Agree to clear expectations for any home improvement projects

Erin Owen, for The Gazette

Home improvement can be a stressful and risky endeavor. Many in Cedar Rapids have been going through the repair process following the derecho in August. Homeowners are in a vulnerable position and rely on professionals for help. This is a time when out-of-state businesses swoop in canvassing streets for work and city government issues warnings about scams.

Sometimes we seek help from professionals out of a desire for change and not necessity. We found ourselves in both groups. Our backyard had been on our project list for some time, and this was the summer we decided to do something about it. Then the storm hit. The project was again going to go on the back burner. Then we decided if there was a time for change it was now when mother nature already had done so much.

We were excited to actually use our backyard. We were looking forward to sitting around a fire enjoying conversation and s’mores with friends.

Last year we had a landscape designer come out to see our yard and talk about the project. We later reviewed plans of the proposed changes and reviewed materials and costs. Project costs are always higher than expected. Materials and labor aren’t cheap. However, we left the meeting feeling some of our needs weren’t being addressed. It felt like a sales pitch.

We set the project aside. No s’mores.

This summer we decided to get a second quote from another local company. The numbers were not too different, but we felt the project manager had a better grasp of what we wanted. Perhaps in wanting to do the project we overlooked some red flags. The quote was light on details and specifics, but we followed up with questions. Communication was unreliable; sometimes there were quick responses and sometimes not. We had to call the company to address the unkempt state of the yard.

We were told they’d check in with us during the work. However, communication was virtually non-existent during the project. Our request to create a level step from our patio door was overlooked. There was a lack of guidance on materials and choices.

For our part, between work and caring for a baby, we were not as insistent or watchful as we should have been. We made assumptions and dropped the ball.


All of this quelled our excitement. In the end, we are glad we did the project. Our backyard is not quite ready for company, but it is much improved over what it was. Our yard has a larger appearance, improved drainage, a better patio and a new retaining wall. We were able to reuse existing limestone blocks.

Like other home projects, this has been a learning experience.

Before you begin working with a designer, assess these areas that will help ensure you are happy with the project.

• Project expectations: Does the designer understand the project needs? Make sure you are on the same page about the work to be completed at the beginning and throughout the project. Ideally, the scope of the project and work to be done should be spelled out in a contract. At the minimum, take notes and save all communication should an issue arise.

• Communication: Is the designer accessible by phone, email or text? Timely responses are critical to the process. Changes in item availability, project timeframe and unexpected issues should be shared promptly as should any questions or concerns about them.

• Trust: Do you feel confident leaving your home in the designer’s hands? This may be a gut feeling or one arrived upon by looking at the designer’s past work. Ask for recommendations from friends who have done similar projects.

Bringing in outside help for home renovation means giving up some control. It sidelines the homeowner from the process. That makes it all the more important to set clear expectations and foster a good working relationship. Sometimes that takes practice, learning lessons and waiting for s’mores.

Erin Owen graduated from the interior design program at Kirkwood Community College. She has worked as a commercial and residential interior designer. Comments: [email protected]

Erin Owen, for The Gazette

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