September 14, 2002 - Washington Post: Madagascar RPCV Michael Gehron renovates home from afar

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Madagascar RPCV Michael Gehron renovates home from afar

Read and comment on this story from the Washington Post on Madagascar RPCVs Nancy and Michael Gehron who had their Falls Church house renovated while they were out of town with the Peace Corps in Madagascar, an island nation off the southeastern coast of Africa at:

Renovating From Afar*

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Renovating From Afar
With the Right Builder, a Project Can Be Steered to a Happy End. Even From Africa.

By Sandra Fleishman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 14, 2002; Page H01

Nancy and Michael Gehron had their Falls Church house renovated while they were out of town. Way out of town -- with the Peace Corps in Madagascar, an island nation off the southeastern coast of Africa.

Their friends called them crazy, but the Gehrons say renovating from half a world away turned out to be not only sound but also more successful than any construction project they had ever done.

The four-month, $170,000 update was completed two years ago, just before the Gehrons returned to Virginia. "It was the only time we have ever had a project come in on time and on budget. That to me is such a miracle," Nancy Gehron said.

The couple, who depended on e-mail and the diplomatic mail pouch rather than the phone to supervise the construction, are part of a rare breed, remodelers and building experts say.

"It's a recipe for disaster to not be around during a remodeling if a homeowner can't easily make decisions or doesn't know exactly what he wants," said Paul Winans, vice president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.

Remodeling magazine senior editor Nina Patel, in an article this month, said: "Homeowners have to be very trusting to have work done on their homes while living or working in another state or country."

Making it all work, Patel wrote, "requires the perfect combination of trust, planning, communication and technology."

Disaster can loom if a client chooses a remodeler because "their bid was the lowest price and you kind of knew that you'd have to be there to make things happen," Winans said. He owns a design-build firm in Oakland, Calif. Design/build firms coordinate architectural design with construction.

Still, Patel and Winans said the approach can work. The typical remote decision-makers are the wealthy who are accustomed to having other people make decisions for them and vacation homeowners who just cannot be around when contractors are needed.

Some remodeling experts, however, see growing enthusiasm from regular folks for long-distance arrangements, particularly in areas such as Washington, where many people have jobs that involve international travel.

With digital photos, instant messaging, e-mail, and the ability to scan blueprints and hand drawings into computers, the idea "has made its way into commercial remodeling," Remodeling magazine editor Jim Cory said. Contractors are setting up Web sites on major commercial projects for out-of-town clients to track construction progress, he said.

The Gehrons said it was crucial that they could get extensive details and updates via e-mail from the Virginia design and building firm they hired. Their project predated technology that allows the easy scanning of hand drawings and blueprints. Diplomatic mail took two to three weeks then. Phone calls were expensive.

But they credit much of their success to their remodeler, rather than the technology. They say it helped that they knew what they wanted before they started, but keeping the faith in the contractor's decisions was essential.

They also had the benefit of reports via e-mail and videos from family and friends. The updates usually, but not always, kept them from second-guessing the remodeler.

The Gehrons found SEI Design/Build of Vienna during a two-week visit home midway through Nancy Gehron's Peace Corps assignment in Madagascar. Gehron was an administrator of a project in Antananarivo, the island's capital.

A Peace Corps colleague recommended the company, and the couple checked three references. The Gehrons also interviewed other contractors.

They met with SEI owner Steve Perlik twice during that 1998 visit, laying out their ideas and listening to his responses.

It helped, they said, that "he got what we were talking about" and that Perlik's firm not only had good references but also had received several professional awards.

Their confidence was bolstered by their belief that they had their design plan ducks in a row. Not only had they been considering renovations before they left Falls Church in 1996, but they also had two years in the less-frenetic island environment, with its forests and high plains, to map it all out before their first trip home.

"We knew we wanted to move back to this neighborhood when we came home, but not to this house in the condition it was in," Nancy Gehron said. Kate Gehron, now 12, and Luke, now 10, "really were very tuned in to the idea of coming back here in two years."

The couple had already made two big changes in their three-bedroom, two-bath contemporary, built in 1951 in the Holmes Run Acres development. They had bought the house in 1988 for $152,500.

To add more living space to the 2,000 square feet available, they had eliminated the entryway through the carport and converted the space into a dining room and an expanded kitchen. They had also added a front foyer and a sunroom.

But they thought the house was still too dark, too cramped and way out of date.

They wanted all new windows, a master bedroom suite on a new second floor and another bedroom and more storage space downstairs.

Michael Gehron, vice president of a software company, wanted the house wired for a computer network. The Gehrons also wanted the floors refinished.

After they met with Perlik, though, they had some major rethinking to do. Perlik "told us he didn't think it was a good idea to go up [to a second floor] with the master bedroom. He pushed us to go back instead, with storage on the floor below," said Nancy Gehron.

Perlik also recommended moving the stairwell that connected the living room to a dark den downstairs to a new location, to open up both areas and gain storage space under the stairs.

With just a few hand-drawn sketches, the family took the 24-hour flight back to the land of the lemurs.

Six weeks later, they got the first plans via diplomatic pouch. The family "pored over them for a week" before returning them with changes.

They received a second set of plans three weeks later. They made only a few minor adjustments.

"Everybody said we were crazy to do it, but it's all about knowing your contractor, knowing his project management skills and having confidence in him," Michael Gehron said. "When I saw what his project plan looked like and went through prior projects he had done, I could tell this guy was meticulous."

Nancy Gehron said: "We knew if we weren't going to be here, we had to have someone we were very sure of."

"We were well aware that we would pay a premium for the kind of firm we wanted," she added. "But we knew that they were a higher caliber of contractor than we had previously used."

The original budget was $110,000. "But as our hopes and dreams grew, so did the price," she said. The final $170,000 "floored us," she said, when they compared it with what they had paid for the house only 14 years earlier. But the family felt better knowing that "unimproved houses in the neighborhood were selling for $350,000."

It made sense to the Gehrons to have the work done while they were away.

"We couldn't have lived through the renovation in the house even if we had wanted to, and I was just as happy not to witness the destruction phase," Nancy Gehron said.

Major parts of the house were gutted, all the windows were removed and the frames boarded up, and a new foundation had to be dug for the addition.

The Gehrons were not worried about SEI's nine-month backlog because they did not need the project completed for two years. They got onto SEI's calendar for fall 1999, secured a mortgage refinance loan over the Web and notified their renter of their plans.

The contract required that all construction be completed by Jan. 15, 2000. "My husband flew back from Madagascar on Jan. 16 . . . and he was able to move our furnishings in right away," Nancy Gehron said.

The logistics of communicating were not a problem, said the Gehrons. Madagascar has phone service, though getting a new line "takes years," Nancy Gehron said. Because Michael Gehron was in the software business, hooking up a computer was no problem.

The Gehrons had computers both at home and at Nancy's office. They did not try to get a second line at home because of the bureaucracy involved. For phone calls, there was an eight-hour time difference to the United States.

There was some hesitation about making it all work -- on both sides of the deal.

Perlik vetoed Nancy Gehron's call for an all-white master bathroom. "I told her we don't want it to look like a hospital," he remembers.

Because she was still not sold, "I exercised my judgment and picked cypress-colored cabinetry and inlaid tile for the shower," he said. "I was a little curious what she was going to say when she saw it. She came back and loved it."

Had she not loved it, he said, "I would have just had to rip it out."

Michael Gehron had bigger problems understanding how the new stairs would change the space. He had wanted a spiral or open staircase to bring more light into the basement den/office.

"I did have a hard time visualizing from a long distance" what was going on, Michael Gehron said. "I'd put string on the ground to measure off what was on the blueprints and I'd use a tape measure to measure off rooms that I was in to see how they would compare."

There were times, Gehron said, "that the uncertainty and the distance made it potentially more difficult than it would have been if you could have just walked up to the onsite contractor and asked what was going on. . . . It takes a little more faith."

Trust from clients is essential, Patel and several remodelers said. A controlling customer just would not go along with the idea, they said. That kind of homeowner needs to see what is being done and to be able to direct the work or to make changes on the spot.

Some clients hire interior designers to oversee their projects. Or the architect deals with the contractor.

"You have to place a lot of trust in the contractor to say, 'Here's the check, here's the keys and I hope it goes well,' " Remodeling magazine's Cory said.

Perlik said overseas clients are becoming more common as the Internet makes communication easier. The 20-year-old firm is working with three overseas clients.

"When we did the Gehrons' house, the Internet was a little bit bleeding edge," he said. "People would buy a lot of software that was not compatible. Now it's much more seamless. We have electronic files we can send people, PDF files, and we can send them drawings." A PDF is a type of file that allows exact images to be viewed by people with different computer setups.

Having no clients around also suits Perlik fine. "I don't mean to be flippant about it, but because they weren't there it gave us unfettered access to the house. It was absolutely ideal."

Instead of having to clean up daily for the homeowners, who normally return at night, "you can leave two-by-fours stacked in the living room" and not worry about boarded-up windows, he said.

Other remodelers who preferred not to be quoted by name agreed that getting clients out of the house -- and out of their hair -- during a renovation would be heaven, as long as the customers did not change their minds once they saw the final product.

The Gehrons say they benefited from biweekly reports from their Virginia relatives. The videos, however, were sometimes jarring.

"Initially we'd get reports that things were looking just terrible, with comments like 'you can't believe what they've done to the yard,' " she said. That would be followed by the video, proving things were looking bad. "But by the time we'd watch the video two weeks later and we'd sort of cringe, my brother would contact us to say, 'Oh, it's not too bad now.' "

On the financial end, Nancy Gehron's mother took care of the bills. Relatives and architects are frequently responsible for payment, according to Patel. Collecting from out-of-town clients "is often easier than collecting from local owners because long-distance clients set up wire accounts to transfer funds directly to a remodeler's bank," she writes.

Nancy Gehron highly recommends her strategy to those who have to go abroad or out of state and who complain that they do not have time to make changes in their homes. Her advice: Take advantage of your absence to have the work done.

She acknowledges that she has a low tolerance for living through renovations. "Redoing the kitchen was a nightmare," she remembers. It only took 3 1/2 months, but "it seemed like forever." A downstairs bathroom renovation now underway is also taking longer than she had hoped.

She cannot wait for her next posting overseas, possibly in two years. "By the time we come back, the kitchen will be almost 20 years old." Perfect time for another renovation.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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