Preservation, Restoration, and Rehabilitation

Iconic photo of the Singleton House by Julius Shulman

Few would question that architect Richard Neutra was one of the preeminent modernist masters of our time. Some of his most famous works – the Lovell House, the Strathmore Apartments, the Kaufmann Desert House – are considered museum-quality treasures to this day. He had the unique distinction of being featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1949 – before some of his best works were even on the drawing board. So does that mean his houses should be faithfully restored and impeccably maintained in their original state, frozen in time as the master created them? Or are they homes for the living that need to evolve and adapt to ever-changing lifestyles and to remain viably marketable? (Especially when the alternative is, too often, the wrecking-ball.)

No house has energized this debate more then Neutra’s magnificent Singleton House in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles. Built in 1959 for the wealthy industrialist Henry Singleton (Teledyne Corp.), and purchased in 2004 by the hair-care tycoon Vidal Sassoon for a reported $6 million, the house was extensively renovated and reconfigured by his wife Ronnie for an attempted “flip” project during the height of the real estate boom. The results, unveiled when the house hit the market in 2008 for an eye-popping $24.5 million, were nothing less than controversial. The milder reviews called the renovation “an act of architectural vandalism” and “hostile to Neutra’s entire vision”.

I’ve toured the house and it remains jaw-droppingly stunning. But is it still a Neutra? What Ronnie did would have been considered brilliant in any other house. She essentially flipped the floorplan around. A small kitchen facing the driveway was moved across the hall to the south side of the house and opened-up to take in the commanding views of the pool and sun-filled vista beyond. This is, after all, where we now spend most of our time with family and friends. (In 1959 the kitchen was strictly the domain of servants.) A row of small bedrooms that turned their backs on the pool and view were moved to where the kitchen used to be on the dark side of the house. A small master bedroom tucked off the living room was converted to additional entertaining space with a built-in bar. And a new wing housing a state-of-the-art master suite with spa-style bathrooms and a screening room was added along the far end of the pool. Ronnie did her best to respect the spirit of Neutra by retaining or replicating the many built-ins throughout the house and matching the original materials in the new bathrooms, down to the 50 year-old fixtures still available at Sears.While still retaining the look and feel of Neutra’s original, there is no doubt the house makes better use of the siting and is far more livable than its predecessor. But the question remains – is it still a Neutra? How would the master himself feel about it? How it will stand the test of time is yet to be determined. After two years on the market, it remains unsold despite a price reduction of over $5 million. And the debate rages on.

How to Buy Foreclosed Properties

Up till now, I’ve been a flipper of high-end properties.  That may change given the upheavals in our economy and it’s possible I may move into the foreclosure market.  These properties are also called “bank owned property” or “REO” for “real estate owned”.  You’ve probably been hearing a lot about “short sales” too, but that’s something different and I’ll get into that in a separate posting.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not yet bought a foreclosed property but it’s not for lack of trying.  I’ve been shut out of six offers in recent months because I didn’t know the nuances of the game.  Here’s what I’ve since learned:

 

Banks are dispassionate

When buying from an owner, there is lots of emotion that guides the strategy of the offer and the subsequent negotiations.  When buying from a bank, the property is just a number on a very long list and the bank has no emotional ties to the house whatsoever.  Your offer is reviewed by a bank employee who is following strict policies and procedures.  Your offer either falls within their acceptable parameters and the deal kicks into gear, or it doesn’t and your offer is ignored.  There’s no negotiation so any efforts to try to outsmart the bank are wasted.

 

Understand how the price was determined

Banks are overwhelmed with properties and it’s getting worse by the day.  They do not have the wherewithal to inspect each property or the money to spend $400 or more for a proper appraisal on each and every one.  Instead, they often outsource to a real estate broker for what’s called a “BPO” – a Broker’s Pricing Opinion.  This broker may or may not visit the property – they may establish the price merely by doing some quick desk research and going by gut feel.  (As a former appraiser, I can tell you they also called me for an opinion.)  Since the property is one in a very large portfolio, nobody cares enough to re-think or second-guess the BPO.  I know from having worked with real estate agents and brokers, they will do everything they can to prop up the prices so they will generally come in high – higher than a certified appraiser would.  Even though the banks know this, they’d still rather start on the high side than leave money on the table, so the high estimate is accepted.

 

Know when the price starts to move downward

I made a lowball offer on a foreclosed house while it was within 30 days on market and my offer was ignored.  About 90 days later, it sold for much less than my offer.  What happened?  I was aggressive too soon.  When a foreclosed house is first listed, the bank will be the least flexible on the price.  Once the listing hits 30 to 60 days on market, the bank may start accepting offers that are within 10-15% of the asking price.  At 90 days, they may lower the price and accept offers within a wider margin.  So pay attention to how many days the house has been listed by watching the “Days On Market” or “DOM” on the MLS listing.  And be sure to check the listing price daily – if it drops, it’s time to make your move.

 

Know your market to spot the bargains

Frequent readers of JetSetRnv8r know that my Golden Rule is to buy where you know – know the prices, know the buyers, know the trends, etc.  If you’re an expert on the area, you’ll know if the price on a new listing is high, reasonable or low.  In their rush to get the house listed, the bank may have accepted a BPO which is too low and that should set-off alarm bells in your head.

 

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again

If the bank doesn’t respond to your first offer within a week at most, don’t wait, they are not going to respond.  Like I said earlier, they do not negotiate so no response is a clear “no thanks”.  Raise your offer a few points and repeat every four to five days until you have a deal.

 

Look for more postings to follow as I wade deeper into the foreclosure pool.  And I invite my readers to contribute their experiences in this burgeoning new market.

 
 

 

What Does the Wall Street Bail-out Mean For You*?

* By “you”, of course, I mean “me” – unless you’re also a Beverly Hills real estate investor and flip-artist.

 

October 3 2008   Excuse me for not posting for a couple weeks, but I’ve been glued to every and any news source I can find to follow the meltdown of our financial system – and staving off my own emotional meltdown in the process.  Regardless of your politics, there’s plenty of blame to be shared across both sides of the aisle and this has been a long-time coming.  Like many of us, I’ve been hearing dire warnings from friends on Wall Street for over a year and dismissed them as kill-joy doomsayers like the crazy guy on the street-corner with the “The End Is Nigh” sign.  Let’s just hope he’s not right, too.

 

The silver lining to this gloomy black thunderhead of a cloud is that this could usher in a whole new era of better government, better oversight, stronger regulation and a newer, stronger, more vibrant and sound economy that opens new opportunities for all of us.  Or not.  We’ll start to find out a month from now.

 

Preparation plus opportunity equals success.  It’s an old saying with many taking credit for it but it’s true and timely.  Every change – no matter how painful – brings opportunity for those who are able to identify it and adapt to take advantage of it.  The real estate business will fundamentally change.  “Flipping” houses may or may not be a viable strategy at least for the near future but plenty of opportunities will exist – some we may not even have thought of yet.

 

The bright spot in the otherwise dreary real estate market up to now has been the high-end.  As the American middle-class weakens, the world’s rich have been getting richer as evidenced by the over-the-top demand for ultra-luxury goods including million-dollar cars and diamond-encrusted human skulls.  The very top-end of the real estate market in the select areas of Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Malibu (“Bevairbu”) has remained strong with a few clever realtors having their strongest years ever.  Houses in $10 to $30 million range in Bevairbu have been selling briskly to all-cash buyers.  When you’re not applying for a loan, you don’t care about mortgage rates.  And you can rationalize paying prices above appraisal values.  This explains the McCourt’s $19 million purchase of a crumbling beach shack on Malibu’s Carbon Beach next door to the Lautner-designed house they bought for over $33 million.  The number of sales of homes over $15 million in Beverly Hills and Bel Air increased over the last 12 months (ending October 1 2008) to a five-year high with more sales than ever getting near or above asking price in fewer than 70 days on market.  Remarkable, given what’s been going on everywhere else.  And positive sales trends in Beverly Hills is reported in a separate posting here.

 

Is that party over?  Too soon to tell for sure.  The world’s super-rich may be too insulated to be affected.  Most of these buyers are foreigners – Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern oil barons or members of exiled political regimes.  They may be drawn more than ever to the relatively stable market of Los Angeles’ Westside in an increasingly unstable world.

 

My advice for the near term is to move into rental properties, building a portfolio of small homes in solid middle-class neighborhoods with a minimum of a five-year time horizon while keeping an eye on the sales activity in the usually recession-proof Bevairbu. 

 

For more about investing in this tumultuous market, read “Amid the Chaos, Is This Any Time to Invest in Real Estate?

Check back in a few months to see how my advice holds.

Amid the Chaos, Is This Any Time to Invest in Real Estate?

September 21 2008   Bear Stearns!  Goldman Sachs!  Lehman Brothers!  AIG!  Fannie Mae!  Freddie Mac!  Wall Street bail-outs!  Every day a new sensational headline about the meltdown on Wall Street.  Just when we think it can’t get any worse, it does.  So what, exactly, does this mean for real estate investors and is this any time to get into – or out of – the market?

 

Before I answer that, let me share a secret.  It’s the secret to success in business and investing.  And I’m going to share it with you, just you, dear reader.  Ready?  Come close.  Lean into the computer.  Here it is… 

 

“Buy low and sell high.” 

 

That’s right.  Repeat it a few times.  Write it down, if necessary, so you don’t forget it.  All you have to do is invest when prices are low and sell when they’re high!  That’s all there is to it!  It’s that simple.  The only thing you have to figure out is when the prices are low and when they are high.  When you figure that out, let me know. 

 

I can’t tell you when prices are going to be high but I can tell you one thing, they’re low right now.  They might even get a little lower – but the fact of the matter is, they’re pretty darn low today.  And I can tell you one other thing – they will rise.  I can’t tell you exactly when, but I’m pretty sure that within five years they will have at least recovered to their pre-crash levels if not more. 

 

Without getting into the detail of it, real estate has, historically, consistently delivered some of the highest returns on investment over time.  Sure, there are ups and downs along the way and speculators have been known to get reckless and homeowners have suffered.  But those losses almost always occur when there’s a short-term time horizon and homeowners or speculators are banking on short-term gains.  Investors who endure and succeed are the ones who are in it for the long term. 

 

I learned that lesson the hard way with my first real estate investment.  I was looking for a quick buck from flipping a co-op in New York City in the mid 1980s and I lost when conditions in the neighborhood suddenly made it un-sellable.  (The city opened three welfare hotels immediately adjacent to the building.)  At the time, I felt like the first person ever to lose money in the go-go Manhattan real estate market – but I wasn’t the first, nor the last.  Those welfare hotels were gone two years later and the neighborhood quickly gentrified.  In fact, one of those “welfare hotels” became one of the first of the new wave of “hip” high-end hotels.  If I’d had the wisdom, wherewithal and resources to hold on, my $75,000 investment would have been worth at least $1.5 million today.  On top of that, I would have taken in nearly another million dollars in rental income by now.  The property would have been fully capitalized (paid for itself) after only seven years with the remaining fifteen years providing pure profit.  Even after expenses and taxes, that’s not so bad.  My partner in that deal did hold on and that co-op is one of the best performing assets in his investment portfolio today – and he’s a successful hedge fund manager.

 

I predict that five-to-ten years from now, many of the people we read about in the Wall Street Journal and on the Forbes 400 list will have made their fortunes building their real estate portfolios today. 

 

So back to today.  Prices are at historic lows.  Foreclosures are at an all-time high.  The rental market is red-hot with rents rising.  Inventories are at an all-time high making it as much a buyer’s market as it ever gets.  Here’s where two-plus-two equals five.  This is an unprecedented buying opportunity for investors.  A recent article in the New York Times (“Finding Profits in a Distressed Market” 9/14/08) quotes Gene Hacker of Century 21; “You’ll probably never see anything like this in your lifetime again.  With the rental market as strong as it is, and prices as low as they’ve been, this is as good as it gets.”

Here’s my advice.  Buying foreclosures and other well-priced distressed properties and running them as rental properties with a long-term time horizon of five years or more could be a very smart move right now.  That’s why I’m talking to my partners about investing our money in residential income properties – maybe even some commercial properties like small retail centers and coin laundries. 

But pick your markets carefully and, like anything, invest only in what you know and do your research.  For example, I only invest in Los Angeles where the booming entertainment industry sustains an economy insulated from the rest of the country and international jet-setters will always flock to the enduring cachet of Beverly Hills and Malibu.  (Read about sales trends in Beverly Hills here.)  Having worked in the entertainment industry, I understand these buyers.  I would not invest in markets that are shrinking or over-saturated – Phoenix, Las Vegas and Miami come to mind (although I have a friend doing okay with vacation rentals in Tucson – the poor-man’s Santa Fe.)   

 

Stay tuned and I’ll let you know how it goes.  And let me know what you’re doing out there.

 

For more information about investing in this tumultuous market, read “What Does the Wall Street Bail-Out Mean For You?”  And look for future postings here about how to find and buy foreclosed properties, evaluate a real estate investment including calculating the capitalization rate and rate of return.

Architects! Who Needs ‘Em?

You do.  If you want superior results and the best return on your investment.

 

Architects are kinda like prostitutes.  They perform a service we could do by ourselves, if absolutely necessary, but the process goes a little more smoothly, and the results are far more satisfying with the aid of a professional.

 

Almost anyone with an ounce of taste and good sense can execute a remodel without an architect.  And for your average run-of-the-mill middle-market or down-market flip or rental property, that may be all you need – a slap of paint, whatever tile you can get on sale, some inexpensive fixtures from Home Depot and voila!  Job done. 

 

For more extensive remodels (moving walls, building additions, etc.) a good contractor can get your ideas drawn-up and signed-off by an engineer.  Some contractors consider themselves amateur designers or (unlicensed) architects – and some of them are pretty adequate at meeting the needs of their clients.  But if you’re dealing in the luxury market, or even want to get top-dollar for an ordinary house, get yourself a pro.

 

Design Integrity

Designer showcase houses where every room is done by a different designer may be fun to look at, but would you really want to live in it?  A good house calms the spirit and lifts the soul.  A poorly designed home creates visual chaos and subliminal stress.  Think about houses you’ve been in that please you versus those that confuse you.  Room flow, sight-lines, massing and proportion are vital – but they’re only the foundation.  The finishes, the hardware, the lighting, the colors and textures – they can make or break an otherwise good house.  It’s what I call “design integrity” and what one of my architects calls the “language” of the house. 

 

Here are some basic rules of design I’ve learned from working with architects:

1.  Be consistent with finishes:  Carrying the same cabinetry finishes and countertops throughout the kitchen and baths makes the house feel larger, calmer, and more “designed”.  Some designers even believe in using the same tile throughout all the bathrooms, but I sometimes like to vary tile color or shape to give a powder room or guest bath a different attitude than a master bath, while staying within the same family (glass, stone, ceramic, etc.)  When done right, this doesn’t result in a bland house, but in a house with a strong visual presence.

 

2.  Be consistent with your hardware and fixtures:  Doorknobs and drawer-pulls are called the “jewelry” of a house.  Like jewelry on a beautiful woman, it should all work together.  A well-dressed woman wouldn’t mix gold and silver jewelry and neither should your house.  Whether it’s polished chrome, satin nickel or oil-rubbed bronze, pick one finish and carry it throughout the house – everywhere – including window and door hardware, cabinetry knobs and drawer-pulls, plumbing fixtures, everything.  Mixing and matching confuses the observer and creates subliminal stress. 

 

3.  Be consistent with flooring:  A different floor in each room adds to the visual chaos and breaks up the spaces into separate smaller spaces.  Whether you’re using hardwood or tile, carry it through everywhere you have a solid floor surface and the house will feel more expansive.  When you do alter the flooring, use it to define different spaces – carpet in the bedroom or tile in an entry foyer, for example.  But try to limit it to no more than two or three flooring materials for your house and carry them throughout.  Using tile, slate or concrete indoors and continuing it out to a patio brings the outdoors in.  And blurring the line between indoors and out is what mid-century modern design is all about.

 

4.  It’s not just visual, it’s tactile.  Think about the things you touch most often in a house – doorknobs, drawer-pulls, faucets, etc.  These things should feel solid and rich and work with precision, this is not the area to go cheap to save money.  Think of the sound you get when you shut the door of a Bentley versus a Yugo.  You want your house to be the Bentley.

 

A good architect is certain to do a better job of this than you could do on your own.  The benefits may seem intangible but I assure you this will add real value by creating a house that stands apart from the rest.  And if done correctly, the added cost of engaging an architect will more than pay for itself in substantially higher returns. 

 

Remember, you are creating a product with lots of competition and it’s your job as the owner/builder (or “flipper”) to create a house with a competitive edge that people will remember – whether it’s in Beverly Hills or Compton. 

 

Read about how to find and hire a contractor here.  And look for other postings here about design and how to find, hire, and negotiate a contract with an architect as well as the option of working with a “design-build firm”.

What Is a Permit Expediter and Do I Need One?

The permit process can be pretty straightforward if you’re doing a simple remodel.  But try to do anything out of the ordinary (like everything I do), and it can be a frustrating, time-consuming, and expensive proposition.  The city Planning Department is a fun-house hall of mirrors and the people who work there like it that way.

 

The Planning Department is a vast conspiracy whose primary mission is to make the process as confusing as possible in order to guarantee every retiring staff member a lucrative second career as permit consultants where they make more money than they ever could have working behind a counter.

 

These consultants are often called “expediters”, but that term is misleading and often misused.  The only people who can really expedite a permit process are one of the downtown law firms who hire former planning department staff members and even retired city council members and charge fees starting at $50,000 and up.  These expediters are hired by large developers or superrich celebrities trying to get around the rules with as little fuss as possible.

 

For the rest of us mere mortals, there are a variety of consultants who can help us navigate the system with as few mistakes and delays as possible.  Only by avoiding delays are they “expediting” anything.  They cannot circumvent the process or make anything move faster.  The most they can do is ensure that an eight-month process actually takes eight months – not ten.  But these consultants aren’t cheap either and usually won’t touch a project unless they can charge at least $10-20,000 in fees.

 

What many people call “expediters” are what I call “runners” or “bag-carriers”.  For $40-50 per hour, they will carry your plans through Plan Check and other planning counters.  Some of them will help you research and prepare your case – others won’t.  Some others only do the research, not the trafficking.  You’ll see these runners around the planning office, often pulling file crates on wheels loaded-up with plans and paperwork for multiple clients.  I’ve seen two types: 1) older men and women who recently retired from the Planning Departments and are still on close terms with everyone behind the counter, and 2) young, leggy women who wear the highest heels, the shortest skirts and the lowest-cut blouses you’ve ever seen and know how to flirt.  In both cases, you’ll see them wave and blow kisses to everyone as they enter the floor.  They’ll stop and chat with everyone they see and spend more time talking with staff members about family, vacations and office gossip than they do conducting business.  All this while you sit seething, waiting for your number to be called, feeling like the outcast at a party where everyone else knows each other.

 

So back to you – do you need a runner, a permit consultant or an actual expediter?  It depends on how complicated your permit issues are and what your budget can afford.  You don’t need any of these if your project is fairly simple and your architect or contractor doesn’t hit any snags.  But if you do encounter a problem, it’s going to be up to you which strategy to pursue since you’re the one paying the bills.  In separate postings I’ll talk about how to find the help you need, and how to handle the process yourself.  Or contact me directly through this site and I’ll see if I can steer you in the right direction.

 

Read more about clearing a difficult permit here.

What is a Design-Build Firm and Should You Work With One?

There are architects, and there are contractors – two separate functions that must work in synergy with each other, and who must also serve as checks and balances against each other.  It seems to make sense to combine both functions under one roof – and this is popularly referred to as a “design-build firm”.  So why wouldn’t you simplify your life and work with one?

 

Conventional wisdom dictates that you should always work with a separate architect and contractor, the reason being that the architect works as the client-advocate overseeing the contractor.  The assumption is that contractors are as trustworthy as mechanics and used car salesmen and will take every opportunity to gouge the customer.  And there’s enough anecdotal evidence out there to justify this stereotype.  After all, construction is a mystery to most people and you have little choice but to believe whatever your contractor tells you.  So with a design-build firm, the assumption is nobody’s looking out for you – therefore, design-build firms inherently pose a conflict of interest.  There’s even some debate as to whether they are ethical – or even legal.

 

Having worked both ways, here’s my take on the matter.  In theory, the architect-as-client-advocate sounds great, but from my experience, few architects are effective in that role.  Architects are artistes and ego driven.  They want their vision built no matter what.  They are often ignorant – and sometimes completely oblivious – to cost of materials and labor.  When I’ve worked with separate architects and contractors, nobody was my advocate.  I had to maintain tight control over the budgets and often mediate spats between the two parties.  Each came to me complaining about the other and they resisted direct contact at all costs.  I rationalized this as “healthy tension” that I believed was benefiting the project, but I can assure you it also created its share of problems.

 

In contrast, working with a single design-build firm was a bit easier, but posed its own set of challenges.  With the architect and contractor partners in their own business, they have a shared interest in benefiting themselves.  Nobody was looking out for my best interests and I had to be even more vigilant, exercising even more control over the budgets, questioning every dollar spent, and second-guessing every recommendation.  Differences between the architect and contractor were settled at their office, not in front of me, and didn’t require me to serve as referee.  Architect and contractor spoke with a single voice and a shared vision, and that made my life a whole lot easier.  But it brings us to the trust factor.

 

It helps that I’ve had a long relationship with my design-build firm, having used them as contractors before.  They have earned my trust, I know how they work and what to expect of them.  We’ve become friends outside work, attending each other’s weddings and children’s birthdays.  They’ve built their company on the work I’ve given them so I know my jobs will always take priority over their other clients.  I know they would never jeopardize our relationship.  I would not have been so confident working with a design-build firm I didn’t know as well.

 

There’s also the budget consideration.  Don’t forget that the architect and contractor each take a percentage of the overall construction budget which could be as much as 20% to each party.  Working with a single design-build firm makes it easier to negotiate a package deal at a much lower percentage.

 

The bottom line – there’s no clear-cut answer.  It depends on you, your situation, your knowledge level and your confidence in undertaking a major project.  If you’re uncertain, I’d suggest starting with an architect you like and trust and letting him/her guide you in your search for a separate contractor.  But if you know what you’re doing and intend to be heavily involved in the day-to-day process and don’t feel a need for an advocate, then a design-build firm may be the best way to go, as long as you know the benefits and pitfalls.

 

In separate postings, I will talk about how to find and hire a contractor and the value of working with an architect.

Bad Design is Bad Economics

  

You’ll see me harp a lot about design issues in a blog about real estate flipping, but design is what makes or breaks a house when you’re selling it.

 

This may strike you as obvious, as it does me, but it’s not obvious to everyone.  The wide proliferation of ugly spec houses throughout L.A. attests to that.

 

I know a team of developers who once showed me a high-end multi-million dollar house they were flipping in the Hollywood Hills.  They bragged to me about the deals they got on materials and how they bought overstocked flooring, doors, hardware, vanities and fixtures at huge discounts off Craigslist and eBay.  There was hardwood flooring of one color in the sunken living room, another kind of wood on the stairs to the dining area which had cheap-looking engineered flooring of another color.  There were at least six different kinds of doors in the house – solid flush wood stained, solid flush wood painted, doors with clear glass panels, doors with frosted glass panels, louvered closet doors and mirrored closet doors.  There was different door hardware in every room – some knobs, some levers, some chrome, some brass.  There were even windows of aluminum, black anodized, and white vinyl clad.  Outside they had aluminum railings, white light fixtures and a faux gold-leaf door.  And some of their ideas were just plain asking for trouble – a faux-concrete finish over drywall in a shower?  A large wood-framed window in another shower?  Both disasters waiting to happen.  The place was a mess.  It looked like the showroom at a bad Expo Design Center.  Think I’m exaggerating?  I’m not.  And these guys were both real estate agents who thought they knew their market.  What they didn’t know was anything about design or the value of working with an architect. 

 

The end result?  Their house sat on the market for almost a year with repeated price reductions and eventually sold at a loss for about $450 per square foot.  My smaller house directly across the street sold in 60 days with multiple offers at $1,200 per square foot.  Those guys ended up hiring my architect for their next project.

 

See other postings here about why you should work with an architecthow to find, hire and negotiate with a contractor and the option of working with a design-build firm.

Hiring a Contractor – Fixed-Price or Cost-Plus?

There are two types of contracts when working with a contractor – “cost-plus” or “fixed-price”.  Under cost-plus, you pay the contractor for the cost of materials and labor plus a commission to cover his compensation – typically 20% but it can range anywhere from less than 10% to over 25%.  Of course both parties work to a pre-determined budget so you have a pretty good idea of what the total job will cost.  With a fixed-price contract, you pay a set amount and it’s up to the contractor to make it work – if he’s over budget, it comes out of his pocket and the more money he saves, the more he makes – you pay the same either way.

 

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Real Estate section [“Digging – It’s Your Job” 7/13/08] suggested always negotiating a “fixed-price” contract, never a “cost-plus”.  Their reasoning was that it left it up to the contractor to lose money or turn a profit.  I couldn’t disagree more.  What contractor is going to choose to lose money?

 

I always work on a cost-plus basis and here’s why.  I want to know what I’m paying for, and I want control over my budget.  The estimated cost of the project is just that – an estimate.  Every job is full of surprises and budgets need to be flexible.  You never know what you’re going to find when you’re opening walls or removing flooring.  No contractor is going to want to lose money and with a fixed-price contract, he’ll do everything possible to cut corners including using inferior materials or skipping important steps to maximize his profit.

 

If you want to know exactly what you’re paying for what, negotiate a cost-plus contract within a set budget and insist on detailed invoices with back-up.  My contractor’s invoices generally have up to five or more pages of Excel spreadsheet showing over 200 or more line items detailing what’s being billed against the original estimate.  Changes to the original estimate are discussed in advance, solutions worked out between us and billed separately as a change order.

 

The only time I might make an exception and opt for a fixed-price contract would be for a small job like a closet make-over, a bathroom remodel or maybe even a kitchen – but never for a major house remodel.

To learn more about finding and hiring a contractor and why to work with an architect, read “How to Find and Hire a Contractor” and “Architects!  Who Needs ‘Em?” here.

Bravo’s “Flipping Out” – Real or Fake?

Whenever I tell people at parties that I flip houses, they inevitably ask if I watch “Flipping Out” on Bravo and what I think about it.  And the job supervisor at one of my houses kept telling me I reminded him of the guy on the show (I’m equally obsessed with details).  So I finally had to watch it. And like a train wreck, I can’t take my eyes off of it.

 

 

“Flipping Out” is about as close to depicting the life of a real estate investor as “Green Acres” was to portraying the life of a farmer.  Jeff Lewis’ life is nothing like mine.  He wears designer clothing which never get dirty, drives around in one of two $100,000 cars (which also never get dirty), employs a huge staff to do non-essential work such as fetching coffee (140o!), getting someone on the phone, or cleaning-up after one of his dogs.  He drives from Los Feliz to Encino and back in record time, and enjoys leisurely lunches at home with his staff every day. 

 

My days, on the other hand, are spent running around with my hair on fire – going to Home Depot sometimes twice a day, any of a half-dozen specialty lighting stores, electrical wholesalers, plumbing supply stores, hardware stores, furniture stores or meetings with contractors, sub-contractors and other suppliers and vendors.  In between all that, I’m making the rounds looking at houses on caravan days (when realtors hold open houses for other realtors) looking at comps (similar homes) for my projects and keeping an eye out for my next project.  I drive a beat-up SUV I can’t keep clean because it’s always loaded with building materials or my dog. 

 

I wear shorts, tee-shirts and construction boots and am lucky if I can bathe once a day and shave once a week.  If I get around to having lunch, it’s usually at 4PM and might be a 3-day old sandwich from a gas station mini-mart – or it’s off the “roach coach” at a job site.  I can’t afford to employ a personal staff since every penny I have goes into each project and I don’t have the margins for such luxuries.  And my evening hours are spent at my desk crunching numbers, reviewing budgets, reviewing and paying invoices, creating punch lists and schedules and emailing photos and teasers to realtors, journalists, TV producers and other people important to my business.  When other people might kick-back and watch TV, play video games or surf the web, I spend my idle moments scanning the MLS for sales trends and comps, or mining the furniture websites for prices on vintage pieces and furnishing ideas.

 

I only wish I had the time Jeff Lewis has to wreak havoc with other people’s lives!