Preservation/restoration work, a subset of the home improvement industry, can be both very rewarding and very lucrative-rewarding because your efforts help save important pieces of our past that might otherwise be lost forever, and lucrative because you can make a very comfortable living from this line of work
But before we delve into specifics, let's talk a little about the differences between preservation, restoration, remodeling and renovation, since it's easy to confuse them. Preservation (also known as conservation) involves stabilizing or preserving a structure or item in a way that prevents it from further decay or deterioration. The intent isn't to hide the structure's or item's original condition or any damage done to it, but to keep it from further harm. The preservationist also avoids using products like abrasive sandpaper or cyanoacrylates (instant adhesives) to repair items, since they can cause further harm to whatever's being repaired and even devalue the item. A project currently underway in Florida to save the summer homes of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison is an example of a true preservation project. Alternatively, items you see on display in a museum, like a cracked Grecian urn, are examples of preserved items.
Restoration involves altering a structure or object to renew it and return it to its previous condition. In the course of restoring buildings or objets d'art, a restorer may use salvaged materials like reclaimed brick to give the reconstructed item or building an air of authenticity. Or the restorer may use new materials that have been distressed by hand or by a faux finisher to make them look like vintage pieces. Restorers are also skilled at cleverly concealing damage. Commonly restored items include furniture, pottery and statuary; commonly restored building components include plaster and woodwork.
The terms remodeling and renovating actually can be used interchangeably. They refer to removing or gutting the old to make way for the new, without regard for historical significance or authenticity.
It Takes All Types
Having said all that, what kinds of preservation/restoration projects can you expect to do? To begin with, you're probably more likely to specialize in a particular type of repair work, just as any tradesperson would. For instance, you may be an electrician, a plumber, a plasterer, a woodworker, or any other type of craftsperson. Only carpenters tend to be generalists, although working with wood is certainly their main skill. But it's not uncommon for a carpenter to handle all the tasks mentioned above as well, making him or her a very valuable commodity to a homeowner in need of extensive or complex preservation/restoration work
A contractor who specializes in one area but has experience in many is called in the trades a general contractor (GC). A GC usually bids an entire job then subcontracts the work to other tradespeople such as electricians or plumbers. He or she facilitates the coordination of tasks and keeps the work moving along and is ultimately answerable to the homeowner on the progress and quality of the work. GCs may or may not pick up a hammer or a screwdriver on a job site-rather, it's their management skills that are most valuable to a client. To be a GC you need good communication, negotiation and organizational skills rather than tools and equipment (your subcontractors will bring their own). As a result, the startup costs for a GC can be a lot lower than for the average preservation/restoration professional.
You may be asked to ply your trade in homes or commercial buildings with historic significance, like churches or turn-of-the-century factories. In fact, it can be wise to work on a wide range of projects, since it's the best way to stay continuously employed. But there's no doubt that public buildings are the best source of work for preservation/restoration professionals, both because the projects are often so large and because there may be state or federal money allocated for them.
A Day in the Life
Even though the place you'll want to be most often will be out on a job site, either working or estimating, there also will be a certain amount of desk duty you'll have to pull when running your preservation/restoration business. Some of the everyday activities you'll be involved with include:
- Talking on the phone with homeowners and building owners who call to inquire about your services and rates
- Preparing written bids that will be delivered in person, mailed, faxed or e-mailed
- Holding pre-construction meetings with clients who have signed on the dotted line (usually held at the client's home/business or a neutral location, like a restaurant)
- Preparing invoices that will be presented to clients upon completion of the work
- Preparing and mailing invoices to larger companies or organizations that have supplied you with a purchase order
- Purchasing tools, materials and supplies
- Managing accounts receivables and balancing the books
- Managing accounts payables (i.e. paying your creditors)
- Renting equipment that's too expensive to purchase when you're just starting out
- Pulling permits for structural, electrical, plumbing and other work
- l Advertising your services
- l Handling HR issues and scheduling if you have employees
It's common knowledge that estimating is both a science and an art. As you gain more experience in your craft, you'll become more proficient in estimating. In the meantime, however, it's best to turn to the pros for help, because underestimating means you'll be giving away your work, while overestimating means you'll lose out on work. Luckily, there are tons of construction industry books and software packages available on estimating that can guide you. (Unfortunately, there are no books or packages devoted strictly to preservation/restoration work, so general construction is the next best option.) You can find some free advice at www.hometechonline.com. Other books, websites and software to check into include:
The amount you can charge depends on what the local market will bear. You will find that customers in more populous and affluent parts of the country, like California and New York, will support and, in fact, may expect a higher rate. In other parts of the country where the cost of living is lower, you may have to lower your rate accordingly. As a baseline, a rate of $45 to $50 an hour for your time is definitely not out of line considering the skill you bring to the job. However, a word of caution: Never quote an hourly rate to your customer because while some people balk at what they perceive to be a rate that's too high, they are more accepting of a flat fee.
Many preservation/restoration professionals charge a one-hour consultation fee. Peter Lord, co-owner of Peter Lord Plaster & Paint, a restoration company in Limington, Maine, gives one-to-two-hour consultations on average ("Because people are very enthusiastic about their old homes and like to chitchat," Noelle Lord, his co-owner and wife, says) and will credit half the fee back to the job if he lands the work. However, if extended travel to the consultation site is necessary, he charges his day rate of $250.
Because most preservation/restoration businesses will require tools specific to the trade, the startup costs for this business are a little higher than the others discussed in this book (at least $5,000 to $10,000 for tools, about $5,000 for supplies, thousands for a truck if you don't have one, and possibly a trailer for larger jobs). However, if you're already working as a tradesperson or you've always liked tinkering around with home improvement projects, it's possible you already may have some of the tools you'll need in your toolbox. Likewise, if you're serving as a general contractor your tool requirements won't be as great.
But if you do need tools, Noelle Lord recommends buying them as you get the cash from the projects you work on. Or you can do what New York restoration professional Jeff Finch does: He buys a tool, "rents" it to the client at fair market value, then keeps it when the job is completed.
Other typical monthly costs for labor and materials needed on the job tend to be high-possibly as much as several thousand dollars a month, depending on the type of business you're in.