'Specs': The magic word to make sure you get what you want in renovations

HOME WORK

April 17, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

You're thinking about adding a family room. Or redoing an outdated kitchen or bath. But you're not sure how big the new room will be, or whether to keep your old appliances. You're not sure how much the work will cost. How do you get started?

Don't start by calling contractors.

Start by making some decisions.

Before you involve a building professional, you must decide what you want. If you have a friend, relative or neighbor who's in the business, he or she may be able to help you talk through the decisions and come up with some answers.

If that's not an option, sit down and make a list of what you want. It doesn't have to be detailed down to the nail size. It just has to be as complete as you can make it.

If there are specific materials or items you want included -- quarry tile around the fireplace, a particular brand of whirlpool tub in a custom color, a set of patio doors you fell in love with -- write it all down. Try to get model numbers of items that have them. If you want a sink faucet with a single lever and a sprayer, write it down.

Try to include any complicating factors you can think of. Is the house in a historic district that has restrictions on exterior modifications? Is the terrain difficult? Are the plumbing and wiring outdated? How about personal concerns: Do you abhor smoking? Are you allergic to dust? Does your large, unmanageable dog hate strangers?

Make sure everyone in the household is with the program. Do you all agree on what you want and what's to be done? If you don't, an outsider may be able to help you compromise. Agree on as much as you can beforehand.

Once you've got the list, it's time to call in the professional.

If it's a big job -- an addition or substantial renovation -- you mayneed an architect to help you work out space concerns and draw plans. (The plans should include elevations -- views of each side.) Even a difficult small job may require an architect's help.

You need two things to get good bids on a job. You need a plan -- a drawing of where things go, where the doors and windows and cabinets and appliances go, where the light fixtures are and where the switches are. Then you need a document that's usually called "specs."

rTC Specs, or specifications, list all the construction details: whether a wall will be framed or furred, or old plaster removed to bare

brick; whether the floor will be ceramic tile or sheet goods.

Don't make assumptions about what the contractor will or will not do. Spell everything out, and list every procedure. If an old bathroom floor is damaged, for instance, the specs need to state that the subfloor should be repaired before underlayment and tile are installed. (If it's not in the specs, you may find yourself paying extra for the repair.)

If you've hired an architect, his or her plans may be detailed enough to serve as specs. But most home improvement projects don't involve architects. So how do you get the specs?

Start by organizing your notes and sketches. Make several copies. Next, make appointments with contractors to go over the job. (Ask among friends, neighbors and family for names of people they've employed and liked.) Give each one a set of your proposals and go over it to make sure each understands exactly what you want. Be sure you give the same information to each contractor. Then ask each one to submit a price.

If there is a price you like from a contractor you are comfortable with, ask him to draw up specs. It should be clear that the specs are not a contract. Do not sign a contract until you have seen a detailed spec.

Some states, including Maryland, require contractors to provide specs. But such regulations are rarely clear about the quality of ,, specs required. Look over the specs extremely carefully. Make sure you understand every detail and that you and the contractor are on the same wavelength. Then, if you're happy with what you see and think you can tolerate the contractor under your roof for a period of time, sign the contract.

When you're looking at price, remember you're not necessarily looking for the lowest price. It's more important that you find a contractor you can respect, and who will respect your wishes and your property. (Don't forget to make your no-smoking or no-dust rules clear.) If you want changes later, how acceptable will that be? (You can't just suggest a change. You have to get it in writing -- "specced out" -- and you and the contractor must both sign it.)

We hear a lot of stories about people who go through an entire project in a state of frustration, or even rage, at their contractor. They may become increasingly irritated as the job progresses. The project is taking shape, they should be feeling great -- but they aren't.

It's our contention that the cause of this malaise is vague specs. The homeowner and the contractor have not truly established a common game plan before launching into the work.

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