Rico León has seen far more botched home renovation projects than the average Denverite. As a self-described “advocate for desperate families,” he has been helping locals navigate their worst construction nightmares by mediating with general contractors or taking on that role himself to help projects reach the finish line.
Now anyone with access to HGTV can watch – and commiserate – as León tackles half-baked home projects around Denver in a new series called “Rico to the Rescue,” which airs Saturdays.
León, a Pittsburgh native, got his start as a salesman for Roto-Rooter, bidding jobs for emergency restoration caused by fire, flood, mold and sewage. Six years ago, he was shifting gears and moving to California to take a job selling Porches when his car broke down in Denver. He was forced to stick around during the summer and fell in love with the Mile High City for its live music and cultural offerings.
In 2019, León started his own emergency restoration business here and the unfortunate situations he encounters are the premise for the HGTV series. What makes León’s work different from innumerable other reno shows in the network’s programming lineup — think “Love it or List It” and “Fixer Upper” — is the distress homeowners are experiencing.
“I help people in disaster. If your house caught on fire, it’s not a good thing, but I’m the guy who helps you out,” he said.
While many featured on “Rico to the Rescue” began home projects of their own accord, they’re all trapped in an unsavory situation, such as a dispute with a general contractor. At the very least, León hopes viewers can learn a few tricks of the trade before undertaking a massive at-home project.
“I learned the lessons I teach on my show because I had general contractors steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from me first,” he said.
We caught up with León to get some expert advice on managing a home renovation in Colorado.
“Everything’s cool until money’s involved,” León says.
The biggest sticking point that León encounters during construction projects is, unsurprisingly, money. He said it’s essential that both the homeowner and whoever they hire to do the work see the same value of the dollar to keep things moving forward.
That means contractors need to be forthright with how much things are going to cost and homeowners need to understand the reality that pricing can change based on the work required. For example, those who own a historic Denver home might encounter unexpected costs associated with remediating asbestos or refurbishing certain elements up to code.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the things that are very costly are not the sexy kitchens and the sexy flooring. It’s bed electrical, bad mechanical, bad framing,” León said. “When it comes to new renovation, people underbid, overpromise, and then they get stuck in the middle. And then it’s more of a pointing fingers game versus taking responsibility game.”
That’s why communication between both parties is essential.
León said too often he sees contractors bidding to land the job instead of providing an accurate estimate and timeline for the work. That’s especially true post-COVID when materials are more expensive and supply chain issues are causing delays, he said. That sets unmanageable expectations on both parties’ parts, leading to confusion and contention.
“Homeowners want to be lied to,” he said. “Like, ‘Oh my god, you can add a second floor and add all the mechanical, electrical, plumbing pass code and frame it and do it in three months in the state of Colorado? Wow, here’s money.’ Those are lies.”
Both permitting and construction will likely take longer than preferable, especially since the pandemic.
In the first episode of “Rico the Rescue,” a family’s home project is already dragging months beyond when it was supposed to be completed when it’s almost derailed by the City of Denver. City inspectors tell León’s team they have no record that any inspections have been done and that they need to tear down all the newly hung drywall before they can move forward. Thankfully, the homeowners are able to provide documentation and the drywall remains intact.
The city hasn’t always been so unorganized, León said, but since the COVID-19 pandemic, permitting processes have lagged substantially.
“You went from getting permits in a week and a half to four months. God forbid you have a historic home and it has to go through landmark, forget it. It’s a year and a half before you get your permits,” he said. “I used to knock out jobs in a few months and I loved it – great profit margins, happy customers, high five. The same project now takes a year… because lumber (prices) went up, trusses are harder to order, permitting and inspections take forever.”
How to find the right contractor and avoid having to go on an HGTV show to get your project done
When it comes to sourcing contractors, León recommends reading reviews and asking for company references. If a contractor has no reviews or refuses to provide references, those are huge red flags, he said.
And when you ask for references, make sure those references send you proof of work.
“If they can’t show you proof, assume they’re striking out a lot and walk away,” León said.
He also recommends setting clear milestones on the project timeline to ensure both homeowners and contractors stay accountable for their obligations. And before you start a project, consider your living situation. Will you need to vacate your home and pay for a temporary dwelling? Because that will impact the cost of your project, León added.
“Rico to the Rescue” airs Saturday nights at 9 p.m. MST on HGTV.
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