A builder, his dog disappear

Contracting: You're better off hiring a good general contractor than doing it yourself. The young man building the Kirejczks' deck left for Florida.

April 04, 1999|By Brian Simpson | Brian Simpson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Pam Loya and her husband Roy prepared to open bids from general contractors for a major renovation of their historic Monkton home, Pam had her camera ready. As Roy opened and read the first bid, Pam snapped the photo that froze his expression. Roy's face showed the emotions of a man being simultaneously electrocuted, beaten, and robbed.

"I expected that kind of face," she said. "But it was even higher than I was thought it would be. I was unpleasantly surprised."

While not every bid for a renovation project induces such a strong reaction, homeowners dealing with stratospheric costs may be tempted to try anything to save some money. Their plan: Bypass the builder or general contractor, handle the subcontractors and purchase construction materials themselves. Doing that, they figure, can save from 10 percent of the cost of building a house to more than 60 percent of a small remodeling project.

However, the lure of saving thousands of dollars may lead them, through lack of knowledge and inexperience, into construction mistakes that end up costing thousands extra.

"If you have the time to invest in that and coordinate all of the different contractors, more power to you," said Jay Van Deusen, of Van Deusen Construction Company Inc. "But I don't go out and represent myself in court because I think there are people a lot more qualified to do that, people who do that every day. I don't operate on myself; there are people more qualified."

While homeowners who act as their own general contractors have total control over what construction materials are used and the subcontractors involved, they also must be prepared to deal with a multitude of problems. For example, if the tank of a new toilet sits too close to the wall, a new one must be specially ordered. "Then it comes in the wrong color, and you got two toilets [you] can't use," Van Deusen said. "Those headaches you can make somebody else's problem. Make one person solely accountable for this, someone who does this every day."

The following stories examine the experiences of the Loyas and three other Baltimore-area homeowners who ventured into the world of major renovation or home construction with or without the benefit of a contractor.

Using a contractor

Fortunately, the bid that warped Roy Loya's face turned out to be substantially higher than the bid the couple eventually accepted. When they bought the house in December 1986, the couple knew that they were committing to years of renovation work on the home, which was built in the 1820s. When Pam Loya's mother first saw the house, she said, "My God, honey, you bought Tara after the Civil War."

The Loyas decided in 1987 to renovate the kitchen and family room first. "It was dark. It was dreary. It was '70s. It was unacceptable," Pam Loya said.

The nearly yearlong, $100,000 project included tearing out the kitchen and other parts of the house, adding a fireplace and putting on a new roof. The result is a warm, open space for the kitchen and living room where the couple and their two children spend much of their time.

This year they're gearing up for another major renovation -- replacing the plumbing, heating system and probably the wiring, plus repainting the exterior.

Good experiences

Pam Loya, who previously renovated two homes in Federal Hill, has had good experiences with general contractors and wouldn't consider handling the general contracting herself. "I find it challenging enough to pick a general contractor," she said. "If someone put a gun to my head, I've got brains, I could do it, but my life would be a living hell."

Selection of the general contractor is key to a successful project, according to Loya. "You have to pick someone who not only does good work and you trust, but a person with whom you have a special chemistry, because basically you're marrying them for the duration of the project," she said. "It's an intense personal relationship."

People should spend time with a few contractors before deciding which one would be best suited for the job, according to Van Deusen. "I had a friend who once compared it to brain surgery while someone is awake," he said. "You move into their personal zone."

Losing a contractor

Marci Kirejczyk learned how important the selection process is when the man she and her husband hired to build a $25,000 deck around three sides of their house disappeared before the job was complete. She describes the worker, who also designed the deck, as a free spirit who brought his dog to work despite being told not to.

"He was really regular to start with, but then he'd work a couple days and we might not see him for a week," she said.

As his schedule became more erratic, the Kirejczyks once had to track him down through a member of his family and persuade him to come back to work. When he made plans to go to Florida, he promised to finish the job first. But then he just left.

"It was kind of a sad experience," she said. "We did have a contract. Then everything got wishy-washy."

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