The Internet, a proliferation of do-it-yourself shows on television and an abundance of home stores have created homeowners who are savvy in the ways of remodeling.
But there are savvy customers and then there are Darren and Cara Benoit. The Minneapolis couple gives new meaning to the phrase informed consumers. Both have real estate licenses and do real estate as a hobby. They own two Florida condominiums as investments and remodeled the kitchens and bathrooms themselves. And Darren negotiates contracts for a living as a finance manager for a manufacturing company.
|Visitors would never guess that the Benoits' comfortable, bright lower-level family room (top) was part of a dank, dark basement in a former life (bottom).|
When the couple called Bjorn Freudenthal, project sales manager for Lakeville, Minn.-based David Schweich Construction, about a basement remodel in September 2001, he recognized the Benoits as assets to the potential project. The Benoits, who had lived in their 1930s Mediterranean-style, two-story home for five years, decided they needed more space than the three bedrooms and 11/2 baths provided. After sizing up the real estate market and determining they easily would recoup the investment, the Benoits decided to finish the basement. The original plan was nothing fancy. They would have a professional install egress windows, and then they would do the gypsum board themselves.
"We had trouble finding a company that would do the egress, and then the quotes were extremely high," says Cara, a speech pathologist. "And we didn't find people who seemed to be really experts in it and knew what they were doing." Then the couple came across a newspaper advertisement for David Schweich Construction, which does extensive work in egress windows and basement remodels.
|A furnace-rated fireplace was part of a solution to a budget-busting heating problem (top). To cut costs, the Benoits decided to use granite tile instead of a granite slab for the bar countertop and backsplash (bottom).|
"We called and set up an interview," Cara says. "It was an easy decision. We felt comfortable with Bjorn right off the bat. He was very personable and forthright, easy to talk to. We didn't get past an initial phone interview with anybody else. It was just a gut instinct that we liked Bjorn. We're both that way. If you like a person and have good rapport, that's important."
The couple met with Freudenthal to discuss the project, which quickly grew in scope. "Once we found out we could get the egress done and do a bigger project, it was really easy to just say letÆs go for it," Cara says. "Our friends and family were pretty amazed that one week we were thinking about putting in windows and a month later we had plans to do this really big project."
Collaborating on design and the contract
After four design revisions, that project called for a family room with fireplace, an office/bedroom, a full bath, a utility and workbench area, and a laundry room. Based on their experiences with the condo remodels, the Benoits felt strongly about being involved with the design development and having the freedom to specify materials.
"We told them we really wanted to keep with the character of the house and that we didn't want a '90s basement in a 1930s house," Cara says. "Bjorn was real receptive to that and open to us bringing ideas to the table and presenting things. We had gotten good at pricing materials and finding ways to get a higher-quality job without necessarily paying higher prices. They seemed pretty flexible with what we wanted to do."
Before contacting David Schweich Construction, the Benoits had scouted for materials. Now they wanted to use these products from their vendors for the basement remodel. For example, the Benoits wanted to use granite tile instead of a slab for the bar countertop and backsplash, and they had found a good price on marble for the bathroom countertop, floor and tub surround.
|The project began as an egress window and standard finished basement job but quickly progressed in scope.|
While others might have bristled at this level of customer involvement, Freudenthal welcomed it.
"It is our experience that if you have homeowners who involve themselves in the project, then you end up with the best results," he says. "They were very helpful. They caught things or brought things up at the right time. It wasn't a matter of making things cumbersome; it was more a job of making it flow better, and I have to compliment the homeowners on that."
During the initial design phase, Freudenthal and project supervisor Don Hill identified several challenges. Upstairs, the home has 9- to 10-foot coved ceilings and textured walls. There was 2 less feet of headroom downstairs, so to replicate the style, everything from the coves to the textured walls had to be reduced proportionally.
Another design challenge was figuring out how to maximize the space in the 800-square-foot basement. "We want a basement to not feel like a basement," Freudenthal says, "and we achieve that by opening up everything that we possibly can."
In the Benoits' basement, Hill was looking at close to 30 feet of load-bearing block wall. He planned to use temporary walls so crews could demolish the block wall. Once that was done, he would run a short wall and tie a steel I-beam into that to support the load.
Before the project could move forward, Freudenthal and the Benoits needed to agree on a price and sign the contract. Knowing Darren's background in contract negotiating, Freudenthal did the only logical thing: He opened the company's books.
"Darren is a financial guy," says Freudenthal. "We normally do not display all the financials of a project. He understands numbers, and for him it was important to see why and how much he's paying for things. I believed that was the right way to secure the trust and the job for David Schweich Construction. I have done it two times. You know when it's in your best interest to do so."
They agreed on a $70,000 budget. With the contract signed and a 10% down payment in hand, Freudenthal and Hill set to work Nov. 29.
|As avid do-it-yourselfers, the Benoits had established relationships with many vendors. They worked pricing with their marble vendor that allowed them to do the bathroom countertop, floor and tub surround.|
Just a few days into the project, a problem arose. In the planned office/bedroom area of the basement, there was only a 6-foot ceiling under the wrapped hot-water pipes. Raising the ceiling to the height of the rest of the basement required removing the pipes, but they tested positive for asbestos in mid-December.
Hill says David Schweich Construction had two options. The first was to build soffits around the pipes, but this would affect the atmosphere downstairs. The other option was to remove the pipes.
"At a pretty early stage Don told me the pipes in the office area had to go," Freudenthal says. "There was no way to create the ceiling without them being gone. Having them removed was one of the makers and breakers of this job because the lower level would not look anything like it is today with that low of a ceiling."
Because the company was removing some of the pipes for ceiling height, it gave the Benoits the option of re-piping the entire basement. The decision was easy.
"I think we were looking toward the long term," Cara says. "We love our neighborhood. We love our house. We have no plans to really move, so we didnÆt want to end up in five years going back up into that ceiling and taking pipes out if there was a problem."
Based on the Benoits' choice, Freudenthal asked his hot-water heat contact to work up a price that included a bid for abatement from his asbestos contact.
"The reason we considered the hot-water heat contractor's asbestos contact is these two phases work very close together," says Freudenthal. "When you cut the pipes, you have to re-pipe immediately. If they had a good working relationship, we wanted to keep them together instead of bringing in my own asbestos contractor because it could have been that the hot-water heat contractor would not have known his process, and it could have been a potential problem."
The bid came back unacceptably high, and Freudenthal immediately sent it back without running it past the Benoits. The subcontractors came back with a revised bid that Freudenthal thought was still too high, but he decided to show the Benoits what he was up against. He also thought Darren would want to be part of negotiating a lower bid. Because the Benoits were in no hurry to complete the project, they had time on their side as a bargaining tool. The bid was sent back again.
|An early design called for a standard 5-foot tub, but the Benoits went for a 54x72-inch jumbo Jacuzzi bath instead.|
When the third bid came back, Freudenthal realized that although the plan had called for hot-water heat, it didn't fit within the project's budget. He suggested electric baseboard heat, a furnace-rated fireplace and electric radiant flooring in the bath instead. The Benoits liked the solution but still needed to deal with the re-piping. They accepted a partial bid for re-piping and rejected the abatement portion from the asbestos contractor.
Freudenthal ended up bringing in his own subcontractor to cut, encapsulate and remove the pipes. The hot-water contractor came behind and re-piped the basement without incident.
The change order for the abatement, re-piping and gas fireplace insert came to $5,535, nearly $5,000 less than the original bid. But the back-and-forth bidding caused a 11/2-month delay on the project.
Also during the project, a floor-height difference of 2 inches was discovered between the family room and office/bedroom. This hadn't been caught during the estimating phase. When the bearing block wall was removed, Freudenthal discovered the uneven floor. He speculates that the original floors might have been poured separately or the slope was intentional to accommodate a utility drain. Whatever the reason, an economical solution to the oversight was needed.
"We had a couple of ways we could do it, and one was more expensive than the other," Hill says. "One, we were going to put a threshold in, so the entrance to the office had a little step down. Darren wasn't too fond of that. The other was JibCreteing the office floor - bringing it up level with the other one. That process can be quite spendy, so I came up with an alternate where we did use a JibCrete solution and we just blended it in through the office room floor. I went only a third of the way into this room taking out that 2 inches. So the floor isnÆt exactly level in there, but it satisfied everyone, and it's something you can't feel walking on it." The company absorbed the cost of fixing its oversight.
Yet another hiccup came when electricians moved a service panel 15 feet from the family room to the utility area. It became a major undertaking, Hill says. Some of the wires took electricians up to the third floor. The entire home basically was rewired.
"Electrical is the major Achilles' heel in an older home," Freudenthal says. "You've had several homeowners, and if Joe Homeowner likes to do his own wiring, then you have yourself a mess. Because once we touch it, we need to bring everything good. I had allotted for it, but it was more extensive than I had thought."
Freudenthal and Hill, who work hand in hand, sat down after the project to look at what they could have done better. They concluded that the company's systems were solid, but the project's oversights were simply reminders of how important it is to adhere to all procedures to ensure that everything stays on schedule and on budget.
While the homeowners had been flexible throughout the design, bidding and construction phases, the layout and timing of the completed project couldn't have been more perfect. The couple had twin girls early this year.
"It's worked out well because of course we've had a tremendous amount of friends and family coming in visiting," Cara says. Guests are set up comfortably on the luxurious lower level. She adds that the Benoits would not change a thing about the process or the final design. They have referred and will continue to refer David Schweich Construction.
"When you have a homeowner who is pleased and is willing to preach David Schweich Construction and Bjorn and Don Hill, then you know youÆve done something good," Freudenthal says. "I'm very pleased with the way it turned out. I look at this project and cannot help thinking we achieved some phenomenal things."