Remodeling Maze Guide

A new firm helps take the hassle out of building

By Theresa M. Hanafin, The Boston Sunday Globe, October 7, 1989

Weymouth – It was to be a prodigious undertaking, daunting enough to intimidate the most seasoned homeowner.

Paul and Patricia Coffey wanted a bigger house for their family. But because prices were too high, buying a new home was out of the question. Instead, they decided to expand their five-room Braintree bungalow by renovating an old addition, the kitchen, and the bathroom. They also planned to add a new room.

Like most homeowners, the Coffeys knew they needed to hire subcontractors. But the Coffeys also realized they needed help. "I’ve never done construction work before, and it seemed pretty intimidating," said Paul Coffey, a computer engineer for the Boston Edison Co.

The Coffeys hired Richard Connolly of Cornerstone Consulting of Weymouth. He helped them decide how much they wanted to spend, solicit bids from contractors, buy supplies and materials at wholesale discounts, develop a detailed construction timetable, supervise the work and finish the project on schedule.

The whole job cost $46,000. The Coffeys estimated they saved at least $20,000 by hiring Connolly.

The Coffeys are not alone. These days, more homeowners tackle everything from small renovation projects to major overhauls. To get the job done, they are also turning to consultants and managers. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that spending on residential remodeling jumped 105% from 1983 to 1988. It went up by 7.4 percent last year alone, topping the $100 billion mark for the first time. The National Association of Home Builders predicts that the remodeling dollars spent will rise another 5 to 7 percent this year.

In Massachusetts, the amount of money spent has dipped, but the number of renovation projects has increased. The spending decline here probably reflects the state’s sluggish economy, says Ronald Frazier, executive vice president of the Builders Association of Greater Boston.

One reason more renovation projects are undertaken is that home prices are so high. Another factor is the availability of workers. Three years ago, it was tough to hire workers for home renovation projects because most spent their time building new houses. But tradespeople are hungry for work now, largely because the real estate market is in a slump.

"The market has changed enough that there are enough people available to work for homeowners now to make it competitive," said Brian Rowlands, vice president of Andrew Chartwell& Co. of Cambridge, project managers of mostly commercial jobs.

But that doesn’t mean a homeowner’s project will be easy. That is where Connolly comes in.

Connolly’s consulting business is apparently unusual here. There are many general contractors who will supervise a homeowner’s construction project. However, they generally either do the work or hire subcontractors with whom they work with all the time.

Some, like Lexington’s Bemarc Associates, supervise projects as a construction manager and will help homeowners choose contractors and occasionally purchase materials. Bemarc, which primarily serves commercial clients, has seen its homeowner business increase to 30 percent of its jobs from about 10 percent eight years ago.

Connolly works exclusively with homeowners, guiding through every phase of the project. (He has been so successful – 68 clients in 18 months – that he has approached investors about expanding his business and possibly offering franchises.)

Connolly has an initial consultation with his clients and determines what they have in mind. Next, he develops a master plan that outlines precisely what work will have to be done, the materials that are needed and what the project will cost. At Connolly’s rate of $65 and hour, the initial meeting generally costs $90 to $110.

The goal is to eliminate the mistakes that often accompany home renovation projects. Connolly forces homeowners to make all their decisions before work starts, so they don’t change their plans halfway through the job, a common mistake that can add thousands of dollars to the cost of the project.

Homeowners who decide to pursue the project then must decide whether to act as general contractor, hire a general contractor, or split the job with Connolly. "Sometimes when people see the construction schedule and the amount of work that’s involved, they decide not to be their own general contractor," he said.

The Coffeys decided they could tackle the job with Connolly’s assistance. It also helped that Patricia was home all day to handle the day-to-day duties.

Regardless of his role, Connolly prices the cost of materials – usually of a few different grades of quality to give the homeowners a choice – and then helps them get significant discounts with suppliers. He saved the Coffey’s an estimated $4,000 to $6,000.

"He arranged for me to go to supply houses and have contractor accounts set up," Paul Coffey said. "We were introduced as contractors and got contractors’ prices. Five places bid on our cabinets, and when we chose one, there was no question that we got them much cheaper than if we had just walked in the door."

On materials alone, Connolly says he can save homeowners two to three times the cost of his fee. The Coffeys paid him nearly $2,000, and feel they got a bargain, considering the estimated $20,000 they saved.

But to Connolly, the real value is in the coordination of the project. For example: he provides a computer generated chart that outlines every step in the project – from when to backfill the foundation to the best time to plaster the walls. Connolly not only helps homeowners such as the Coffeys solicit bids from contractors, he also conducts background checks on the contractors to protect against shoddy workmanship.

And he and his consultants conduct periodic inspections of the work throughout the project.

The goal: that projects get done on time and within budget. The Coffeys’ job, for example, is due to be finished in a couple of weeks – three months after the first contractor started work. "I have friends who did small projects that took a lot longer," said Paul Coffey. "The work goes on for six months, a year – it just drags on and on.

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