Understanding the Construction Terms and Lingo Used During Home Remodeling Projects
The National Association of Home Builders reports that the most common home construction projects are kitchen remodeling, bathroom remodeling, and whole-house remodeling. If you’re looking to hire a professional to complete one or all of these tasks, it can be daunting! You may not know which tools to use or understand the construction terms seen in bids and contracts.
If you’re starting a home construction project and feeling overwhelmed, below is a guide to all the jargon and lingo you need to know before you break ground.
The Glossary of Construction Terminology
Knowing what to expect as your building project kicks off will give you the confidence to navigate the process smoothly. Here are some common terms you’ll come across when building or renovating your home.
Who to hire for your building projects
An architect’s job is to plan the layout and structural design of your project. He or she works with you to capture your vision and then draws up the plans to bring your ideal home or remodel to life. Although planning is usually the extent of an architect’s involvement, you can also hire them to oversee the general contractor’s work. Because architects must be state-licensed and have a degree in architecture, they tend to charge higher hourly rates than designers.
Designers use their creativity to plan the look and aesthetics of your project. They plan to work like the layout of a space, location of furniture, fabric types, and color schemes. A designer’s work output might include finding creative solutions, estimating costs, and sketching basic plans—but don’t usually oversee entire projects. Some designers have state licenses and advanced degrees.
Contractors combine managing, planning, and designing all in one. They oversee all stages of a large project: estimating costs, drawing plans, getting building permits, and hiring subcontractors. Contractors often work with the same designers, architects, and subcontractors, so they have a good idea of the time and cost of a project. Instead of charging hourly rates like designers and architects, contractors bill the entire cost of a project. Contractors must be licensed in the state where the work will take place.
- Subcontractor: Subcontractors (a.k.a. “specialty” contractors) carry out 4 specific work on a large project. Examples include plumbing, electrical, or HVAC subcontractors. Subcontractors must have the correct state licenses and trade qualifications to perform the work legally.
- Remodeling Contractor: Remodeling contractors specialize in remodeling projects, like adding a new room to your home.
Before you sign the contract
Addendum (a.k.a. change order or add-on)
Additions, deletions, or other changes you as the homeowner make during the bidding process. Addenda alter the agreement with the contractor and subcontractors before construction begins and the contract is signed.
An amount of money allocated in the construction contract for specific items. If there are still items (e.g., countertops, appliances) that you won’t have decided upon before work begins, the contractor will likely add an allowance to your contract for that item. What you eventually choose will affect the price of materials and labor, so an allowance is a rough estimate of the cost of materials and labor costs specified for that item.
The original construction drawings marked up to reflect all of the changes made during construction. Contractors use as-built drawings to record changes that may affect the main building plan, such as relocating ductwork, plumbing, or electrical.
An offer to perform a specified amount of work under certain conditions with cost estimates included. The bid gives you the power to accept or reject its conditions (i.e., cost or time) and to move forward with the construction contract.
Just like a bail bond ensures a defendant will show up in court, a bid bond is a cash payment by the bidder to ensure they’ll do the project if they win the bid. If the bidder doesn’t execute the contract after winning the bid, they can forfeit the full or partial amount of the bid bond. The bid bond is guaranteed and issued by a third party called a surety.
The amount of money paid for a bid bond. The bid security is usually a certain percentage of the overall bid estimate. It is used to deter bidders from withdrawing their bids or refusing to sign the construction contract.
Builder’s Risk Insurance
Property insurance is covering any loss during construction. Builder’s risk insurance covers the building, installed work, and any stored materials against damage caused by events like wind, fire, or theft. General contractors often purchase builder’s risk insurance, but owners can also buy it. The main difference will be who controls the funds from any claim. Sometimes builder’s risk insurance by local, city, county, and state building codes.
Billings for costs incurred after work has been finished. General contractors often back charge subcontractors for expenses they must pay. For example, if a plumbing subcontractor’s installation results in a chipped bathtub, the general contractor can back charge the plumber for the cost of repair.
Cost of Work
The total expenses a contractor incurs after executing the construction contract.
Contract Overrun (Underrun)
The difference between the original contract price and the final cost of work, which includes all approved changes.
A stipulation in the construction contract that gives the contractor the option to choose specific materials, methods, or systems from an approved list without needing to change the contract sum.
The legally-binding, formal agreement between two parties (e.g., owners and contractors) recorded in document form. Construction contracts outline each party’s responsibilities, cost estimates, project timing, and conditions for changing the contract.
Draw Schedule (a.k.a. Payment Schedule)
A detailed payment schedule for a construction project. Banks or other financial institutions use draw schedules to make payments (known as “draws”) to owners, contractors, subcontractors, and suppliers at specific times. The goal is to make funds available only after work is completed or materials are delivered. The general contractor works with the owner and their lending institution to determine the draw schedule.
An easement gives one party the right to use or enter part of the property of another. Owners often need a right of way easement to run electricity, water, or gas across another owner’s property. Easements don’t grant ownership, only the right to use another’s property for specified purposes.
A clause in a construction contract that imposes a specified financial penalty on the owner or contractor for failure to fulfill their obligations.
Payment promises of a specified sum of money if the contractor fails to do the work outlined in the construction contract. Performance bonds are typically issued by third-party guarantors like banks or insurance companies and replace the bid bonds after the contractor is awarded the contract.
In construction contract negotiations, an NTE price is used to guarantee that construction costs don’t exceed a specified amount. An NTE can be moved up or down throughout the build, and contractors are responsible for overruns unless the NTE has been formally raised to adjust for the added costs.
An architectural, overhead diagram illustrating a proposed project, the existing plot of land, utility runs, existing roads, and other structures critical to a project’s construction. Also referred to as a site plan.
Time and Materials Contract (T&M)
A construction contract where the owner agrees to pay the contractor based on the time spent and materials used, regardless of how much of either is required to complete construction. T&M contracts also include the contractor’s markup. T&M contracts are often used when accurate construction costs are difficult to estimate.
Any construction that increases a building’s size by adding to its structure. For example, adding another room or story to a house would be considered an addition.
Also known as a remodel, an alteration to a structure is any change to its interior. For example, adding or removing non-structural walls to change the layout of a house.
When one party nullifies a contract by ending their agreement. Backouts require a penalty payment unless a stipulated time period exists where they’re allowed.
Change orders are like addendums, except they’re changes to the construction contract after work begins. Change orders are agreements between the owner and contractor to change the scope, price, schedule or similar term of the contract. They almost always result in increased costs. Change orders are sometimes called “extras,” or “add-ons.”
A structure’s electrical system is considered “roughed in” after a licensed electrician has finished installing the wiring, electrical boxes, lighting fixture mounts, and breaker panels. At this point, the system is ready for inspection. Electrical rough-ins begin after framing is completed and before drywall is installed.
The electrical trim happens after the rough-in and before the final inspection. The drywall is finished so the electrician can install plugs, switches, light fixtures, smoke detectors, and fans. The electrician also “makes up” the main electrical panel by connecting the system’s circuits to their breakers.
The part of your structure that connects the structure to the ground. The foundation also bears the load for the entire structure. Foundations are usually made of brick, stone, concrete, wood, steel or combination. Concrete foundations and slabs are the most common for houses.
- Footing: The footing is the part of the foundation that supports the concrete slab, floor joists, or blocks. Footings are formed by filling an excavated ditch with concrete to ground level. The footing runs along the entire perimeter of the structure.
- Slab: The part of a concrete foundation that covers the entire ground surface area, forming the floor of the structure.
- Stem Wall: A stem wall is a short reinforced concrete wall rising above the ground and running the perimeter of the structure. They can be poured at the same time as the slab or the footing. Stem walls protect a structure by raising its elevation and guarding against flooding.
- Pier: Piers are excavated holes filled will reinforced concrete running at intervals along the perimeter of a structure. Footings and stem walls often have piers.
- Pier and Beam: A foundation made from a combination of concrete piers and wood floor joists. In this foundation system, piers create the footing of the foundation while the joists sit on top of them and form the floor.
Fitting together the main skeleton of a structure with materials like wood or steel. Framing occurs after a structure’s foundation is prepared. The usual process is to add outside panels made from plywood or other materials that give the structure stability.
Approval by licensed inspectors after framing is complete. Framing inspectors look for required materials like pressure-treated wood for foundations, nailing patterns, compliant hardware, and proper header sizes. The inspector will apply a sticker to the framing, giving it a “pass” or “fail” status.
A visual showing the scheduled activities for a project. Gantt charts are used to manage start and finish dates, differentiate between critical and non-critical work, plan for slack time, and ensure work schedules don’t conflict.
Stands for “heating, ventilation, and air conditioning.” HVAC comprises all of the units, materials, and techniques used to control the ventilation, air quality, and thermal comfort of an interior environment.
Licensed technicians perform an HVAC rough-in after framing is complete. Work includes running ductwork and preparing a gas or electrical access for the main central heat and air units.
Refers to an HVAC technician’s work before the final heat inspection. HVAC trim work includes installing thermostats, vent grilles, registers and hooking up the main HVAC units.
Leach Field Septic System
A sewage system that uses a septic tank to collect solids and leach field to disperse liquids. The septic tank captures solids, separating them from liquids and sending them on to a septic field or pit. The field is made from perforated underground pipes that transfer the liquid away from the structure where it can slowly seep or “leach” into the ground. A leach pit collects the liquid in a larger area. The solids remain in the tank.
Fine decorative woodwork performed by a finishing carpenter or cabinet maker. Interior and exterior trim such as cabinet moldings, window sashes, cornices, wall crowns, and baseboard moldings are all examples of millwork.
Open Hole Inspection
When a municipal inspector surveys an open excavation to determine the best type of foundation for a specific structure. The inspector considers the makeup of the soil and form of the structure, then sets a requirement for the appropriate foundation, such as footers or stem walls.
Soil engineers and inspectors perform percolation tests or “perc tests” to determine whether a builder can install a leach field septic system on the property. The test typically consists of digging a predetermined sized hole in the ground, filling it with water, and timing its absorption rate. The ground where a leach field septic system works must “percolate” at certain levels for it to properly function.
The process of locating and measuring a property’s boundary lines to determine the exact coordinates, amount of land, and location of easements or right of ways. Surveys ensure construction takes place within the legal lines of the property.
The measure of heat transfer rates for insulation. The higher the R value, the better the insulation performance and typically the thicker the insulation. For most structures like homes, builders plan for higher R rated insulation (R30) in the attics because that’s where much of the heat and cooling losses occur. Insulation for single story floors requires lower R values (R13) and walls somewhere in between (R25). The thickness and R values of insulation vary widely depending on where the structure is located and the overall local weather patterns.
All contractor work, whether electrical, plumbing, or HVAC, requires a “roughing-in” phase that consists of basic installations and preparations for initial inspection and eventual trim work. Each contractor’s rough-in must be scheduled to not conflict with others.
A sewer tap is a process of connecting your property’s sewer line to the public sewer main. Often connection is accomplished through an existing “stub line”—a four inch diameter service pipe running laterally from the main. However, if no stub line exists, a licensed plumber will need to “tap” into it with specialized connectors.
The amount of time construction work can be delayed without postponing other tasks or impacting the project’s completion date.
Subfloors provide a flat, stable surface for laying laminate tiles, hardwood, or another interior flooring. Usually made from plywood or similar sheeted material, this structural floor covering is secured directly to the floor joists.
The water tap is the connection point where a structure’s water line connects to the municipal water main system. For residential structures, the water tap is also where the water meter is located, generally in the front yard near the street.
Also called “weatherproofing,” weatherization is any work on a structure’s exterior to reduce energy consumption by curtailing heating and cooling losses. Weatherization includes work like installing insulation, putting in storm windows, filling and caulking cracks, and weather-stripping doors.
Sometimes called a “punch out” or inspection list, a punch list is a document created by the owner that outlines any construction work not completed or conforming to the contract specifications. Listed items could be fixing damaged flooring or incorrect appliance installations. The owner presents the punch list to the contractor who must complete the items before final payment is made.
Final acceptance is made when the owner acknowledges the contractor has finished all work agreed to in the contract. The owner confirms the final acceptance after he or she makes the final payment to the contractor. At this point, acceptance of the work is complete, and the owner’s contractual rights regarding repairs or changes are much more limited.
A building authority or inspector must perform a final inspection before issuing an occupancy permit. The inspector will ensure the structure meets the municipal building code, testing lights and outlets, plumbing hookups, smoke detectors, HVAC, electrical systems, appliance connections, and insulation requirements. Final inspections don’t include an examination of decorative work like floor installation or wall texture work.
The last payment from the owner to the contractor for the unpaid balance of the contract, minus any adjustments, change orders, or extras. The final payment confirms final acceptance of the contractor’s work.
Basic Tools and Equipment
Anyone involved in the building process should invest in a few tools. For minor home renovations, you’ll need basic tools including a hammer, screwdrivers, a drill or driver, extension ladder, various pliers such as lineman’s and locking pliers, a pry bar, a level, wrenches, chisels, utility knife, and portable workbench.
Power tools such as circular saws, jigsaws, and reciprocating saws will cut through materials like lumber, plastic, steel, and PVC. For carpentry and woodwork, dovetail jigs and wood routers are essential.
Here’s a breakdown of a few of the common tools used in home construction and what they’re used for.
Drill or Driver
One tool you must have for home projects is a drill or driver. These are available as either electric or cordless. Cordless is better as you can work anywhere, without the need for an electrical socket.
Both power tools make driving screws into hard surfaces easy, but they do so in different ways. A drill has a rotating chuck that fits a drill bit or screwdriver bit that bores holes into wood, metal, and walls. An impact driver has a hex shank that fits a screw and drives it into a wall at a faster rate than a drill does. Drivers can also remove tight screws. If you’re putting up shelves, hanging doors, or fitting cabinets to the wall, you will need a drill or a driver. It makes the job a lot easier than struggling to do it by hand.
If you’re trying to decide whether to buy a band saw, jigsaw or table saw, opt for the jigsaw. Jigsaws are one of the most versatile tools. The jigsaw has a small sawing blade that uses a rapid up and down motion to cut. It can cut wood, metal, fiberglass, and plastic, in various material thicknesses. Straight lines, curved, or round shapes — the jigsaw can do it all.
It has different speeds, so you can use a slower speed for more intricate work or high speed for cutting in a straight line. Because the blade is thin, you can easily maneuver and cut in a tight radius. You can also tilt the blade to create a bevel cut.
Dovetail joints are one of the h3est and most beautiful looking joints in woodwork. The “pins” on one board fit so snugly into the “tails” of the adjoining board that they don’t need screws and nails. All that’s needed is a bit of glue to make sure they don’t pull apart. Dovetail joints are used in the making of furniture, boxes, and cabinet drawers, and are seen as a sign of quality craftsmanship. You’ll even find many log cabins built using the classic dovetail join.
You can cut dovetail joints by hand, but it is a long and tedious process. The easiest way is to use a dovetail jig to carve joints quickly, cleanly, and accurately. Make sure you have the dovetail jig set up properly. Place the template correctly, secure the piece of wood, and attach the dovetail bit to the router. Once the setup is done, cutting the tails and pins takes only minutes.
A table saw is a large piece of equipment that remains in one spot. It consists of a fixed circular saw blade that sticks out of the top of the table. The higher the blade protrudes, the deeper it cuts. An electric motor drives the saw. Table saws are the best type of saw to cut long boards. It does rip cutting — lengthwise along the grain, and crosscutting — against the grain.
There are four types of table saws: hybrid, cabinet, contractor, and benchtop. For home projects that require light work, buy a benchtop table saw. They are placed on top of a table surface and are smaller and lighter than heavy-duty table saws. Benchtop table saws are portable and easier to move around.
Working with a table saw can be dangerous. Safety is important. Use safety goggles to protect the eyes from wood splinters flying about and earmuffs for the noise. Tie up long hair and don’t wear loose long sleeves or jewelry that can get caught in the blade. For extra safety, fit a blade guard to keep fingers safe and stop debris kickback, and a clearance insert when ripping thin boards.
A wood router is a useful piece of carpentry equipment used for both functional and decorative work. This portable hand tool can cut, shape, trim, and hollow out sections of wood, plastic, metal, and laminates. Wood routers can carve out dadoes, rabbets, and recesses for door hinges. For decorative work, a wood router cuts out beautiful designs and patterns. It is often used to make cabinets, edging, and moldings.
The three main wood routers are:
- Plunge Routers: Plunge routers are the most popular type of routers. They have a spring-loaded base that allows you to plunge the bit down into the wood. It’s the best router to use if you are cutting from the center of the wood.
- Fixed Routers: With a fixed router, you set the depth of the blade before using it, and you can’t change it when the router is running. Use the fixed router when you need consistent depth in the cutting.
- Trim Routers: These are the smallest routers and easy to use with one hand. They are great for laminate work and for smoothing the edges of boards, even narrow boards.
Whether you’re remodeling a home yourself or choosing a contractor to build a new house from the ground up, you’ll need a wide variety of power tools and building equipment to carry out the work. Luckily, you can avoid buying expensive machinery and opt instead to rent construction equipment for your project from start-to-finish. Contractors can also hire site services equipment including a storage container, dumpster for rubble, and a light tower for working in the evening or early morning.
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