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Cover story: Good contractors handle big surprises

- - Thursday, August 23, 2012

When Steve Briggs and Steve Weiss, principals with SAI Contractors in Cabin John, worked with homeowners in North Arlington to demolish their home and build a new one on their lot, they never expected to find three streams running underneath the site.

"We were building a Queen Anne-style home with a $750,000 professional sound studio and theater in the subbasement, but when we got about 30 feet below the original grade, we hit three different streams," Mr. Weiss said. "We had to figure out a way to handle what was essentially becoming a lake in their backyard."

Mr. Briggs, Mr. Weiss and the homeowners are all committed to avoiding waste and using green technology. Their solution was to redesign the basement and the landscaping to collect the water and use it for irrigation and flushing the home's toilets.

"This type of water is called 'gray water' because it's ground- or storm water and not potable," Mr. Weiss said. "We worked with a landscaping company and an irrigation company that were already involved in the project as well as several Arlington County agencies.

"We basically had to mitigate the water situation in the basement, evacuate the water with sump pumps and store the water for reuse. We found industrial sump pumps and installed two, along with an alarm that alerts the homeowners when the backup system goes on."

The homeowners have a whole-house generator that ensures the sump pumps will continue to work even if the power goes out. Mr. Briggs said the water is colored blue so everyone will know it's not tap water.

While not every renovation or remodeling project will be quite this dramatic, many unexpected issues can arise in the midst of a project.

"It's not possible to avoid all problems," Mr. Weiss said. "The important thing is to see them as opportunities to adjust your plans. That's why it's so important to work with a knowledgeable, flexible contractor."

When George Hodges-Fulton, a project leader and principal at BOWA in McLean, was hired to build a kitchen addition with a crawl space below, he and his contractors were surprised to find a buried oil tank when they started digging out the crawl space.

"Our first concern was that we might have punctured it and then oil would be leaching into the ground," Mr. Hodges-Fulton said. "We were also concerned that the bottom might have rusted through and the oil [might have] created groundwater problems. Fortunately, neither had happened, and we were able to drain and remove the tank."

The removal of the oil tank created a void, so BOWA was able to build a full-depth basement below the kitchen for storage. Mr. Hodges-Fulton said the county government was notified about the change in the plan so its knows the property now has a full basement.

When Mike Patterson, owner of Patterson Builders-Remodelers in Gaithersburg, was working on an addition to an 1890s-era home in Garrett Park, he and his employees found an odd concrete pit with rusted gears.

"We decided to remove it, not knowing what it was, and six months later, the homeowners sent us a photo they had found that showed there had once been a huge windmill next to the house," Mr. Patterson said.

On another of Mr. Patterson's projects, hundreds of mummified mice tumbled from the walls after his crew started demolishing the plaster for a renovation on an older home.

"We figured out that the insulation around the wires inside the walls was made of fiber, which appealed to the mice," Mr. Patterson said. "We figured the mice had gotten inside the walls, bitten into the fiber and then gotten zapped and fell down inside the wall."

Mr. Hodges-Fulton found a more serious electrical problem when he began a kitchen remodeling project on an older home.

"The intent was to remove a little bit of the plaster walls to run new wiring and plumbing for the kitchen upgrade," Mr. Hodges-Fulton said. "What we found was old, frayed wiring with three or four burnt-out sections that clearly showed that electrical fires had started and then extinguished themselves behind the walls."

While the discovery lengthened the renovation project by about three weeks and added a little more to the cost, the home now has all modern wiring and fixtures and is no longer a fire hazard.

"In the process of removing the plaster walls, we also discovered that there was some redundancy in the plaster and supports, so we were able to raise the first-floor ceiling by four inches," Mr. Hodges-Fulton said.

Jim Crenca, a senior remodeling consultant with Case/Design Remodeling in Bethesda, worked with a homeowner after another contractor had failed to complete the work on a three-story addition to her home.

"The contractor and his subcontractors didn't show up to work every day, and then he stopped returning her phone calls," Mr. Crenca said. "She called Case to help her because she was left with a three-story shell with a roof and about $30,000 worth of windows that had been improperly installed. She had paid nearly the entire cost of the project but it was only about one-third built."

Mr. Crenca said before he could touch the project, every part of it had to be documented and inspected, permits had to be changed and the homeowner had to go through the legal process of breaking the contract with the original contractor as well as the subcontractors.

"It would have been far less costly for us to do the job from the beginning," Mr. Crenca said. "She had paid for a new slate roof, but the slate was extremely thin, improperly installed and not consistent with the elegance of the rest of the house. She had to spend another $24,000 just for new slate. Her original contractor had estimated a cost of $175,000 but we would have estimated about $275,000 for that job. In the end, it cost her more than $275,000."

Mr. Briggs and Mr. Weiss were hired to add a second story to a 100-year-old Spanish-style home in the Lyon Village area of Arlington.

"After we added the second story and we were repairing some of the first-floor stucco, we discovered that the framing on the entire first floor had rotted from the inside out," Mr. Briggs said. "It was not visible at all, but the old stucco had failed around the windows, and water had seeped in and rotted and mildewed the framing. We had to re-support the entire house and replace all the stucco, but now the house is healthier and energy-efficient."

To avoid some of these issues, Mr. Weiss recommended keeping up with ongoing home maintenance projects and hiring a licensed, certified professional for all major projects.

Mr. Patterson said, "It always amazes me that people hire me without contacting my references. They tell me that they know a reference will only say positive things, but I think everyone should call and ask about issues that are important to them. For instance, if you're concerned about the dust generated from a renovation, ask the reference about the contractor's daily clean-up habits."

Mr. Crenca said there are some tell-tale signs of a bad contractor, such as one that has no clear scope of work on paper, no firm fixed price and no project documentation.

"Every contractor needs to set a payment schedule tied to reasonable milestones," Mr. Crenca said. "Legally, contractors must split the bill into three payments, one at signing, one when the project starts and one at completion. For big jobs, we spread it out to five or even 10 payments."