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 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.

Hot Item at Safeway: Shopping Carts

Safeway's empty shopping-cart corral

Sometimes you just have make a Safeway run at 4:30 p.m. on a Saturday. And when you do, you generally expect to be able to shop with the help of, you know, a shopping cart.

But this past Saturday, despite there being plenty of empty parking spaces, there were no carts to be seen anywhere outside the building. (Unless you count a couple of locked off-brand ones sitting by the 29th Street cut-through.) Lucky for me, someone had abandoned a cart inside, near a cash register.

I asked courtesy clerk Derek what the story was. He said (very courteously), “They’re probably all in use. We don’t have much. Sorry about that.”

Hmm, is this some sort of Taoist simplicity thing?

PHOTO: Bronwyn Ximm

Confirmed: The Stray Bar Is For Sale, Announces Plan to Close in January

StrayBarListing

There’s been a lot of buzz around Bernalwood concerning this real estate listing, and now Miss Karen from the beloved and canine-friendly Stray Bar on Cortland has posted an announcement to explain what’s going on:

To our Friends, Customers & Neighbors:

YES! The rumor is true and Stray Bar (and building) are on the market as of this week.

I realize this saddens many of you who have come up to talk to me this past week and it was not an easy decision process by any means. This has been a year with some personal family tragedy – a year that has made me reflect on my goals and dreams for the future – and it is a year that has brought me opportunity to grow further as a small business owner.

There is absolutely no doubt that I have grown, learned, and benefitted from my relationship with so many of you, with this neighborhood, and as a small business owner in San Francisco. Running a business in this city has its challenges and is not for the faint of heart but I encourage anyone with a dream and the ability to pursue that dream to do just that – life is short and opportunities do not present themselves every day. When they do – grab and don’t let go!

Please keep in mind that the process of selling Stray Bar will take some time – licenses, permits, and all that is involved takes some time. During that time we hope you will join us at the bar for a drink, to dream about future endeavors, laugh about past memories, and to continue on with the friendships that we have built over this nearly seven year period.

Bernal Heights is an amazing neighborhood – I like to call it a little village in the midst of the city. We watch out for one another around here, we care, and nowhere have I seen that more than through the friendship, feedback, and support of our Stray Bar clientele.

We are here through January and we hope to see you soon! And please do not be sad – change is good and necessary to growth…

“20 years from now you will be disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the one’s you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Respectfully & Sincerely,
Karen Opp
Proprietor / Stray Bar

UPDATE: Coming on the heels of the announced closure of Nervous Dog Coffee earlier in the week, celebrity Bernal Heights journalist Tim Dickinson observes: “This is a bad economy for dog-themed beverage establishments in Bernal.”

PHOTO: Redfin

Nervous Dog Coffee Announces Imminent Closure; Sadness Ensues

NervousDog2

NervousDogSign

Neigbor Vic brings sad news from the Bernalwood/La Lengua Liminal Zone. Nervous Dog Coffee is closing:

I saw this today and it’s a major bummer for me.

I get all my beans at Nervous Dog Coffee on the corner of Mission and Kingston and always appreciated their deliberately unhip, unpretentious atmosphere. Ritualistic Blue Barrel Coffee is all well and good, but sometimes I don’t care who massaged my beans and would prefer not to cross a street to get my fix.

I’m sure a lot of Bernal-Lenguans appreciate the cafe. The owner was always awesomely nice and it was a good place to work. So maybe you could get the word out so folks can stop by and say goodbye.

Also, economic downturn on the 3400 block? Say it ain’t so. If Zante goes I’m rioting.

I’ll be right there too, with pitchforks and torches.

PHOTOS: Top, via Google Maps. Nervous Dog sign by Neighbor Vic.

Red Hill Bookstore Will Close (But Won’t Go Away)

One of the greatest charms of Cortland Avenue is the way Bernal’s commercial district feels adrift in time — a 1940s vision of Main Street USA, but with much better food and electric bicycles.

There’s definitely some truth to that impression, but it is a fragile illusion. Cortland feels adrift in time, but it is not immune to larger forces of change. Those forces recently claimed the venerable Four Star Video, and today we learned that they will also take the much-loved Red Hill Books.

Yet much like Four Star, we learn that Red Hill will half-disappear, and half-evolve into something new. Red Hill Books manager Jeremy Hatch explains:

I wanted to share with you all the sign we just put in our window, which I’ve included in full below. But to summarize: unfortunately, we’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that we can no longer sustain a full, general-interest bookstore here in Bernal, but we love the neighborhood too much to leave, so we’re going to try something new. We’re planning to close down Red Hill Books per se at the end of the year, and in January, transform the space into a sort of co-op similar to 331 Cortland. We’ll remain as one of the businesses in the co-op — we’re planning to open a new store, focused on children and young readers, in our part of the space. This (a children’s store) is something we’ve been talking about doing for a long time, so we’re excited to give it a try! We’re planning to call the new store Chickadee.

Right now, we’re just starting the search for interested business people to join us. We’ve gotten a few informal proposals, but we’re looking for more, and I’m hoping you’ll highlight that on the blog. Our minds are open, and we’re willing to enter into short term agreements (of say 3 months) just to test things out.

Here are additional details, as described in the sign that’s now in the window of Red Hill Books:

Dearest neighbors:

First of all: we’re not leaving!

However, we do need to change what we’re doing. We’ve had increasing financial difficulty over the past few years and we can’t continue the way we have been. We love Bernal as much as you do, though, and we want to stick around, so we’re planning to transform ourselves after the New Year in two ways: first, we’re going to become more focused on children’s books and events; second, we want to create a co-op-type space like 331, with several other small businesses. Here are the details on each idea:

A NEW STORE WITH A NEW FOCUS

We’ve noticed that, with the growing numbers of young families here on the Hill, our strongest category of sales, day in and day out, is books for children and young readers. So we’ve decided to take the hint and try something we’ve been contemplating for a long time anyway: create a store with a focus on books and other products for children and parents. We’re thinking of calling it Chickadee.

There are a few things you should know about this transition:

  • At this time, we plan to continue to stock a small selection of adult books – we’ll definitely have the latest best sellers, parenting books, and some periodicals, for example — but we’ll be using the same distributor as we do now, and we’ll remain connected to our sister stores, Phoenix Books, Dog Eared Books, and Alley Cat Books, so you will be able to order any title you want from us.
  • We’re working on a nice website where you will be able to order books from us online, at your convenience. Beyond new books, we’re talking about bringing our entire catalog of sale books online as well. And we also plan to offer direct home delivery of your orders within Bernal Heights.
  • If you have store credit, that credit will continue to be honored here and at our sister stores.
  • All Bernal Bucks earned at Red Hill will be honored at Chickadee
  • If you’re interested in trading more books here, you should be aware that through the end of 2012 we’re going to be selective about the adult titles we take – recent best-sellers and titles we know the other stores could use. For Chickadee, we’ll mostly be interested in children’s books.

SHARED SPACE – PROPOSALS WANTED

Chickadee won’t require as much space as we have today, so, inspired by the example of 331 Cortland, we’re planning to share our building with other small businesses — we are looking for proposals, and our minds are open. (Of course, your idea would have to work well with a kids-oriented bookstore.) If you have an idea, or know someone who might, please talk to us!

PHOTO: Telstar Logistics

BYO-Bagism Up in Bernal Heights, Plus: Get a Free Canvas Tote This Weekend

It’s been three weeks since the city instituted its 10-cent minimum charge for compostable, recycled paper, or reusable sacks at the checkout counter, and so far the policy seems to be an easy pill for Bernal Heights to swallow. (No big surprise there, since green is, after all, glamorous.)

A micro-interview with cashier Alex at the Good Life on Cortland indicates that the ordinance is having its intended effect:

Bernalwood: Have you noticed any difference in the bag situation recently?

Cashier Alex: We’re definitely seeing a lot more people bringing their own bags.

Bernalwood: What happens when they don’t?

Cashier Alex: Then we have to count up all the bags at the end and charge for them.

Bernalwood: Sounds like kind of a pain. Is it? 

Cashier Alex: A little bit.

If you need to add to your collection of reusable bags, make sure to find SF Environment’s booth at Fiesta on the Hill on Cortland Street this Sunday starting at 11 a.m. The fine folks there will be handing out nice ones as part of their consumer education campaign.

PHOTO: Bronwyn Ximm

Kickstarting Bernal Heights: Hillside Supper Club, Barbasket, and Zip Cup

Here in Bernal Heights, Kickstarter fundraising efforts have become kind of like Louis Vuitton handbags on Cortland Street: Everybody has one. Let’s sit in on pitch meetings from three Bernal entrepreneurs:

Hillside Supper Club
Bernalwood has been following the adventures of the Hillside Supper Club since the days when it was called the Bernal Supper Club. In addition to making exceptionally yummy food, HSC wants to transform the sad Cafe Cozzolino space into a permanent culinary hotspot.

By this fall, we plan to be open six nights a week for dinner, self-service lunch (to include picnics in Precita Park), and brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. In addition, we will hold special dinners/classes with local farmers, artisans, wine makers, and butchers. We will stay involved with Slow Food and other local food communities to share food and nutritional education with others, especially the next generation of children. Once a month we plan to bring back an original 50’s “supper club” where we encourage guests to dress the part, with live bands and singers performing. We want to host “HSC movie in the park” events in Precita Park that will feature classic films along with hot beverages and popcorn.

Hillside Supper Club is looking for $25,000 to get the job done, and you can contribute until September 7.

Barbasket
Neighbor Chris from Alabama Street cooked up a clever idea to build a way-new bicycle handlebar that includes an integrated frame for a handy-dandy fabric cargo basket:

The Barbasket is a one-piece handlebar and basket rim that supports a fabric basket. The fabric basket holds your stuff snugly, and has a clever bungeed flap on the top that keeps your goods secure. But the best part is that it does all that without looking like a janky add-on. It’s a basket that becomes part of your bike.

Love this. Chris hopes to raise $20,000, and you can contribute until August 13. Hurry!

Zip Cup
Neigbor Karla lives over on Coleridge, and she wants to create the ultimate to-go coffee cup:

http://vimeo.com/45889678

A few years ago, I got sick of schlepping my reusable coffee cup to Martha’s and Nervous Dog. So I went out and created Zip Cup–I took the collapsing coffee cup you had as a kid, made it safe by adding locking mechanisms used on space shuttles and submarines, made it stylish/attractive, cut out the BPA and voila — an easy-to-carry, safe, awesome, Made in Bernalwood collapsing coffee cup that fits in your pocket, (diaper) bag, and much more.

Clever! Karla is using an alternative service called Indiegogo for her fund drive, and she hopes to raise $70,000 by Sept. 11.