When embarking on building a custom home from the ground up or remodeling an existing home, owners quickly find that their project can go off track. They become frustrated when the project starts costing more and taking longer than originally planned. It is also common for owners to end up in litigation over costly mistakes due to unfamiliarity with all the complexities of a residential construction project and not communicating clearly with the parties involved.
It doesn’t have to be that way, according to Shelia Kuhn, founder and president of D&S Kuhn, Inc. Construction Coordinating and Consulting in Newport Beach.
The most important service that D&S Kuhn, Inc. provides their clients is owner representation.
As an owner representative, Shelia is passionate about putting the owner’s interests and needs first at all times. “My role is to see the larger picture and manage all aspects of the construction process, including the unavoidable challenges that arise, all while making necessary changes to stay on budget and be on time. I am the owners’ advocate on the project and I am always focused on making decisions that are in my clients’ best interest.”
Not just anybody can be an owner representative. It takes someone who has extensive knowledge of the construction process, superb organizational skills, attention to detail and excellent communication skills. Shelia possesses all of these and more – she is not a contractor, but since she works exclusively for the homeowner, it is essential that she is fluent in the contractor’s language.
As part of her arsenal, Shelia has developed an extensive network of quality general contractors, specialty trade contractors, architects, landscape architects and interior designers. She completes background checks and verifies insurance on every person she recommends, and has personally viewed the quality of their work product. “One thing to keep in mind here,” Shelia points out, “is that general contractors, architects and interior designers all have a network of friends they like to work with and will refer to clients. This does NOT mean the client is necessarily getting the best price or quality, or that the individual is the best choice for the project and the client.”
As an owner representative, Shelia’s choices when referring contractors and other residential trade professionals to clients are based solely on the client’s needs – their budget, the scope of the project, the style of home, the location, the quality of work needed and even personalities.
“The contractors know that I have a deep understanding of the construction process and that I represent only my clients’ interests, and negotiate aggressively, yet professionally, for them.”
Shelia offers every potential client a two-hour complimentary consultation to explain the construction process, timelines and responsibilities. “I educate people on issues like lien releases, insurance documentation, licensing, bid evaluations and any actions necessary for them to self-manage their project.”
Shelia gives the client flexibility in deciding how to engage and compensate her, whether that’s by the hour, a percentage of the project fee, or a monthly fee. Sheila explains that “if at any point during the project the client doesn’t feel I am creating value, they can end the contract immediately. My compensation comes exclusively from the owners. I do not accept the referral fees or split commissions which occur in many other business and real estate transactions.”
The client also determines the owner representative’s level of involvement. “Some (clients) enjoy certain aspects of the project and like to get very involved in them, while others prefer to delegate most of the responsibilities to me and retain just the role of decision maker.”
Shelia typically saves her clients a minimum of 15%, after her fees, on total project costs by negotiating effectively, value engineering the project, avoiding costly change orders and eliminating delays.
On average, construction delays cause projects to go 25% longer than the initial timelines. “On a 12-month project, a typical delay would add another three months to the process,” explains Shelia. “If the clients are renting another property during construction at $5,000 a month, this would equate to $15,000 in additional costs they did not expect or budget for.”
Many people assume that their remodel project would be too small for Shelia’s services, which is not the case. “I recently helped a family who planned a $150,000 remodel and I was able to get their project completed, including my fees, for $115,000 – a 23% savings. I also negotiated for free installation of their solar system, so that they only paid for the system itself.”
Shelia develops her signature bid analysis and project plan for every project she heads, which is critical for both its efficiency and success. The bid analysis is a detailed line-item by line-item comparison of costs. Some bids can be 40 pages long with great detail, while other bids are merely a single page. “Dissecting the information and analyzing what is included or excluded in each line item is critical in understanding what you are being offered,” Shelia explains. “From my bid analysis, I can professionally, yet aggressively negotiate prices on behalf of the owner.” Shelia has found that many people are uncomfortable negotiating on price, or just value, having an intermediary be their personal advocate, or both.
After decisions are made based on the bid analysis, Shelia writes up a project plan that provides the engine behind each project. All parties affiliated with the project are given a copy of the project plan, which includes detailed time lines for the owner’s decisions – including material selections, windows, hardware, appliances, doors and cabinetry.
“I make sure everyone’s expectations are not just clearly conveyed but also understood; communication is frequent so the project does not get off track. All documentation is in written form to ensure that all parties understand all expectations, helping to eliminate change orders that cost time and money and avoid delays in construction due to negotiating issues that should have been dealt with up front.”
Another way Sheila represents her clients and saves them money is by reviewing all invoices before her clients issue a check. She confirms the work being billed has been completed, inspected, meets the client’s expectations and does not require a 10% hold back. She also checks for accuracy in billing. “Unintentional errors do occur when contractors submit billing.”
Prior to founding D&S Kuhn Inc., Shelia was the COO and investor in a privately held company that developed and operated high-end gyms/spas exclusively for women. In addition to the daily operational responsibilities that included 650 employees in eight locations, she was responsible for the build out of new facilities and remodeling of existing facilities for the owner. This involved dealing with architects, interior designers, general contractors, other trade contractors and equipment manufacturers.
Six years ago, Shelia and her husband David bought a small home on Newport Beach’s Kings Road with the intent to tear it down and rebuild. With both Shelia and David having very busy careers, she decided to look for someone to perform the functions, negotiations and management of their new home project just as she was doing in the commercial space for work. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anyone doing exactly what I was looking for. So after a year of research, I decided to take skills from my COO experience and apply them to high-end custom homes and remodels in Orange County. Our 5,500-square-foot custom Mediterranean home was D&S Kuhn, Inc’s first project.”
Shelia found her niche and D&S Kuhn, Inc. Construction Coordinating and Consulting was born. She continues to be personally involved in the day-to-day management of every project at D&S Kuhn, Inc. “Fortunately for my clients, I am pretty much available seven days a week. Many people need the flexibility to meet after work or on the weekends, so that’s the type of schedule I keep in order to meet my clients’ needs.”
Building a custom home or remodeling an existing one is often a lifelong dream for people. Shelia believes that “a home is a very personal reflection of a person’s hobbies, passions and lifestyle.I enjoy helping them turn their vision and dream for the perfect home into a reality, while making the construction process an enjoyable one.”
For more information, visit www.dskuhninc.com