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Things You Should Expect From a detroit based historic restoration General Contractor

Choosing the right General Contractor when renovating a historic home in Detroit can be a difficult task. Other than making sure your General Contractor is licensed and insured to perform the work, here are some important things you should look for to ensure a successful renovation:


This is probably the most important thing to look for in your prospective General Contractor. We see this mistake all the time. People hire the wrong type of Contractor. Most residential Contractors are nothing more than kitchen and bathroom remodelers. There is nothing wrong with this, but working on a 100+ year old historic home is not a simple task. Everything is different on these types of homes. The type of electrical, plumbing, plaster, ways things were framed, etc. are all different from modern construction.

Unless your General Contractor has significant experience of working on historic homes, more often then not, your renovation will not go well. You can expect a lot of delays, mistakes, trouble with sub contractors and unforeseen issues. All of which typically result in significant cost overruns and failure to finish the renovation in a timely fashion.

When interviewing a potential General Contractor make sure you see their portfolio of historic renovations. If they don’t have significant experience, they might not be the right Contractor for your renovation.


The ability to put together accurate budgets are driven off of a General Contractor’s experience with working on historic homes. Most General Contractors are doing new construction or working on newer homes in the suburbs building additions, refinishing basements or remodeling kitchens and bathrooms. These are very easy projects to budget for.

Restoring a historic home is an “all in” situation. The entire house needs to be addressed. Most of the costs for the renovation are not able to be budgeted until the walls are opened and the true issues are exposed. Unless your General Contractor has significant experience with historic homes, they have virtually no chance of giving you a realistic well thought out budget.

Bottom line, on the front end, it’s the General Contractor’s experience from renovating historic homes that drives their ability to tell you where things typically end up once it’s all said and done.

Type of Contract

Don’t fall in the trap of having several General Contractors “Bid” your job as the way of selecting who is the one to go with. It’s impossible to accurately bid a job for a historic renovation. Having Contractors bid jobs is most appropriate for new construction or simple projects like a bathroom remodel. For example, when bidding new construction, the General Contractor is working off a set of drawings. This makes it very easy to tell you what they are willing to do the job for. When restoring a historic home, the General Contractor has nothing to go on until the walls are opened and the issues are exposed. This is the point an accurate budget starts to be formulated.

The best thing to do when selecting a General Contractor for a historic home restoration is to choose the one that has the most relevant experience and have them work on a “Actual Cost Plus” structure. That way you see the actual costs, and more importantly….you avoid the General Contractor who under bids the work and half way through the job walks because they are in a loss position.

How the Contractor Performs the Work

Make sure you get a good understanding of how the General Contractor’s organization is set up. How much work do they self perform? How much work do they sub out? It’s important to find a General Contractor who actually has an internal crew that performs most of the work. Avoid the Contractors’ who don’t have a sound organization and need to sub contract everything out.

When working on historic renovations, the Contractor needs to be “on site” and performing the work. Too many things go wrong on historic renovations that need to be dealt with “real time”. If the contractor is simply subbing out all of the work, there is too much margin for error. Point being…unless the crew performing the work is on the same team, the right hand wont know what the left hand is doing. Furthermore, unless the General Contractor has actual experience of self performing every aspect of the renovation, they will not know how unforeseen issues impact the various other components of the renovation.

We find the best structure of a General Contractor working on historic homes is to have internal staff that perform things like Project Management, Demo, Rough and Finish Carpentry, Plaster/Drywall and minor Electrical and Plumbing, and subs out other major areas to licensed trades who have significant experience in working on historic homes. This includes trades like HVAC, Plumbing, Electrical, Roofing, etc.

When selecting your General Contractor, understand what their internal capabilities are and know exactly who they sub out work to and what those subs respective experience is in working on historic homes.

How the general contractor schedules a historic renovation

It’s important for the General Contractor to outline how they go about the renovation and what the overall schedule/timeline looks like. This is also a good way to vet out whether the prospective Contractor actually knows how to approach a historic renovation. A typical step by step process of a historic restoration goes as follows:

  1. Stabilization of the Property – The first and most important thing to do is to stabilize the property. This means make sure the roof is covered if it is leaking, the windows are boarded up if they are missing, temporary power is brought to the house, etc.
  2. Demo/Job Site Preparation – 100% of demolition/contents removal should be done at the beginning of the job. Not in stages throughout the job. Remember, until all the walls are opened, you have no real idea what needs to be done to fully restore the home. In addition to demo work, the Contractor should be preparing the job site for the renovation work. This means the job site is clean and free of debris and most importantly the job site is safe for workers to start performing the work.
  3. Rough Carpentry – Once demo is done and the job site is secured, rough carpentry/framing work is performed. If there is a roof issue, this is also the time to repair/replace it as there may be framing/decking issues that need to be dealt with.
  4. Rough HVAC – HVAC is typically the first trade to perform their rough work once framing/rough carpentry has been completed. This means running new gas lines, duct work, etc. and getting temporary heat to the house if needed.
  5. Rough Electrical –  Once the HVAC Contractor is done with their rough work, the electrician can trouble shoot the house and if needed install new service (i.e. electrical panel) and run new wires and boxes for outlets, switches and lights.
  6. Rough Plumbing – At this point, the plumber can run new plumbing and/or fix existing plumbing lines to the kitchen, bathrooms, etc. Also, get water to the job site for upcoming work.
  7. Insulation/Plaster/Drywall – Once all rough work is done, insulation where needed should be installed, new drywall hung and/or plaster repair work can be completed.
  8. Finish Work – This is when you start installing the kitchen, bathrooms, new windows, lighting fixtures, plumbing finishes and finish carpentry work like moldings, doors, etc.
  9. Paint – Once through finish work, it’s time to paint the house.
  10. Flooring – Most Contractors like to install/refinish the floors as the last work performed. Others prefer to install/refinish the floors, cover them up  and then paint. Either way is acceptable.
  11. Punch Work – The final stage of the renovation. Minor work that needs to be done to finish the project (i.e. tough up paint, etc.)

So you can see there is a specific process to restoring a historic home. Make sure your prospective General Contractor can clearly articulate how they go about a historic restoration. If they cannot clearly articulate this, you are probably talking to a contractor that does not have the experience that is required to perform a historic renovation.

How They Communicate and Record Keep

Understand how the General Contractor communicates with you. Do they use a Construction Management software program like Builders Trend to to organize, track and communicate to you what is going on with the job? How often do you get job updates? These are all important questions to understand on the front end. Historic restoration can take upwards of a year or more and good communication is paramount to a successful renovation. At a minimum, the General Contractor should be providing weekly updates on progress and schedule.

Bottom Line

Make sure your prospective General Contractor has significant experience at historic renovations, Everything associated with a successful historic renovation feeds off of experience.

On a business note, let us know how we can help!

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