When Elizabeth and David Kruger bought a home in the Lynnhurst neighborhood in 2015 — a 1,728-square-foot house built in 1940 — Elizabeth’s father, an architect, offered insight no. 1: “Live in it a few years to figure out how you use it, then make changes.”
After living for a while with the dishwasher — which doubled as a giant cutting board and could only be used when wheeled into the center of the room and plugged into the sink — they knew that would be the first change. But that decision set off a cascade of consequences in the fashion of the children’s book, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.”
An attached dishwasher could only go where the refrigerator was, which could only fit where the pantry was, which had an odd design but could be shrunk.
The sink and stove didn’t need to move, and neither did the window wells. But new flooring, countertop space, appliances and cabinets would improve the space.
The kitchen’s few tiny cupboards were installed impractically out of reach. There was no light switch in the dining room to illuminate the kitchen.
The Krugers knew the remodeling project would take everything down to the studs, but it wouldn’t involve an addition; the previous owners had added an attached cabin-like space they did not want to lose.
For single-income household that included the young couple’s 15-month-old daughter, a $30,000 remodel project was a big leap.
Insight no. 2: Most local contractors they contacted consider a job like theirs too small.
They reached out to 10 companies in the winter season — found through the Southwest Journal, recommendations from the Nextdoor app, asking neighbors and visiting job sites. Only five called them back, and a few frankly explained that the job was too small for them to consider; they preferred teardowns and more extensive remodels.
In the end, they received visits and bids from just three companies.
Insight no. 3: Many companies will only come to give an estimate during weekday hours, not evenings or weekends. And some charge for the visit — $80 for one estimate.
As one contractor explained, “Not to make any excuses, but it is a time-consuming business, and time spent bidding against ten other guys is not a good time investment.
“Most of my work, I know the clients or they know of me. Cold calls are typically people shopping around, which we do plenty of, but it can eat up all your time.”
Insight no. 4: Many design-build firms include charges for design — even if your father is an architect who drew up professional plans.
One company included a 5-percent charge for design work but was willing to cut it to 2.5 percent with supplied plans — the cost of importing the drawings into its system.
“One big company charged $5,000 just for overhead,” David Kruger said.
Insight no. 5: It pays to compare.
The range between low and high bids was $25,000, with a high of $55,000. Comparing the quotes side by side was not “apples to apples,” Elizabeth Kruger said.
“They lump things together differently, so it is hard to see how the math is adding up,” she said.
In some cases it looked like there was a doubling-up on permit fees, but the city requires individualized costs — one for hooking up the dishwasher and another the refrigerator, for example.
The Krugers were committed to using locally sourced products wherever possible. They also wanted minimal waste and to save on costs, so they did their own shopping.
Appliances for the project are coming from Warners’ Stellian. The new cabinets were built in Waconia, even though Ikea would have been cheaper.
To trim costs, some contractors are more flexible than others at allowing do-it-yourself discounts. David will do the plumbing and painting work. They are separately bidding for an electrician, with estimates coming in at $3,300–$5,500.
Insight no. 6: One advantage of a builder-supplied product portfolio is that it removes some of the choices.
With so many product choices — tiles, appliances, backsplashes — the process can be overwhelming. Kitchen sinks come in depths of 30 inches, 33 inches and 36 inches. Elizabeth Kruger wondered: Why so many?
“There are about 20,000 microwave styles,” she continued, adding that she was surprised to find how few appliances in their price range are childproofed. “One oven had a self-cleaning button that my daughter can reach.”
They learned to ask questions and listen to the smart ideas of experts. Extending their countertop too far, for example, would have made it hard to navigate into and out of the basement with a laundry basket.
Insight no. 7: Calling references is essential for developing confidence about past work, timeliness and staying on budget.
In the end, they found two contractors out of the original pool of ten they would be happy to use. They also saw examples of shoddy workmanship in a friend’s home, reminding them to be mindful.
Insight no. 8: One bonus to choosing a smaller, hands-on outfit is the motivation of the builder to finish and move on to another job. Another plus is knowing who is coming in and out of the house each day.
The remodeler they decided in mid-February to hire, Hillhouse Construction, is a jack-of-all-trades company based in Lanesboro. Starting in April, contractor Tom Barnes will drive up three days a week, and he says he will finish in six to eight weeks, compared to eight to twelve for others.
By June, the Krugers hope they’ll have a completed new kitchen, and their remodeler will have moved on to his next client.
Where to go for smaller remodeling jobs
We asked realtors, architects and larger builders for recommendations of local contractors who are responsive and available for smaller jobs. Here are a few:
National Association of the Remodeling Industry (nari.org) is good starting place, both for consumer information and for finding local contractors.
Terminology is important. As one builder explained, “There are lots of ‘general contractors’ out there, but the ones who focus on kitchens and baths tend not to call themselves ‘general.’ The majority of general contractors are roofing, siding (and) windows with the occasional remodel.”
Mike North Construction (246-0027) works with a small team focusing on whole-house remodels, but the company does kitchens, bathrooms, basement finishes, decks, siding and window and door installations. Mike North Construction usually works a month out, depending on size of project and time of year, and tends to promote through word-of-mouth.
Sean’s Renovation (seansren.com, 803-7428), a Greenstar Certified remodeler, recently completed a complete redo of a North Minneapolis home as a non-profit job to enhance the home’s value and energy efficiency. Sean’s Renovation tends to work a few months out.
Knutson Custom Remodelers (knutsoncustomremodelers.com, 719-9015) specializes in residential remodeling, new construction and green building consulting using sustainable practices.
Robert Hopf Construction (roberthopfconstruction.com, 867-5654) states on its website: “The relationship between the owner and contractor should be as important as the price.” The company tends to get business through referrals and repeat customers.