Why Smart Contractors Can't Always Estimate Price
Host Kevin O'Conner explains how unknowns—things underground, behind the walls, hidden in ceilings—can create pricing ambiguity.
Jimmy McLaughlin leads the crew replacing the old steel water line with a new copper line. It's a hardworking family; Jimmy's son stands behind him, and his brother operates the excavator.
Published August 4, 2015
"How much will it cost?" I asked.
"Don't know. Depends on what we find," the contractor answered.
"Can you give me a range?" I pressed.
"Depends on what we find," he said again.
Ugh. I've heard this conversation too many times, from contractors working on my own house as well as from Tom Silva and our guys when they're working in other people's homes. It's maddening, even for me. Let me give you a recent example of the kind of hidden minefield a contractor can uncover when work begins on a project.
See more: Say What? Translating Your Contractor
It revealed itself when we started digging for new porch piers on our latest TOH project, the Victorian in Belmont, Massachusetts. A hundred years ago, the house had a porch, and the homeowners wanted it back.
Our first step was to dig deep in the front yard and build the piers to support the new porch. You see, Tom Silva and his band of subcontractors can't see underground any more than you or I can. The only way to find out is to dig, carefully, and deal with what you find. And that takes time and costs money. "How much?" The answer remains the same: Depends on what you find. There may be complications that come to light only once we start digging, which may lead to choices about how to deal with those issue, both of which ultimately affect cost.
We started digging carefully, to avoid getting blown up or covered in sewage. Whenever you dig, you have to worry about underground utilities and in our case they identified three: lines for water, sewer, and natural gas. We also found a few other things. They were all bad. For starters, the water line was steel, not copper. It was likely original to the house, making it about 110 years old, and it was mostly corroded. It was also right next to the sewer line—a situation no longer up to code—and that wasn't good because if one line leaks into the other…well you get the idea.
What to do? Although the lines were operational as is, once the porch was built, the only way to fix a future leak would be to crawl under the porch, dig down 5 feet by hand, and muddle through a repair.
Or we could fix it right then. It would mean replacing the old steel water line with a copper one, moving it a safe distance from the sewer line, and setting the situation straight for another 100 years.
With the crew waist-deep in our carefully dug holes, we tried to reach the homeowners to make a decision: either fix it now, unknown expenses and all, or do nothing and hope for the best. After a few failed attempts to get ahold of our homeowners, Tom had to make a game-time decision. Without hesitation, he decided that if we didn't hear from the homeowners, we would just run a PVC sleeve where the new waterline would go so that in the future, when the porch was built, it wouldn't act as an obstacle. This way, you'd just have to trench the yard up to where the PVC came out beneath the porch, and you could feed the new water line through without too much of a hassle. This is what we call "future proofing": taking measures that will make any projects that come along down the line much easier.
Fortunately, just as we were setting out to install the PVC line, the homeowners called back and gave us the go-ahead to replace the water line with copper. They were upset to hear about the problem, and the dollar signs involved with the fix, but ultimately happy the problem was caught and that they'd be able to trust the new water line.
So we went off to make it right, and good thing, too, because the old water line was so corroded that half its inside diameter was caked with muck, reducing the flow to the house. Even worse was the muck itself—black goop that rubbed right off when touched. A fix like that sounds like a good investment to me.
Many people get frustrated when unexpected costs and issues pop up during a major project, but unless you can see the future or have X-ray glasses, it's impossible to know what is buried in your front yard. You can't blame the contractor. He's just trying to help avoid a water-line break or flooding from lines trapped under your newly installed porch!