Four Contractors, Loads of Good Advice

By Heather Seftel-Kirk

A renovation can make a homeowner’s dream come true, or it could turn into a person’s worst nightmare. An industry in itself, home renovations are the inspiration behind television shows, the reason for do-it-yourself courses and instructional programs, and support a huge big-box store economy supplying contractor materials to anyone with the money to buy. How do you make sure your home renovation is one you can brag about, instead of one your neighbours talk about when you aren’t around?


Page42_Lindsay Nicol
Lindsay Nicol

The most basic question to ask is do you need a renovation? Lindsay Nicol, president and owner of Crossford Construction, says people generally consider renovations when they are looking at lifestyle changes – adding space, changing function – but adds that regular maintenance is important as well. “Hubs in your home like the kitchen and bathrooms need regular maintenance and attention so if you’re thinking you should do something but aren’t sure what or where to start, these are generally good options.”

While most people consider renovations for their own use, there is a market for renovations for real-estate investment and resale. “The important thing to remember if you’re considering a renovation for resale is not to go over the top. Every home buyer will have different tastes and different styles so making a home presentable is more valuable than adding a finished basement that may not be to everyone’s tastes,” he adds.

Page42_Richard Heller
Richard Heller

Richard Heller, owner of Richard Heller Renovations, says the initial planning for a renovation can and should take months, often beginning well before any professionals are involved. “It’s so important to have a clear plan of what you want, to understand your goals and the intent behind the renovation. Remember that a renovation of any kind is a disruption and whoever you choose to do the work will be in your home, and really a part of your life, for a period of time. Choosing someone to work with you shouldn’t be a quick decision, nor should the decision about what you want to do.”

Steve Barkhouse, president of Amsted Design Build, says people have a lot of fear when it comes to renovations and that, while the variety of television shows today do eliminate some of that fear, they are also misleading. “You watch a show and someone comes in and says let’s knock out a wall and move this there and do this and they accomplish it over two days or a week or whatever. What television doesn’t show is all the prep work and investigation that went into making that decision, or the fact that it took 20 guys behind the scenes to make the job happen that quickly.”

Steve Barkhouse
Steve Barkhouse

Barkhouse says on-line information can provide a starting point. Browsing catalogues can also help narrow down what you want and like. “There are criteria every project needs – organization, creativity, time, knowledge, patience and money. Every project is different and knowing who is responsible for each element of that project is critical. Part of a renovation is all about who you hire.”


Nicol says the key to a successful renovation is hiring the services of a general contractor. Besides off-setting the anguish of handling this job of co-ordination and organization yourself, he says the greater benefit is the network you tap into with skilled, qualified trades.

Page42_Moe Abbas
Moe Abbas

Moe Abbas, founder of Ottawa General Contractors, agrees. While people can work as their own general contractor for small jobs, he doesn’t recommend it if you require more than two trades. “If you’re hiring someone to paint your home or change flooring you’re likely ok to handle the co-ordination on your own. A quick improvement you’re doing yourself is also fine. When you get into anything that involves more than two people, suddenly you’re dealing with scheduling and permits and insurance and different governing bodies. As a general rule of thumb, I would say a kitchen, bath, basement, addition, and anything that requires plumbing, insulation or structural work, should be done under the direction of an experienced contractor.”

Abbas explains that every renovation, even one that seems simple, needs a design so you know all the specific details ahead. “The benefit of a design-build contractor in particular is that they can provide specs, detailed estimates and even 3D images so you can visualize what the transformation will be.”


When seeking a contractor, Nicol says it’s important to understand that price is important but that it’s the right price, not the lowest price. “Price means nothing if the person or company doesn’t have the credentials to back up what they’re promising. You want to ensure they are in good standing with relevant governing bodies like WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board), and that they have proper insurance. The Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association has lists of RenoMark certified contractors and if they aren’t members there, legitimate contractors are still generally connected with one association or another, so check for that.” (RenoMark certifies the contractor has agreed to maintaining a standard for quality and adhering to a professional code of conduct.)

Abbas suggests a general contractor with a staff. “A one-man show can be fine but they may not have the insurance coverage you need, may be too general to have expertise and if they get sick or overwhelmed, you’re stuck. A company with staff shares the workload and responsibility so a job is not dependent on one person alone.”

When considering contractors, Abbas cautions that length of time in the business is not as important as volume of experience. “Someone who has been in the business ten years and does two projects a year will not have the breadth of experience as someone who has been in the business five years and undertakes ten or twenty projects a year.”

Barkhouse says the process of interviewing a contractor should take time, although he says if in five minutes you don’t like the person you’re speaking with, five minutes may be all you need. “You’re establishing a relationship that is going to take time and is going to impact your home so the person you work with has to be someone you feel comfortable with, that you can communicate with, and yes, that you like.”

Barkhouse suggests a typical inter-view can take an hour or more and that people should be prepared with some standard questions. “Make sure permits are part of the discussion. Ask about references and insurance coverage. Many contractors will have third party-surveys. Ask what kind of schedule they will keep. If someone is planning on working on your project part time and at the same time as others, you may be paying more for set-up and clean-up as they come and go.”

“You need to ensure the contractor has time to present their company,” he adds. “And that you have time to fully explain what you want done so make sure the meeting isn’t rushed, or, if you only have a set amount of time, that you decide up front how much time each of you has to present your case.”

Barkhouse says homeowners need to understand that they are being interviewed during this process as well. “A good general contractor may not charge more for the service they provide but they do have the luxury of choosing their clients. People are shocked when they call a contractor to give the green light for a project and find they are being turned down.”

For instance, Barkhouse won’t take a job if the client insists on staying when he wants them to relocate. “Renovations can be especially hard on young children, the elderly and pets. Often, we’ll recommend people leave when they assumed they could stay, as much for their convenience as the fact that we can get the work done faster if we’re not working around them.”

Heller says most of his clients prefer to stay at home and that this is workable as long as there is good communication. “People need to know what to expect, what the inconveniences will be, and what the alternate plan for them is. Sometimes we’ll plan critical stages like replacing floors around holidays so people can be out of the home with no inconvenience.”



Detailed quotes identify costs homeowners don’t expect and help compare apples to apples. Things like electrical and tile work can be more costly than people expect. A quote that breaks down these costs also shows you what the market and material charges are for. In fact, when comparing proposals, Nicol says it is important you receive a detailed breakdown outlining all costs so you can accurately compare them and understand all of the costs involved. “If there are budget issues, a detailed accounting can help you tweak your original plan to bring it back to a comfortable level for you.”

Heller says a detailed quote can help identify potential pitfalls and what they can cost in money and time, as well as places costs might be cut. “There are things people can do to reduce costs that I don’t mind helping with – things at the start and end of a job like tear-outs and painting. I always prefer to do the bulk of the job with my own team so I can control quality and ensure a job is done right, but if a client wants to save money by painting themselves, that’s fine with me.”


Nicol says due diligence, on the part of the homeowner and contractor, is crucial. “As a homeowner, you need to understand what is going to happen and make sure you ask a lot of questions. Sure, there is the question of whether you are able to stay in the home while the work is being done, but there are others such as, does furniture need to be moved or stored and is there a cost associated with that? Can pets stay in the home or do they need to be kenneled? Make sure you ask for references and actually speak with them.”

“The contractor will want to do a thorough inspection of the home prior to supplying any quote to ensure unexpected surprises that may add extra time or costs,” he adds. “A good contractor will want to identify these potential issues ahead of time.”

Barkhouse says while many jobs end up being more involved than a client initially expects, a professional will significantly limit the unexpected. “There are almost always tell-tale signs of problems people may not expect but that show up on close inspection so I can prepare the client ahead about things they may not have considered. If I miss something and we don’t find it until we get into the project, well, I missed it so I cover any related costs. 99 per cent of job changes are client driven, not driven by the unexpected.”


Nicol says people need to think about the process of a renovation – the design, budget, scheduling and performance – and understand that communication is essential. “It is so important to put in the time and effort to find someone you trust. A job that goes south will stay bad for a long time because it can be hard to find someone to come in to fix someone else’s mistake, and it’s going to cost you more money and time. There are a lot of horror stories out there, mainly caused by a lack of planning and choosing the wrong person for the job.

While time lines are generally part of any contract, Abbas says you’ll eliminate some stress if you assume things may go a little longer than anticipated. “Generally you can expect a time frame like five to six weeks. I would be leery of someone who gives you an exact date unless they tell you they’ve built in a bit of a cushion. Even then, I would assume it may take a bit longer. If it doesn’t, that’s great but if something does come up, you won’t be disappointed.”

Noting that a renovation can almost always run a minimum of two to three weeks, Heller says he prefers to be on one job at a time. “Continuity is important. I like to be focused, not dragging equipment and material back and forth between jobs. He advises clients to consider tackling a renovation when it can be done all at once. “Trying to open a wall this year, changing the floor next year just means more stress over a longer period of time.” Completing the project in one fell swoop just lends to a better-finished product.


Explaining the payment process people can expect, Abbas says a down payment is always required, as much as a commitment to the contract as to pay for supplies and materials that will need to be purchased. After that, payment is based on achievement of milestones. “The actual deposit will depend on what is being done and the materials that need to be purchased. Setting payment dates for completion of portions of the project is standard. Homeowners should expect to hold back 10 per cent of the total fee for 45 days – and this is something most people don’t know – or until the contractor provides them with a statutory declaration confirming all of the subtrades have been paid.”

Abbas says this hold back is just one of the complexities the average person wouldn’t understand and something that supports hiring a qualified general contractor.

With 20 years in the industry, Nicol says he and his staff work to stay up to date with technology and new products but it’s up to the clients to educate themselves ahead of time and make themselves available during the project. “Look at magazines to see what is out there and what you like. Engage a professional to guide you but understand there are a lot of choices to make. Deciding between what’s good and what isn’t, what suits you and what doesn’t, can be overwhelming. People need to budget some time before and during the project to be available for site visits and to make decisions either at the start or as milestones are reached.”

Abbas agrees education is critical. “A lot of our work involves educating people so we’re happy to answer questions. I always say, if you’re unsure, make a call and ask someone. It could save you thousands of dollars and a lot of stress.

The bottom line is do your homework, be flexible and work with a good team to make your home renovation a dream instead of a nightmare.