Do Your Home Renovation Homework

Home renovation projects can be stressful, but careful planning can help ensure you get the job done right and keep surprises to a minimum.

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Whether you’ve heard about home renovation disasters from close friends or from TV, you know there are people out there who have lived through some trying home construction projects.

The lesson learned from those stories: Before starting a project, plan ahead and do your homework. Work out as many aspects of the job in detail as you can – with respect to budgeting, financing, design, requirements such as building permits, and of course sourcing the best contractor for your job. This will help ensure you have a happy renovation story to tell.

How to pay for your next home renovation project

There are various ways to pay for a home renovation project. The option you choose may be based on the project cost, the length of time the project will take, and how much time you have to save for it.

If you can put away money ahead of time, Tax-Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs) are an excellent option because the investment income you earn and the money you withdraw are tax-free. You can re-contribute the money you take out in the year after withdrawal because your TFSA contribution room for the year is increased by prior year withdrawals.

You might also consider a loan for your project if it will take place in a short timeframe, like replacing a roof. A loan allows you to make a large one-time purchase at a lending rate lower than that of a credit card.

For ongoing renovations that take weeks or months, people often choose a line of credit. It’s a flexible solution that allows you to borrow money, and repay it, as needed.

Get it in writing

Some home renovation companies build their contract into the project estimate they provide to you. If they don’t, you can insist on drawing one up.

Your contract should include as many details as possible, including:

  • Responsibilities of both parties
  • Start date and estimated completion date
  • Payment schedule
  • Proof of liability and workers compensation insurance
  • Contingency plan if the job increases in price or scope
  • Process for dealing with disagreements or disputes

What are your responsibilities as a homeowner? You should be on site, as needed, to make timely decisions to keep the project on schedule. If you intend to help in some way, perhaps with demolition or clean-up, these activities should also be described in full so there is no misunderstanding. Also, if your contractor informs you that the work being done qualifies for a government rebate or credit, it is your responsibility to make sure that’s true.

The payment schedule for your project usually starts with a down payment of 10 percent to 25 percent depending on the size of the job. You may agree to pay in equal installments over the duration of the project, and then make the final payment when you and the contractor agree that the job is finished.

A written contract is always a good idea, and having it reviewed by a lawyer can help ensure that it’s legally enforceable.

Do you need a building permit?

Permits can protect you because they ensure your renovation project is inspected for adherence to building codes and regulations.

You need a building permit if you are constructing or demolishing a building, adding to an existing one, or making a material alteration to a building or structure. Projects requiring a permit include house additions, carports, sunrooms (and decks under certain circumstances), green roofs, structural changes such as removing or adding walls, electrical and plumbing, and the installation of a fireplace. Check with your municipality to get the facts on permits.

When you obtain a permit, the work will be inspected by an experienced professional. The process is designed to ensure that your project meets all the necessary codes and regulations, for the health and safety of the current and future occupants. Work completed without a permit may be substandard – resulting in costly delays, removal of work already completed, and even legal action.

You must have the permit before you start your project. You can obtain it yourself, or your contractor can usually get it on your behalf. And plan ahead – the permit process could take weeks, and you don’t want your job held up over paperwork.

It’s true that the best contractors are often found through word of mouth – and it’s also true that not all contractors are ideal for all jobs.

How to hire a contractor

The relationship you have with your contractor is crucial to the success of your project, so take the time to find someone who is a good fit for you.

It’s true that the best contractors are often found through word of mouth – and it’s also true that not all contractors are ideal for all jobs. Some like new construction only, while others like the challenge of working on old houses – so it’s important to ensure you’ve hired an individual or team that suits the job at hand.

“Before screening contractors, work out as many project details as you can,” says Rob Peters, a Winnipeg general contractor who has seen it all in his 30 years of business. “Collect magazine or online photos that illustrate what you are looking for. Find products you like. Determine your budget.”

Conduct phone interviews

Interview several contractors, adds Peters. He also says to ask questions, such as:

  • What kind of work do you do, and what do you like to do best?
  • How do you charge ­– hourly or overall quote?
  • Do you have accounts at suppliers for materials?
  • Can you supply a list of previous clients?
  • What if I have a problem with the job after you’ve finished?
  • If we choose you, when can you start?

Choose from your short list

Pick three or four contractors to come to your home for further discussion and to quote on your project. “For major renos, your contractor is going to be spending many hours in your home, so it’s crucial that you communicate well with each other,” explains Peters. He or she should be able to clearly explain the scope of the job and answer your questions in a way that puts you at ease.

To compare bids, have each candidate break down the cost of labour, materials and other expenses. Once you choose your contractor, check their references and visit a current job site if you can.

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