War of Wills

When remodelers sell clients, the line between being persuasive and being pushy is wire-thin.

May 31, 2000

Sleek custom cabinets, classy ceramic tile, and a beveled glass bay window infuse the kitchen with glitter, light and style. A stretch of new counters and a generous island extend the kitchen territory into the great room area.

 

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When remodelers sell clients, the line between being persuasive and being pushy is wire-thin. Paul Miskelly skated dangerously close to that line during the job he did for Jo-Anne and Greg Collins. He was somewhat aggressive, bruisingly direct. Some might say he crossed the line. The Collins say otherwise.

Nothing had been done to modernize their Fountain Valley, Calif., house since they bought it in 1972. The kitchen was a disaster, says Jo-Anne - small and dingy with chipped tile and skimpy counters. The adjacent family room wasn't much better. The Collinses had the germ of an idea for revamping the space: They would redo the kitchen and make an open kitchen/family room area. They had even picked out new ceramic tile and cabinets. But their plan languished for months while they searched for the right remodeler to develop it and make it happen.

Before remodeling, the family room was cut off at one end by dark counters and at the other by an obsolete bedroom and bath. The family room was crowded. Integrating the kitchen and family room with a sweep of cabinetry and tile makes the whole area feel bigger. Blending the old bedroom into the space extends the family room by one-third. And bumping out the outside wall of the house by 30 inches ends the narrow, freight car effect. Sliding glass doors with distinctive beveled glass open the room to the patio and backyard without cutting into the living area as swing-in doors would have done.

 

"We talked to a couple of remodelers," says Jo-Anne, "and then another couple of people." Miskelly, president of Golden Edge Construction in Huntington Beach, Calif., was in the first group. The cabinet company recommended him, Jo-Anne says, as follows: "I know somebody who does excellent work, but you may think his price is a bit high."

Sure enough, Miskelly's initial estimate of $50,000 was about double his competitors' estimates. "We thought Paul was really expensive," says Jo-Anne. On the other hand, Miskelly clearly was different from the other remodelers who walked in, asked what the Collinses wanted done, jotted a few notes, and left. Miskelly spent several hours with the Collinses during the first meeting in November 1998, asking what they had in mind, making suggestions, taking measurements, building an itemized estimate on the spot. The Collinses were impressed. Still, Miskelly's high price bothered them. Their search for a remodeler went on.

The old kitchen was small and dark (photo). Jo-Anne Collins says there was no counter space and called it a disaster. For someone who likes to cook and wants functional work surfaces in the kitchen, she's right.

 

One candidate had a big, eye-catching booth at a weekend swap meet. Nice work, but he had no imagination, says Jo-Anne. The Collinses tried out another contender, having him build a bay window on the front of the house. "The man never came to see the finished job," says Jo-Anne. Miskelly did, and pointed out the flaws in workmanship.

Golden Edge Construction was looking better and better. At their initial meeting, the Collinses had agreed to call back before they made a final commitment. Athough Miskelly had not provided a written proposal at this price-shopping stage, other contractors had. "We weren't real excited about that," says Gerry, but Miskelly says it's another incentive for the homeowners to ask him back. And they did.

On his return visit, the Collinses showed Miskelly the bid from the leading contender. He seized the opportunity and critiqued it. "I said it wasn't thorough," and started pricing work not included, says Miskelly. "The guy's price increased from $25,000 to $40,000 and it was still missing stuff." Miskelly asked the Collinses, "Is this how you want the guy to run your job?"

Miskelly's $49,716 formal estimate was everything the competing estimate was not - painstakingly thorough and detailed, specifying every product and process. The contrast drove home his point about the competitor. The Collinses were sold. "At first we thought we couldn't afford Paul," says Gerry. "Then we decided we couldn't afford not to go with him."

 

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Project manager Tab Fipps and lead carpenter John Miskelly, Paul's brother, ran the job once work began in May 1999. Scheduling was tricky because the Collinses were often out of town. Fipps says he gave them a list of decisions to make before each departure, projecting what work would be done while they were away. Miskelly's approach to design was just as forceful. And as successful. "He was kind of like an artist," says Jo-Anne. "He had a vision [of what the remodeled space should be like.]" That creativity and confidence was just what the Collinses needed. They didn't know if it would be worth the cost of moving the outside wall 30 inches, for example, to deepen the family room and kitchen. Miskelly assured them it would. He agreed with their plan to remove an interior wall at one end of the family room and fold an unused bedroom into the space.

Miskelly said the shower stall in the old first-floor bathroom had to go (top photo). This done, the toilet could be moved over and separated by a half wall from the pretty new pedestal lavatory (above).

 

As for the bathroom adjacent to the old bedroom, he was outspoken. Jo-Anne can still hear him say, "You need to get this shower out of here. Put in a pedestal sink, move the toilet and make the bath a classy powder room." As soon as Miskelly described the remodeled bath, the Collinses knew he was right. "That was the best thing [about Miskelly]," says Gerry. "[His design concept was] so clear. That's why we ended up selecting him."

 

Fipps and John suggested a few design refinements, such as the pony wall between lav and toilet in the powder room. They also integrated nine change orders into the schedule. The killer was the Collins' decision late in July to update the master bathroom upstairs. "We brought in people from other jobs" to expedite framing and other work, says Fipps. Fortunately, "the tile guys were able to roll in from downstairs." The master bath added four weeks to the project, but downstairs and upstairs were coordinated for concurrent final inspections.

When major decisions were needed along the way, Paul Miskelly stepped in to help. The patio doors in the family room became a thorny problem that tested Miskelly's persuasiveness once again. "Paul, Gerry and I really went to battle over the doors," says Jo-Anne.

"We were determined to get French doors that open out," she says. The Collinses were just as determined that the doors be low-maintenance vinyl. All was well before the job started; the Collinses had located swing-out vinyl doors they planned to use. By the time the doors needed to be ordered, though, they were no longer being manufactured. Nobody else made vinyl swing-outs either.

Miskelly pulled employees in from other jobs when a master bath redo was added to the project.

 

The Collinses were devastated. Miskelly and Gerry visited a door supplier to look at the options. He had to decide quickly on other doors to keep production on schedule. Next day, Gerry made his choice: swing-in doors. Miskelly opposed the choice. "I wanted him to go with sliders," he says. "They are more forgiving on space." To prove his point,Miskelly cut door-width pieces of wood and brought them to the house. He drew the dining room table and the couch right on the cement slab in the spots where the Collinses planned to put them. Then he opened the "doors." They swung right over the furniture. Score one for Miskelly; the Collinses agreed to use sliders. The change required new engineering, revised framing, and new approvals - adding up to a two-week delay - but netted optimum space and a clear expanse of glass.

The battle was not yet over. The Collinses thought divided light doors would be nice. Miskelly disagreed. "He said we'd break up the view of the backyard," recalls Jo-Anne. Instead, Miskelly proposed beveled glass, at $1,700 extra. And he complemented the doors with a beveled glass window in the kitchen and a beveled powder room mirror. The Collinses are delighted. The beveled panes are much nicer than garden variety glass, says Gerry. Miskelly scores again.

The completed project is a big hit with the Collinses in every respect. "I knew it would be nice, but it's even better than I expected," says Jo-Anne. Miskelly's design vision and creative ideas; his detailed, no-surprises estimate; his capable, likable crew - all added up to a compelling package. Golden Edge represents "integrity and professionalism at its best," say the Collinses. On this point, they got the last word.

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