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
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
Lesson #5: Check the
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
. 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