Help me find an urban-friendly contractor to renovate our condo!
July 2, 2012 9:41 AM   Subscribe

Renovating a condo for the first time in downtown Toronto: How do we find great contractors and designers? How do we get started? Snowflakes inside.

We have a 2-bedroom condo that was built in the early 80s and hasn't been renovated since. The particleboard kitchen is on its last legs.

What we want to do:
  • Completely gut kitchen, turn L-shape into galley. Requires moving plumbing/ductwork, and we want to remove the wall where the doorway is.
  • Gut bathroom and replace floor/tiles/sink (and bathtub?). Footprint can remain same.
  • Remove carpeting in rest of condo. Parquet floors beneath could be saved?
Snowflake details:
  • None of the plumbing or electrical work is up to code anymore. When we've done small improvements in the past, it's always uncovered shoddy work and been more complicated than we suspected.
  • We want to have 1+ kids AND stay here. We want this condo to be flexible and multi-purpose as our family grows and changes. Most contractors/designers we've talked to are used to suburban life — we need a designer who understands living within 850 square feet. We aren't renovating so we can flip it; we want to live here for a long time.
  • The idea of going to a showroom in the burbs to spend 3 hours looking at Every Tile Option Available is completely overwhelming. Is there a curated version of this?
Specific questions:
  • How do we make a budget for this? I don't even know where to start. We told one contractor a version of the above and she gave us a quote with only $5K of wiggle room, which seemed … odd.
  • Are sites like Handy Canadian trustworthy? How can we find vetted contractors? Most of our friends are young and haven't done renovations yet. (If you've had good experiences with Toronto contractors, please MeMail me!)
  • What do we need to have decided before hiring a contractor?
  • Timeframes: How long does this sort of thing take? How long in advance do we need to have bought materials and hired people?
  • Are we forgetting an important question??
posted by heatherann to Home & Garden (2 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
One huge question you're forgetting is finding out from your condo association what you are allowed to do within the constructs of the condo. There are typically rules and regulations surrounding what's allowed, like only using service elevators, only having contractors on site from 10AM to 4PM, waste disposal, permits, permissions, etc. Trust me, this is not a situation where you ask for forgiveness instead of permission.

I'd re-think moving plumbing about 7 more times. It's very complex and depending upon how other units are affected by your moves, it may not be possible.

Once you have plans committed to paper, that's it, do NOT change your mind. Changes = $$$. Lots and lots of $$$.

Think about pocket doors for saving space.

The expense involved in bringing electrical and plumbing to code in a multi-unit dwelling is astronomical.

Really price this out, and plan for 33% MORE than the highest quote. Then you need to decide if the investment is worth it. It may not be.

As for making decisions easier: Start scrapbooking things you like. Cut out pictures of things that catch your eye. You'll start noticing themes. Themes in colors, shapes, finishes, etc.

Do you like sleek and modern, cottage, shabby chic. Once you narrow down your design story, you'll narrow down your choices.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:02 AM on July 2, 2012

Best answer: How do we make a budget for this? I don't even know where to start.

The best way would be to pay an architect to do detailed plans and specifications, then take that to three builders. Then yes, budget to pay more than the high bid. The more detailed your specifications, the better, because it will reduce the number of times when you'll find yourself saying "can we just pay a little more to get this flooring / light fixture / etc.?" Lock in what's important to you up front.

To be a bit more explicit, undertake a project that is well within your budget. Scope out the project so that you can pay someone experienced and well-recommended to do it, so that you can afford not-just-bargain-basement everything, and so that you can handle cost overruns such as unexpected additional upgrades to that out-of-code electrical and plumbing you mentioned.

How to make a budget? The only way to really estimate costs is to ask the people who will do it. But because figuring out what you want and how much to budget for it is an iterative process ("oh, we can't afford to do the bathroom now"), the more you can learn, the better. A good starting point would be to make a list at whatever level of detail you can for those conversations with builders and architects.

Another way to get more knowledgeable would be to try making a budget yourself. Just start looking around and pricing things. You won't come near to counting all the costs, but you'll quickly become much more knowledgeable. Try going in to your local big hardware store with a list of the supplies you think you'll need:
- cabinets
- countertops
- flooring
- bathroom tile, sink, and bathtub

For instance, sit down at the cabinets sales desk and let them mock up a kitchen and give you a price for the cabinets, countertops, and installation of both. Try finding some flooring you like and what its cost per square foot is. You should pretty much assume that there's something hidden that will triple or quadruple the costs you identify. For instance, I'm putting in tile, and it's the underlayment, thinset, and grout that cost the most.

Then try calling subs yourself: electrical, plumbing, insulation, drywall, flooring. The range of prices you get will drive you crazy, but you will learn A LOT, and then when you find a good general contractor, you will be so relieved.

We told one contractor a version of the above and she gave us a quote with only $5K of wiggle room, which seemed … odd.

I was surprised to learn how many situations don't have wiggle room. Many things have basically one right way to do it, which requires __ pounds of deck screws ($X) and seems to always take about __ days of labor ($Y). And while different crews have different overhead costs (e.g., insurance), or different pay rates for their workers, within any given crew, there's little latitude there.

What latitude there is may come in the quality of the materials. In some instances (cabinets), there is a wide range. In some, there is a fairly "standard" option. I ran into many situations where the price was, like, X for a 15-year warranty, 1.2X for a 30-year warranty, and 4X for a 40-year warranty, so like every single person, I chose the 30-year option.

So, there likely is more of a range, but I never got bids as ranges either. She may instead document her assumptions: $5000 cabinet allowance, 9 mm laminate flooring with a 15-year warranty.

How can we find vetted contractors?

One of the toughest part of this whole thing is finding a builder to work with. If you have the budget, I would go straight to a higher-end contractor. You can ask people at work, on neighborhood mailing lists, or google. You can find contractors to interview in several ways, but in interviewing them, look for:

- Expertise: for instance, ask a number of questions ("how do you think we should handle ___?") and get a sense of whether they know what they're talking about.

- Someone you like and trust: this is a stressful situation involving a lot of money, and at certain times, you might talk to them five times a day. They should be someone you communicate with well.

- Moral rectitude: for instance, ask about permits and see if they volunteer that perhaps someone wouldn't have to tell the city every little thing. Look for anything like that. You want someone who values their personal integrity and takes pride in doing things right, not someone who takes pride in knowing how to bend the rules to get things done. An unethical contractor can really mess up your life. A contractor who bends the rules can build something that falls apart much more quickly than it should.

What do we need to have decided before hiring a contractor?

Before hiring them? As much as possible. Before interviewing them? Your budget and a rough idea of what you want.

Timeframes: How long does this sort of thing take? How long in advance do we need to have bought materials and hired people?

If you make this a high priority in your life and work continuously starting now, maybe you'll be done six months from now? Two to three months for plans, permits, and finding a contractor. One to two months for the work to be done. One month to clean up the loose ends.

Are we forgetting an important question??

Would it be more cost-effective to move to somewhere that is already rehabbed the way we like it?

What are some of the risks we're incurring? How can we prevent them?

Hope this helps. It sounds like an exciting and potentially fun project.
posted by slidell at 11:05 PM on July 6, 2012

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