Review: What Your Contractor Can’t Tell You

Soon after moving to Australia, it became apparent that the local housing stock as a whole lacks some features I value; really basic stuff like being warm in the winter (i.e. insulation). Insulation, when building, is not expensive and it’s made even more economical in that it will pay itself back quite soon in the form of reduced energy bills.

While on one hand the lack of insulation is infuriating, on the other it’s quite understandable – if you don’t insulate your house here, you are mildly uncomfortable for a few months of the year. If you don’t insulate houses in Finland, you die. Minor difference. But not all is bad; I generally like the house layouts here a lot, particularly the emphasis on the living room / kitchen area and the ubiquitous open plans. In Finland, many houses are just… how should I put it, boring. So it appears wherever you are, to get what you want, you need to do it yourself: I/we therefore have somewhat of a long-term goal of building a house. The actual building, however, is still years away, as several minor details – like what country to build it in – need to be sorted out first.

That, however, doesn’t mean one can’t start upskilling for that project. As I harbor no dreams of doing much of the actual construction myself (even though I can lay floors, tiles, paint and do minor stuff like that), much of that upskilling has to do with getting acquainted with the various building materials, design choices etc. One of these aspects is the building process and knowing how the builders’ world works; while I have great deals of second-hand experience of this from co-workers and relatives cursing the tradies to the lowest levels of Hell, I also wanted to do some reading of my own. Hence I started with What Your Contractor Can’t Tell You: The Essential Guide to Building and Renovating by Amy Johnston – a crash-course into what the well-informed owners should know and do when planning and building. In essence, it’s a guidebook on how the owners can a) be more of an asset to he building process than a hindrance and b) how to avoid mistakes – budget overruns, bad work, delays etc.

At 200 pages, it may feel like a short book, but it’s absolutely packed with invaluable information. If I ever do get to the actual building part, I will be extremely happy I know all this. It’s impossible to sum up the advice, but the most important things are: meticulous planning, carefully following and enforcing those plans and keeping track of the money, right down to the dollar or cent. But why should building need a guidebook? As much of the advise itself may sound common sense when you read it, why is it so difficult to get something built successfully? Amy explains:

Why is getting something built such a high risk endeavor? For starters, owners enter a culture that’s much less straightforward than it appears from the outside, and everyone in it knows more than they do. They can expect to make fifteen hundred decisions when building a new home. Add to that a dozen new relationships, deadlines, tastes, quality standards, and more money than they’ll ever spend on anything else, and you have a formula for potential disaster. Most people don’t know how to get themselves prepared for this undertaking, and to date, few in the industry have wanted to tell them.

Importantly, the book is not about demonizing contractors or tradies – it’s about understanding their point of view, and on teaching strategies to developing a mutually respecting, positive relationship with them. It tells you where the contractors’ revenue comes from, how they try to maximize it, and how the owners should and can try to minimize the costs and control the money flow. It’s a bit like a friendly (or at least semi-friendly) game of cat-and-mouse, with all parties trying to maximize their own benefit. And if the owner – who after all controls the money – doesn’t get into the “game” as an informed participant, chances are he’s going to end up paying too much and get into other kinds of trouble. I have a fair share of acquaintances who have had nightmarish building experiences, and I can’t help but imagine they should’ve read this book before building.

The key takeaways from the book relate to careful planning, having a detailed contract, meticulously overseeing the plan fulfillment, being extremely careful about money flows and keeping a paper trail of everything. What Your Contractor Can’t Tell You is an American book and, as such, not 1:1 applicable in everything elsewhere, but I still consider it an invaluable resource with lots of essential advice and good insight into the construction business. I would go as far as to say much of the book is probably an interesting and even entertaining read even if one was not planning to renovate or build.

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One Response to Review: What Your Contractor Can’t Tell You

  1. Bill says:

    I must say…the book is excellent. I would not build or renovate until you have read the book, “What Your Contractor Can’t Tell You: The Essential Guide to Building and Renovating” by Amy Johnston. Otherwise, you will get burned somewhere along the line.

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