There is a special circle of hell devoted to home renovation projects. It always seems like such a good idea at first. You flip through Dwell or Architectural Digest and think to yourself, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a trendy, marble-covered bathroom like the one in this photo?”
Then, the nightmare begins: You search for contractors, but they each quote wildly different rates. You go to Home Depot to search for tiles and sink fixtures, but the ones you want are out of stock. The job is supposed to take a month, but it ends up taking three. Random strangers keep showing up at your house to do electrical and plumbing work. The stress of everything sends you and your partner to couples’ counseling. When it’s all said and done, you’ve gone over budget by $5,000. But at this point, you don’t care. You’re just grateful you don’t have to shower in an unfinished construction site.
Over the last few years, many startups have launched with the goal of simplifying the process of setting up a home. The Inside and Maiden Home are making custom furniture more affordable; Milo and Made In are making high-end cookware easier to decipher; East Fork and Year & Day will deliver handmade ceramic tablewear to your door in days. But home renovation hasn’t seen the same disruption. “The world of renovation is kind of like the Wild West,” says Sherwin. “It involves a lot of moving parts. Most homeowners have no idea what things should cost, or what they should even be asking their contractor for.”
Until now, startups looking to disrupt renovations have generally focused on just one aspect of that complex process. Sweeten, for instance, matches you to pre-screened general contractors. Remodelmate serves as a middleman between you and your contractor, helping to manage pricing and quotes. And Pro.com serves as a digitally forward project manager for your renovation. Block wants to stand out from the pack by being more comprehensive than its competitors. “A lot of startups have approached home renovation by taking a wide, but not deep approach, like, say, pairing you with a contractor,” says Sherwin. “We want to make an end-to-end consumer experience. We take all of the variables in the renovation process, homogenize them, and deliver them to the customer as a package.”
First, customers go to the Block website and fill out a generic questionnaire about their renovation. The customer then gets a video consultation with an expert at Block who will talk them through the process. “We have a sophisticated algorithm that takes into consideration 120 variables that go into bathroom renovations,” says Wang. For instance, you can specify whether you need to knock down a wall, install a bathtub, or include more shelving, all of which will alter the quote you receive. “It’s not the kind of back-of-the-envelope estimate you might get from a contractor,” Wang continues. “It’s a fairly disciplined and precise number that is within 95% of what the ultimate number will be.”
“This may seem like a funny reference, but I think about it a bit like Chipotle,” says Sherwin. “The menu could lead to millions of different combinations, but the combinations are all pre-vetted to work well together.”
The company buys materials in bulk, which leads to more favorable pricing than you or your contractor might be able to secure by purchasing materials for a single job. Instead, Block is able to negotiate rates that are more similar to large building-scale projects, like apartment complexes.
“If you put yourself in the shoes of a typical contractor, these guys are all running small businesses,” says Wang. “They have to bake in a healthy margin for every job because they don’t know whether they are going to get work the following month. For this to work, we need to think of the contractors as our clients, and try to solve problems for them.”
For right now, Block’s biggest challenge is creating a brand that customers will trust, since the company will be managing every aspect of the renovation process. For homeowners, this means putting their house–and its future value–into the hands of a yet-untested startup. This may appeal to some customers, but many others may be more inclined to trust a contractor that their neighbor or colleague used.
Still, for anyone who has ever contemplated a lengthy renovation, there’s something irresistible about the prospect of picking out a bathroom from a website, and having it there, in your house, within a month. It might even save you thousands of dollars in couples’ counseling.
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