“Rehab Addict.” “Property Brothers.” “Fixer Upper.” HGTV’s cup runneth over with home renovation shows, but can home improvement really be as glamorous as it appears on the small screen?
Allyson Case, CEO and founder of Chicago-based contracting company Integro Rehab, found out when HGTV chose to feature her team’s renovation project on an episode of “House Hunters: Renovation.”
The task: transform a 3,100-square-foot Victorian three-flat into a duplex with living space on the top two floors and a rental unit on the first level.
The challenges: water damage, a third floor gradually splitting away from the rest of the house and more than $40,000 in additional expenses.
We spoke to Case about “The Never-Ending Renovation,” gut rehabs in Chicago and how the Scott twins of “Property Brothers” seemingly manage to renovate homes in eight weeks without breaking a sweat. Here’s an edited transcript.
Q: How did the relationship with HGTV come about?
A: It was basically based on the blog (integrorehab.wordpress.com). We had a conversation and they told me that they were focusing on Chicago and LA and I should apply. “House Hunters” was the one we went after and in a couple of weeks they gave us the call. The whole process started about December 2014, and the project started April 2015. … It was almost very documentarylike. We went on with our renovation and they were taking notes. They were there all the time. It was quite the loss when they left; it felt like a big part of the project was missing.
Q: Did the presence of the cameras change the rehab experience for you or the family?
A: The hardest part about it, I guess, was you had to explain a lot. I have a conversation with my superintendent like, “OK, we have to do this,” and the question (from the show producers) always is “Why? Why do you have to do that?” It really forces you to articulate everything that’s going on.
Q: Were you at all camera-shy?
A: No, everybody was actually pretty comfortable with it. I’d say overall the process of a gut rehab, they focus on the big stuff, but the really big parts are not shown. We didn’t really run into any camera-shyness – they were really very respectful of the process and I set ground rules initially. … Ground rules as far as safety. Who does what and where people are allowed to be... I had a lot of control over my own job site which was nice and welcome.
Q: When you watched the episode, was there anything that seemed different in real life vs. how it was presented on the show?
A: Well I think that primarily some of the things kind of happened out of sequence. First of all, I was like the bearer of bad news constantly. … That’s all I did like “change order, change order, change order,” and then they (the homeowners) tell me they’re pregnant and I look horrified. There are conversations that we’re having almost every day with clients and I think what wasn’t portrayed also is that we had had these discussions.
Q: Going back to your comment about constant change orders – explain what that means.
A: A change order is basically when the scope changes because of something, whether that’s owner-requested changes or when we do demolition and find something that we didn’t know was there and now we have to fix it. A change order is basically additional money that has to be paid by the owner in order to complete the project.
Q. But you’re in constant communication with the family, so while it may seem like a surprise on the show, you were in fact talking about it. There’s always an unforeseen issue on every episode of “Love It or List It” and I hate that.
A. Yeah, exactly. The other thing too, which none of these shows ever show, are the architecture drawings. The fact is, if you’re doing a gut rehab, in order to get a general permit you need drawings, and so a lot of this is addressed...There’s just a lot of people involved and I think more often than not, it’s shown as the designer and owner and a GC (general contractor) who’s getting directions from a verbal scope when that’s never happening. You don’t walk around and look and go, “oh yeah, it’s going to be about that much.” It doesn’t happen that way. The bidding process is a quarter of the entire renovation process.
Q: So in actuality, the discussion about finances lasts longer than two seconds.
A: Right, it’s weeks. The larger the project, the longer it gets. If you’re doing a gut rehab like what was shown on HGTV, you’re about 90 days out from starting by the time you get done with architecture drawings and bidding... I think a lot of people, especially when they’re buying properties and they want to do these renovations, they don’t realize that they’re eight to 12 weeks out from starting, that they’re holding a mortgage for 90 days before anything is happening.
Q: You sent me a note that said “sequencing is everything – there is organization during the chaos.” Expand on this idea.
A: I see this a lot on TV; I see it a lot on “Rehab Addict.” It’s like they’re filming things and then the floors seemingly go in right after demo. There’s an order to things and it seems like when I watch TV in general, when they’re talking about certain things happening it’s out of order. You do demo, and then you do framing, and then you put in your systems and then you close everything up and that’s when all the pretty stuff happens. That’s when your flooring goes down, that’s when your tile goes in. Sometimes when I watch the show it seems like it’s all over the place.
Q: So tile is the easy part.
A: People have this concept of, “well, maybe I’ll save money if I do some of the work.” I always tell people it’s going to cost you more if you’re involved in this project while I’m involved in this project. Once you take on a major renovation, clients have a huge job of constant decision-making of finishes. It’s completely overwhelming – it’s every little thing that has to be picked out. Tile’s the easy part, but what about your door handles, what about your curtain rods? I need you to pick out glass doors; how about your vanities or mirrors? What are we doing with this corner? It’s like constant questions that I don’t think people in general are prepared for. No matter how good your GC is, it’s a full-time job as the owner.
Q: Do you recommend living in the space during renovation?
A: If you’re doing a gut rehab where you require a permit, you really can’t be in there at all. I would definitely say get out of the house for any major renovation. If you’re doing a gut, there’s no heat, electric, plumbing … and even if you’re not doing a gut, people cannot fathom the dirt that occurs. I mean you’re just covered.
Q: Is there anything else you want readers to know about home renovation?
A: In general, people have an idea that when they do a renovation, anything can happen and it can turn into this big huge thing. But I really maintain that if you have a really good GC, then you should be able to have some foresight into what you’re getting into. The larger the renovation, the more controlled it is. Once you go in and you’re gutting things it’s actually in a lot of ways less scary.