Bernal Contractor Explains How to Remodel Your Home Without Going Broke or Insane

thedollhouse

Bernal neighbor Brian Streiffer is a former general contractor (and current construction supervisor) who lives on Winfield.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Neighbor Brian and your Bernalwood editor are old friends, and we played a lot of hacky-sack together during the 1980s.

Anyway, fast-forward three decades and several economic cycles, and Neighbor Brian now has many moons of experience building and remodeling homes in San Francisco under his belt. His talent and professionalism has been affirmed for us by his former clients, several of whom also now consider him a friend.

So when Neighbor Brian said he wanted to write something for Bernalwood, we suggested he share some precious wisdom on how to work with a contractor to do a home remodel without going broke, or insane, or both. Herewith are Neighbor Brian’s Pro Tips for would-be Bernal home improvers:

I’ve been remodeling homes since the early 1990’s. One of the things I love most about residential work is the unique insight it offers me into how people relate to their homes and the people who work on them.

Every client is unique in some way. Some people hate the mess and inconvenience. One of my clients was so distraught when demolition began that her partner forbade her from visiting the house until the drywall went back in. Other people think construction is cool, and can anticipate the finished product long before the work takes shape  My favorite client ever — when forced to live in half of her house with her husband and 2 small kids while we worked on the other half — said, “camping on a futon in the living room reminds me of being back in college. So cool!” What a client! She never uttered a sour word to me or my crew and we ultimately became good friends.

I’ve always found it fascinating to see how people react to construction, and how the Contractor/Owner relationship plays out. Working in people’s homes is very personal stuff. Some people cope well, and other people don’t really understand what they are getting into.

Amid all of the current real estate hubbub, I thought it might be interesting to share some remodeling advice for homeowners, from a contractor’s perspective. Here  are a few observations to keep in mind when planning a construction project.

The Golden Rule of Construction
There is a saying in construction that really rings true: “There are three types of construction: Fast, High Quality, and Inexpensive. You can pick any two.”

The point here is that you have to understand the fundamental trade-offs between quality, speed, and price. Remember this, always, and if you know which is most important to you, you can more easily select a contractor who fits best with your needs. I cannot count the number of times clients have asked me if I would consider an incentive to expedite their project. I always defer, explaining that fair payment is motivation enough. If they push the issue, I explain further that it typically doesn’t make financial sense to trade money for speed on a construction project. Construction is simple in many ways, but it is not easily done in less time than normal without risking quality or significant cost increases.Unless money is no object — and I have yet to find a client for whom that was true — it is ALWAYS cheaper to rent an apartment or take a vacation to get away from the mess, rather than to pay the contractor to knock a few weeks off of the schedule.

What to Look for When Looking for a Contractor
In slower economic periods ( such as from 2008 to 2013), homeowners can expect to get multiple bids and cherrypick the best deal from multiple contractors. But in hotter markets like we see today, you have to court your contractor as much as they need to sell you.

If you are at the beginning of the planning process for a larger project, defer to professionals for how and when to seek bids. It is fine to ask contractors for their impressions of a project early in the planning phase – contractors are generally happy to suggest potential budget ranges for you – but don’t ask seven companies to provide proper bids on a set of preliminary plans if the project is six months or more down the road. Preliminary numbers are not generally useful when making a hiring decisions, so tread lightly when asking people to provide estimates. The point of early preliminary interviews should be to glean information about what lies ahead, and to begin to develop a rapport with people you might want to work with. But don’t ask too much of contractors too soon. Contractors don’t like putting bids together for no reason.

Indeed, anything you can do to save the contractor time and hassle while preparing your bid will be repaid tenfold when it comes time to work collaboratively during the project. If you don’t have a set of plans you can provide, write up a bullet-point list of everything you think the project entails. If you know what fixtures you want to have installed, don’t ask contractors to go through the trouble of estimating the same thing on their own. Contractors really appreciate simple steps like that, and they can pave the way for a more successful working relationship.

It’s About the Relationship
Just showing you are motivated and organized can be quite appealing to potential bidders. The flip-side, however, is that you don’t want to look compulsive about your project, or you will likely scare good people away.

Ultimately, you have to decide who to hire. I cannot say enough about the importance of getting along with your contractor. Construction is an inherently messy, invasive process that often takes longer than you or your contractor would prefer. So you might as well like the people you are working with! If you get a bad vibe from someone, heading in another direction might be wise. If someone seems a little too busy to you, hiring someone with more availability could be better. Signing a contract to remodel your kitchen or build out your basement might seem like a business or financial decision, but residential construction is ultimately a very personal process. Working with someone you like can make all the difference. Keep this in mind and don’t focus on costs alone when comparing bids.

Expect the Unexpected
“Life is Change” they say, and construction is no different. Residential remodeling projects of almost any size can change for any number of reasons. And they will. Termites, code changes, horrors hidden inside walls, neighbor complaints, even simple human error can send your project off in unforeseen directions. You can’t always know what to expect in the way of surprises, but you can prepare for them financially by including a contingency for additional costs in your personal budget. Especially when you need to stay within a specific overall cost, setting extra money aside is a wise thing to do. How much is right? Read on.

The Truth About “Change Orders”
Much has been said about the dreaded Change Order, those bills for additional work that goes beyond the scope of the original project bid. But Change Orders are a part of construction that you have to be prepared for, and they go hand in hand with remodeling.  In my years as a contractor, I never once had a project of more than $20,000 that didn’t involve a cost increase of one kind or another. Stuff happens. I think most contractors price Change Orders fairly.  Yes, they can be costly. And yes, there are unscrupulous souls among our lot who generate too many of them. (I have no doubt that there is probably is a contractor out there somewhere with a boat named Change Order and a dingy named Contract.)  But as a rule, contractors don’t get rich off changes in the scope of work.

If you can’t avoid extra costs, what can be done to avoid the stress associated with them? First, ask your contractor or architect to estimate a reasonable contingency budget  for your project. A kitchen might require a 5% contingency, but a lateral addition might merit 10% or more.  Whatever the case, budget this amount and consider the money spent.  You’ll sleep better. Much better.

Second, look beyond the construction contract cost and develop an overall project budget. What costs are excluded from the contractor’s scope of work? Will you have landscaping to do when the contractor leaves? Engineering or Special Inspection costs to incur during the project? And don’t forget about owner-supplied fixtures or furniture. Those things can really add up, and you need to be thorough and realistic about your project budget.

A Caution on Contractor References
If you think that checking your contractor’s references is a form of due diligence, think again. References are cherrypicked by the person you are checking up on, so take what you hear from them with a grain of salt. I don’t believe checking reference is particularly helpful, unless you want someone to help nudge you in a particular direction. If your decision comes down to two bidders, it might be more helpful to ask which contractor can start (or finish) sooner, or consider who has more experience with projects similar to yours, or which contractor might be willing to shave a few thousand dollars off the cost in order to win your business. (OMG, did I just say that!?!) Out-of-the-box questions along those lines might be more insightful than what you hear from references.

To Permit or Not to Permit… Is That Your Question?
I generally advise homeowners to get permits for as much work as possible, as it tends to pay off in terms of market value when it comes time to sell your house. Especially if you are plan to do work outside of your four walls, where just about anyone could call you in for doing work without a permit, paying permit fees makes good sense. However, it’s also worth noting that the SF Building Department has changed its policy concerning unpermitted work. Long gone are the days when inspectors were paid to snoop around on Saturdays looking for unpermitted work. If your budget is tight, and you trust your neighbors, and the work is all inside of the house, you have options.

Beware of the Lowball
If you receive bids which are vastly different, be careful before accepting the low bidder. If you know what you are doing and follow some of the advice I have given here, you should end up with an apples-to-apples set of bids where one bid stands out as a clear value. This IS possible! However, it’s also possible to get into trouble by hiring based on numbers alone. Carefully review bids to understand WHY the numbers are different. Talk to your contractor before signing on the dotted line as to his/her expectations for how changes to the price might unfold. No matter what the contract says, what’s not stated can be equally important. So understand where the low bidder is coming from by generating such a tantalizing price. One of the absolute worst things that can happen is for your contractor to get in hot water because of an under-pricing mistake made when bidding the project. What can seem like a great deal when work begins can easily unravel if your contractor gets into financial trouble because of it. (EDITOR’S NOTE. This is exactly what happened to me. See the photo notes below.)

Little Guys vs. Bigger Guys
Another thing to be wary of is very small contracting firms. Whether an unlicensed “Jack of All Trades” or a licensed contractor who performs many trades by him/herself, going with a very small company comes with very real risks you should understand. Yes, there are diamonds in the rough who do great work time and time again, but they are the exception to the rule when it comes to small construction companies. Most people who excel in construction tend to gravitate toward larger operations, where efficiencies of scale come into play and specialization can be leveraged. People who work alone have fewer resources to bring to bear on your project, which can be especially frustrating toward the end of the project, when you just want them to be done and gone. That said, the prices of smaller firms are sometimes unbeatable, so just make sure you understand exactly what is being promised in terms of time and cost before signing up with a smaller independent. Even if they come highly recommended from someone you know, they have to be the right person for YOUR job.

PHOTO: Your Bernalwood editor’s home on July 24, 2004, a few days after our lowball contractor announced that he planned to abandon our remodeling project to instead divorce his wife and begin a new career in marijuana cultivation. Photo by Telstar Logistics.

History Reveals Checkout Lines at Bernal Safeway Have Been Ridiculously Long Since 1972

bernalsafeeway2

Remember how the Citizens of Bernalwood recently took up cyber-pitchforks and -torches to complain about the ridiculously long lines at the Bernal Heights Safeway on Mission Street at 29th?  And remember how we hoped — naively, perhaps — that perhaps maybe someone at Safeway corporate might hear our gnashing of teeth, and take pity upon our sad souls, and remedy the situation?

Well, don’t count on it.

Recently, while browsing through a back issue of the Bernal Journal from 1972, your Bernalwood editor was darkly entertained to find an impassioned article complaining about… the ridiculously long lines at the Bernal Heights Safeway!

I wish I was kidding about this, but I am not. Behold, a time capsule from 43 years ago, written by Bernal Journal reporter “Vera Disgruntla” (click to embiggen):

1972_Souvenier Edition

The similarities between this Bernal Journal article from 1972 and the comments section of Bernalwood’s recent post about the Bernal Safeway are comical in their utter sameness.  Here’s a depressing excerpt pulled from the 1972 article shown above:

One man has vowed never to shop there — he gets his meat at the Pioneer Market dry good at 30th and Mission Market, and fresh fruits and vegetables at the Farmers Market at the foot of Bernal Hill. Another man goes once a week to the Marina Safeway. A woman told me she and her husband always drive the five minutes further to get to the Diamond Heights Safeway, where, because they never have to wait to check out there, they actually save time! These may be the only real alternatives.

But I am still mad – for me, and everyone around here who continually has this frustrating time waste wait at our store. The faces in the lines seem to say, “it’s always been like this; we’ve ALWAYS had to wait.”

So there you have it. Long lines have been a fixture at our local Safeway since even before 1972, and after 40+ years, it would seem that Safeway management still does not give a flying Fig Newton about the problem. But hey, at least they’re consistent.

In light of these facts, Bernalwood would now like to officially propse the following:

1) Let’s bulldoze this Safeway, since it so obviously suffers from intergenerational corporate indifference.

2) Let’s save that cool Taoist Safeway mosaic, for posterity, or for use in a replacement structure (see below).

3) Let’s build a few hundred units of much-needed housing on this long-neglected site, with the new ground-floor space dedicated to a more modern supermarket (something kind of like that new mixed-use building that was recently erected on Ocean).

4) While we’re at it, let’s get serious about asking BART to build that 30th Street infill station they’re thinking about again. Hurry up, please.

… because really, after banging our Bernalese heads against the walls at this Safeway for five decades, it may just be time to give up and try something else.

And in the meantime, you can read the rest of that 1972 issue of the Bernal Journal (PDF). Here’s another blast from the past from that same issue, featuring a shout-out to all the party people on Mullen and a handy guide to your Precita Park merchants of yesteryear:

1972_mullenpage

IMAGE: Bernal Heights Safeway, via Google Earth

 

Gigaom Visits Bernal Hill and Lots of People Enjoyed the 36 Questions

ommorning

Celebrity blogger (and Olde Bernalwood Friend) Om Malik visited Bernal Hill recently, at an early morning hour which we rarely experience because of its horrific earliness. But with that said, Om’s photo makes a strong case for early-rising, because the light and colors he captured are so beautiful. Bravo, Om, and thanks!

At the same time, Om also created a cool photo essay that steered us toward a special #36Bernal hashtag that was used by visitors to the 36 Questions installation that sat atop Bernal Hill last week. Here’s a sample:

#36bernal #36questionToTrueLove

A photo posted by Robert Spies (@robertwspies) on

These two Bernalese really got into it:

#36Bernal

A photo posted by Harrison The Beagle (@bernalbeagle) on

Folks even seemed to enjoy it in all sorts of weather:

Stumbled on #36bernal with JeremyG

A photo posted by @peretz on

PHOTO: Top, by Om Malik

Parked Unicycle Is Metaphor for Everything Bernal Heights.

Unicyclebernal

Over the weekend, Todd Berman spotted this unicycle parked on Cortland right outside Wild Side West. In a way, this photo is a perfect metaphor for everything Bernal Heights represents. For example:

It’s a unicycle, which is an idiosyncratic way to roll.

It’s an all-terrain unicycle, because we are an all-terrain people.

It is parked outside a bar, because that’s how we party.

It has pink pedals, because we have just a touch of flair.

It is tethered to a tree, because we take security seriously.

See anything else metaphorically Bernalese in this remarkably revealing photo? Do tell.

PHOTO: Todd Berman

Can You Identify the Bernal Heights Locations in this Vintage Home Movie?

eugenia1940s

Neighbor Vicky, the archival queen of the Bernal Heights History Project, invites Bernalese to help identify the Bernal locations shown in a newly digitized vintage home movie from the 1940s(?):

Home video mystery! The family in this clip sets off to the baths from Bernal Heights, but we can’t figure out what street — can you help us ID it? We see down Ellsworth Street to St. Kevin’s Church at one point, so they’re probably somewhere in NoCo (North of Cortland).

The Bernal scenes are in the first minute of the video. Up above is the view on Eugenia, looking east from Gates (vs. contemporary street view). Neighbor Vicky says:

Heading east on Eugenia — in the video you’ll see a whole lot of nothing down on Bayshore in the distance.

Here’s a grab of St. Kevin’s from the corner of Ellsworth and Eugenia (vs. contemporary street view):

bernalstkevins1940s

You know how the game is played, fellow Bernal history dorks: In the comments, please help identify the Bernal houses or locations shown in the film, using time-markers in the video to indicate what you see. (Oh, and the footage of Sutro Baths is pretty sweet too!)

Your Bernal Heights Crime Summary for February 2015: Robberies and Assaults Down, Gambling in Crosshairs & When to Call the SFPD

sfpdtiltshift

Neighbor Sarah, your valiant volunteer Bernal Heights crime correspondent, attended the SFPD Ingleside Community meeting this month, and she filed these [excellent, per usual] summary notes on the latest Bernal Heights crime trends.

Read on, be wiser, and stay safer:

I attended [the Feb. 17, 2015] meeting, along with several Bernal neighbors. Here are the notes.

Capt. McFadden (joseph.mcfadden@sfgov.org) presided. New neighborhood DA Lailah Morris was in attendance as well (lailah.morris@sfgov.org).

CRIME TRENDS
SFPD recently arrested four people (two more pending) in string of burglaries in Teresita area – the group was from the Bayview, and police think they committed 30+ burglaries, some in conjunction with a window-installation business. The investigations team at the station put in a ton of hours on this.

Also busted more illegal gambling joints – 3 of the 6 that are on their list. One recent bust found not just gambling machines but also prostitution, drugs, and illegal roosters. [EDIT NOTE: This was before the crackdown on the gambling den at 3437 Mission, so that was not included in the above.]

Robberies and aggravated assaults are down. Auto thefts and thefts from autos continue to be high. Working on tracking down car break-in recidivists and watching them. Made arrests of group of four who had been robbing people on Baden, Circular, & nearby. Still random groups out there operating.

Have had several shootings (back-and-forth retaliation) in the Sunnydale, gang-related (Towerside and DBG). Gang Task Force involved. SFPD believe that when the first guy who was shot recovers, he may attempt more retaliation. Got extra resources from downtown to saturate area with police. Also had a shooting on 28th/Diamond that turned out to be a made-up story – guy claimed drive-by shooting; turned out his friend accidentally shot him at his apartment.

53 felony arrests in January. Already 41 so far in Feb.

HOW TO CONTACT THE SFPD
When you see suspicious activity, call the police! Here are the numbers to know:

  • 911 is for crimes in progress (including property crimes like burglaries or car break-ins).
  • 553-0123 for suspicious behavior. Police still recommend calling
  • 553-8090 from cell phone (when you want 911 so you don’t get routed to CHP in Vallejo)

If there’s a crime trend going on, email the captain with the specifics (his email address is above). Like, if you see groups congregating and drinking/using drugs in a particular area regularly, email him the details (days of week, times of day, exact location). Do NOT just post about this stuff on NextDoor!  Be sure ALSO to call the police.

A community member raised issue of people at Everson/Digby using heroin – is that a 911 call? Captain said yes. Also said sometimes people worry that if they call police, the police will show up at their house, and criminals will know who called. Police do not do this – they know not to “burn” you. “Most important part of any call to the police is the description you give.”

Lunar New Year is here – can make Asian community a target of crime because criminals know they may have cash on them. Spread the word to be alert for danger, keep valuables close, give detailed witness descriptions (shoes or things that cannot change (facial hair, etc) are best things to note).

Door-to-door salesmen and PG&E/Water personnel – ask for an ID or phone number to call so you can see if they are legit. You don’t have to open the door – talk through the door if you feel uncomfortable. If you do talk to them, keep asking questions to see if it trips them up. Get a good description (see above).

Dogs are BEST burglary deterrent. Recordings of dogs = second-best. Alarms/videos = also good. If you have a camera, try to put it on a wide setting – police interested in where people came from (ie, a car) and what direction they headed in when they leave. Have cameras over all doors (front, back, side).

Bayview Station police conducted a raid on Crescent this week  Guy fled to Richland, dropping his gun en route. It is probably in someone’s back yard. If you find it, do NOT touch it – call police so they can safely retrieve it AND try to get fingerprints.

Q&A
Question about CSI: 50-100 burglaries a day in SF overall. CSI has a small team. Tends to mean they’re worse than Comcast in giving you a window for an appt. and then missing it. Fingerprints are hard to come by – only 30% of burglars don’t wear gloves, and only 10% of that 30% will leave a full print. DNA is where things are going – but slow to get there.

Question about phone scams. IRS won’t call you and demand money. Don’t give bank or personal info away over the phone!

Question about traffic enforcement at Bradford/Bernal Heights Blvd. If you have a problem intersection, email the captain with specifics (days, times, etc). This stuff gets lost when captains and officers change (as happens at Ingleside). Keep sending in this info.

Question about dark streets. Scott Wiener is trying to introduce a resolution to have the city take over all PG&E and PUC lights so that they can all be upgraded to LED and centrally managed. Right now it’s kind of a mess.

IMAGE: Telstar Logistics

Clever Bernal Neighbors Adapt Funky Bernal House to Fit a Growing Bernal Family

jessmichele

Like the humans who live in them, many of the houses in Bernal Heights are quirky. Partly because of our hilly topography, and partially because of 150 years of piecemeal construction and ad hoc infill, Bernal Heights is full of funky houses that challenge the creativity of their 21st century occupants.

This week, our friends at the CurbedSF website did a charming house profile of Bernal neighbors Jess and Michele, who are adapting their 426 square-foot cottage to serve as a home for their newly expanded family.

cottage3

cottage2

CurbedSF writes:

When Jess and Michele began house hunting, they were planning to start a family, so they made the rounds of the few two-bedrooms in their price range. They put in a few bids, but they were outbid. And outbid again. Then the couple went to see a tiny one-bedroom cottage in Bernal Heights. When the cottage was first built, in 1926, it was essentially a 426-square-foot glorified studio constructed over a garage. The most recent occupant had sealed off part of the garage and converted it into a bedroom, connected to the main house by a set of houseboat stairs. Jess and Michele—who prefer not to give their last names—fell in love with the cottage’s bright interiors, white brick fireplace, quirky layout, and rustic rooms, some of which had been updated and edged in reclaimed wood by the seller, an architect. “Our realtor thought we were a little bit crazy,” says Jess. “We were just like, ‘We can make this work because it’s so damn cute.'”

You should definitely read the whole thing to see all the clever ways that Neighbor Jess and Neighbor Michele turned their tiny house into an awesome home. But before you do, Neighbor Jess shared an important addendum in an email to Bernalwood:

The only quote missing from the article that I wanted to share with the Bernal community is that our home is perfect for us because of the inside and outside — our location and introduction to the Bernal community has been so amazing.  We had no idea how lucky we were finding this little cottage and moving to Bernal.  We won the lottery with this place and location.  Thank you neighbors and businesses who make Bernal special!

PHOTOS: Top, Neighbors Jess and Michele and their brand-new wallpaper. All other photos via CurbedSF.