New kitchen interior with white quartz waterfall counter, white cabinets and shelves contrasting with grey tile, whitewashed redwood backsplash, oak stairs and blue accent walls.
[Fig01] New Interior
Understand the value that specialists bring to the project,
how to communicate with them,
and the artifacts needed to get the job done right.


Like bringing a product to market, the home buying and renovation process involves a few distinct phases and people.

Purchasing & Escrow

The period when offers are made, countered and one is accepted is stressful. It's followed by a 30 day escrow during which the buyer gets to inspect the property, get financing approved, or potentially back out of the deal. The stress on the buyer is somewhat mitigated by their team:

  • Real Estate Agent - We worked with a buyer's agent with good knowledge of San Diego County. They are great for working through the paperwork needed for an offer, due diligence on the property, and acting as an emissaries in what can be a very emotionally charged negotiations.
  • Inspectors - During escrow we can hire consultants to inspect for invisible issues that are expensive to repair.
  • Appraisers & Loan Officers - A bank will lend you money for a 30 year mortgage based on their appraisal that your home's value is worth at least the price that you and the seller agree to. The sample size of comps of roughly similar size, amenities and construction quality is small and can greatly affect the quality of the appraisal. Banks vary greatly in their responsiveness and their ability to underwrite non-standard properties.

Finding & Working with a General Contractor

Once escrow closes the next phase is finding a GC or general contractor. In California any work that exceeds $500 needs to be  done by a licensed and bonded contractor.

The GC is responsible for coordinating supplies, managing the different trades, ensuring the work is done correctly, and passing city inspections. A homeowner can be their own GC but in this context  the liability and number of trades involved make it impractical. Most trades are either employees or subcontractors under the GC. Specialists consultants are contracted to provide submission drawings, calculations on load bearing features, energy efficiency of windows and lights.The relationship between me and the GC is tightly defined through a contract, change orders, specs, design and working drawings.

Getting a bid from a contractor is often frustrating. They are busy on multiple job sites managing several crews and talking to potential new clients. In a dynamic common to any custom project, a contractor is judging whether you are a good potential client or just price shopping for the lowest bid. From the client point of view it's difficult to lock down the project scope & budget without an experienced contractor breaking it down.

In our case we wanted to increase the number of bathrooms. We weren't familiar with the local city regulations and labor  costs. Material costs were changing as new suppliers from China challenged the US and European brands we knew.

Designers & Role of Drawings

Until the General Contractor is hired almost no drawings have been exchanged with anyone. Any estimates done by the contractors are based on building dimensions, numbers of items, and written descriptions of planned changes.

A designer could provide rendering or plans of the proposed project but was no need to design construction details. We had to be mindful about the placement of walls, plumbing fixtures, electrical fixtures, windows and doors but otherwise it was  quite standard construction.

We planned to use my sketches and measurements as the starting point for any required drawings.

Waterfall vs Agile MVP

In residential construction the workflow follows a waterfall model. Physical constraints prevent continuous iteration, and a minimal value product approach. You have to workout spatial flows, layout, on the drawing board or in a 3D modeling program, convert that into working drawings, and get those approved before you can start tearing into the walls and seeing what's really going on.

Also space in complex rooms like kitchens and bathrooms is tight so it's easier for trades to work in sequence than parallel.

While this goes against the current thinking in software development, trades who have learned to work together this way for decades know how their work fits into the grand scheme of things and how to communicate issues that might affect the next trade.

In the real world it's expensive and difficult to redo mistakes. There's no minimum value product. Paint and furniture are the chief ways to modify the appearance and utility of room economically.

Updated front facade with french doors that connect the living room to the front patio.
[Fig04] New Front Facade