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In 2020, as people spent their days locked down in houses with cramped kitchens, makeshift offices, and neglected backyards, the number of home-renovation projects underway around the country started to tick up; by that year’s end, 53 percent of homeowners surveyed for Houzz’s 2021 Houzz & Home study had renovated their properties, spending 15 percent more on updates ($15,000 on average) than in 2019. In 2021, 55 percent of surveyed homeowners had taken on a renovation, spending an additional 20 percent ($18,000 total, on average) on everything from new roofs to updated kitchens and baths.
But it wasn’t all rose gold. Supply-chain issues caused shortages and delayed deliveries of materials and parts, resulting in dramatically drawn-out project timelines and skyrocketing costs. When bidding on projects in early 2020, some contractors unknowingly came in low (never expecting that the price of framing lumber, for example, would increase by approximately 175 percent between April and September, or that their crews would be on a job for nine months instead of three). In subsequent months and years, many homeowners waited longer and paid more than planned for their renovations—and some who never saw their jobs completed at all were left not knowing where to turn.
So, it was perfect timing when Denver-based construction restoration consultant Rico León sat down with a television production company in 2021 and shared his expertise. The company had been contemplating a show about real estate, but after hearing León’s tales of navigating contracts, insurance companies, and lawyers to fix sticky construction situations, it decided to change course. Before long, León and his on-air team—which includes chief estimator Matt Plowman and designer Poonam Moore—filmed the pilot for Rico to the Rescue, a HGTV reality series in which León helps Denver-area homeowners salvage renovation projects gone awry because of dodgy contractors. That pilot led to a full first season, which premiered in January 2023. Now a second season, slated to air in early 2024, is in the works.
Later this month, León will be the celebrity guest at the Denver Home Show, March 24–26 at the National Western Complex. In his presentations (Friday, March 24 at 6 p.m., and Saturday, March 25 at 12 p.m. and 5 p.m.), he’ll share advice on everything from choosing a contractor to preventing remodeling disasters, and also field questions from the audience. We had our own questions for León—about his background, expertise, and hit show—which he answers here.
Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
5280 Home: What is your industry background, and how did it prepare you for your role in Rico to the Rescue?
Rico León: When I was younger, I started working for Roto-Rooter; when they started an emergency water restoration division to address issues with water damage, sewage, and mold, I was there on day one. I did it all: I sold the job, did all the paperwork, and then physically did the work.
Before starting my own company in Denver in 2019, I worked with several other companies on restoration jobs that were often $500,000 to $1 million each, including commercial projects. And what people don’t know is that it’s 10 times harder to do a construction job when mortgage companies and insurance companies are involved. I had to negotiate to win the money game first, and then once I got the money, I had to hit project milestones or another check wouldn’t come.
I had to go through a million hoops and become hyper-proficient in those [business] languages or no job would ever get finished. And I had to be very good with money, time, and communication, which isn’t the typical skill set of many construction professionals. That’s why I have a show now—and why people from all over the country are calling and asking me for help. It seems everyone is dealing with a bad contractor right now.
Are these contractors truly acting in bad faith, or just in over their heads?
I feel like the majority of them are not acting in bad faith. Some are just bad with money management and do a poor job of pricing a job. Pre-pandemic, jobs were going quickly, the money was good, and overhead was low. Now, it takes twice as long to get a project done, which means double the costs for contractors, from insurance to gas. If they price their jobs too low and later realize they’re basically doing the work for free, what’s their incentive to finish?
By the way, not all homeowners are innocent. Some micromanage, some have unrealistic expectations, and some change their minds a million times, which costs time and money.
What questions should homeowners ask potential contractors to prevent surprises?
The first question to ask a contractor is, How many jobs do you have going on right now? If a contractor has too many jobs, where are you on the priority list when it comes to getting things done quickly? Also, if a contractor has 12 projects going on and all their money is out, are they going to be robbing Peter to pay Paul? I personally had hundreds of thousands of dollars stolen from me when a general contractor worked on other projects using my money, leaving the subcontractors for my project unpaid.
The second question to ask is, What are some common and uncommon delays that might happen during this project? Homeowners want to hear their contractor say, “I can get this whole thing done in three weeks,” but that’s a lie. It’s better to know the potential realities up front and be prepared.
The third question to ask is, Can you refer me to three clients you’ve done work for in the last six to nine months? It’s important to ask for recent reviews because a contractor may have been good in, say, 2018, but not so great since then. Well-known realtors who have been working in a community for years can also be great sources for recommendations; their reputations are everything to them, so they’re likely to refer you to someone good.
With Rico to the Rescue, you’ve embarked on a mission to educate and empower homeowners and contractors. Are there other ways in which you hope to spread your message?
I’m hoping to develop a process—available via app—that can protect homeowners and contractors by helping them meet in the middle and communicate better. It would give each party responsibilities and specify project milestones that must be hit before money gets released. I think it would go a long way in preventing problems and ensuring that projects stay on track.
What can attendees expect to learn from your presentations at the Denver Home Show later this month?
I’ll talk about why things can go south on home renovations and how to solve those problems. We’ll delve into what contractors and homeowners need to do better. I also want to cover the good, bad, and ugly of the insurance side, from obtaining adequate coverage to managing a claim. I know people have 800 questions for me, and I’ll have a lot of those answers.
If you go: The Denver Home Show will be at the National Western Complex (4655 Humboldt Street) March 24–26, 2023. Hours are Friday, March 24, and Saturday, March 25, from 10 a.m.–8 p.m., and Sunday, March 26, from 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Single-day adult tickets are $12 at the box office and $10 online if purchased before March 23. Senior tickets (age 60+) are $7 at the box office or online. Tickets for children 12 and younger are free. Order tickets online and learn more at denverhomeshow.com.