Learning By Doing

Fixing your home can be rewarding, if you don't mind making a few mistakes along the way.

photograph courtesy Teresa Bullock

My wife calls him “Bill the Builder” when we see him out on the front porch wearing his safety goggles, coveralls, and a tool belt around his waist.

He’s actually an executive with MLGW, but our handy-with-a-hammer neighbor Bill Bullock and his wife, Teresa, a freelance graphic designer, often have some project under way in their old brick home in the Evergreen Historic District. Last year it was an upstairs master bathroom, and the year before that they renovated their kitchen.  

“In both projects, Teresa and I did a good bit of the grunt work,” says Bill. “This is the house we plan to stay in for many more years, and we wanted both projects to be what we wanted. I never wanted to say some time in the future, ‘I wish we had’ done this or that.”

Their experience, mostly for better but sometimes for worse, offers a glimpse at what like-minded homeowners, whether do-it-yourselfers or contractor-assisted, can expect.

On the bathroom job, Teresa ordered some of the hardware, lighting fixtures, sinks, and shutters online after some painstaking measuring and remeasuring.

“We only messed up on one café shutter and had to order a new one, which took several months,” she says. “But the initial order was delivered in six weeks. You save some money on the installation if you can do it yourself or your handy-dandy husband can.”

The Bullocks laid a lot of the travertine tile in the bathroom themselves. They missed a measurement on the first order of floor tile, which gave them a lot of extra that could not be returned. They improvised by changing their plans a bit and cutting the tile so it could be used on the walls instead.

It was cold comfort, but one of their contractor/suppliers also made a measuring mistake on the glass for the shower that caused several weeks’ delay after everything else was finished and in use.

Like the bathroom, the kitchen renovation was in the planning and funding stage, and both projects exceeded the budgets. They started the work when both of their sons were away at college, figuring they could eat out a lot.

If there is one constant among people who renovate their kitchens it is familiarity with local restaurants.

The big unpleasant surprise was termite damage around a window. New windows were not in their original plans, “but the damage pushed us over the edge.” On the bright side, the kitchen cabinets were delivered early so prep work went faster than expected. But once the cabinets were installed, there was a long wait for the quartz countertop for the island. With the job otherwise complete, the Bullocks made do with a piece of plywood instead.

Gil Callaway, a professional contractor and owner of Level Construction, tells clients to do a lot of planning on the front end.

“Change orders are expensive, and you want to avoid that,” he says. “We price everything that we can see and that you ask for, but we advise budgeting for extras. You don’t know what you’re going to find when you start peeling away things.”

It’s been said a thousand times and ignored nearly as often: Renovators should check out contractors with the Better Business Bureau, get referrals, and ask to see some work.

Callaway sometimes rolls his eyes when a client offers to do some of the work or provide some materials.

“It works best if you hire a team rather than try to get in the middle of that with your own people,” he says. “My electrician is loyal to me and knows he is going to have future business. I am not a one-shot deal, so I have leverage with subs on scheduling and cost.” 

“Remember to shop value rather than price,” Calloway advises. “All materials are not necessarily equal.”

photograph courtesy Posey Hedges | Old City Millwork

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