) and closing up most of an unused door in the garage. I liked the light it provided, so he suggested closing most of it and adding a window. I had a written estimate within a couple of days.
For a variety of reasons, getting additional quotes and vetting the contractor proved not to be so easy.
Vetting the contractor
Meanwhile, I shared the estimate with three people I consider knowledgeable about construction: a cousin who does a lot of work with Habitat for Humanity, the friend who helped me figure out the origin of my water problems last year, and another friend who is a longtime Realtor. All agreed that the estimate, broken into three parts for the roof, windows and siding, and discount if all three were done, included all the “right” things as far as components and materials and seemed “reasonable,” as did the price for the suggested new garage door.
Additionally, another person recommended the same contractor and a third had received the same name after his home was damaged in last fall’s snowstorm. And the contractor’s BBB rating was excellent.
I drove around looking at similar style homes to determine roof, siding and shutter color combinations that I liked. At this point, about two months after the inspection, I was ready to go and knew if I didn’t do it now, it would probably be another year before I did, so after another walkabout and remembering that I wanted to add a skylight to the porch in the hopes of getting some light into my kitchen, I hired the first contractor. An additional deciding factor was that he asked for no money up front; payment was due upon completion.
Here are some of the things I learned.
First, make a written list of all the things you want done and make sure they, and any additional suggestions, are included in your written estimate. If you make changes and/or additions, get those numbers in writing as well. We never actually signed the contract and a later reading included the cost of taking down the chimney, but not closing up the door and adding the window. I also didn’t ask for an exact price for the skylight.
Next, ask your potential contractor how much he will be onsite and who will actually be doing the work and what is the experience of those workers. A busy contactor may line up jobs or have several going simultaneously and be out bidding yet others. Mine was rarely here, but I found him to be responsive to problems that arose, and they will. After the roof was torn off, for example, it unexpectedly rained and the “protective” tarp had some holes in it as I could see wet places in the attic. I took pictures — on more than one occasion.
Also, because of the rain delay and a previous commitment, I was away for a couple of hours when the new roof was being put on, including on the porch. I came home to find hundreds of nail points poking through its pitched ceiling. I calmly let the work crew know I was not happy and to notify the contractor. When they left for the day, I also noticed that the seal around the front vent pipe appeared to be missing. I was aware of those seals, as my inspection showed the rear one was ruptured, which explained rain that was finding its way through to my porch.
Trust, but verify. A neighbor and I climbed on the roof to look around. We discovered the seal was indeed missing and that small patches of the shingles were stained, but the chimney work looked good. I called the contractor that evening, I told him we needed to have an in-person conversation before I would let his workers back on my property.
He assured me that the stained shingles and porch ceiling would be replaced at his cost and that the problem would not recur when my two sheds were reroofed. I allowed the workers to return.
After the skylight was installed, I was surprised at how much brighter the porch looked; I was sorry I had not requested two. When I told the contractor how much I liked it, he gave me a verbal estimate for doing so and I agreed.
From disaster to delight
Two days later, a guy with more than 30 years with the contractor showed up to replace the beamed porch ceiling, which was stained dark brown. The friend who was house-sitting that day called and said, “It’s coming out great — and I am not sure you’re going to want to have it stained dark again.” Between the skylights and the new ceiling, which was left in its lighter, unfinished color, the porch environment was entirely transformed in a positive way. I chuckled that what I initially perceived to be a disaster turned into something I enjoy very much.
The next week the windows arrived, along with the veteran crew member and another who has been with the contractor for more than 25 years. They worked efficiently, replacing the old six-over-six wood framed windows — and related wood as needed — with new, lo-E, tilt-out windows with no dividers, and taking care of other things. In addition to the ease of opening and closing the windows, and not having to prop any open, I was also pleasantly surprised by the reduction in outside noise level. Another surprise was the much quieter operation of the new garage door.
When the veterans pulled out the 4-by-4-inch porch supports, we were amazed to learn the footings were only 24 inches deep; code is 42 inches. The experience further affirmed the value of the home inspection.
Overall, I am pleased with how things turned out; I hardly recognize the place and am no longer embarrassed by its appearance. I painted the concrete foundation to match the siding and am now tackling some of the inside issues.