Kyle T. Webster

Dealing with homeowners who want to get their hands dirty on a remodeling job is a cringe-worthy proposition for most contractors, but one Wisconsin firm has embraced the concept with success. Kevin Anundson, the president and co-founder of Elm Grove–based Owner Assisted Remodeling (The OAR Group), says that he and partner Jeff Auberger started the concept five years ago and have seen it resonate with homeowners. “The most amazing thing is the home shows,” Anundson says. “People see the name on our sign and walk directly over to us. We’ll have crowds three or four people deep with potential clients asking, ‘Where have you been all our lives?’”

The Milwaukee–area company has several things going for it. “People understand what we do the moment they read the company name,” Anundson says. “That name draws new clients nearly every day.” Additionally, the down economy has homeowners interested in staying in and updating their homes while simultaneously looking for ways to save money. Being in a traditionally hard-working city, Anundson says that almost everyone has a friend or relative with some experience who can complete one of the 30 or 40 line items required for a project. “It’s almost a ‘big brother’ concept where if people want to try something on their own or they have favors to call in, they get the opportunity to take advantage of that,” he says. “Most other contractors don’t allow that.”

Anundson emphasizes that the company is not in the education business — it doesn’t teach clients how to do remodeling jobs or allow clients to work side by side with OAR crews, but it does offer general advice and guidelines to a point. “If clients try something and they can’t finish it, they know we’re more than happy to complete the work,” he says.

Handling Hand-Offs

On its face, the OAR concept is simple. “If you break down a project, they all have the same scope of work,” Anundson says. “Demo, framing, mechanicals, drywall, siding, windows, etc. Someone has to properly complete all those line items, and they have to be done in the correct order.” At the outset of a project, homeowners working with OAR must identify the tasks they’ll do themselves and the ones the firm will handle. The company draws up a single set of plans for both parties to work from to avoid the project becoming a hodgepodge of work quality or design styles.

From there, homeowners agree to be responsible for their tasks from start to finish, including pulling permits and scheduling and passing inspections. Anundson says that the most popular homeowner responsibilities are demo and painting, though OAR has given over the reigns for everything from digging or framing a basement to running the electrical and plumbing.

Once all the line items have been assigned, Anundson says that everyone involved must be flexible with regard to scheduling. “The project may take a bit longer with the homeowner’s involvement,” he says, “but they’re the boss, and they’re writing the checks. If it comes time for them to take over and do their own tiling and they want to take three months to do that, I can tolerate that — it’s their project. That said, if they call me when the tile work is finished and I’m two weeks out and working on another job, they’ll just have to wait. That’s something they understand from the beginning.”

OAR is often asked about the boundaries of responsibilities, which Anundson says is specifically addressed in each construction agreement. “We do not mix our tasks or responsibilities,” he says. “If the client is responsible for the drywall, they’re going to hang, tape, mud, finish, and texture the drywall. We won’t allow them to hang the drywall and then send our crews in to finish.” Outside of any basic advice the remodeling company might offer, Anundson adds that the work approach a client takes for their tasks is entirely up to the client. “As long as it’s completed to your satisfaction and the inspector’s satisfaction, that’s fine with us.” In situations where the client misses a step, OAR will work with them to correct it, for a fee. “If you do your own electrical and forget to pull a wire for your undercabinet lighting, for instance, don’t be upset when the cabinets have to come down. We’ll take them down and charge you for it, but if you want that undercabinet lighting, that’s how it’ll be.”

Better Bottom Line

Not surprisingly, “How much can I save by doing my own work?” is a common question from homeowners — and a primary reason why many clients look for these kinds of hands-on remodeling opportunities. “Everyone wants the $70,000 kitchen that costs $20,000,” Anundson says. “But the answer to ‘how much’ is situationally dependent. If your relative is a cabinetmaker, you might be able to save a lot on a big-ticket item. But if you hire your neighbor, the ‘weekend plumber,’ who charges you by the hour and has to make several trips to the hardware store every time he comes to work, that may cost more than if you had our company handle that portion of the work — and create a tense relationship with your neighbor.”

For OAR Group though, the bottom line goes beyond the project cost. Stronger relationships with clients — and even between husbands and wives — boost customer satisfaction. “The coolest thing about this concept is that you get into the male-female relationship,” Anundson says. “In many situations, the husband says, ‘I can frame the basement,” and the wife says, ‘You’ve been saying that for five years.’” But when we get on the site, the husband starts to realize that we’re working for him and he gets to stay in charge of his castle. The wife gets the upgrades she’s been waiting for, the husband doesn’t lose face with his buddies — everyone wins.”

According to Anundson, the Owner Assisted Remodeling concept has been so popular that other area remodelers have referred work to the firm, even in a down economy. The success has inspired the company to take its concept to the next level by licensing the program nationally.

“We’ve secured the legal trademark through the U.S. Patent Office and are now in the process of licensing an OAR Group in each city or region across the country,” Anundson says. “It would be independent — not a franchise — but we’re seeing this concept break through remodeling industry boundaries, and we’re prepared to help other contractors change how remodeling is done in their city too.”

—Lauren Hunter, associate editor, REMODELING.

This is a longer version of an article that appeared in the December 2010 issue of REMODELING.