A renovation project has all the ingredients of a nightmarish experience and it probably will be, unless you exercise great caution in choosing your renovation contractor.
We asked the experts who have done their own big renovations or builds, for tips on choosing a renovation service provider. Read on if you don’t want to create a separate budget line for tranquilisers!
Renovations are stressful
You don’t know it yet, but this will be the start of several months (or years) of headaches and worries. Why? Because:
- You may not know exactly what you want
- You are at the mercy of the ‘experts’
- You’re paying lots of money, and everyone else is incentivised to make it more complex and more expensive so you pay even more money
- You’re the only one that has to live with the outcomes
“A purple and black theme sounds fantastic!” – Source
We spoke to several people who have come out of a successful renovation, and here are their top tips:
1. Get the right type of expertise
Do you need an architect, draftsman, engineer, interior designer, project manager or contractor? It’s not a straightforward answer! Each of them has different skills and capabilities, and will contribute different value to your project.
INFOGRAPHIC: How to hire a team for your big renovation project.
Use an architect if you’re building something from scratch, or if your project includes major structural changes. From our experience, architects are good from an overall concept, style and form perspective – they are better at designing external aspects compared to the internal space. They are also familiar with the housing regulations and approvals that you will need, and will need to sign-off the architectural plans you need for approvals.
Draftsmen are essentially mini-architects who have most of the skills of the architect, but are not qualified to sign-off on plans yet. Use them if your project is a small or simple one, as they are much more cost efficient. Most of them have affiliations with accredited architects who trust and work well with them, and will check and sign-off on their plans. Experience matters though – draftsmen would have less experience in big, complicated projects and the risk that they leave something out is higher than if you hire an architect.
If you need an architect, you will probably need a structural engineer. These guys focus on structural integrity aspects of your house, making sure the key supports are built such that nothing falls down when the wind blows. They will also need to sign-off on the structural engineering plans – do ask them if you should bring in their other engineering pals (e.g. mechanical, electrical, plumbing).
Mechanical and Electrical Engineer
Similar to Structural Engineer, if you need an architect you will need an M&E engineer as well. They provide advice, drawings and requirements for all electrical, mechanical, plumbing and wiring aspects of your house. The M&E Engineer needs to coordinate with your ID closely, because M&E points are ALWAYS closely-driven by HOW you use the space.
If building a house from scratch, a QS would be highly recommended if budget permits. A QS basically does all the calculations to ensure the amount of materials being used or purchased by your contractor is in line with the requirements specified in the tender document. The QS fee is a small price to pay to ensure a good night’s sleep knowing you have not been taken for a ride by the contractor. The QS would be able to tell your if your contractor used 1 too many bricks to build a wall!
These are the experts in internal space usage and the look-and-feel. Use them if you are changing the fundamental way you want to ‘live’ and ‘experience’ your space, and if you’re wanting something new or fresh about the way each space looks. IDs will draw up the 3D visualisations and talk about colours and textures, they bring a heavy style aspect to your home – so if you’ve always hated how your ID wears red and green in the same shirt, you may not want him to choose your curtains for you.
Project Managers in construction are similar to those bossy types you find running projects at your workplace. They digest requirements, draw up ambitious timelines, and yell at contractors on their mobile phones. Use them if you already have a flair for design and detail, and just need someone to “execute” your requirements.
They also know who the ‘best’ service providers are, and will always know someone whom you can call to take care of, for example, your intricate plumbing needs.
If budget permits, it may sometimes be better to have your own independent project manager who can advise you and check on the contractors work on a daily basis. He/she needs to be well versed in building and electrical / mechanical and plumbing works and be willing to visit your site on a daily basis or at the very least every 2-3 days to ensure the contractor is building according to specification.
The frequency of project manager visits are crucial as many things can be completed and subsequently covered up thereby preventing inspection. For example, once wires are plastered over you will not be able to inspect them (until they blow and then you have to dig up your wall).
Renovators or Contractors
Renovators…renovate. They will understand your requirements, confirm the dimensions and materials, order the parts, and ask their team of worker-bees to build. Don’t ask them to come up with colourful 3D visualisation plans, they have no idea how to work CAD (they are the last remaining people on this earth who use black-white Nokia phones). The best they will give you is a rough sketch on the back of a Domino’s Pizza napkin, and the price next to it.
2. Know how many contractors will be involved
The construction industry (at least in Malaysia and Singapore) is a scandalous one – often enough service providers get together, make loose liaisons, do the deed, get paid, and then never see each other again. Many of them don’t have direct or long-term working relationships with each other – as a result, they don’t actually have control over many of the vendors they work with!
I’ve personally interacted with a renovation contractor who had frankly no idea where his “colleagues” were any point of the day, and wouldn’t bet a cent that they would turn up when they promised to.
To get a REAL sense of how big a contractor’s actual team is, you can do a little digging during your conversation with them, like so:
“Part-time” means that they work for a sub-contractor lower down the line in contractor-food-chain. Uh-oh.
Alert, alert! This means that when Ah Meng says the job will take 4 weeks, it will ACTUALLY take 1 week to track down his 3 colleagues, another 2 weeks to track down the other “colleagues”, 1 week to order the materials and 6 weeks more to finish your job. And don’t forget the other 3 months you will spend in “anger management” therapy sessions.
3. Know how long they have been in business
Our loyal community user Azrin Firdaus Osman, who recently did a big renovation, says it best, “A good contractor is one that has been in business for more than 5 years, and his workers have followed him throughout”. This gives you a reasonable assurance that they pay their workers on time, have good after-sales support, and have a good network of craftsmen to call on.
“A good contractor is one that has been in business for more than 5 years, and his workers have followed him throughout” – Azrin Firdaus Osman
4. Get recommendations and check their portfolio
Get recommendations from family. Then check with your friends. Then check with people in your neighbourhood. Or, do all three at once by visiting Recommend.my.
Recommend.my provides a directory of recommended renovation contractors in Malaysia. You can see their testimonials, as well as any reviews that come from people in your social circles. Rather than calling your friends one by one, you can see what people say about a contractor’s workmanship, value and efficiency in one place.
You can also post your project details to get cost estimates from multiple contractors.
Some contractors specialise in condos, and some in landed property. Some like to suggest lots of concrete, while others prefer lots of wood. Get the right one for your home by checking out their portfolio of work on Recommend.my.
5. Compare multiple quotes
Finding the right service provider for your home is similar to finding a wife or husband – if you don’t “date around”, you will never know what the “market rate” is like But quotes are complex and the charging method differs from one service provider to the next – how do you compare apples to apples?
- Give clear requirements: Write down all the aspects of the work you want done. If you have pictures, even better! Sites like Houzz.com provide excellent pictures for any type of home improvement work. Take pictures of your area, and even measurements if you have them.
- Make sure they do a site visit before quoting: Meet with at least three service providers, give them your requirements list, and ask them to drop by to the site so you can talk them through it. NEVER accept a quote for a major piece of work if the contractor is too lazy to visit your site; there are too many things they need to inspect for themselves before quoting you. And also make sure your quote is detailed enough so you can truly compare apples to apples.
- Identify specific line items to use as a benchmark for each quote: If one contractor is quoting $50/meter run for your kitchen counter-top, and another one is quoting $250/meter, they have either understood your requirements wrong or have placed all their “hidden profit margins” in this line item. If possible, get them to split out materials, workmanship and margin; this way you know how to trade-off the different things you want, and if the quote ends up too expensive you know which things to drop.
- Pay attention to the specifics: When you go through the quotes, try to think through all the elements to the best of your ability. Generally the more professional the service provider is, the less you have to do this, but to be honest EVERY bit of detail-orientation can only help you.Jasmin Amirul advises you to “Question EVERYTHING. For example, our service provider proposed very high ceilings, and as a result all our doors had to be proportionally high. This resulted in very high costs for customised door sizes.”
“Question EVERYTHING. For example, our service provider proposed very high ceilings, and as a result all our doors had to be proportionally high. This resulted in very high costs for customised door sizes.” – Jasmin Amirul
Being detailed and specific helps the service provider to understand your requirements and quote you to the best of their abilities, and not have any surprises pop up later
- Be careful HOW they charge: There are many ways of charging, by work-scope lump-sum, by hour, by materials+service, or by percentage of final contract. Understand how your cost can potentially balloon, for example through “variation orders” or scope changes. For example, “The architect model of compensation is flawed. Some charge you as a percentage of your final contract, so it is in their interest to push all costs up” says Jasmin.
Look out for hidden costs! – Image source
Jasmin goes on to advise “With any service provider, ensure that you choose one one that is aligned to you (and not your architect or ID who may be incentivised to increase overall cost of the house)”.
“With any service provider, ensure that you choose one one that is aligned to you (and not your architect or ID who may be incentivised to increase overall cost of the house)” – Jasmin Amirul
Interviews with Jasmin Amirul, Azrin Firdaus Osman, and Jes Min Lua