To what extent do I need to supervise restoration construction?

zagyzebraNovember 12, 2011

I have a problem and am looking to this wonderful community for its insight.

My beautiful 1931 big city home was rented and caught on fire. I am facing a complete gut, top to bottom restoration.

My son and I live more than 600 miles away, in a small rural area that isn't the easiest to fly in and out of. Should I move down to where the burned house is to be on hand during the renovation? If so, why? Or why not? What kinds of problems can I expect? What kinds of decisions will I have to be on hand to make?

I wil have a contractor, but...I'm nervous about leaving EVERYTHING in his hands. All the design decisions will fall on my shoulders. And, leaving my 15-year-old home alone to run down there for 4, 5 days at a time in the past has been nothing short of nerve wracking.

If you were me, what would you do? And why? I am prepared to move and rent for two years so that my son can finish high school and I can be on hand for things that come up during renovation...even though I have no idea what those things might be because I've never been through this before. Should I?

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Yes, you should be close at hand. The renovation of any fire damaged structure will be more involved and expensive than one renovated for simple "expansion" purposes, and those are complex and costly enough. You will want to supervise your contractors like you would a basement full of kids. Trust them to do the right thing, but always, always, verify that they did! And pay attention when it gets quiet. When communication ceases, it's generally a sign that there is a problem that they haven't figured out how to approach you with. Remaining calm, decisive, and fair will be your goal, and you cannot do that and remain informed at any distance to your project.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2011 at 1:33PM
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It depends on how well done you want the work.

One of the biggest problems is finding someone who knows anything except modern practices.

    Bookmark   November 13, 2011 at 10:46AM
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Your decision will depend on how well you trust your contractor.

We had some work done on a vacation home, 2000 miles away. The project was not as extensive as yours, but we felt confident in our contractor's thoroughness.

We supervised the work comfortably from afar, thanks to good communication through e-mail. Our contractor sent updates and photos, especially if he encountered any surprises. Of course, we also had discussions by phone.

We paid a 1/3 deposit, then 1/3 midway through and then we took some time off, flew to the site and inspected the work before paying the final 1/3.

    Bookmark   November 13, 2011 at 7:12PM
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I am not sure of the proper term or if it is appropriate for your situation but there are 3rd party services that you can hire that will supervise and represent you during the construction. They basically act in your stead working with the contractor to ensure that the project is completed correctly and to your terms. If I recall they work a given percentage of the overall project costs.

I think that you are correct in worrying that the project is completed to your terms when you are not there to observer the day to day work. If you had a contractor that you have worked with before and have a good trust relationship with, the worries may be for naught. If not I believe that you will need the proper oversight, either yourself or an unbiased 3rd party.


    Bookmark   November 13, 2011 at 7:36PM
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Sacto - Do you have any suggestions for how I might find one of these unbiased 3rd parties?

    Bookmark   November 14, 2011 at 12:08AM
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at the very least, make sure the contractor is pulling permits. this at least protects you from gross neglect.

    Bookmark   November 14, 2011 at 9:11AM
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I like Sacto's suggestion - sort of a Project Manager?

I googled it & found the BLS's page that sounds like what you're wanting. Sounds to me like it'd be a pricey addition to your budget, but it may depend on the area - & how busy they are?

Here is a link that might be useful: Bureau Labor Statistics, construction project managers

    Bookmark   November 14, 2011 at 2:01PM
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not being on site during a recent renovation of our home (gut remodel as well) cost me approximately $300,000 in additional funds for do overs, stollen items, shoddy work (hence the do over) and the contractors (more than one) taking advantage of the situation (we were in the hospital with our baby). Easily $300,000 and I try not to add up further than that because it peeves me off.

This was not a historical home mind you, just a townhouse from the 80s. I learned my lesson well and will never have work done on a home in an extensive manner without being close to the job site nearly 100% of the time.

If the home in question was my historical home, I'd be pretty much IN THE HOUSE 24/7 during restoration of within walking distance visiting daily. I'm in fact on the 3rd floor while the basement is being attacked by contractors at this moment (very very trusted contractors mind you, who understand the historical significance of the house, but still...decisions come up daily). I can't imagine being comfortable in your situation living so far away. I'd either sell the place and let someone else restore it, or move nearby.

You mentioned you are also the designer. To be fair to the contractor, the designer needs to be in easy contact on a regular (if not daily at least weekly) basis. In a situation like yours things will come up and as the designer you owe your contractor your immediate attention to the issue so as to not hold him/her up in their work flow due to necessary changes. If this isn't possible I personally think you should give up the "designer" title and hire a professional one in the area of the home to represent your interests and be there when you can't be.

If you don't want to follow that advice, be a doll and just send me a couple hundren grand so I can pay for the heating system we're installing? :oP You're going to likely lose it anyway so you might as well lose it to a friend :)

    Bookmark   November 14, 2011 at 2:04PM
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Other possibilities might be:

* Hiring a design/build firm, whose experience would be such that they would quiz you on details from the get-go and as needed. [If you go to, you can peruse photos from various cities. Look at the offerings from the city where your house is, and note the attributions of photos you think exhibit good quality and design sense. With luck, you will see one or two worth following up with.]

* Enlisting a trusted friend from the city to be your surrogate as the work progresses. Depending on that person's circumstances, you could offer to compensate for her or his time.

* Some combination of both.

Whatever you do, check out whomever you hire very carefully. If possible, follow up their references with visits to the homes they worked on during times when you can have candid conversations with the client.

For some insight into how things can go wrong, check the conversation linked below in the kitchens forum. Scan for the tales that have to do with contractor malfunctions, rather than kitchen design regrets.

Here is a link that might be useful: scary but enlightening

    Bookmark   November 14, 2011 at 2:53PM
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Hiring an architect to oversee the project would probably cost less than the cost of an apartment and traveling. The architect could communicate with you by email and show you issues with photos or in real-time.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2011 at 2:25PM
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Igloo, You know you could have engaged me to supervise the work. ;)

    Bookmark   November 17, 2011 at 8:46AM
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