It's a sign that the time has come to move out of your home office when you keep being woken at dawn by workers knocking on your bedroom window. Habitually drifting into the office in your pajamas is another red flag, as are subcontractors casually interrupting family meals to get a signature or to pick up a check.
Talk to any remodeler who has made the leap from home to commercial office space, and you'll hear a broad litany of reasons for their move. Almost without exception though, these remodelers will tell you that they're glad they made the move and that they regret not making it sooner.
When To Do It There's plenty who recommend working at home, and many remodelers do it successfully for years. But growth typically requires more people, and hence more space. Potomac Builders in Alexandria, Va., operated for 11 years out of the 600-square-foot basement in the home of owners Karen Dowd and Chad Carpenter. “We started out with just one desk, then we added another, then two more people sat at a conference table,” says Dowd, director of office administration.
As the company grew from doing one job at a time to juggling many and as the couple's children grew older, the configuration “became really untenable because this business pretty much starts at 7 in the morning, and I'm still in my pajamas making lunches at 7 a.m.,” Dowd says.
Business coach Clay Nelson says gross revenues of $2.5 million to $3.5 million are the point at which remodelers “have to give up their home to their business” if they don't separate the two. Through Clay Nelson Life Balance, he has helped many remodelers make the move to a commercial space. “It's not about choosing office space,” he says. “It's about choosing family.”
Another transition point might be taking on more client-intensive design work. Sundquist Associates, Redwood City, Calif., spent 15 years in a 400-square-foot converted wood shop on George Sundquist's property. “It was fine for a long time, because we were relatively small and spent most of our time on jobsites,” says son and co-owner Erik Sundquist. But when the company became design/build, “we felt it was important to bring our clients into the office to take more control of the process.”
In April, Sundquist Associates moved into a 1,000-square-foot commercial space and pumped $30,000 into improvements showcasing the company's green-building focus, with the likes of bamboo and cork floors and low-VOC paints. “Not only does the space provide a subtle reassurance to our prospects and clients,” notes Eric, “but it gives our employees a sense of pride and confidence.”
Greg Antonioli also sees psychological advantages in a commercial office. More than a decade ago, he moved Out of the Woods Construction, Arlington, Mass., out of his home. He says his carpenters “never really came to my house. They didn't feel like the [home] office was their domain.” Plus, he feels he has the upper hand when he meets prospects on his professional turf instead of in their homes, where they tend to be unfocused.
What To Look For Dowd and Carpenter wanted their office to have ample free parking, build-out potential, proximity to their home and client base, easy access on and off the beltway (the major highway encircling metropolitan Washington, D.C.), and “storefront visibility.” They also wanted to keep the rent to $1,000 per month, counting utilities.
Dowd found such a place while driving down a busy commercial street, where she saw a “For Rent” sign on a strip with a swimming pool company, a glass business, and a “doggie wash.” All turned out to bring in a lot of foot traffic, she says, and Potomac Builders' signage elicits frequent calls from curious drivers-by.
Other remodelers shun street visibility. “I've always feared walk-in or cold-call traffic,” says Antonioli, who prefers to screen prospects sent via word of mouth. He has a showroom but uses it only to help clients make selections.
Michael and Carolin Fast of MRF Construction, Tacoma, Wash., wanted to be a “unique” business in a residential neighborhood. An 18-month search for a commercially zoned space ended when Carolin, driving near her daughter's preschool, saw a “For Sale By Owner” sign posted in front of a former corner grocery store.
Most remodelers agree that their office should allow for growth. Nelson advises giving yourself three times as much office space as you have at home, and at least three distinct sections: one for the owner, “where you can be the visionary or say what you want behind closed doors,” one for administration, and one for materials and tools.
Assuming, that is, you want to grow. Potomac Builders “probably cannot expand unless the doggie wash moves out,” notes Dowd. But that's fine because, she adds, “we're probably at the volume we want to stay at.”