Meeting your contractor over video can help you renovate safely during COVID-19.
With COVID-19 quarantines and shelter-in-place orders, it can be difficult to move ahead with home improvement and building projects. Social distancing practices are vital to everyone’s health and safety. Many states and cities have halted all construction they consider non-essential. Luckily, there is an important virtual solution to help homeowners renovate safely during COVID-19.
At Sweeten, we’ve worked with our community of contractors to create the following guidelines for conducting virtual site visits. Sweeten is a free renovation platform that matches homeowners with licensed general contractors and tracks their projects. We’re in the business of taking the complication and uncertainty out of the renovation process.
What is a virtual site visit?
Homeowners preparing for a renovation or new construction must meet with a general contractor for a thorough review of the property. Traditionally, the general contractor looks at the property in-person to understand the existing site conditions, take measurements, review documents, and discuss the project with the homeowner.
A virtual site visit is the same process, conducted by video call. This allows for both parties to safely review the renovation project virtually, without meeting in person.
A virtual site visit gives the contractor the same visual information as an in-person visit. It also has similar limitations; don’t expect to resolve everything in one visit. Lingering questions can always be resolved during a later visit, over video, or in-person.
A streaming video conference replaces both the general contractor’s walk-through of the property and the face-to-face conference between contractor and homeowner.
If done effectively, a virtual site visit usually gives the contractor enough information to begin drawing up an estimate.
“I truly believe a virtual site meeting for most projects will be enough to send an estimate for the labor cost,” says Long Island-based Sweeten general contractor Robi. “The one item that is held up is the material selection process.” However, if you’ve hired a design-build firm that is assisting you with design and materials, “then even the design process can be done virtually in order to get the price of material selections.”
One important limitation: an estimate based on the virtual site visit will be considered “best-effort” or “commercially reasonable.” It may require adjustments after the contractor makes their own measurements.
How do I prepare for a virtual site visit?
Think of it more as a formal interview than as a chat with friends or family. It’s important to be well prepared. Make sure you’ve organized your brief and any supplementary papers, your measurements, and your questions and talking points (see “Post your project + prepare background information,” below).
Step 1: Prepare your video technology
You and the general contractor must use the same video chat app, which means agreeing on it in advance. Many contractors favor Zoom or Facetime. If one or both parties use an Android, you won’t be able to use Facetime. Zoom, Google Duo, Facebook Messenger, and Skype work on both operating systems.
Download any necessary software ahead of time, and try using it with a friend or family member. Make sure your signal is strong enough to let you chat while walking through the worksite. This will all cut down on time spent fiddling with technology during the virtual visit.
Your video camera cannot be anchored to a desktop computer or laptop. Phones and tablets are the best tools for walk-throughs.
Decide on a backup plan, in case your video quality breaks down during the call. Will you move to a regular phone call? Or, if you think you can resolve the connection problems, will you reschedule a video call?
Step 2: Post your project + prepare background information
The Sweeten contractors you meet with will need background information and a thorough project description to supplement the visuals. Post your project on Sweeten where the contractors can review this information before the video call.
Here’s what to include in your project post:
- A clear description of all work you would like done
- Length, depth, and height measurements of each room being worked on
- A simple floor plan. This is optional and can be obtained from a property closing or an online realtor site like StreetEasy.
- Age of the property
- Prior renovation work
- Homeowners association covenants applicable to the project
- Entry access such as stairs or elevator
- Parking availability
Take photos: Prepare three or four well-lit still photos of the project area that convey a sense of scale.
Step 2a: One-page briefs
If you are not in our service area, the local contractors you meet will still need this information.
Create a one-page brief that includes the bullet points above, including the still photos.
To prevent information overload, keep the brief truly brief—ideally, keep it to one page. E-mail the brief and the photos to the general contractor at least a few days before your virtual site visit. Keep your copies with you during the visit, for reference.
Step 3: Prepare your talking points
Site visits typically begin with a walkthrough, followed by a sit-down discussion of the project. Prepare a list of topics that you would like to discuss.
Important points to cover:
- Whether particular spaces will or will not be available for a certain amount of time
- What materials and fixtures will be recycled and reused
- How the non-remodel parts of the house will be protected during the renovation
Step 4: Prepare your house
As with an in-person site visit, you need to prepare the area before the virtual walkthrough.
- Remove any clutter and any furniture that could block important views
- Maximize the light by uncovering all windows and turning on the lights
- Prepare to close off the area from wandering pets or children
Tip: you can make your virtual walkthrough more productive by conducting a practice run with a friend.
What can I expect during my virtual site visit?
A virtual site visit usually has three phases: introduction, walkthrough, and a sit-down conference.
This is your opportunity for a casual hello, and a stand-in for a handshake. You get to see each other’s faces. You may also want to discuss what time you’ll end the call.
Virtual renovation site walkthrough
Let your contractor play an active role. As you move through the space, make sure you’re showing them what they need to see. They may ask you to double back or move in closer to something, and may ask you to pause at certain points so they can take screenshots.
Unless the general contractor requests otherwise, walk through the space in this order, always moving the camera slowly:
- Establish the general environment directly beyond the intended work area. If this is a bathroom remodel, for example, show the rooms and the hallways just outside the bathroom.
- Move into the work area through its main entrance.
- In the work area itself, stand at the center and turn the camera slowly, 360-degrees.
- Standing at various points along the perimeter, pan the camera slowly across the space.
- Move the camera from the ceiling to the floor.
- Highlight key sections. In the bathroom remodel example, the shower or bathtub would be a section to highlight. Direct the contractor’s attention with a “show-and-tell” technique; hold the phone in one hand and point with the other. Make sure you can see your pointing hand on your own screen, and that it’s clear what you’re pointing to.
- Show a few close-ups. For example, in a bathroom renovation, show a close-up view of the shower walls, open up the vanity doors to show the valves under the sink, and show where the toilet valve is located.
- As long as you can maintain a video signal, move to the outermost part of your property such as the exterior door, sidewalk, driveway, and street to give the contractor a sense of access. The contractor doesn’t need to see your face as you’re walking through the home. They just need to see the space.
Move to a table or desk. Turn the camera back around to your face. Discuss the walkthrough, the contractor’s questions, and the talking points that you prepared earlier.
What comes after my virtual site visit?
E-mail your contractor. After the formalities of thanking the contractor for the visit, document in writing your common understandings of the project, particularly anything not covered in the brief.
First, clarify the project’s status. Do you want the project to move ahead, which means asking the contractor to submit an estimate? If so, state this clearly. Confirm with the contractor whether they are able to submit an estimate for your review.
Your contractor may come up with more questions while preparing the estimate, known in the industry as “Requests For Information.” Your email establishes a clear channel for these requests.
Be aware that your contractor’s estimate will be considered “commercially reasonable” but not ironclad. Contractors will not be able to account for every detail before they’ve done a physical site visit and made their own measurements.
When you’ve received estimates from all the contractors you’ve approached, it will be time to make your choice. Sweeten can help by “bid leveling,” which means translating all the estimates into equivalent terms so they can be directly compared.
A virtual site visit is a powerful tool for renovating safely during COVID-19. It will let you take important steps on your renovation, including booking a contractor, all while sheltering-in-place. When restrictions lift and the economy recovers, your preferred contractors will be much harder to book. We hope these guidelines will help you get a head start, and help you complete your renovation as quickly and safely as possible.
Turn your home into a space you love. Post your project and Sweeten will guide you all the way through.
Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog, Sweeten Stories, for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation with Sweeten.