The House Gut Vol. 2 – Finding the right contractor

The House Gut is a new series written by HumaneFoodie. She lives in NoMa. You can read the first installment of The House Gut here.

Finding the right contractor for your job

And you thought that finding a date in this city was hard? Try finding a contractor.
But before you even get to that phase, do you even want to buy it?
After we put in an offer on the house (New Series – The House Gut), we could still rescind the offer based on the inspection or even later if thefinancing (or appraisal) didn’t work out. But before getting a mortgage, we had to be sure the house was in no worse shape than it appeared.

We first had it inspected.

In a 35-page report emailed two days after a (four-hour) walkthrough with Cliff from Capitol Hill Home Inspection (recommended by our agent), we read through all that had to be done:

  • Upgrade electric and plumbing and get a new HVAC system
  • Tuck point the outside brick and fix chimney
  • Put on a new roof and fix up the garage (although it does look very Frank Gehry-esque)
  • Fix rotting front porch and floor joists, deteriorated walls, and other items
  • Put new insulation in throughout the house
  • Deal with the lead paint, asbestos and termite damage
  • Completely renovate the basement

Scary stuff, especially for people who had never been through anything like this. But we had to think about the big things we wanted to do on top of the needed renovations and do another walkthrough – this time with a general contractor (GC).

A “first-time walkthrough” with a GC is standard practice. It is good for a potential homeowner, who will get an idea of what a job will cost, and it is good for the GC, who may have just landed some business, for s/he might get hired to do the job down the road.
We gave the contractor an idea about what we wanted to do (from bottom to top):

  • Make the basement a livable space with a living area, bedroom, and full bathroom
  • Open/remove the wall between the kitchen and dining room
  • Renovate the upstairs bathroom and add a second bathroom upstairs (where the sleeping porch was)
  • Add a closet to the back bedroom
  • Re-do the garage
  • Build a second floor porch and put in solar panels on the roof
  • Oh, and all the other stuff listed above needed to make the house habitable.

Continues after the jump.

The GC came back with a bid we could work with, so we decided to move forward with buying the house.

A month later, we were homeowners in need of a contractor.
For my husband and me, there were four main factors in choosing our “Goldilocks” contractor:

  1. Cost
  2. Timeline (The sooner the better—we would be paying rent while renovating)
  3. Willingness to salvage materials and make the house as energy efficient as possible
  4. Happy to work with an architect (who happens to be my mother)

Going about finding a contractor.

I had heard horror stories, ranging from contractors “disappearing” and leaving projects half-finished to shoddy jobs that cost a fortune. After spending far too much time trolling through Angie’s List for just the right GC for our job, we realized that word of mouth was the way to go. Too many GCs had great reviews except for that one where they did something egregious, like electrocuted someone (by accident).

Armed with copies of the renovation plans that my mother had drawn, we ended up interviewing three GCs: one recommended by our real-estate agent, one recommended by a friend, and one from an unsolicited recommendation on my husband’s work message board.
Getting the bids.

We did an individual 90-minute walkthrough of the house with each of the prospective GCs and (several weeks later) got the three bids.  And while they all probably would have done a good job, we ended up picking the one who met our four criteria best:

  1. Cost. (Interestingly, the three bids were all within a few percentage points of each other but contained dramatically different levels of detail and itemization. Going back and forth with the GCs on detailing the scope of work was also really helpful, as it showed how they would communicate with us during the process.)
  2. His estimate for finishing the job was two months. (Hold your tongues, PoPville friends. We know, we know… )

    ***Full disclosure: We very much like our contractor, and his team is still doing some finishing touches on the job. And now we know–just like everyone else who has ever undergone a house renovation– that for some odd cosmic reason, no job is ever finished on time. For this house, there were several surprises lurking behind the walls and under the floors, and of course, a few change orders. ***

  3. He had specific ideas and recommendations on how to get recycled and salvaged materials and make the home energy efficient.
  4. He enjoyed working with architects.

And just like that, we had a GC.

Next up: Next up: Details about the design, salvaging materials for our project and making our home energy efficient.

16 Comment

  • ok, so who was your GC?

  • Detailing the budget, financing options you took, and scope of work would probably be quite helpful here. Nonethless a great post! Thanks!

  • HumaneFoodie and PoPville readers: This might be a good place to mention a new discussion group for people doing work on old houses in DC: . All are welcome. We’ve got a few experienced renovators/restorers from the Takoma-Brightwood area, but would love some perspective from other neighborhoods.

  • I just wanted to add my two cents! I have used Cliff Kornegay on many inspections and his is an AWESOME home inspector. He is one of the most thorough inspectors I have ever used. He is not afraid to get dirty!

  • pablo .raw

    Interesting series, looking forward to the next episode. I would like to know more about how you made your home energy efficient. Thanks!

    • Blown insulation is mother’s milk. If you’re re-doing drywall, it’s the perfect time to get everything insulated with foam or a high r-value insulation. This keeps outside air from making your heat/AC work way too hard. Other than that, a new furnace will be much more efficient than a classic radiator system, and you re-claim space form old radiators in the process. Along with insulating, new windows and doors help dramatically to cut utilities and to regulate inside temperatures. Cheers.

      • A “classic” hydronic system with a modern boiler is more efficient than forced air; in terms of cost it’s the most efficient in a climate where it gets below freezing.

        Practically speaking some more if you want central AC and hydronic you are buying two systems, so forced air is an obvious choice because it will take a very long time for the slight efficiency boost to pay off.

        Saying forced air is an efficiency upgrade over radiators is wrong though, it’s just that buying and maintaining one system is cheaper than two so it doesn’t really matter which is more efficient.

  • I can tell you from experience, electrical, plumbing, & mechanical will make up at least 50% of your cost if not more. If you need to a new HVAC system and run all new ductwork, with a new furnace, compressor, etc…that is easily $15-18,000.

    The most amount of money always goes into the things you can’t see, behind the walls. Also, make sure they get rid of every single last piece of galvanized plumbing in your home all the way down to the floor of your basement.

    Most of GC’s in DC are shady as hell. None of them have a DC license it seems. Be sure to look up the contractor in the DC court records if you are interested in hiring them and make sure they aren’t some lawsuit happy assholes who enjoy taking every person who hires them to court. Make sure they are licensed and bonded as well. Call up DCRA and make sure they actually have a business license for “home improvement” or “Class C” license, etc…

    And don’t let any of them talk you into having a “Third Party” inspector for your inspections. I am pretty certain the third party inspector we had was on the take from our contractor before we fired him so he could get approvals without properly doing the work. I would get the regular DCRA inspectors to inspect your work any day over the third party guys, even though they don’t catch everything either. That way the inspection can be held to normal DCRA rules. Remember, you are the client and it’s your money. They can follow the rules if they want your loot…

    • To add to JL’s tips above: I would also ask the GC for references from recently completed projects before hiring. It never hurts to ask if there’s a project that you could tour that they recently completed.

      As a rule try not to go with the lowest bid. Check to make sure all work is included in the bid and that there is no hidden costs. Make sure the scope of work is clear. This will help prevent unexpected change orders. Change orders are always more expensive and are usual caused by unforeseen site conditions during demolition or changes made by the client.

  • andy

    Were any of the parts of the renovation priced out, or did you get pricing for the whole thing?

    We are considering having our sleeping porch renovated. First floor is unchanged from the original, pretty nice but the windows and doors are bad. Second floor sleeping porch is empty/windowless and would get shored up and become a second bathroom and storage.

    I wish we could find out how much it might cost to renovate the sleeping porches.

    • That is actually one of the reasons why we decided to go with our contractor. Out of the three that we vetted, we chose Mark because he itemized everything. For folks who are detailed-oriented, this was very welcomed, but there are certainly people who could that overwhelming. However, the pricing was itemized by category, so all plumbing was together and all masonry was together, etc… Because there were economies of scale from lumping the work together that way – the charge for replacing plumbing for two bathrooms costs less than double replacing the plumbing for one.

  • I also HIGHLY recommend Cliff. We just closed on our house and he was really great. He was very very thorough and when our own structural engineer contradicted him, he went back to the house to get photos and show what the engineer missed (who ultimately agreed with Cliff and proposed a simple solution). Cliff was very nice, very thorough, and continued to help us out well after the inspection.

  • I also recommend Cliff! We used him for our inspection and he was extremely helpful both during and after the process.

    We also used the same contractor as humanefoodie (they are our neighbors and we fortuitously met Mark on the sidewalk during our home inspection). He is awesome. He renovated our basement and it turned out better than I could have expected. And he’s a super honest and detail-oriented guy to boot! We are planning on doing some more projects this summer and will be hiring him again.

  • Sorry—our contractor is Mark from Renaissance Development ( Much more to come on the next post about the work he and his team did!

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