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The Grand Remodel two years later: suggestions and advice

So. Two years have gone by since the completion of our Grand Remodel. Overall, I must say that while it was traumatic at times, we are both very relieved it is finished(*). I was going to have this post go over some suggestions on how to wrangle out the contract between you and you potential contractor. But I decided to simplify it:

(*)As mentioned in earlier posts on the topic, work on a home is never truly finished. 😉 But projects do wrap up, and we’re sure glad to have an excellent modern kitchen, plus another bathroom, among other things!

First things first: some advice on remodeling

Three key things we learned:

  1. Get as detailed a bid as possible.
  2. Know what you want, to the highest detail as you can muster.
  3. Keep track of stuff. Really. By calendar and email, at the least.

A detailed bid is the proposed contract. It becomes a legal document, but that does not mean it’s completely set in stone. Things do change; use the contract as a guideline, as its existence is to guide and help both you and the contractor. We found that contractors really appreciate it when you know what want and can clearly express it, e.g., “We’d prefer plywood in our cabinets if it’s within our budget. We also like Shaker-style woodwork.”

A detailed contract is important. It should look like a highly informative technical specification, which it is in a way, but with prices. A complex contract similar to our Grand Remodel should include information on dimensions (including any diagrams and/or blueprints to follow), tradework needed (plumbing, roofing, etc.), rooms affected, materials, and even make and model of appliances and fixtures, if you have an idea of what you want.

One item I’ll mention is specificity regarding site clean up at end of each work day. Our contract stated “sweep clean” which we found out literally meant sweeping with a broom. This sounds okay at first glance, but in hindsight we should have specified “vacuum clean,” as sweeping involved stirring up a lot of dust (bad if you have any allergy or breathing issues), as well as the mere sweeping small debris like wires and nails in between and down beneath the subfloor. That’s right, we now need to wear some armor when we want to go into the crawl space. It’s pretty much the contractor version of sweeping dust mice under the rug or bed. 🙁

Nevertheless, it is realistic that you won’t know precisely what you want in every situation, and that you could change your mind on some aspects of the project. Because of this, the contract should clearly explain the contractor’s change order policy. Change will happen, whether it’s a different oven model or relocation of a door. Not all change orders would or should incur penalties, such as swapping similarly priced tile or a different color of paint — but they might if your decision occurs at the last moment, or with the discovery of previously unknown house defects.

Do research where you can, as early as you can manage. Search the web, make use of your local library. Scour trade shops for ideas; e.g., see my fixture and vendor suggestions below. For example, here are several of the books I had suggested.

Knowing what you want will give you a more realistic budget in the contract. The less you know, the more likely a contractor will bid the cheapest possible materials, appliances or fixtures. Speaking of budgeting, use your favorite spreadsheet and break out costs for various sections of the contract, including trade, materials, appliances and fixtures. Keep track of them, too. We found that going 20% to 30% over an initial budget was within our comfort zone. And the cost will almost always end up higher, whether due to changes (“Oh, I want that tile instead”) or adaptations (“Looks like we need higher grade drywall in this room to satisfy state fire code and energy requirements”).

Of course, also do research on the recommendations you get from friends, family or colleagues. Compare what you see Angie’s List, or yes, even Yelp. Become suspicious if the recommendation comes from company-sponsored sites like Diamond Certified: double-check if such a company is well-rated elsewhere at more consumer-oriented sources like Angie’s List. Also, don’t wholeheartedly take in recommendations along the lines of “My sibling can do that work” or “My neighbor is a contractor who’ll do that.” Make sure their recommendations are actually for work completed, balanced with reviews from neutral parties. Besides, how comfortable would you feel living next to a neighbor who botched up a project on your time, home and money?

Finally, keep a detailed calendar of the project. Enter in projected dates and lengths of time for completion — then add or edit what actually occurred, as you would with the budgetary spreadsheet. It’s good not just for comparison, but gives you and the contractor a better idea as to scheduling. Google Calendar works, and is handy if the contractor is willing to use it. Otherwise, keep a local calendar of goings on. Most importantly, keep track of communications. We used email, and it not only helped us keep track of things for ourselves, but also kept contractors in the loop and, in some cases, honest.

Yay, recommendations!

We loved our cabinet maker and solar panel installer. They were thorough, knowledgable, easy to work with and friendly.

  • California Casework (408.979.9091) for cabinetry. Owner Cliff Scott is great to work with, as are his employees at the shop and onsite. Coordinated well with the general contractor. Great advice, and awesome, thorough and timely work. Advice addendum: We learned from both Cliff and some friends (thanks again, Anita!) that instead of installing rollout drawers inside of undercounter cabinets, just install pot drawers there instead. Much more stable, easier to use, and more space efficient!
  • Cobalt Power Systems (650.938.9574) for photovoltaic roof system. Owner Mark Byington originally trained as an engineer, and was great at patiently explaining, documenting and projecting our solar electric needs. We got a beautiful SunPower system, and his office handled all the rebate/utility paperwork, with minimal effort on our part. Also coordinated very well the general contractor and roofers. His employees, licensed electricians, did the installation. Advice we learned: Be wary of solar installers who subcontract out their work; a friend of ours learned the hard way how such people can become unaccountable when bad things occur, like defective panels causing fires (ouch!).
  • C&S Carpet and Flooring. They did a great job installing Marmoleum Click in the kitchen. They were friendly and patient when the general contractor failed to properly level the subfloor, and in the end successfully installed the flooring we wanted. Unfortunately, it’s unclear if they’re still in business as their website appears down.
  • Tile & Grout King (408.930.8453). They didn’t do the original installation of the tile work, but they sealed the new tile and restored (i.e., cleaned out and replaced) the moldy grout from a previous installation. We’ve had them back again earlier this year, to replace failing caulk in the shower stall and apply caulk-grout between the kitchen’s tile backsplash and quartzite counter.

Give them your business, if you need similar projects done. In addition, here are some vendors of fixtures and appliances we recommend:

  • University Electric, Santa Clara (800.675.7569) carry mid- and high-range appliances. With the exception of our refrigerator, we got all our new appliances from them. Note: They’ll deliver large items, but they won’t install them, so you’ll need a contractor or handyperson, or be willing to DIY.
  • The Tile Shop, San José (408.436.8877) and other locations. Excellent source of tiles, nice showrooms with helpful people, and they can offer free samples of some of their materials.
  • family of stores including and Great online resource for fixtures of all sorts (plumbing, lighting, ventilation, ceiling fans, handle sets, cabinetry hardware, etc.) at good prices.
  • Saratoga Plumbing Supply. Bathroom, sink and faucet fixtures galore! Very helpful people, too. They’ll deliver, but not sure if they do installation.
  • Cornelia’s, like Saratoga Plumbing Supply, has many bathroom and water-oriented fixtures to look at. They also have some handle set and cabinetry hardware to look at. Not sure if they offer delivery or installation.
  •, for sheer variety of cabinetry hardware choices.
  • For cabinet door designs, there are many choices available from two California-based companies, CalDoor (a.k.a. California Door Corporation) and Dutchman Doors.
  • For choices in moldings, so you can escape the default Colonial trim overused in the last couple decades, check out the catalog at Kelleher.
  • Looking for a new or matching exterior or interior door? Check out catalogs at TrūStile, T.M. Cobb, Jeld-Wen, or Simpson.

Avoid these companies, really.

It’s sad to say, but sometimes one needs to go through a bad experience to avoid it again. But first, when it comes to issues and disputes with other people, I encourage you to be as civil and concise as possible with whom you work. Try to stick to facts and events, rather than gossip or hearsay. Things went badly at times, but I believe that keeping a level head when dealing with difficult situations really helped get things done, however slowly or aggravating.

In spite of impressing us (a great design, within our budget, friendly first impressions) and getting the contract, we would NEVER recommend the general contractor we had, Critchfield Construction; they also have a sister company Los Gatos Remodeler.

Why? The short list:

  1. They created a Google calendar, which was great, and kept it up to date — until the last few months when things really slowed down. Then they stopped updating the calendar, stopped responding to our emails in a timely fashion, and then suddenly deleted the calendar. Then they moved to an in-house calendar system which held the data on their sister site, including messages, rather than previously allowing us direct email.
  2. Their designer, Nickolas Sosa, while helpful as an interior designer, was a dreadful project manager. For example, there were times he requested for payments that either we had originally bargained down (tracked in email), or for work not performed or completed. When we pointed these out to him (e.g., including previous emails, citing details in the contract), the response was “Sorry, this is not negotiable.” Excuse me? A sign of very poor business integrity, indeed.
  3. The contract had a penalty clause whereby they’d pay us for additional time they took to complete our project. They requested a change order to extend the period to avoid the penalty, despite the fact that most of the delays were their fault, and threatened to stop work if we didn’t sign to agree to such a change order. Er, breach of contract?
  4. Messy demolition resulting in broken bits of glass that we’ll continue to pick out of the yard over the course of our lives here. We’ve had windows replaced in the past, so we know that windows can be removed without shattering them into many bits throughout our property.
  5. Very slow to haul away large piles of debris.
  6. Example A of avoidable mistakes: Installed the shower pan incorrectly. This confused so many subcontractors (the plumber, drywall installers, shower installers as well as the tile installer), that it caused yet more delays.
  7. Example B of avoidable mistakes: Not leveling the kitchen subfloor, a requirement for the material we chose, even after several inquiries. The flooring installer showed up with the materials he had ordered for us, but had to leave because the subfloor had NOT BEEN FIXED. He was frustrated to the point where he asked us whether or not he was supposed to do the work. (We told him yes, and once again repeated the cycle of requesting the subfloor work from Critchfield and rescheduling the floor subcontractor.)
  8. Bad-mouthing other contractors. We asked about going with a different roofer, and they “advised” us not to use them because of apparent issues with not having a valid license, and supposedly being in and out of business. We checked the records at the Contractors State Licensing Board, and found that the roofer had valid licenses and bonding. In addition, we had excellent references from both Angie’s List and friends who worked with them — contrary to what the people at Critchfield claimed. Spreading rumors and lies is downright unprofessional.
  9. The owner Ricky Critchfield never visited our site — until we needed to resolve points (2) and (3). Then he came over, and we negotiated: he honored what was agreed upon over email, didn’t delay construction any further, and gave us some credit for the time-over-projected-schedule. But wow, to have to wait that long (the project was 85% to 90% done at that point) to actually show up at our house merely exhibited where his priorities were not.

The delays, the lack of communication, and avoidable errors not only upset us, but also upset some of the subcontractors. Poor communication is poor business, for all businesses and clients involved.

Not all the subcontractors Critchfield hired were bad, but some were particularly horrid. To these companies we also say, avoid like the plague:

  • Thomas Electrical, Morgan Hill. Our electrical plans were detailed, but their work was shoddy, and we lost count of the times we had to email or call to see when they’d return to finish a task. They were also very sloppy, often leaving a mess (wires, drywall bits, etc.) wherever they worked.
  • Drywall Art, San José. Horribly, sloppy work. We wanted to match the crows’ feet texture of our wall. One worker showed me an early example in the bathroom, and I said, “This is perfect; that’s what we want on the rest of the walls.” I thought that would suffice. Instead, large sections of the hallway, entryway and back room look like Cthulhu had a seizure and vomited. Even though drywall work is messy work, they were particularly bad, neglecting to place dropcloths, and trodding drywall dust and mud over the new floors.
  • The stucco work by men hired by Critchfield failed to match the existing stucco style. They also dumped excess concrete into holes in our garden, rather than hauling it off.
  • The handymen Critchfield hired utterly failed to install the oven. Simon ended up doing that himself.