Key Tips from My Home Renovation Experience

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My wife and I recently finished a major home renovation. Here are some key tips from our experience. Hopefully they will help others who are embarking on a house project.

Submitted: February 07, 2017

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Submitted: February 07, 2017



About three years ago, my wife came to me and said she would like to have a bigger kitchen. We cook frequently and our kitchen at the time was quite small, with limited cabinets, counter space, and lacking many of the amenities of a modern kitchen. In fact, the kitchen had last been renovated in the 1950s, and while we did our best to spruce it up, it looked dated.

Below are the key 10 tips I have regarding the experience:

Understand your goals and objectives

Before you start, make sure you and your significant other understand what you hope to get out of the project. Don’t do a kitchen renovation if you want to expand the living room in five years and this will preclude it. How do you hope to change the flow of your house? What is the ideal end state and will the project as you envision it make it happen?

Get a good architect.

I’ve done other, smaller projects without an architect, but I knew this one was beyond my scope. We spoke to several different architects, getting a feel for how they approached the project, their design philosophies and approach. The questions the architect asks are important. Is he really trying to understand what you want? Is she providing suggestions to take your vision and improve upon it?

In the end, we went with Diana, who listened, was patient with our questions, asked great questions of her own, and seemed eager to help us.

Have a budget in mind

Make sure you know how much you want to spend on the project. This is partially a function of the cash you can spend but also how much you should invest in your house. Yes, a renovation  should be thought of as an investment, one you get to enjoy. If you live in a neighborhood where the most expensive house is priced at $400,000, then it doesn’t make sense to spend $200,000 on a renovation. And yes, a major renovation can cost that much and more.

Some renovations add more value than others. Statistics show that a kitchen upgrade can return 75-100% while a finished basement gets 50-75%. Make sure you know the costs and the returns associated with what you plan to do.

Interview multiple contractors

Finding the right contractor will save you enormous time, money, and aggravation. But it’s not easy to do. Make sure you interview at least three different contractors. Ask them some of these questions:

  • Do you have experience doing these types of projects?
  • Can I speak to references?
  • How many other jobs will you be doing while working on mine?
  • What challenges do you see with this project?

The questions the potential contractor asks you are just as important. Do her questions indicate an understanding of the project? Are they asking about the plan and making suggestions on how to improve it?

If you trust your architect, have him meet your contractor. Ask the architect if they think the contractor can execute the vision they have mapped out.

Look at the price. In our experience, prices varied by as much as 30%. If there is this much of a difference, find out why. How can one person offer the job at such a low price? Sometimes it’s too good to be true, sometimes it isn’t.

Move out

Depending on the project, you might want to move out. We didn’t for financial reasons and it made for the most stressful three months of my life. We didn’t have a working kitchen, our living room was a mess, our dining room was destroyed - horrible. Our family lived in a tiny square area in the living room, cooking with a microwave or portable stove top. Dust was everywhere, I mean everywhere. I work from home so I had to deal with constant hammering, crashing, etc.

One night after a particularly stressful day, I literally thought I was going to lose it. Living through a renovation will test your fortitude and the strength of your relationships and marriage (if you are married). Yes, it can be that stressful.

So, if you have some extra cash, do yourself a favor and live with your in-laws, your parents, your siblings, friends, anyone.

Stay on top of your contractor

Even the best contractor will take a shortcut from time-to-time. You need to be checking daily on their progress, watching the plan get translated into reality. Sometimes, you’ll catch something that was in the plan but just doesn’t work when they build it. Take the time to sort this out as soon as possible.

Stick with your plan

There will be small modifications you’ll want to make, but overall, stick with your plan. If you put the time and thought into the design part of the process, trust yourself. Don’t start making major changes to the plan.

We faced this situation several times. As the frame was being built, I started to panic about light in the kitchen. I’m a fanatic about light and the renovation had a lot of windows except for one area. I worried the back of the room, away from the windows would be dark. This is something we already discussed with the architect and she assured us it would be okay. But as the building progressed I had my doubts. Could we add another window? Could we move the stove over and rearrange one of the walls? Calls and emails flew back and forth between me and the architect. Finally, my wife made me take a deep breathe. Trust the plan, she said. I did. The room is plenty light.

Don’t pay the full amount until the contractor is done

Obvious, but I’ve heard many stories of homeowners who made the final payment before the contractor finished. They never saw the contractor again. Keep a sizable amount for a final payment when the project is truly finished. Be sure to write on the check that this is the Final Payment and have them sign a piece of paper acknowledging this fact. Contractors are notorious for trying to squeeze more money after the project has ended.

The punch list never ends. You’ll know when you are done.

Projects usually end with a punch list, a list of final items the contractor must finish before the final payment. These are almost never finished because small little problems keep arising. At some point though, you will get completely sick and tired of having the contractor and his people in your house, and even if one light switch doesn’t work, or the paint is streaked on one wall, or the molding is off by a quarter of an inch, you’ll pay him and be done. Because after months and months of dust, noise, dislocation, disruption, lack of privacy, etc. you’ll just want to get your house back.


I hope these tips from my experience prove helpful. Good luck!


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