A Building and Remodeling Checklist

Horror stories abound about remodeling and construction projects gone bad. Such accounts make great "war stories", but they are likely to produce emptier bank accounts and headaches. Good planning is an essential component for a good project and prevents the most common pitfalls.

This Construction Checklist includes the steps associated with most successful remodeling and construction projects. Some may not apply to every project, for example: decks within 18" of ground level may not require a building permit, while building along a wetland or a shoreline will require special permits; a project in a condominium may require approval of the homeowners' association, and so may a project in a subdivision which has covenants.

But the "basics" listed here remain the same in almost all projects. This checklist is designed to explain and help organize the construction process.

The order of any construction process is not "cast in concrete" but there is one very important rule: prior to the start of any of the work there must be a written contract with drawings and detailed specifications.


  • Most construction contracts are based on a standard building contract form such as an American Institute of Architects contract. Such forms are available from many sources, including stationary stores. The quality and complexity of these forms vary. They are usually intended as the cover pages for the very important details that follow. Most of the details are usually found in the plans and specifications.

    Be sure to read and understand the construction contract and the bid document. Take your time. Ask questions. Get everything in writing. Don't forget to review your Planning Process lists: will this contract fulfill your needs? This is the time to make any final changes.

    Attorney's fees for the review of a contract before it is signed are a fraction of the cost of their fees after the project has 'gone bad'.

  • A review of insurance coverage by the various parties in a construction project is critical. Depending upon the specific conditions of a project, insurance policies may or may not provide protection for loss and liability. Who's policy covers damage to stored material? Who pays for damage to the existing part of the house that is damaged during a remodel? Who's policy covers injury to uninvited visitors to the construction site? What will it cost to maintain coverage on the house if you must move out of the building during remodeling?

    These and other types of insurance and liability questions need to be reviewed by insurance and legal advisors prior to the start of construction and the signing of the construction contract.

  • Architects, designers, and even home inspectors may be employed to oversee the construction process. This role can be written into the contracts and follow a scheduled and written process. For example, an architect may meet with the builder once a week. Alternatively, the owner may want to bring in an outside expert at critical points in the construction or as the need arises.

    No matter which process is chosen, it is important that at the onset of construction all concerned parties understand their roles and the lines of communications.

  • A pre-construction meeting is an important first step in any project. This is the time to go over any final details, including meeting schedules, how to stay in touch, introduction to lead crew members, and any final concerns.

    Stay in contact with your contractor during the construction process. Try to maintain a middle ground between attention to the work-in-progress and breathing down the contractor's neck. Use your pre-arranged meetings to discuss progress, expectations, any problems or special arrangements, and to maintain open communication with your contractor.

    The general contractor is the construction manager: the organizer, the scheduler, the supervisor of the crew and the sub-contractors, the party responsible to carry out the construction contract, and the main contact person. Problems and concerns about any part of the project should be communicated to the general contractor. The best communication is timely and in writing.

    The contractor should provide you with a timetable for final decisions on any specifications not decided upon during the design process. For example, if the color of the carpet was not decided in advance, the contractor should provide you with a date by which the color needs to be selected. It is your responsibility to stay within that timetable.

    PAYING THE CONTRACTOR ON TIME is one of the most important jobs of the client during the construction process. Cash flow is a major concern to all contractors. Their construction bids are based on the assumption that they will be able to pay their subcontractors and suppliers on a timely basis.

    Part of the construction contract must be the timetable for payments. Most remodeling contracts include an advance of 10% to 30% of the construction price and a monthly draw. Take the initiative and ask the contractor before the end of the month when the draw request will be arriving. It is usually paid before the 10th of the month. The draw request should be based on the amount of work and material delivered and completed to date.

    Quick payment is one of the best ways to assure continued good relations with your contractor.

    And, a bit of praise and a box of donuts for the crew go a long way toward securing an ongoing positive relationship. But even in such a small gesture it is important to keep roles clear: don't supervise the crew and subs, that is the general contractors job!

  • Every construction process that I have ever seen goes through a relatively predictable "mood cycle":

    • The Honeymoon - Everything is new and progress is fast. The foundation work is dramatic, framing is fast and the new shape of the structure is taking shape. The project appears to be ahead of schedule.

    • The First Problem (The Honeymoon is over)- It may not be a major issue, but it demonstrates that every construction project has some flaws.
    • This is an excellent time to take another detailed look at the plans and specifications with the contractor. Look for any overlooked items, make sure that weekly meetings are set, re-affirm the need for timely decisions, keep all decisions and requests in written form.

    • The Doldrums - The project seems to have slowed down to a crawl. The first phase of the framing is very fast, last details are a time consuming process. Scheduling and coordinating the specialty subs is slow: the plumbers, the electricians...

    • Where did everyone go? - It's elk season, a family emergency, the day after thanksgiving or before the 4th of July...
    • The Cast of Thousands - At the beginning of the project it was possible to remember some names but now there are new subcontractor crews on the job every day. Do they know what they are doing? Do they care about this project? Is this project under control? How will the thousands of unfinished details get done?
    • The light at the end of the tunnel - The interior surfaces have been installed, cleanup has started, a finished product becomes imaginable, but will it ever be done?

    This mood roller coaster is somewhat inevitable, it's 'topography' will be largely determined by the quality of the pre-construction steps: planing, design, contractor selection...

  • A good set of plans and specifications will keep change orders to a minimum. Using a 'no surprise rule' is essential:

    • A formula for any additional work must be included in the base contract. This formula must include hourly and markup rates for any unanticipated work.
    • Any anticipated changes must be identified by all the parties as soon as they are discovered.
    • All change orders must be in writing and signed by the owner and the contractor before the work is done.
    • Some unanticipated work may have to be done on a "time and materials" basis, e.g. repair of hidden defects. Even then, it must comply with the formula in the base contract, and should include a "not to exceed" price limit. Take time to review any change order and, if necessary, bring in an outside expert to determine the validity of the price and the necessity for the change order.


    Managing the change order process the number, content and cost is one key to keeping the project within the limits of your budget.

  • A 'punch list' is a final 'to do' list.

    Toward the end of the project, a punch list will be developed jointly by the owner and the contractor, and/or a design professional. This list provides the contractor with an organized method of finishing all the remaining details. It is part of the final payment process.

    The best punch lists are developed after the cleaning of the construction site has been completed. Yes, cleaning is part of the contractor's (written) responsibility, without a thorough professional cleaning, small blemishes can't be seen and/or corrected.

    The punch list should be short: one page, 12 - 20 items. If it gets much longer than that than the development and management of the list becomes an onerous task and damaging to the contractor/client relationship.

    The final payment may include a holdouts of as much as 10% of the contract, withheld by the owner until all items on the punch list have been completed. The actual amount of the holdouts is usually related to the value of the items on the punch list.

  • Most construction will require some callbacks, involving repair of items which were overlooked or not properly installed during the final punch list process. If these are small items, you may be able to make a list over a period of several weeks and have the contractor take care of several items during one service call.

    By the way, a good question to ask during the contractor pre-qualification process is related to how the contractor deals with any callbacks.

  • If the contract contains a one year warranty, then it is a good idea to notify the contractor of any important defects as they occur. A list of any minor defects should be collected for 11 months. After that date this list of these defects should be presented to the contractor with a request that the work be completed during the twelfth month.

  • Well planned constructions projects have a very low failure rate. But construction is a complicated process and problems will arise, so here are some steps to take whenever construction problems arise:

    • Don't wait! Act Now! If you think that there might be a problem take the appropriate steps to solve the situation ASAP.
    • Keep all communications lines open, stay calm and respectful. Assume that there is good will on all sides but insist upon a timely clarification and resolution of all problems.
    • Don't hesitate to bring in an expert: an inspector, a lawyer, an architect, or your loan officer. Spending a few $ to catch a problem early is relatively inexpensive.
    • Get all information and all agreements in writing. If the plans are inadequate, have some additional plans drawn up by a designer or architect. If the specification were inadequate, make sure that they are upgraded at this time.
    • Don't succumb to "construction speak". Construction is complicated and full of terms that most people don't know and don't need to know. But all residential construction can be explained is plain everyday language.
    • Use this opportunity to find out if there might be some other areas of misunderstanding or a lack of clarity (and make sure all is now in writing). For example: if the current problem is a window in the wrong location, this is a good time to take another detailed look at the plans and specifications.