When Ms Rose Njeri, a teacher in Kiambu County, decided to start building her home, she was not quite sure how to go about it.
“My work and business keep me pretty busy, and I had no idea where I would get the time to manage a construction project. Besides, I have zero experience when it comes to construction, and I was not sure how I would manage the entire process,” Ms Njeri recounts.
She says she had heard horror stories from friends who had undertaken construction projects.
“People usually complained about how building a home overshoots the construction budget. Pilferage of construction material by workers and suppliers who don’t keep their word make matters even worse,” she said.
Luckily for Ms Njeri, someone introduced her to an easier option — hiring a construction firm to manage the process.
“I was sceptical about making this move at first,” she says. “I had also heard a few horror stories about people who had engaged contractors who had done a poor or incomplete job just to cut costs. But looking back, now that my house is 90 per cent complete, I am glad I decided to hire a construction firm.”
Ms Njeri further says things worked out after she met Mr Mutembei Mugo, a licensed general contractor, who is also the founder and managing director of Utawala-based construction firm Bristem Developers.
Although Ms Njeri says she got a lawyer to draw up a comprehensive contract that would protect her in case of any challenges that might arise during the construction, what primarily guided her to pick this particular contractor were the references she received, and the personality of the firm’s contact person.
“I would strongly advise anyone looking to deal with a construction company to check out their past references. In my case, I had to make sure that the firm I selected had carried out similar projects before. So I went out of my way to visit the firm’s past clients and gather their experiences. Speaking to past clients will alert you to any issues they might have had with the firm in the past,” she offers.
Concerning the comportment of the contractor, which she terms as the most important discerning factor, she says, “You will be working very closely with your contractor, so you need someone you can communicate with easily at any time of the day, and someone with whom you relate well. To me, a trusting relationship — knowing that your money is being put to good use — is the most vital ingredient in a contractor-client relationship.”
This relationship, Ms Njeri says, will also save a home builder a lot of time. In her case, she had to visit the construction site only once every three weeks. The construction firm made sure she was constantly updated on the progress by sending her daily photos on WhatsApp.
But perhaps even more impressive are Ms Njeri’s claims on how she has managed to save money while building her three-bedroom bungalow in Kiambaa, Kiambu County.
“My initial budget for the project, which I had drawn up after consulting several foremen, was Sh3.4 million, so when Bristem Developers told me that they could carry out the entire project for just Sh2.5 million, I was elated but at the same time cautious because my desired house was quite big (102 square metres), and I wanted to have high-class finishes. The contract I signed with the firm protected me from arbitrary price changes though, since it prevented the firm from raising the price by more than Sh100,000,” she reveals.
But just how exactly will a construction company save you money?
Mr Mugo says they build bungalows for as little as Sh1.4 million and have put up maisonettes at a cost of Sh3.2 million. These prices, he says, are applicable throughout the country and are inclusive of approval fees, water and electricity connections, and even bio-septic tanks.
Speaking at his office at Total Petrol Station in Utawala on the Eastern Bypass, Mr Mugo insists that it all boils down to professionalism.
“You must have seen those abandoned projects that drive their owners into debt yet they are not even finished? That’s because most likely, the owners decided to try do the construction themselves instead of engaging professionals, so they got everything wrong right from the budgeting stage. Driving around this area (Utawala) you can easily tell which houses were built by the owners and those that were built by professionals, just by looking at the aesthetics and level of craftsmanship. It shows,” says Mr Mutembei, a licensed general contractor since 2002 who claims to have built more than 200 homes.
The contractor further avers that hiring a foreman to oversee your project is not enough. “If I had a brain condition and needed surgery, I wouldn’t go to anybody with medical training to get the surgery because they do not have the right skill set. I would seek a certified neurosurgeon, who does that kind of work every day! Hiring a construction company with experience in project management will be worth every shilling, and this will show once the building is up!”
He says an experienced contractor will do the work without cutting corners or omitting any steps, so you will not have to spend extra money redoing things that went wrong.
When working on a project on your own, it is easy to get overwhelmed by its management. This is because building requires constant communication with suppliers, craftsmen and sub-contractors, some of whom might let you down. By engaging a construction firm, you delegate these duties and only communicate with the company’s contact. This, Mr Mutembei says, makes it easier to build, especially if you’re a busy or live abroad.
Mrs Bethany Kamau, a Kenyan living in the United Kingdom, says it was only possible to build a home in Nairobi’s Thome Estate because she engaged a construction company. “It would have been impossible for me to coordinate the building from the UK. I have had a few challenges when putting up my home, mainly because I live abroad, but with the building almost complete now, I think it was worth it,” she told DN2 on phone.
“At Bristem Developers, we have an established relationship with sub-contractors and material suppliers. And since we buy our materials in bulk, we usually exploit our relationships to get the highest quality materials at the lowest prices, which we ensure we pass on to our clients,” says Mr Mugo.
Another way in which a construction company can save you money is through engaging in non-traditional innovative building practices. “We usually strive to use materials like interlocking soil blocks and bio-digesters that bring down construction costs significantly,” Mr Mutembei says.
But perhaps the biggest savings for a home builder are accrued when he/she can eliminate on-site pilferage. “Foremen and handymen,” Mr Mutembei warns, “are notorious for stealing time and materials from home builders. For instance, foremen usually mark up the prices of building materials, sometimes in collusion with hardware shop owners. The home builder might find themselves paying double for the material. Unscrupulous foremen can also charge you for 20 tonnes of sand when only 15 tonnes were delivered.”
The contractor further explains that, since most construction workers get paid on a daily basis, they tend to drag their feet so that the work takes as long as possible. “To eliminate this, we always pay our workers according to the work done. Thus most of our projects are completed in record time,” Mr Mutembei offers.
Since construction companies employ site managers who are required to account for every material used, pilferage is minimised.
Reputable contractors can also ensure the quality of construction by procuring only the highest quality material.
“When you send an unscrupulous foreman to the quarry to bring building stones, for instance, they often bring stones of the lowest grade while charging you premium. As a result, half of the stones are rendered unusable before construction begins, and the house ends up with a very poor finish. When it comes to finishes, they might procure knock-off tiles and hollow wooden doors that might start coming apart within the first year of occupation. They also tend to compromise on the sand-to-cement ratio, and this seriously affects the structural integrity of the building in the end,” Mr Mutembei adds.
Some construction companies go a step further to save builders’ design fees by providing the design-build model. In this model, Mr Mutembei explains, the home-builder bypasses the traditional model of first hiring an architect to conceptualise and design the building. The problem with the traditional method, Mr Mutembei says, is that miscommunication between the owner, the architect and the construction company can lead to increased costs if extra drawings, redesigns and modifications become required.In the design-build method, however, you don’t have to pay the architect separately from the builder since the construction company combines these services.
“When all the parties involved work together from the beginning, construction starts sooner and you, as a the home owner, have only one contract to worry about,” Mutembei says.
Tips for getting the right contractor
Selecting the right contractor can be an overwhelming and intimidating experience.
“You will be working with the company most of the time, and will probably entrust them with your life’s savings,” notes Mr Douglas Githaiga, a Kiambu-based construction consultant, quality assurance officer, and former building and construction instructor.
Mr Githaiga, who has been in the construction business since 1985, gives the following tips for selecting the right contractor:
Experience and References: You should be able to get a list of references from the company itself of projects it has handled. Ask them to take you to some of their ongoing projects so that you see their work first-hand.
Is the company licensed?
Mr Githaiga insists that it is paramount to engage only with contractors that have been licensed by the National Construction Authority. That way, if anything goes wrong, you are better placed to seek legal redress.
Get an itemised quotation and a specific payment schedule
An itemised quote from the contractor will enable you to know exactly what the contractor plans to do. A company that gives you an itemised quote, Mr Githaiga says, is far less likely to underestimate the job just to get you to sign the contract.
However, he warns against contractors who ask you to pay the full amount before the work begins. For a house, you should give the contractor no more than a third of the estimated costs at the beginning. Ask for a payment schedule so that you can deposit the money in instalments as you gauge the progress of the project.
Ask the builder how long the project will take and make sure it is noted captured in the contract to avoid any delays.
Warranty: The contractor should be able to give a six-month warranty such that, if anything goes wrong after you have moved in, they will repair it at no extra cost.
Put everything in writing: Professionals, Mr Githaiga says, always work with written contracts. Get a lawyer to go through the contract and point out to the contractor any clauses you are not comfortable with.