Home renovation shows have proliferated on television because people are interested in renovation and because they make for good drama. But it’s much better to keep the drama on the screen and out of, say, your kitchen. Far too many customers, says Damian Carroll, a veteran of the construction industry, become dissatisfied with renovation projects at some point in the process and almost always either because the project doesn’t go as planned or the budget balloons. Carroll says a proper scope statement can solve both of those problems, as well as a lot of angst.

On Author Hour today, he discusses his new book and shares advice about how property owners can be as prepared as possible to enter and navigate the renovation process.

Jane Borden: Hi, Author Hour listeners. I’m here today with Damian Carroll, author of The Scope Statement: How to Renovate Your Home Without Breaking Your Budget. Damian, thank you so much for being with us today.

Damian Carroll: Thank you, Jane, for having me.

Jane Borden: First off, can you just tell our listeners a little bit about who you are and how this book came to be?

Damian Carroll: I started working in the construction industry in a formal way —let’s call it that— 15, 16, 17 years ago. I was fortunate enough to come across a gentleman in Australia who taught me the PMBOK system, which is a Project Management Body of Knowledge. It’s nine functions and how it applies to the construction industry. Steve was terrific at teaching me that and I began my journey in the construction game in a formal sense that way. I was working for the client-side of the table in Australia until I ended up moving to America nine or so years ago and was working for a general contractor.

What struck me as being consistent all the way through was that clients everywhere always tended to have a bad experience when it came to construction projects. It got me thinking, “Well, why is that?” And the experiences that I’ve had, on both sides of the table, dealing with both sets of people and their various sets of issues on their own side of the equation, led me to believe that it’s the planning process that needs to be refined. What Steve did teach me was that he said, “I don’t care how big or small the job is, you need to do a scope statement upfront.”

What that does, it lays out all the deliverables in a project and ties it all together. It’s all the individual tasks but then it ties everything together. Then, when someone reads it, they understand what the client wants and what each trade or each deliverable is required to perform and undertake and deliver and hand over to the client.

What is a Scope Statement?

Jane Borden: Tell us a little bit more about what the scope statement is. It’s literally just a list of everything the client wants?

Damian Carroll: It peels back the layers of a job. I’ll give an example. Replacing tile, okay? Well, that’s a very generic statement. What sort of tile do you want? What color of grout? What color tile? How much are you prepared to pay? What else is going in the bathroom? I’m using the bathroom as an example here, of course, because that’s the example in the book.

It forces you to peel back the layers. Do you want it to go all the way to the ceiling? Do you want it to go a foot off the floor? Do you want it to go six foot off the floor? How does it tie in with the remainder of the décor of the bathroom? Are you installing a vanity? What infrastructure is behind the wall, in terms of your studs and your existing drywall? Does it all have to get replaced? 

What this does is it fleshes out all the insularly tasks in a job that in the client’s mind let’s put this way, the client doesn’t know it needs to be done, the industry does. Then the client and the suppliers are at logger heads because the client doesn’t understand why it takes so long or why the cost is so high, when the industry says, “Well, you have to do all these things.” It’s an attempt to try and reduce that expectation gap between the two parties.

Jane Borden: Tell me if this is right: A scope statement is something that industry professionals have been doing and now you’re saying actually, the client needs to do some of this work in advance?

Damian Carroll: Well, in my experience, they’re more common in Australia. In America, I’ve not seen them. It doesn’t mean they’re not being done. I just haven’t seen them. What I’m trying to put out in the world is that the clients need to help themselves and the construction industry, by putting these together. Because the client then tells the world, “Well, what do they want?” Then it allows the industry to price it in a sensible and fair and reasonable way so that there’s less of a gap between the expectations of the client and the suppliers.

Jane Borden: Yeah. We’ve all just kind of been flying by the seat of our pants. I mean– 

Damian Carroll: Well, yes. Every construction project, no matter how big or small, will have a problem. And anyone who tells you otherwise is not being very truthful with you. The idea is to take away a lot of the angst that happens because of the lack of planning upfront.

Jane Borden: I see. I mean, I have not done a home renovation project. I have one I’d like to do and, in my head, my first step was just going to be to call a professional and kind of put it all in their hands. So, looking through your book, I’m seeing now that there would have been a big expectation gap. Planning and preparation is really important.

Damian Carroll: Yes, the key to this is to get— say if it was yourself that did a  bathroom or a kitchen— is to get you to think about what do you want? A lot of the time, the general contractor or builder or suppliers, they’re trying to guess. Even when they ask you questions, they’ll guess. They don’t really know. And you’re entitled to change your mind every day, no problem at all.

What this does is it forces you to look at the end, start with the end in mind. What do you want this to look like? How do you want it to feel? And then work your way back and that sort of gives you a chance– writing a scope allows you then to do that process. It’s to work your way back. “Well okay, what do I want? What’s currently there now? How do we go from A to B and finish the job?”

Jane Borden: We should tell listeners that you give examples as you mentioned in the book of what a scope statement looks like and all the different elements. It’s a real education for a homeowner to learn about all this and it seems like one of the biggest things they’ll learn is that, it’s all going to cost a lot more than they think, and the sooner they get used to that, the better.

Damian Carroll: Look, it’s unfortunate that that is the reality, yes. Labor is your biggest cost component in doing any construction job. It’s trying to get people’s minds realigned to how long it takes to do something. Try this typically only work eight-hour days, plus or minus, depending on what jurisdiction you’re in.

They also have kids that get sick. There’s transport problems. There’s all sorts of things, just like clients have. Clients have those problems, just like traders do. Everyone has those problems. All those things have to get factored into not just the cost, but the schedule. It’s trying to get people just to realign their thinking to what really happens when a job gets done.

This is not just residential, this is also commercial. Most of my experience is in commercial. It’s all about setting the expectations with the client, discussing it with them, telling them what’s happening and what’s going on… keeping them up to date.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Jane Borden: I imagine that because you’ve been doing scope statements and helping clients understand them — really doing that leg work at the start, the prep, and planningyou’ve seen some good results as far as expectations are concerned and had fewer problems down the line when things don’t always go to plan. Or if they do go to plan and the cost is what the client expected it to be. Can you tell us some stories about how the scope statement has helped?

Damian Carroll: I’ve done a number of projects, particularly in Australia when I was working on the client-side, for the tax office over there. We would do data centers, we would do brand new offices, we would do a restack of an entire building based on the scope statement. And how we would do it is, the client would come to us and say, “I have a need.” So, we’ll go down the path of establishing what are they trying to achieve, what do they want, etc.

I would go off and write the scope statement, put it together, look at all the trades involved, look at what’s required, if there’s movers involved, etc. Put it all together and tie it all together and then get back and talk to the client and say, “Is this what you want?”

They would think about it, come back, and change this: “This is great but I want this.” “I want to change this,” etc. We’d get it right, they’d sign off on it. Then we would go to the industry and start pricing it. We would get consultant fees included. We would get an estimate done by a corner lease surveyor. Corner lease surveyors are not really that prevalent in the US, but they are in the UK and Australia. 

We would then present it to the client to have them sign off on a budget. This is how we did it every time. I can give you specific examples but it probably doesn’t help too much, but this is the process that we did. The client would— we would add contingency and the client was fully visible with it. They’d sign off from the budget and off we go. We go on to hire and fire all the people that needed to be included on the project, go head the team up, have documents produced, have the job done, and then signed off. 

Now, the budgets were probably kept, I would say, 90% of the time. There were times that it went over, but that was typically because of all lighting conditions or client-specific requests. That was certainly kept up to speed with all of that. It took away the angst of the client coming back saying, “Why is this costing it more?” I’ve found a lot working as a builder in the US, that because there is not as much planning done upfront, as a general contractor we were reacting to the documents placed in front of us. And unfortunately, those documents weren’t complete. 

What happened was in a competitive environment we would have to price the documents, knowing that they were incomplete, and then having to go back to the client for variations and change orders when they weren’t expecting it because the process was incomplete from the start. That’s not a pleasant experience. I never liked doing it but I had to because that’s what the game was. So, I am trying to change the thinking by saying, “Well, let’s do the legwork upfront. Make it easier for yourself.” 

“Yes, your budget will be more than you think it is but it’s more real. Therefore, you can say no to the job, it’s fine.” I’ve had recommended to clients if your budget is not enough then don’t do the job because there’s no room for error from anyone. That’s happened in the past before and it’s okay to say no to doing a job. The experience that I’ve had has said that doing a scope is absolutely invaluable. Now, does it capture every single thing? No, it does not. 

It’s not designed to do that. But it paints a more real picture of what’s going to happen on a job. I had managed to have a couple of clients in the US pay me to do this and they’ve been thrilled with them. They were all quite complex, a quite complex scopes. One was for building infrastructure, so: chillers, crawling towers, boilers, change over in an existing working building and another one was for waterproofing the existing façade. And they were thrilled with the outcome. They are worthwhile doing and spending the time upfront. 

The problem is that it’s just– it’s hard to get a mindset change. I thought, “Well, you know, at least if I conversely in the residential area. I mean how many people have”— you’ve spoken to people at parties, they might know. My wife’s network of friends here have complained about all of the issues they’ve had with the construction jobs at home and I go, “Well okay, there’s a reason for that and this is the reason why,” in my view. 

Jane Borden: Yeah, measure twice cut once, right? 

Damian Carroll: That’s what the entire industry will say. I mean, all the old-time superintendent encampments that I’ve come across, they always say, “Take your time getting it right upfront.” Do it properly, do your homework, do your research upfront and then execute once and that’s exactly the right analogy. 

The Relationship Between Client and Builder

Jane Borden: You also have some advice in the book about how to choose a builder. Can we talk about that a little bit? 

Damian Carroll: Sure. There is a number of ways of doing this and I could potentially write a book on this on its own. It’s dependent on the– let’s just talk on a residential sense— it’s dependent on the people involved. On the client, the owner, and what relationships they already have with people. You could do it in a number of ways. You can go and talk to your favorite builder that you’ve dealt with before, or that someone’s recommended. That’s fine. Or you can go down the path of soliciting bids or soliciting tenders off of people. 

There is different ways you can go about this. It all leads to different types of contracts and types of relationships and types of fees. And it is sort of— I am not giving a vague answer because I deliberately want to do that. It’s just that, if someone wants to engage a builder directly, that’s one way of doing it. The builder is still going to want to know what you want. So, if you do these scopes, you can go to the builder and I’ve shown also how to price it and how to put a number to it so that it gives you a bit more of a sense of what you think it might cost. 

If you didn’t go to your local builder that you’ve dealt with before, or you’ve had recommended, then you and her can start talking and start figuring out, “What’s the real cost?” etc and come to an agreement that way and then work at his fee. Now, there are different ways you can do it with him going down that path. Another way is you can do a scope, price it yourself and then go and solicit two or three bids from people in the area. You can do it that way. There’s pros and cons of both. 

Now, I am happy to go into the depths and the details of the pros and cons of both, but people might fall asleep if they start listening to that. 

Jane Borden: It really is a relationship. I mean, it is so much like a relationship. Especially once you– I mean, it is a kind of relationship. I think you know the analogy I’m getting at— especially once you’re really in it. There is also advice about how to manage that once it all started, which tell me if this is right, I feel like it basically boils down to do your homework and don’t be a jerk, which is– 

Damian Carroll: Well yeah, and so often— and this does work both ways— from the suppliers and the clients, is that if someone has done the work, pay them. Don’t string them out and don’t play funny buggers with them. If they have done the work and it’s legitimate, then pay them quickly. I’ll guarantee anyone that does a job with a contractor of any description if you pay them promptly and you treat them with respect and you do it the right way, you will get more back than you think you will. 

They will help you in more ways than you think. Most people, not all because, like you and I, they just want to be treated with respect and be paid a fair and reasonable amount of money to do a job. They are entitled to make a profit. They’re not entitled to gouge you, there is no question about that and that’s where your relationships come into play. We’ve always maintained— wherever I’ve worked, and I’ll thump the table on this wherever I go, is you’ve got to pay people when they have done the job and pay them quickly. Because they’ve got supplies they got to pay and they’ve got a staff they got to pay… it goes on and on and on. 

Don’t not have the money with you. Have the money to start in cash and in a credit card. Treat them with respect and I’ll guarantee you’ll get more back than you think you will. 

Jane Borden: Yeah, I feel like there is this expectation culturally here that these sort of home renovation projects are somewhat adversarial and it doesn’t need to be that way, does it? 

Damian Carroll: Well, look, some are not, you know? But some definitely are. And I don’t have any anecdotal evidences to what percentages of either but, if clients think of it this way, that this is a significant impose not only on your financial situation but also your life for a period of weeks or months. You’ve got to work with these people to make it less painful for you because if your bathroom or your kitchen is out of action, where are you going to come up with alternatives? 

Most people have kids. A lot of people have kids when they do these jobs, so they’ve got to work around that too. But guess what? A lot of suppliers have kids as well, they understand. They get it so it’s just a case of treat– if everyone treats everyone with respect and yes, things will get hairy at times and frustrating and all that sort of stuff. It’s okay to vent your anger but then you calm down and you say, “Right, okay. Let’s figure this out.” And most people will do that. 

You’ll occasionally get the odd rogue in the industry that will not do that. You know, it’s unfortunate that happens but it happens in any industry no matter what you talk about. 

Jane Borden: Well, thank you, Damian. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Again, listeners, the book is The Scope Statement: How to Renovate Your Home Without Breaking Your Budget. Damian, in addition to reading the book, where can people go to learn more about you and your work? 

Damian Carroll: I have a website set up, it’s my name. It’s damiancarroll.com or they could go to thescopestatement.com. Both of them are interactive with each other and there is a little bit more about me there and a bit more about the book. I got an excerpt in there. I’ve posted some blogs and I am going to add more blogs over the next few weeks. People can go there and if they want to get a free half-hour consultation, residential or commercial, there is a way that you can go in there and book some time with me and I am happy to talk to people and go from there. 

If they want to hire me to help them do things, it’s all there and we can certainly talk about it and I’ll be happy to help people out. 

Jane Borden: Great and that is Damian with A’s, Damian and Carroll with two R’s and two L’s. 

Damian Carroll: Yes and it is just damiancarroll.com. 

Jane Borden: Great, thank you so much. 

Damian Carroll: Thank you, Jane.