By Vivian Astroff

Any aficionado of TV home renovation shows knows the pitfalls: cost-overruns without warning; jobs left half-done by amateurs posing as reno pros.

Here, four industry veterans tell you how their award-winning companies ensure a happy ending for each renovation job, and what you can expect to pay.

George Jacques, owner of General Repairs and Renovations Inc, says his 18-year-old company does renovations ranging from basements to roofs and everything in between, including constructing new additions. They’ve completed additions at $280 a square foot and an even more modest $140 a square foot. When discussing costs, he says that giving rule-of-thumb estimates can be deceiving.

“People need to look at their budget and what it will allow, realizing that materials and labour are expensive today. We try to work within their budget range without compromising quality.” Jacques also advises to allow from 10 to 20 per cent for costs that are over the original budget because the client had decided on upgrades or added features mid-job.

There are often surprises in old houses, Jacques notes, mentioning a recent renovation where his men tore down the walls of a century-old structure to find “knob and tube” wiring that is illegal under today’s building codes. As well, there may be structural deterioration calling for reinforcements from the basement up.

In such instances, Jacques provides estimates for the new electrical work or structural engineering services. “We always supply change orders with a contract, and will not proceed unless the customer signs off on it,” he says.

For any project that costs $20,000 or more, the company gives a prospective client a binder with complete specifications including cost estimate, drawings, change order forms, contract conditions, copies of liability insurance and workers’ safety certification.

Winner of the BBB Torch Award in 2006 and the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association (GOHBA) customer service award in 2008, General Repairs and Renovation Inc. enjoys the reputation of a quality renovator and contractor. “’Quality first’ is our company motto,” Jacques says. “We take a lot of pride in our work.”

Rex Engel’s firm, Engel Construction Inc., concentrates on large renovations and construction projects, ranging from $50,000 on the low end, to just shy of $1 million. “They are all very high quality, more complicated jobs,” he comments.  For example, Engel will do heritage restorations, and frequently works with prominent Ottawa architects and designers like Linda Chapman, Christopher Simmonds and Chuck Mills.

With a track record of 26 years in the business, including service as Chair of the Renovation Council of Ontario and the GOHBA, Engel says he prefers to specialize and stay small. As necessary, he contracts with the highly skilled sub trades he knows and trusts.  His company’s work has brought accolades from OCHBA, garnering the Renovator of the Year Award, as well as recognition for best renovations over $250,000 and in the $75,000 to $150,000 price range.

When budgeting for a whole-house renovation, the consumer should estimate $100 per square foot, and then add the costs for kitchen and bathrooms, Engel counsels.  Starting with a gutted space, a new kitchen would range from $10,000 to $15,000, excluding counters and cabinets. Cabinets can cost from $7,000 to $50,000 or more. A new bathroom can run from $10,000 to $15,000 and up. If considering a house addition, the client can usually figure on spending $250 to $400 a square foot, Engel says.

“Of course, the cost is size- and quality-dependent,” he notes. Estimates should also include the “tie-costs” to successfully meld the project’s new roof sections with the old, as well as elements of the basement and first floor.

He echoes other renovators in suggesting that clients reserve a percentage, perhaps five to 10 per cent of their budget, for potential cost over-runs to replace old plumbing, heating or electrical systems. As well, there is the potential for costly upgrades or expanding the original scope of the job. “They see what we are capable of doing, so the other part of the house may not look up to the level of the renovation,” Engel says.

According to Herb Lagois, owner of Lagois Drafting and Construction Inc., the ultimate success of a renovation project hinges on a good architectural design. “If the design is done well, then everything flows well within the project”, he observes.

Not surprisingly, his company’s focus is architectural design, but it also has the capability to undertake renovations and the construction of additions and custom homes. “All of us here have construction experience and know when the drawings will work.”

Lagois takes the client’s budget into account, and then following their “wish list,” produces a detailed set of drawings with cost estimates for additions as well as exterior and interior renovations. The drawings are produced for a fixed fee and the client owns the drawings at the end of the process. “Of course we can be involved from A to Z,” Lagois says.

In 25 years of business, Lagois’ firm can boast awards at the national, provincial and local levels. Recently, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) recognized Lagois Drafting and Construction with an award for designing and renovating a home — which happens to be in Ottawa — for someone who is environmentally hypersensitive. It was the first in Canada to receive the award.

Lagois notes the challenge in renovating the home because of the pervasiveness of synthetics in conventional building materials. “Simple things like caulking and glues used for plywood all produce off-gases, so we had to find substitutes,” he explains.

Because each project is totally unique to a client’s needs and desires, Lagois is hesitant to suggest ballpark figures for renovation although fees could range from 200.00 to 400.00 (and up) per sq.ft. As well, a design fee is project-dependent and can range from $2,000 to $20,000, he says.

He advises the consumer to have a budget in mind, and then do their homework in selecting a contractor: checking references and industry credentials, looking at similar jobs they have done, and listening to their own instincts to tell you whether or not they can work together.

Lagois says that his company follows a phased approach to ensure clients get what they’re looking for. “In the end, it is your home; you have to live in it. Unlike some other designers, we offer flexibility.” Another key to Lagois’ success is offering a high quality result. “Although we will work within a budget, we don’t skimp or take shortcuts.”

Michael J. Martin has been in the home renovation business for some 24 years. Luxury Renovations, his award-winning company, puts its distinctive stamp on projects ranging from small alterations to major additions and whole home renovations. He has been recognized by the industry as a GOHBA Renovator of the Year, has received an OCC Achievement Award for Professional Service; he is a recipient of a “Forty under Forty for Professional Services” award, and more. Each year projects of his are also acknowledged as GOHBA Housing Design Award finalists and a project has been recognized as a CHBA National Sam Award finalist for Best Kitchen.

Martin describes his company as completing “mid to high-end” projects featuring fine craftsmanship with first-rate materials and maintaining great client relationships. Project costs typically run between $250 to $450 per square foot, Martin says. He points out that a small bathroom upgrade, to give an example, can also be possible for $200 per square foot using modestly priced finishes and fixtures with minimal structural, electrical and plumbing enhancements.

His wife, Suzanne Martin, provides the design side of the business through her firm, Reno by Design. Offering staged services from start to finish, she assists clients with project planning, detailed drawings and finishes coordination to meet their preferred price range, before a hammer is raised. Among the biggest surprises of someone who is budget-conscious, Martin says, are discovery of major defects like rot behind the walls of older homes or client-requests for additional work — the “while you are here syndrome”. When added work involves change orders to the original contract, he will out the costs in time and materials. His motto is “Quality takes time.”

Martin is currently Chair of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association, Renovators’ Council, and he backs his company’s work with his personal guarantee.  How can the consumer be sure of getting an honest job done by qualified building professionals?  Your best insurance, Martin says, is to speak with previous clients, hire a renovator active with the homebuilders’ association, and one who is a member of RenoMark, a Canada-wide organization of certified renovators who subscribe to the highest industry standards and ethics.

RenoMark members must provide a detailed written contract for all jobs, big or small. They also follow a code of conduct that includes carrying $2 million in liability insurance, the proper licenses and permits, and enforcing strict workplace safety. As well, they must stay current of building codes and continually refresh their technical skills.