Answers for Your Questions #6

It's been a while since I did one of these posts, mainly because I've been letting things stack up. I respond to e-mail promptly, but when I get two or more questions on a subject I'll set it aside to add to an answers post so I have a more general response. Anyway, here're some super-popular questions. Have a question? E-mail us at

Now on to the fun:

How do I know whether I need to replace my foundation?

It's likely to be pretty obvious if a foundation replacement is going to be required. If your foundation walls are not vertical, or you are in a seismic zone and they are brick, you're likely to be in for some foundation work. But the only way to know whether you need to replace the foundation, in whole or in part (and bear in mind that most foundation work is partial replacement), you must hire a structural engineer to come and assess your situation. This will cost you a few hundred dollars.

Can I put a post under my sagging floor to hold it up?

Yes, you can. You need to do a bit more than that, of course, but you can put a post there. The thing you need to do with that post is spread the load evenly. If you don't do that, you will punch a hole in your basement floor and make a funny lump in the floor above.

Spreading the load is quite simple: you attach the post to a beam on top, crossing the floor joists that are sagging (you are likely to need more than one post, by the way). On the bottom, you break out your basement floor (or dig a nice level hole in your crawlspace) and put in a footing for the post to sit on. For more details, just about any book on construction will tell you how this works and what the sizes of the beam, posts, and footing ought to be.

How long do I have to pay before a contractor puts a lien on my property?

Technically, a contractor can put a lien on your property as soon as they've done any work. In practise, this tends not to happen on smaller projects because placing a lien costs money, and can be done later in the process. They might file a reservation of right to lien, but even there they are more likely to wait until a reasonable amount of time has passed before bothering. This all assuming the amount of money involved was reasonably small, such as what you would pay a plumber or painter. When you have a general contractor running a major home renovation, the amounts are likely to be higher and worth liening.

But there's really not much of a problem with having a lien filed unless you are in the middle of selling your house, because the only time a lien comes into play is when you need clear title to the property, such as when you are selling or refinancing (and most lenders won't refinance a house under construction). Other than that the lien can sit there forever. Now, bear in mind that you really don't want to do that, if only because that means you've stolen that work from the contractor, and his subcontractors are not getting paid, either. But having a lien filed does not require a panic session.

How do I get a lien removed?

In California, you get a signed lien release from the contractor and their subcontractors as soon as you have paid them. Usually they they file to remove the lien in the courthouse, but if you have an issue with that you can go yourself, present the lien release, and have it removed.

How do you get a signed lien release? You pay them the money you owe them. If there's a dispute over the amount, you work it out, either in person or via lawyers. If you have paid them and they have not released the lien, you should talk to a lawyer.

What's the difference between a draftsman and an architect?

An architect is a licensed professional who has completed an extensive training program that usually involves at least five years of college, three years of internship with a licensed architect, and a series of exams on the important elements of the practise.

A draftsman is somebody who knows how to draw plans.

Draftsmen are cheaper to hire if what you need is a set of plans for code review. Architects are cheaper to hire (in terms of overall cost) if what you need is a solution to a design problem. It's not that there aren't talented draftsmen out there (I'm a draftsman, myself, on the side), but they are just not experienced enough to be able to do the things an architect can, the sort of things that can save you some money or give you a much nicer space for your money.

Do I have to pay the bonding cost for the contractor up front? Who has to pay that cost in the end?

You're going to end up paying the bonding cost in the end. Once you have a contract, it seems reasonable to me to pay for the bond when the cost is incurred. Keep in mind that it should not cost very much, so if your contractor is asking you for 10 percent of the project cost for "bonding" you have a problem.

What happens if the contractor goes over budget?

That depends on your contract.

If you have a fixed-price contract, then the contractor is losing money and you're in a situation where he may just walk off the job and try to cut his losses. Or he may start cutting corners and making a mess of things. It makes a lot of sense to keep on top of how your contractor is doing, business-wise.

If you have a time and materials contract, or hourly, or anything where the cost you pay is related to the cost incurred by the contractor, you are going to end up paying more. Even if what you're paying for is not really what you wanted in the first place: you got it, you are going to pay for it. This is why I don't like that kind of contract.

That's all for now!

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posted by ayse on 01/11/07