Project Spotlight: On time, on target

Working with real estate agent Marlene Graham on the master bath in her 1979 house, Tallahassee, Fla., builder and remodeler Mark Worley wowed her and her husband, Bill, by bringing in the project at the exact time and cost he had estimated.

November 30, 2001

Working with real estate agent Marlene Graham on the master bath in her 1979 house, Tallahassee, Fla., builder and remodeler Mark Worley wowed her and her husband, Bill, by bringing in the project at the exact time and cost he had estimated. Not only did she later hire him to remodel her kitchen, she also has given him numerous referrals.

Graham’s industry knowledge enabled her to approximate closely what the work would cost: She had a $20,000 budget in mind, and the final estimate was $22,000. Remodeling activity is increasing in the Grahams’ large Tallahassee subdivision, where the oldest homes date from the 1960s and the average house is 16 years old. As the city has grown, the neighborhood has become a sought-after, close-in location where many houses merit an investment in remodeling. Having heard horror stories of disorganized, poorly conceived remodels, Graham had extensively researched design and product options, and had a good idea of what she wanted to do to the bathroom. Large - 9.5 by almost 13 feet - and well-appointed, with twin lavs, a bidet, a step-up tub and a small, separate shower, the bathroom was luxurious for 1979, but not by 1998 standards. Graham wanted to update the finishes, brighten the room, and add a linen closet, whirlpool tub and larger shower.

"She had her design and specification ideas typed out and had photocopied information on products she liked," Worley says. "That made it real easy to cost out the job."

Using historical pricing data, Worley estimated the job at $23,500. Two other companies also submitted bids, one similar and one lower. Because Graham knew Worley best, she selected him without hesitation.

Managing expectations

The remodeled bathroom is as bright and uncluttered as the original was dark and busy.

Neutral white tile, trim, cabinetry and fixtures accentuate the light from windows and recessed, overhead lights. Glass panels admit light into the shower area.

A local cabinetmaker created the linen cabinet to match the vanity for a clean, tailored look.

With Graham’s design preferences in hand, Worley quickly developed three alternative plans using computer-aided design. He faxed all three to her, along with a spec sheet listing costs and model numbers of products he recommended. Graham chose one of the plans, and then took a couple of weeks to research the specified products and shop for allowance items, including tile, wall covering, lighting, mirrors, hardware, plumbing fixtures and windows. "I work with allowance items a lot to expedite selections," Worley says. Graham saved on most items but surpassed her budget on the whirlpool, bringing the estimate to $23,400. Worley then identified windows comparable to those she had selected but less expensive. Graham took his suggestion, dropping the price to $22,000.

At this point, the spec sheet was fully detailed, giving the estimate budget-quality reliability. Only then did Worley present the construction contract, including the spec sheet as an attachment, for Graham’s signature. "Having all selections tied to the contract with limited allowance items reduces bookkeeping overhead and simplifies the draw schedule," Worley says.

On Aug. 13, Graham signed the contract and made the first 30% payment. Worley then purchased all the materials for the job, stockpiling them in preparation for an Aug. 24 start date. "As long as you have all products in place before construction starts, you will alleviate many problems that can be caused by shipping problems and back orders," he says.

An all-sub system

The production plan was as finely detailed as the spec sheet, scheduling work by the day and in some cases by the hour. "Scheduling comes down to inspections," Worley explains. "You have to call in for framing and plumbing inspections the day before you will be ready. The next morning you have to call the inspectors to get the time they will be coming out that day - and you better be ready. If you won’t be ready, tell them and reschedule." That’s much wiser than annoying the inspector by being unprepared when he or she arrives, Worley says. "You must develop an awesome relationship with the building inspector."

To keep the Graham project on schedule, Worley gave lead carpenter Ronny Ryall, a subcontractor, the schedule, the itemized estimate and the phone numbers of all the trade subcontractors assigned to the project. Ryall’s task included making sure the job was ready for the subs to come as scheduled and confirming that they would show when needed.

Every sub on the job kept to schedule - the usual way of things for Worley. "Hiring the best subs, meaning craftsmen who are quality-driven and not price-driven, is the key to our success of the all-sub approach," he says.

When the house was new 22 years ago, visitors oohed and aahed about the trendy master bathroom. "Cedar was 'in' back then," says owner Marlene Graham. By 1998, she couldn’t wait to get rid of it.

Worley says his subs work so efficiently because they know that the project will move ahead even if their portions aren’t done on time. He also weeds out subs who try to self-schedule.

As additional insurance that jobs will proceed hitch-free, Worley provides each subcontractor with a detailed, written job description that includes everything from submitting invoices to cleanup. Most important, he adds, "We tie their payment to the fulfillment of this written program."

The Graham job flowed efficiently and without incident - first week, demo to drywall and plumbing inspection; second week, tile installation; third week, cabinets, trim, final mechanicals and company punchout; day one of fourth week, client punchout completed. Ryall was on hand daily to answer Graham’s questions, and Worley came by the house every afternoon to check work progress and tell her what would be done the next day. He also provided her with weekly schedules and kept a message book on site.

Ryall was paid a set sum for supervision, demo, framing, hanging drywall and cleanup, Worley says. Plumbing, electrical and HVAC work had to be done by licensed subcontractors, but Ryall was free to farm out other work or do it himself to keep the job rolling and earn money. He chose to do a big chunk of the cleanup, collecting an extra $200. This took an insignificant bite out of Worley’s gross profit, yet was a nice financial incentive for the lead.

Third-party inspections took construction draws out of the realm of the negotiable. Worley hires a professional appraiser to visit all his work sites twice - before the substantial completion and final payments are due - to verify that work has been completed per contract terms. Inspector approval authorizes payment by the clients. Each visit costs Worley only $25, but it "gives me the security of knowing I’ll get payment," he says. Besides, the inspector’s report is invaluable documentation in case of a legal problem.

The year after the Graham bath was completed, Worley hired a production manager to visit sites daily, trouble-shoot and track all costs, leaving Worley time to run his growing new-home and remodeling businesses, in addition to his newly acquired cabinet dealership. The new staff model also allows Worley to capitalize on his strengths - sales, design and "putting the game together" - and hire people whose skills complement his. Now that’s efficient.


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