Spring Real Estate 2007

Publication Date: Friday, April 27, 2007

Surviving a remodel
Local author throws a life vest to homeowners

by Dan Shilstone

"One of the biggest misconceptions people have, coming into a remodel, is that they can survive the process," said Nancy Chillag, who has practiced real estate and construction law in Menlo Park since 1988. A legal columnist for Qualified Remodeler magazine and a frequent public speaker, Chillag last summer combined her considerable professional experience with the lessons of her own remodel in the publication of her book, "How to Survive a Remodel."

"It's geared as an educational tool for homeowners that are embarking on the remodel process," she said, noting that many of her contractor clients now distribute the book to homeowners to prepare them for the process and preemptively ease relations during construction.

"By far the biggest mistake people make is wanting to start construction before plans are finalized," Chillag said. "It is impossible for a contractor to give you a firm price or schedule when all the decisions haven't been made. Contractors are anxious to please the homeowner, so they're willing to start, and inevitably it results in problems."

Chillag reported that when she began research for the book, she found most similar titles were preoccupied with the assumption that contractors were all out to rip people off.

"I didn't want to approach it that way," she said. "Are there contractors out there that want to rip people off? Absolutely. Dealing with a reputable contractor and having your documents reviewed upfront is really critical. But most contractors, at least the ones that I deal with on a regular basis, are really looking to do a good job for the homeowner. And my book basically looks at how this can be win-win, how you can find the right people, do the homework ahead of time, and make it a smooth process for everybody."

According to Chillag, the second mistake people make is failing to add just a few hours of attorney time to the cost of the remodel.

"Most times when I review contracts for homeowners, the contracts are significantly deficient not only in describing the project and payment and schedule, but lacking in just the basic requirements of the licensing law," she said. "Reviewing the contract can really get both parties on the same page. There are often a lot of additional charges that the homeowner is unaware of. Then they can resolve those issues with the contractor, or move on to a different contractor. You can't do that after you've signed a contract and you're halfway through construction and you get an invoice that you weren't expecting."

Chillag cautions against lowball offers from contractors who then make up for the low cost of the initial estimate by overcharging for construction changes later down the road. And, she says, there are always changes: An old wall may have been framed improperly, or wiring and plumbing may need to be redone. Surprises and imperfections abound.

"The third mistake I see people make is having unrealistic expectations," she said. "Everybody wants to pay the lowest amount possible, and yet they want to be able to eat off their floors at the end of the day and they want absolutely every single inch of the work to be perfect. If they go into it with that belief they're going to be disappointed. There's no such thing as perfect construction."

For instance, according to Chillag, an addition to a stucco house may be a close, but not exact, color match. Or there may be a slight dip between new and old floors. Or a cosmetic crack will develop in the Sheetrock.

"People panic," said Chillag, because they aren't educated on what to expect. "The homeowner sees a crack, they think their house is falling down, and they come to me. There are always hiccups, and you just have to go with the flow."

But some people are simply not capable of doing that, and it's important for everyone to assess the realities of a remodel before they pursue it, she said.

"There's a section in my book on whether your marriage can survive the remodel," she said. "There's even a local therapist who specializes in couples going through a remodel. It's a lot of money. There are a ton of decisions that need to be made. You come home and have this group of people that you don't know in your home. They show up at 7 in the morning, when you would really like to sleep in. It's a stressful process, and you really need to look at yourself and determine whether or not you can survive this. Because you may survive the remodel only to end up contacting a divorce attorney."

Chillag suggests that those who think the stress may be too much for them ought to seriously consider selling their home and purchasing a new one that meets all their needs without alterations.

"I think you can survive the process, and I think if you approach it correctly you can survive it quite well. But you need to plan, you need to have things reviewed, and you need to be realistic," she said. "I happened to love doing my remodel. I found it exiting. I found it fun to watch the changes every day. We lived in it the whole time, with three kids and a dog.

"My husband was the contractor, and I figured that if he had to live in the mess, the project would move faster," Chillag joked. "And I was right. It moved very quickly. But it was an experience, so little things that we encountered along the way are incorporated into the book."

Chillag's book, "How to Survive a Remodel," merges legal, practical and personal advice to prepare the homeowner for every aspect of an impending remodel. She is also the author of "Building by the Book: Legal Advice for Contractors."