ch-ch-ch-change orders

Theme music for this post.

There are many four letter words associated with building, but none are as expensive as "change order". A change order is a deviation from the building plan that invariably adds cost (a change order could theoretically lower cost, but that seems to be as rare as a dodo hunt).

Change orders occur for a variety of reasons: An owner changing his or her mind about something ("I now need a Jacuzzi tub for four in the master suite."), the code changing during the build ("We're gonna need a bigger vent."), incomplete or erroneous construction documents ("How is this wall held up?"), sudden unavailability of building supplies ("We done run out of nails."), and building surprises ("Look out everybody: QUICKSAND!!!"). Change orders are a big reason for having a healthy contingency fund (or contingency plan [Adios, landscaping!]), because if there's one constant in this (built) world, it's change (orders).

We've had one big change in the project thus far: The foundation. Because of the unexpected shallowness of the sewer line at the street, we had to raise the foundation six inches. To our surprise, the builder ate the additional cost of this. You could argue that he should have checked the depth of the sewer line before setting the forms; however, you could also argue that (perhaps) the architects should have checked that as well (although to be fair, I'm not sure how they would have done that or if that would even be considered part of their job). Nevertheless, no charge to us for this change.

We've changed some of the fixtures from the original bid to the current time. Instead of this faucet, that faucet. Instead of this light, that light. These changes have varied in costing more and costing less. Clearly, we're responsible for these changes. We changed our mind; we (invariably) pay more for the changes.

Some other change orders are a little irritating because ideally they shouldn't have happened. For example, consider the cubist wall pooper. The original hard bid had a standard toilet. After seeing how well we did on the hard bid, we upgraded the pooper to a cubist one that hung from the wall. This was discussed at a meeting and added to subsequent versions of the fixture wish list. However, it wasn't until the drain plumbing was being installed before the foundation pour that we learned that it would cost an additional $600 to install the toilet. Understandably (now), it's a more delicate exercise to install an in-wall toilet. Unfortunately, that increased installation cost wasn't included in the bid, so it wasn't included in the loan. In other words, break out the checkbook.

We've had something similar happen with the HVAC system. All along we've been asking for a three-zone system. It was in the specs that went out for soft and hard bids. We asked about the zonage when it wasn't clear that it was in the sub's soft and hard bid. Finally, after asking umteen times, we find out last week it wasn't in the sub's bid and, even worse, it's going to cost an additional $2,000 (!!!).

So who's fault is this? Did the builder not convey the details of the system to the sub? Did the sub not pay attention to the specs? Did the builder not verify that the sub paid attention to the specs? Did aliens alter the space-time continuum and monkey with our build? Given that the builder has been good in the past in conveying specs to subs, given that the sub hasn't been terribly responsive or detailed, and given that it is currently unknown whether life exists outside of our planet (setting aside the unknown shiny things on Mars), Occam's Razor suggests this is a screw-up with the sub. You could argue that the general contractor is ultimately responsible, but I think all we gain from that is bad blood (and attempts to "make up the cost" in subsequent change orders). And if the sub is indeed responsible and we try to hold him accountable, all he has to do is bail on the bid. It's a problem without a clear solution (except for writing a check...).

Furthermore, I get the sneaky feeling that items captured in change orders cost more than if they had been part of the original bid. This article suggests this feeling is not without merit. That's doubly frustrating since we asked for these things either before bidding or before we went for financing. grrr... We're all human, so mistakes happen. It just sucks when the bills for those mistakes all come to you.

Sooo..... if you're building a house, we recommend that you (1) work out and confirm all those details before you go for financing (including verifying that the builder and subs include all your desired items in writing), (2) make sure anything changed after the hard bids come in are re-hardbidded, and (3) have a contingency fund because despite your best efforts you almost assuredly will have changes, surprises, and unconsidered booboos.

And pay attention to those details, because no-one else is...

Further reading:

Coping with Change Orders

Change Orders: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Change Orders: The Bane of All Construction Projects

The Trouble with Change Orders


  1. Just wanted to point out that you did verify in writing that the bid included the zones -- in the specs. Unfortunately, there's just no good way to ask a builder, "What details are you overlooking?" Well, you can ask, but you're not going to get a very useful answer.

    Sorry you're already experiencing the unfun side of building a house.