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.

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

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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.

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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.

Tiny Bernal Eartquake Shack Selected for Cool Style Contest

coolquakeshack

Neighbor Elyse lives with her girlfriend Olivia in a gen-u-ine 1906-surplus earthquake shack here in Bernal Heights. Their tiny home was recently selected as a nominee in Apartment Therapy’s “Small, Cool” contest:

Name: Olivia
Location: San Francisco, CA
Square Feet: 250
Division: Teeny-Tiny
What I Love About My Small Home: The best part about our converted San Francisco 1906 Earthquake Cottage is easily the vaulted ceilings. Not only do they look beautiful but they make the space look much larger than it really is. We also love how smart our landlords were when renovating this tiny cottage, making sure to put closets and storage areas in every typically unused nook and cranny. This home might be small but it’s just the right amount of space for us and our tiny dog.

If you would like to help stuff the ballot box, you can favorite it here.

PHOTO: Via Apartment Therapy

Three of “San Francisco’s Quirkiest Homes” Found in Bernal Heights

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chalkhaus

New Mural

Have you heard of the San Francisco Chronicle? We hear they print a newspaper. Yet just like Bernalwood, they also have a website, and on that website they published an article yesterday that lists “10 of San Francisco’s quirkiest homes.”

This angle plays well to our neighborhood’s innate disposition, which may explain why three of the 10 quirky houses are located in Bernal Heights. Of course, Bernalwood has written about each of them in months past. Bernal’s three contributions to the Chron’s oddball residential round-up are:

1) “The International Orange House” 

2) “The Chalkboard Garage House”

3) “The Yoga House”

… because we’re quirky like that.

PHOTOS: Bernalwood

Home Portrait: Golden Gate Bridge House

So it seems that the California Historical Association has hit upon an idea: To commemorate the installation of a new exhibition marking the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, the organization plans to paint their headquarters building in SoMa the exact same color as… the Golden Gate Bridge.

It’s a clever idea, but it’s not so original. Indeed, here in Bernal Heights, where everyone is avant-garde, there is already a structure which does the same thing. It’s a house located on Precita near the intersection with Shotwell, and it’s painted from top to bottom in the exact color used on the Golden Gate Bridge: International Orange.

The University of California at Berkeley provides a quick overview of how International Orange was selected for use on the bridge:

Chief engineer Joseph Strauss and his colleagues intended to select a paint that would withstand the harsh winds and weather and the corrosive salt air-constant factors for a bridge across the Golden Gate. Following a year of testing paints and colors, the possible choices were carbon black, steel gray, and orange. Some felt that this bridge, like others, should be black, gray, or silver. Architect Irving Morrow preferred the warm orange color for both aesthetic and practical reasons. He felt that the darker shades would detract from the beautiful setting and that orange could be seen better in dense fog, another constant factor for the Gate. He was supported by local artist and sculptor Benjamin Buffano, and by many other locals who wrote letters supporting his choice of “International Airways Orange.”

San Franciscans took to International Orange almost immediately, as evidenced by this letter sent to Irving Morrow in 1935 — two years before the bridge was completed:

Dear Mr. Morrow,

For some time I have been wanting to express to you how fine the Golden Gate Bridge tower on the Marin Shore seems to me.

I have watched it from the ferry and the city in almost every kind of weather and light, and find it superbly in harmony with the landscape both in design and color.

Now that the south tower is beginning to appear, the beauty of that color of red lead has been brought home to me even more — in marked contrast to the drab color of the Carquinez Bridge and others about the bay.

Couldn’t the Golden Gate Bridge be left in red lead or some finishing paint that approaches vermillion?

It would enhance the dignity of the great structure and harmonize it completely with its surroundings.

Of course, that “red lead” wasn’t just primer — it was the finish coat, and a lead-free version of the color is still in use today. According to the purchasing manager for the Golden Gate Bridge, the official paint is called “Golden Gate Bridge International Orange”  (Code: B-66EJ1000 or B-640216206) and it’s manufactured by Sherwin-Williams.

Fireweed: SW6328

Unfortunately, the paint used on the bridge is a custom commercial mix sold only to high-volume clients. For civilian homeowners, Sherwin-Williams makes a consumer color color called “Fireweed” (code SW 6328) that’s an exact equivalent to the paint used on the bridge.

Funny thing, though… when you see a sample of Fireweed — like the one to the right — it looks much much darker and much less orange than your mental image of the Golden Gate Bridge:

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But that’s (literally) just a trick of the light. This photo shows a field comparison, with a Fireweed swatch held up alongside a  portion of the Golden Gate Bridge. If you allow for a little fading and oxidation on the portion of the bridge shown here, you can see it’s the same color:

How to paint anything the color of the Golden Gate Bridge

Hit that color with some intense natural sunlight, and watch what happens… Voila! It glows in that familiar Golden Gate Bridge hue. Notice how that’s happening in the sunny portion of the Bernal Heights house shown in this photo:

Ce n'est pas un Photoshop

So there you have it. More than you ever wanted to know about the Golden Gate Bridge House in Bernal Heights. And why do we know so much about this home?

That’s easy: It’s my house, I researched and chose the color, and I live here.

PHOTOS: Telstar Logistics

House Portrait: Carlos Santana’s House on Mullen

Santana House

Santana House

The Mission District usually gets the credit for having been home to Carlos Santana, but the truth of the matter is that Santana commuted to the Mission from Bernal Heights.

Specifically, according to longtime Bernal resident Peter Wiley, Santana lived in this house on Mullen Avenue. Here’s how Neighbor Peter guided me to it:

The house is on the north side of Mullen just east of the Franconia steps. There is a Franconia cul de sac that runs south from Mullen just east of the bend as you drive up (east) Mullen from Franconia. The first house to the east of the steps is an old storefront. The second house is a shingled cottage. Maybe not shingled. That’s the one. It is flanked to the east by a cottage that is set back from the street.

Neighbor Peter confirmed to Bernalwood that the home shown here was indeed the Santana House. Carlos, if you’re out there… care to chime in???

PHOTOS: Telstar Logistics

Susie Bright Remembers a Life on Bessie Street

Susie Bright is a writer/activist who edited On Our Backs, an influential ‘zine about female and lesbian sexuality that was published during the 1980s. During the heyday of On Our Backs, Bright lived in a small apartment at 25A Bessie Street that also served as the magazine’s editorial office and photo studio.

Honey Lee Cottrell, Bright’s former partner and collaborator, has lived in the apartment on Bessie Street ever since. But on Friday she will be evicted. To mark the sad event, Bright wrote a short essay about years spent in the apartment, and she calls her recollection the “Annals of Bessie Street: From Revolution to Eviction.”

This Friday I am losing my long-standing home in San Francisco: 25A Bessie Street.

My first books Herotica and Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World were written inside this little nest. I grew up as a young woman in this apartment, my daughter grew up here from infancy to adulthood.

The best and most outrageous of On Our Backs pictures were conceived and often shot at Bessie Street. This is where Honey Lee Cottrell, my partner, and OOB’s staff photographer, became a legend.

We had a tiny garden that got a few rays of sun. We turned a roving green briar into a wandering rose. I held my first porno pajama parties there, which later became my big screen road shows: How to Read a Dirty Movie and All Girl Action. The thumb-size cactus we planted outside on the sidewalk grew into a behemoth.

We raised kids here— Honey Lee captured so many of our children’s best moments.

Some things I can’t get out of my mind. Fanny Fatale demonstrated “how to female ejaculate” on our kitchen linoleum one afternoon, and I said we should never clean that spot again. I think our apartment should be made into a feminist historical monument.

I moved to Bessie Street with my girlfriend, Honey Lee Cottrell, when I was 23 years old— and she was 37. It’s a tiny basement apartment on the steep north face of Bernal Hill. The bathtub is in the kitchen, which looks out over all of downtown and the Mission district. The kitchen windows are the one place where the light pours in.

Our first landlord was unsure if I could qualify as a tenant, because at 5’10”, I had to duck to get into some of the corners of the low-ceilinged apartment. I assured her I could— at $400 a month, the price was just right for the two of us. In the early 1980s, Bernal was still a poor and working class, multi-racial neighborhood, adjacent to “Needle Park,” which nowadays is filled with bouncy houses and miniature-dog birthday parties.

I moved out of Bessie Street when I was 30— we broke up after seven years— but I never “left.” I moved a few blocks away, and when Aretha was born, she went back and forth between our two homes. That never ended, no matter how many miles I moved away. The last two years, my daugther lived at Bessie Street with Honey, graduating from college.

Early this winter, the Bessie Street building was sold to a new owner, and after 30 years: “Eviction.” Ironically, it was bought by a wealthy man who wanted to make a home for his young son in the city who otherwise could never afford to rent a place…

There’s lots more at Susie’s site, including many more images from the pages from On Our Backs (NSFW). It’s a poignant tribute to a memorable time and an important place in the evolution of the Bernal Heights we all live in today.

Farewell, 25A Bessie Street.

PHOTO: Honey Lee Cottrell via Susie Bright.
Hat tip: Rita Roti