Bernal Contractor Explains How to Remodel Your Home Without Going Broke or Insane


Bernal neighbor Brian Streiffer is a former general contractor (and current construction supervisor) who lives on Winfield.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Neighbor Brian and your Bernalwood editor are old friends, and we played a lot of hacky-sack together during the 1980s.

Anyway, fast-forward three decades and several economic cycles, and Neighbor Brian now has many moons of experience building and remodeling homes in San Francisco under his belt. His talent and professionalism has been affirmed for us by his former clients, several of whom also now consider him a friend.

So when Neighbor Brian said he wanted to write something for Bernalwood, we suggested he share some precious wisdom on how to work with a contractor to do a home remodel without going broke, or insane, or both. Herewith are Neighbor Brian’s Pro Tips for would-be Bernal home improvers:

I’ve been remodeling homes since the early 1990’s. One of the things I love most about residential work is the unique insight it offers me into how people relate to their homes and the people who work on them.

Every client is unique in some way. Some people hate the mess and inconvenience. One of my clients was so distraught when demolition began that her partner forbade her from visiting the house until the drywall went back in. Other people think construction is cool, and can anticipate the finished product long before the work takes shape  My favorite client ever — when forced to live in half of her house with her husband and 2 small kids while we worked on the other half — said, “camping on a futon in the living room reminds me of being back in college. So cool!” What a client! She never uttered a sour word to me or my crew and we ultimately became good friends.

I’ve always found it fascinating to see how people react to construction, and how the Contractor/Owner relationship plays out. Working in people’s homes is very personal stuff. Some people cope well, and other people don’t really understand what they are getting into.

Amid all of the current real estate hubbub, I thought it might be interesting to share some remodeling advice for homeowners, from a contractor’s perspective. Here  are a few observations to keep in mind when planning a construction project.

The Golden Rule of Construction
There is a saying in construction that really rings true: “There are three types of construction: Fast, High Quality, and Inexpensive. You can pick any two.”

The point here is that you have to understand the fundamental trade-offs between quality, speed, and price. Remember this, always, and if you know which is most important to you, you can more easily select a contractor who fits best with your needs. I cannot count the number of times clients have asked me if I would consider an incentive to expedite their project. I always defer, explaining that fair payment is motivation enough. If they push the issue, I explain further that it typically doesn’t make financial sense to trade money for speed on a construction project. Construction is simple in many ways, but it is not easily done in less time than normal without risking quality or significant cost increases.Unless money is no object — and I have yet to find a client for whom that was true — it is ALWAYS cheaper to rent an apartment or take a vacation to get away from the mess, rather than to pay the contractor to knock a few weeks off of the schedule.

What to Look for When Looking for a Contractor
In slower economic periods ( such as from 2008 to 2013), homeowners can expect to get multiple bids and cherrypick the best deal from multiple contractors. But in hotter markets like we see today, you have to court your contractor as much as they need to sell you.

If you are at the beginning of the planning process for a larger project, defer to professionals for how and when to seek bids. It is fine to ask contractors for their impressions of a project early in the planning phase – contractors are generally happy to suggest potential budget ranges for you – but don’t ask seven companies to provide proper bids on a set of preliminary plans if the project is six months or more down the road. Preliminary numbers are not generally useful when making hiring decisions, so tread lightly when asking people to provide estimates. The point of early preliminary interviews should be to glean information about what lies ahead, and to begin to develop a rapport with people you might want to work with. But don’t ask too much of contractors too soon. Contractors don’t like putting bids together for no reason.

Indeed, anything you can do to save the contractor time and hassle while preparing your bid will be repaid tenfold when it comes time to work collaboratively during the project. If you don’t have a set of plans you can provide, write up a bullet-point list of everything you think the project entails. If you know what fixtures you want to have installed, don’t ask contractors to go through the trouble of estimating the same thing on their own. Contractors really appreciate simple steps like that, and they can pave the way for a more successful working relationship.

It’s About the Relationship
Just showing you are motivated and organized can be quite appealing to potential bidders. The flip-side, however, is that you don’t want to look compulsive about your project, or you will likely scare good people away.

Ultimately, you have to decide who to hire. I cannot say enough about the importance of getting along with your contractor. Construction is an inherently messy, invasive process that often takes longer than you or your contractor would prefer. So you might as well like the people you are working with! If you get a bad vibe from someone, heading in another direction might be wise. If someone seems a little too busy to you, hiring someone with more availability could be better. Signing a contract to remodel your kitchen or build out your basement might seem like a business or financial decision, but residential construction is ultimately a very personal process. Working with someone you like can make all the difference. Keep this in mind and don’t focus on costs alone when comparing bids.

Expect the Unexpected
“Life is Change” they say, and construction is no different. Residential remodeling projects of almost any size can change for any number of reasons. And they will. Termites, code changes, horrors hidden inside walls, neighbor complaints, even simple human error can send your project off in unforeseen directions. You can’t always know what to expect in the way of surprises, but you can prepare for them financially by including a contingency for additional costs in your personal budget. Especially when you need to stay within a specific overall cost, setting extra money aside is a wise thing to do. How much is right? Read on.

The Truth About “Change Orders”
Much has been said about the dreaded Change Order, those bills for additional work that goes beyond the scope of the original project bid. But Change Orders are a part of construction that you have to be prepared for, and they go hand in hand with remodeling.  In my years as a contractor, I never once had a project of more than $20,000 that didn’t involve a cost increase of one kind or another. Stuff happens. I think most contractors price Change Orders fairly.  Yes, they can be costly. And yes, there are unscrupulous souls among our lot who generate too many of them. (I have no doubt that there is probably is a contractor out there somewhere with a boat named Change Order and a dingy named Contract.)  But as a rule, contractors don’t get rich off changes in the scope of work.

If you can’t avoid extra costs, what can be done to avoid the stress associated with them? First, ask your contractor or architect to estimate a reasonable contingency budget  for your project. A kitchen might require a 5% contingency, but a lateral addition might merit 10% or more.  Whatever the case, budget this amount and consider the money spent.  You’ll sleep better. Much better.

Second, look beyond the construction contract cost and develop an overall project budget. What costs are excluded from the contractor’s scope of work? Will you have landscaping to do when the contractor leaves? Engineering or Special Inspection costs to incur during the project? And don’t forget about owner-supplied fixtures or furniture. Those things can really add up, and you need to be thorough and realistic about your project budget.

A Caution on Contractor References
If you think that checking your contractor’s references is a form of due diligence, think again. References are cherrypicked by the person you are checking up on, so take what you hear from them with a grain of salt. I don’t believe checking reference is particularly helpful, unless you want someone to help nudge you in a particular direction. If your decision comes down to two bidders, it might be more helpful to ask which contractor can start (or finish) sooner, or consider who has more experience with projects similar to yours, or which contractor might be willing to shave a few thousand dollars off the cost in order to win your business. (OMG, did I just say that!?!) Out-of-the-box questions along those lines might be more insightful than what you hear from references.

To Permit or Not to Permit… Is That Your Question?
I generally advise homeowners to get permits for as much work as possible, as it tends to pay off in terms of market value when it comes time to sell your house. Especially if you are plan to do work outside of your four walls, where just about anyone could call you in for doing work without a permit, paying permit fees makes good sense. However, it’s also worth noting that the SF Building Department has changed its policy concerning unpermitted work. Long gone are the days when inspectors were paid to snoop around on Saturdays looking for unpermitted work. If your budget is tight, and you trust your neighbors, and the work is all inside of the house, you have options.

Beware of the Lowball
If you receive bids which are vastly different, be careful before accepting the low bidder. If you know what you are doing and follow some of the advice I have given here, you should end up with an apples-to-apples set of bids where one bid stands out as a clear value. This IS possible! However, it’s also possible to get into trouble by hiring based on numbers alone. Carefully review bids to understand WHY the numbers are different. Talk to your contractor before signing on the dotted line as to his/her expectations for how changes to the price might unfold. No matter what the contract says, what’s not stated can be equally important. So understand where the low bidder is coming from by generating such a tantalizing price. One of the absolute worst things that can happen is for your contractor to get in hot water because of an under-pricing mistake made when bidding the project. What can seem like a great deal when work begins can easily unravel if your contractor gets into financial trouble because of it. (EDITOR’S NOTE. This is exactly what happened to me. See the photo notes below.)

Little Guys vs. Bigger Guys
Another thing to be wary of is very small contracting firms. Whether an unlicensed “Jack of All Trades” or a licensed contractor who performs many trades by him/herself, going with a very small company comes with very real risks you should understand. Yes, there are diamonds in the rough who do great work time and time again, but they are the exception to the rule when it comes to small construction companies. Most people who excel in construction tend to gravitate toward larger operations, where efficiencies of scale come into play and specialization can be leveraged. People who work alone have fewer resources to bring to bear on your project, which can be especially frustrating toward the end of the project, when you just want them to be done and gone. That said, the prices of smaller firms are sometimes unbeatable, so just make sure you understand exactly what is being promised in terms of time and cost before signing up with a smaller independent. Even if they come highly recommended from someone you know, they have to be the right person for YOUR job.

PHOTO: Your Bernalwood editor’s home on July 24, 2004, a few days after our lowball contractor announced that he planned to abandon our remodeling project to instead divorce his wife and begin a new career in marijuana cultivation. Photo by Telstar Logistics.

23 thoughts on “Bernal Contractor Explains How to Remodel Your Home Without Going Broke or Insane

  1. “However, it’s also worth noting that the SF Building Department has changed its policy concerning unpermitted work.”

    I wonder if the timing on this is off–we’ve noticed two violation notices taped up on different houses just this week, both a block or two south of Cortland. We see the inspector walking around all the time, too, and he’s a nice guy (he mentioned to my partner that all the redevelopment has gotten them out and about in Bernal more often recently). So take advice with a grain of salt, caveat emptor, etc.

    “If you get a bad vibe from someone, heading in another direction might be wise. If someone seems a little too busy to you, hiring someone with more availability could be better.”

    I agree with so much about this, especially now that I know you can like the contractor and really dislike their penny-pinching on subcontractors. So maybe ask about the subcontractors, too. Some of the subs our contractor worked with were nightmarish (everything from killing our power for a week while we were out and leaving it off so everything in our fridge/freezer rotted, to leaving hundreds of pounds of garbage and food waste and boots and broken brooms and cement-filled buckets and so on behind after they left) and will keep us from going back to her.

    And I really want an update on the contractor-cum-grower.

    • The coda to my contractor-cum-grower situation was that he did indeed abandon my home renovation, when my house looked like this. Good news was that he’d so wildly underbid the project that I felt we’d gotten fair value out of his work. After much scrambling, we found two indie guys who were just launching as a new partnership. They took on the project as a time+materials thing, given that they were inheriting it. They did a wonderful job, and their work was great, and I’m still friends with them both. Which is to say, I got VERY lucky, although I also got a lot of grey hairs from the process. Quite literally.

  2. Thanks for the really excellent advice in this article. I’ve been restoring and remodeling Victorian buildings since I bought my first one in Chicago in 1972. Early on, when I was young, I did a lot of the work myself. Became a pretty good carpenter and even a good dry-waller. Left the electirc and plumbing to the experts, though. I completed three buildings that I owned in Chicago, then moved here in ’81. In ’85 my partner and I bought the Victorian two-flat at 65-67 Coleridge. It was about the grimmest property I’d ever seen, but we could see the potential. Since my budget has always been low (retired teacher), the work has taken years, as I would get one thing done, then another as I could afford to do all the necessary projects that naturally come up when you own an old building. Finally, in 2006 I hired my expert contractor Neighbor, Kevin Corse, to restore the facade. He had done at least a dozen of these restorations, and was highly regarded in the field. I removed the asbestos shingles myself, carefully following OSHA guidelines supplied to me by the city office of environmental safety in Fox Plaza. This probably saved me about $20,000, we figured. (That office couldn’t have been nicer about helping me understand the whole situation.) Then Kevin and I got up on the scaffolding and matched all the trace marks of the old moldings with those currently available through SF Victoriana. That was the fun part, and I was glad to have Kevin’s expertise in matching those various curved molding pieces. At that point I hired Dar Greenberg’s company, Strokes Fine Painting, to scrape all the old encrusted paint off the old wood so that the new pieces would fit flat against the old, and later to work closely with me on the color scheme and painting the building. Her workers were the best I’ve ever experienced, and we all worked closely together on getting the job done with an absolute minimum of delay, and no problems came up at all. The teamwork was a very positive experience for all of us–very satisfying. I’ll try to get a few photos on here, though sometimes I find it puzzling to accomplish that. /Users/thomaslibby/Desktop/IMG_0001.jpeg /Users/thomaslibby/Desktop/HPIM0018.JPG

  3. Sorry I couldn’t get the pictures on here. But you can walk or drive by the above address to see the results. Two years later Kevin rebuilt the whole lower southeast corner of my building because of dry rot. Again, he did an extraordinary job, for which I am very grateful. To end on a very sad note, however, Kevan died suddenly while on a vacation with his family in Mexico a couple of years later. He is greatly missed by all of us who live on the western slope of Bernal.

  4. Yes! Great advice Brian. Thanks.
    A word of caution, as a former contractor I did many projects without permits such as kitchen and bathroom remodels. Now as a Building Inspector (for another jurisdiction) I’ve seen insurance companies back out of a damage claim if they believe there was any un-permitted work done on the house or business. Usually this will happen in larger claims such as fire damage when the loss to Insurance Company is greater. I personally don’t care if you don’t get a permit but I am saying please be careful of what work is done and if the person doing it is qualified. If you are unsure of these things, get a permit and the work will be inspected.

    • I had a wood burning fireplace converted to gas, is it possible to get a retro-active permit now that the work has been done for a few years.
      I was told that for small projects, if you’ve never had the inspector over since the house was built or purchased, sometimes the inspector will start finding things left and right that are no longer up to code in 2015 and you could get into a huge re-engineering project.

      • A gas insert?! Eh. My only concern would be that installers are paid by the job and therefore going to attach the gas line to the closest existing point available and it may not be a great one. Inserts don’t use much fuel so it shouldn’t be a problem.
        On the other hand, if you install an on demand water heater, which burns fuel like a space shuttle launch, you need to size your gas system for the whole house. This is often done incorrectly and can be dangerous.
        You can go to the building department and get a permit, usually minimum cost for a gas line installation and insert even if it is already installed. If you installed it after you got a permit they wouldn’t be called out until then anyway.
        Install smoke detectors in every bedroom and the hallway leading to them, and 1 carbon monoxide detector on every level as well. This will help you pass your inspection the first time and are both the law in California and a fantastic cheap way to save your family’s lives.
        As for the inspector “busting” you, unless the un permitted work is glaring and dangerous looking, the inspector usually looks the other way. Most inspectors hate playing cop and avoid it at all cost. Only the most egregious violations will be dealt with unless your neighbor “rats” you out.

  5. Timely and helpful, thank you. I wonder if there’s any advice on how not to hyperventilate at the mere prospect of a remodel?

    • Very funny. Or are you not joking? Think about anti-anxiety meds (Ativan for example) or good ole fashioned therapy (paying $200 an hour to talk should put $50,000 for a kitchen in perspective!).

      If not joking, I would recommend what helped me when my own home remodel went $150K beyond what we had set aside (I did not do a budget for myself as I would have for any client – Ouch!). What helped me was to remember that we (Americans) finance home purchases and spread payments over 30 years typically. So, if you want/need to do $200,000 worth of work, for example, but only have $50,000 to work with, you have to take a long term view to justify what you are doing. Then maybe you can look to a second loan, Line of Credit, or refinance in order to give you the cash you need to do the work.

      Also keep in mind that improving homes in San Francisco is a VERY good investment. Especially if you are adding habitable space, you are adding $700-$1200 per sq. foot in value to your home, whereas the work will only cost $250-$350 per foot typically.

      What is it about your upcoming project that is scary? Is the money, the chaos, or something about fear of the unknown? I’m very interested in this topic and would be happy to discuss it further or meet with you and perhaps help put your project in perspective. My email is Tx

      • Brian (if I may!), I enjoyed and learned from your post. I bought a smallish house in the Bayview about three years ago, much to my surprise — I never thought I’d buy a house, certainly not in SF and on my own, but there I was, needing a place to live at a pretty good moment, price-wise. After spending about $25,000 on deferred maintenance in the first couple of years, I’ve spent the last year saving up and fantasizing about a bigger project — the laundryroom that was tacked onto the back of the house is crumbling, and I’d like to use that as an opportunity to rethink the kitchen as well. I’ve talked to a few architect/designers and one in particular gave me a lot of great ideas and a very rough cost estimate that scared me. Anyway, my point is that your post was helpful (and reassuring, to some extent), but I’d love to contact you directly and get your perspective. Would that be OK with you?

  6. I’ve gutted two homes over the years — one in SF and one in NY. Two thoughts:

    1. You not only need a contingency for cost, you need a contingency for time. Whatever they tell you, add 50% — it always takes longer than you and the contractor think. Add 50% to the project timeline and you’ll have a much more realistic view of when you’ll get your home back.

    2. Find a contractor that is the “right size” for your project. Too small is a problem, but too big can be a problem too. On my project in NY, I got a contractor through a referral from a close friend who was a designer (and did the design for my renovation). They had done millions of $$ of work together, so I figured I’d get the royal / friends and family treatment. Unfortunately, this contractor was used to doing $500K+ renovations, and he really didn’t give a shit about my $60K project. It just wasn’t important to him — so much so that at the end of the project, he just bailed on me. I would leave him voicemails and emails begging him to come out to finish off the final punch list which was only a couple days of minor touch ups. He never came out even though I still owed him the $10K final payment. In the end, he never called me back, I never paid the $10K final payment, and I hired a carpenter / handyman to finish off the final punch list.

    • In my limited experience, finding the small person to handle the $20-50k job in SF at the moment is very difficult.
      I can find the big guys all over the place that are booked for the next year but they want to do a gut-reno. Unless I just go to craigslist for a guy and his cousin then I’m not sure what the best resource is for small jobs.

  7. What I’d really like is a resource for which contractors to turn to for small apartment jobs.

    What does everyone recommend?

  8. I was also a contractor in the city for several year, and would agree there are many good points here. A couple of points I would add however:

    The point about references is a good one however there are a couple of things that you can do to get around this. One is to ask if you can call people from the last three jobs, or within the last year or so – this tends to narrow the options. If you do speak to a reference, assume it will be good but try to understand how the person was to work with – I couldn’t agree more that you want to be working with someone you get on with, problems will come up and you have to be able to work through them together, in life this is always easier with people you respect and like and deal with things in a similar manner.

    The second thing I would recommend for a larger remodel is to go see some prior work. The biggest thing you need to look for and establish with your contractor is an understanding of the quality expectations for your budget. I have done $1,000 per sq ft remodels and $300 ones, but you can’t expect a $1,000 finish if your budget is $300. Your contractor should be able to help you understand what some of the trade offs are. The biggest issues I always had were people looking at expensive remodels in a glossy magazines and thinking they would get that on a very different budget.

  9. Just in case anyone here is reading this and considering a renovation project, this is helpful but there is something critical you need to know that has nothing to do with hiring a contractor.

    We are at 18+ months and still waiting on a permit from the city. That’s for a project that none of our neighbors oppose. Our house is not historic. This is a project we started in May 2013 – before I even knew I was pregnant – and our son is now over a year old. It’s just a project to add a bedroom and fix up the house, which was close to falling down. All within code, all playing by the rules. We had to move out a week before our son was born (we thought the project would be done by then, little did we know).

    The city planning and building departments consistently fail to respond to phone calls or emails. Even asking our local supervisor to intervene did not make a difference.

    We are facing leaving the city because we have been paying rent and a mortgage for so long, but we can’t sell our place because it’s torn up. We really wanted to make Bernal our home.

    Unless you have an extraordinary amount of money to bribe people (“pay a permit expediter”) or are politically well connected, approach any renovation project that requires a permit with an extraordinary amount of caution. The system here is absolutely broken.

    • Wow, there is actually a service called permit expediter. Curious how much this “service” costs.
      Wonder what they are telling you? You are waiting in-line? They need to do a study? Your expansion requires a public hearing?

      • The jurisdiction I work in doesn’t offer this service but many do, which I strongly disagree with. To me it says, if you are rich you can move to the front of the line. If not, you can just sit and wait.

      • There are actually third-party expediters – people with experience navigating the permit system – and there is also a program through the building/planning departments where you can pay a premium and supposedly get things done more quickly. But as far as I know, neither the city program nor private expediters ever commit to any schedule. They just do their best, which sometimes is not saying very much. My business partner, for example, paid to have his permits expedited so he could build his project while his kids were away one summer. But as the end of the school year approached, he found out that the plan checker who had been assigned to his “priority” project was on medical leave and his file had sat on someone’s desk for 3 weeks with no movement.

        I agree with the original commenter who are trying to get a permit – the system is absolutely broken. Making matters worse, it affects only a small number of people, but in the most extreme ways sometimes.

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