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Regulations Rule

In 1988, we contracted to build a new home for a couple we knew from a previous commercial job. The commercial remodel had gone very well; the new house went differently. For starters, the realtor who sold the property to our client also sold it to another party. That took a while to settle. In the meantime, the contract and cost negotiations grew long and arduous. The attitude of the owners was different now that we were doing new construction. When we were about half done with the demolition of the existing house, a building inspector ordered us to stop because someone had filed an appeal. San Francisco had just passed a new measure severely limiting demolition of residential property, and this was the first building to be demolished under the new law. After waiting weeks to get on the calendar of the permit appeals board, all the commissioners visited the site. They determined that the appellant had a history of filing frivolous appeals and had never even seen the building. The commissioners allowed the demolition to proceed. By the time we started the foundation it was the rainy season. It rained so much that the excavating equipment got stuck. And then things got worse.

Lesson #5: Check the regulations.

One of the risks in remodeling is not knowing what lies behind a wall or under a slab, but in new construction there are more regulatory pitfalls. I recommend that you visit your local building department and ask them point blank, "What am I going to learn later that I will wish I’d known before I started?" This question might seem a bit too cute, but it is exactly what you are trying to find out. You can also save yourself a lot of grief by speaking to the inspector for your area. Be courteous and engaging, but find out what his or her "hot buttons" are. Finally, review the inspection documents to see if there is an appeal period, then do the math carefully: We began demolition 17 calendar days after the permit was issued, but the requirement was for 15 business days. Be clear and be careful.

Lesson #6: Don’t misread your client’s motivation.

I believed that because we had worked well together once, the house project would go even more smoothly. But there were major differences between a commercial remodel and new house construction. For instance, this time we were spending the clients’ money, not their business’s money. Plus, the house was a statement about them personally, where the previous work had been simply an office build-out.

Who’s On First?

In 1989, a first-time developer named Ted asked us to build six detached townhouses on two adjoining lots. These were to be built as two groups of three, the goal being to achieve economies in construction costs and time. While we had never built multiple units, we had successfully rehabbed condo complexes built by others. That work included correcting waterproofing details, rebuilding improperly constructed decks, and in many cases simply completing unfinished work. This experience, plus the belief that we were good builders who could succeed where other builders had failed, convinced us to take the job. Ted was not easy to work for. He had very definite ideas about what our contractor’s fees should be, for instance, and even though he had never built a project before, he felt he knew a lot about the process. He began to bring his own subcontractors and suppliers into the project, and he insisted on having control over many aspects of the work. He even began to take an active hand in day-to-day management of the project. At times I wondered why we were even involved.

Lesson #7: Control of the project is essential

. From this experience we learned to work only with people who will give us the ability to control the project. In the years that followed, this insight has saved our company a lot of grief. Be sure to have a contract that clearly defines who is responsible for what. The clearer you and your client are in establishing expectations, the more likely it is that the project will succeed. We’ve also learned to document all our communications, not only while the project is underway, but before it starts. Some of the warning signs to look for include a client who can’t take time during the week to meet, a customer who uses a different contractor for every project, or a client who has incomplete plans that they do not want to pay to have finished.