The Fine Print: The ABCs of Renovation

Remodeling your home is one of the biggest investments you’ll ever make. If done properly, renovations can make a home more aesthetically pleasing and increase in value. But if the work is sub-standard, it can lead to stress, legal battles and possibly a decrease in the value of your home. “The more educated you are, the less risk you are taking,” says Linda Andrews, executive director of the Bucks/Montgomery chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI). Knowing the list of major players and industry terms will guide you through any improvement project with ease.

Who’s Who

General Contractor: This is the person who coordinates a remodeling project. The general contractor hires and oversees any subcontractors or designers for the job. He/she also should gather permits (responsibility for gathering the permit can vary with the project, depending on which key players are on board). Before hiring a general contractor, check references. Head to your town’s chamber of commerce, the Better Business Bureau or an affiliated association to verify work background, says Andrews.

Subcontractor: This person is hired by the general contractor for a specific job, such as plumbing, wiring, painting, etc.
Designer: A general contractor also may need to hire a specialist to design a structural layout, especially with handicapped-accessible projects or bathroom and kitchen remodeling.

Remodeler: A remodeler makes changes to an existing structure, including an addition to an existing house. “Remodelers may be certified by NARI, but certification is not required in Pennsylvania,” says Andrews. As with hiring a general contractor, be sure to check references.

Builder: This term generally refers to someone who works solely on creating new structures.

Building Inspector: Hired by the township, a building inspector comes to the work site several times during the
renovation process to inspect code regulations. “The number of times an inspector needs to come out depends on what is being done,” says Andrews. He/she may need to come out once for the electric and again when the plumbing has been completed. There is always a final walk-through inspection to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy.

Home Inspector: “Sometimes the home inspector does double-duty as the building inspector,“ says Andrews. You may want to hire an independent home inspector (or the township will provide a list of names) before you purchase a newly built or older home to evaluate the structure and check for mold, water damage, or electrical and plumbing problems. A home inspector doesn’t actually do the work, but he/she can advise the homeowner on what work needs to be done.

Structural Engineer: This person examines architectural plans to make sure there is enough structural support for the project.

Shop Talk

Permit: “You always need a permit when making a house larger,” says Andrews. You may also need a permit when remolding the inside of a home as well. Check with the township zoning official outside the city or Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections to determine your needs. The general contractor usually handles acquisition of the proper permits.

The actual permit must be posted in a visible location on the work site, such as a window or door, and cannot be removed until the building inspector completes his/ her final walk-through. The building inspector will remove the permit once the inspection has been completed.

Insurance Certificates: Before hiring a general contractor, a homeowner should find out if they have liability and workman’s compensation insurance. It’s wise to ask the general contractor for a copy of his/her insurance certificate or you may be able to obtain a copy from the township.
Code: Building codes, including fire safety regulations, vary from township to township and from city to city. A building inspector will visit the work site several times to make sure things are up to code, says Andrews.

Allowance: This is a variance written into the contract to account for supplemental expenses. For example, your contractor may quote a price for a specific amount of lumber to complete a project. The cost is an allowance. If the price of lumber goes up before the project is completed, you could exceed your allowance and the total cost of the renovation will increase accordingly.

Change Order: During renovation the homeowner may decide he/she wants to modify the remodeling plans, which may lead to additional costs. These extra costs are recalculated with a change order, drawn up by the general contractor and attached to the original contract. The general contractor may charge extra to draw up a change order, but ultimately, the document protects him and the homeowner. Ask the contractor before signing the contract if there will be a fee for any charge orders.