With the popularity of reality TV home remodeling shows, the risk grows that you’ll become involved with clueless customers and their disastrous projects.


You’ve probably seen an episode or two of popular house-flipping shows on cable TV. You know the type, where a Hollywood-cute couple — each looking like they don’t know which end of a hammer to hold on to — walks through a dilapidated house, decides it’s a remodeling project gold mine, and then pays a big pile of money for it.

The husband-and-wife actors are giddy and high-five each other when their bid is accepted. Then they bring in the construction experts who frown as they point out all of the problems with the rehab project. The flippers immediately disregard the advice of the professionals and set off to knocking down walls, filling a trash container with debris and making big plans to turn the crumbling dump into someone’s dream home.

On TV, there’s always a happy ending, as the investors walk away with a healthy profit on their investment and a video montage shows the sparkly new digs waiting for the happy next owners to move in. As I said, that’s the TV version of the story — real life remodeling is often a messier affair.

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AVOID THE FANTASY

House flipping shows portray a fantasy world designed to suck viewers into attempting their own daring real estate project, with the segments bookended by commercials for big-box home improvement stores trying to sell power tools and Sheetrock. They seek to minimize the complexities and inherent risks when unqualified people buy, fix and sell homes.

Unfortunately, reality looks more like a story out of Green, Ohio, south of Cleveland, where the new owners of a home were surprised to find their septic tank was located underneath an addition. As reported recently at www.cleveland19.com, the buyers were not told the septic tank access is located under the floor in their toddler’s playroom.

A house-plumbing problem led to the unhappy discovery. A plumber investigating a back-up in a bathroom traced the septic tank to a hatch in the floor that was carpeted over.

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“That day was when we found out the septic system was in our house,” Kyle Branham told a local news reporter. “It is definitely inside the house, I would say about 60 feet from the back door, in fact.”

A permit for the ill-conceived house addition was apparently approved, but somehow a required point-of-sale septic inspection wasn’t performed. The new owners now face the prospect of having vacuum hoses dragged through the house to reach the tank for service.

“If we knew this, we wouldn’t have bought the house,” Amanda Branham said. “There’s rules for a reason on where you can have a septic tank and where you can’t have it.”

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RECOGNIZE THE FLIP

I suspect this is going to be a more common complaint as the house-flipping craze continues and owners are living in these homes for five to 10 years, then get a similar surprise as the Branham family when something goes wrong.

The problems that will inevitably come back to bite careless or deceptive flippers could have a negative impact on the onsite installing community if contractors aren’t careful about who they work for. You can’t risk squandering your hard-earned reputation installing or designing a system for a flipper who puts money above integrity.

Clearly, not all flippers are a problem. Plenty of reputable construction contractors buy homes to fix up and put back on the market. They’re providing a valuable service by getting neglected homes occupied and back on the property tax rolls. You may already have a good working relationship with some of these established contractors in your community, building replacement systems or upgrades that will serve their buyers well for many years.

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But you may encounter a less-reputable or unproven flipper. How should you handle it when they call? Here are a few precautions about partnering with flippers:

Learn to recognize the bad ones

Beware of the customers who call looking for slap-dash solutions to bring their septic systems up to code. Watch out for the would-be real estate titans who have spent all their money on granite countertops and showy fixtures and left little to address critical belowground infrastructure. Proceed with caution when the main goal of a homeowner is to shoehorn in one more bedroom than you think the drainfield could handle. You intuitively know when a project might come back to haunt you. Just say no.

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Insist on following the rules

If you sniff out a questionable flipper, lay out your ground rules from the start. Tell them you are meticulous about following rules and regulations. You know the codebook inside out and you refuse to cut corners. Stress that you promise quality work and charge a fee reflecting that high performance. If this message scares away the customer, so be it. You don’t want to work for someone who is willing to skimp on the important work that can’t be seen in a 15-minute walk-through.

Get a quick look at the remodeling plans

Ask to see the architectural plans for any addition and walk around the yard. Is the square footage of the house now going to be more than the square footage of the lot? Some flippers may have no concept of the space needed for a replacement onsite system. Worse yet, they may have only learned the house is not hooked up to city sewer after they bought. If their plans look unrealistic after a few minutes of review, you may want to walk away and look for a better caliber of customer.

BE CHOOSY

As the economy continues to pick up and the demand for good, solid housing strengthens, your phone will ring more often. I talk to installers every week, and I can’t remember the last company owner I spoke to who didn’t have a waiting list of projects. If you do good work, you can afford to be choosy about who you work for.

You can’t afford to take on a job where the customer wants to fudge numbers or build a substandard system. Attach yourself to that customer and you’re sure to get a callback for a costly fix. Maybe from a couple like the Branhams, who don’t want suction hoses dragged through their living room to pump the septic tank.


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