Why construction runs behind

Why construction runs behind

Everyone told us that construction projects ALWAYS run late, but we had no idea why until we experienced it ourselves. I swore we would be the exception! Our general contractor originally told us our whole project would take a month, which in retrospect was laughable. Four months later, we're almost done. If you're considering a remodeling project, here are some of the setbacks that you can expect.

Lead times

Be prepared to wait for tile, cabinets, doors, windows, window treatments, and plumbing fixtures. You'll start with a week or two of phone tag and appointments before you even get your order in. If fit is important, you might need to have a professional come measure the space; if design is important, you might need to sign off on multiple rounds of plans. Once your order is in, in-stock items take 1-3 weeks to ship from the warehouse. Made-to-order and custom items take 6-12 weeks or even longer.

For items that you order yourself, you can plan ahead once you know to expect long lead times. It's trickier for items that your general contractor wants or needs to order. General contractors sometimes dislike ordering in advance because (a) then they have to deal with storage, and (b) they float the cost of materials until you pay them. This means they wait until the last second, which might be too late. I plan to be insistent for our next project.

City permits

Getting permits can increase the total length and cost of a project. Here are some of the delays we faced due to the permiting process:

  • Plans and engineering. We unexpectedly needed full plans and a structural engineer when we took down a non-shear wall. It took almost a month to get them; engineers are busy people.
  • No grandfather clause for safety. Sure, maybe that knob and tube wiring has been there for a hundred years -- if it's a safety hazard, the city inspector doesn't care about the reason. By opening up the walls, we exposed existing problems inside the house that had to be fixed before the walls were closed again.
  • Energy efficiency. California has strict regulations around HVAC, window sizes, and other factors that influence energy efficiency. Meeting those requirements added time to the HVAC installation, and we had to schedule a duct test.
  • Historic properties. We're currently in a dispute with the city over whether our property is considered historic. I can't go into too much detail here, but there are additional approvals for changes to homes that are considered historic. 

Even though permits added complexity, I'm still glad we did the work with permits. The city inspector gave me some peace of mind that our house isn't going to burn down.


It's obvious that external work is weather dependent, but even interior construction work can depend on the weather. The workmen used our yard to cut tile, wood, and pipes, which prevented dust from filling the inside of our house. Furthermore, cold temperatures and lack of circulation prolong drying times for paint, plaster, and varnish if you don't have central air.

Unreliable contractor

Your contractor might start disappearing towards the end of your project. Our project ran late enough that our contractor started his next project(s) before finishing ours. Once the next project started, his crew was split between our house and other houses. He tried to make up for it by working on some Saturdays, but there aren't enough Saturdays if you have three projects that are all behind. We had similar issues with subcontractors, so the problem wasn't unique to our general contractor. Even if something "only" takes a day, it'll take a week to get done if that day is split into two hour increments.

Unexpected repairs

Budget time and money for unexpected repair work, especially if your house is old. We thought we knew everything that needed to be fixed, but we were wrong. A few examples of unexpected repairs:

  • We had to re-wire the whole house for electrical. The previous homeowners claimed that all of the knob-and-tube had already been replaced. Hilarious! Our walls were full of live knob-and-tube wiring.
  • An enthusiastic HVAC guy ripped out our entire heating system while we were on vacation, without first telling us how much it would cost or how long it would take to replace. We didn't think we'd committed to hiring him for the project; surprise! Time to put in a whole new HVAC system for $12k and a few weeks of no heat.
  • Our attic was full of disgusting blown insulation from the 60s. They needed remove it to see whether it was safe to take down the wall and put in new HVAC ducts. It took two days to remove. We had to put in new insulation after the work was done, plus we discovered there was no insulation under the house so we added that too.

We ended up spending around $25k on unexpected repairs, and they added to the time and complexity of the project. I honestly have no idea how to avoid this in the future.


The general contractor is responsible for supervising his or her crew and subcontractors. His or her presence should prevent and catch mistakes. Our GC came by less than once a week towards the end of the project. Materials were accidentally thrown out (requiring re-ordering), steps were skipped, and corners were cut. I did my best to supervise, but I'm no expert. This meant that the crew had to come back to fix things. For example, the painters scratched almost half of our recently repaired windows so now we need to replace the glass (and glazing and paint) again. The next time I hire a GC, I plan to specify in the contract that he is obligated to come by the job site at least three times a week unless we agree otherwise for a specific week.


Remodeling projects are full of moving parts that depend on each other. For example: all interior work has to stop while waiting for floor varnish to dry. Or, you shouldn't paint the house's exterior until after replacing or repairing the windows. Our GC was completely unable to plan around dependencies. He found it simpler to plan only a day or two at a time, at which point dependencies are obvious. Although simpler, this approach is inefficient -- if you wait to call the electrician until the day before you need electrical work, the electrician might be busy. I couldn't handle the planning myself because I didn't understand the work well enough. We ended up making some rudimentary Gantt charts together; it helped but didn't solve the problem. The next time I take on a large project, I will make sure to ask a contractor's references about his or her ability to schedule things in parallel.

Finishing the piano nook took seven weeks longer than expected: first, the lead time for the cabinets was a month longer than I thought it would be; then, the crown molding over the cabinet was delayed by three weeks. We had to hire piano movers to repeatedly move the piano in and out of this spot.

Finishing the piano nook took seven weeks longer than expected: first, the lead time for the cabinets was a month longer than I thought it would be; then, the crown molding over the cabinet was delayed by three weeks. We had to hire piano movers to repeatedly move the piano in and out of this spot.

Turning dead space into a piano nook

Turning dead space into a piano nook

Restoring curb appeal

Restoring curb appeal