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Too, some time ago I was thinking about all the things we learned in the process of the remodel, and found myself lamenting the fact that this knowledge will very likely go to waste as we are very unlikely to do another remodel.

So, I wrote up a “top ten” list of advice to anybody who is about to take on a remodel project for their home. Not sure if this is useful to anybody or not …

Advice to those considering a remodel:

1.  Hire an architect if your project is anything more than refinishing existing rooms. Any time you change your floor plan significantly you are changing the flow of the house and how the spaces will be used. An architect is trained to get the maximum use out of a given space and to make it aesthetically pleasing, not to mention the structural implications of moving or removing walls. Too, nothing is worse than an addition that looks like an addition. An architect will help your addition blend in with the existing house. The architect will specify the exact construction and finishes required and will draw plans that are much more likely to get quick approval for permits than if you do them yourself. Finally, your architect will come to the site and make sure that things are being built to specification.


2.  If you can afford it, hire a professional designer to help you with room layout and configuration, color schemes, paint, tile colors and patterns, countertops, cabinet styles, window treatments, lighting plan & fixtures, and choosing the right sinks, toilets, faucets and myriad other decisions for finishing your project. The finish is what people will see. A good designer is the difference between simply getting it done and having an exquisite result. Your designer has the experience to know what things work together to produce a desired effect, and has done the research to know where to get quality materials at the best price. Your designer will also come to the site to inspect the installation of these items. You will save yourself hundreds of hours of your time and get a better result if you can hire a professional designer.

3.  Hire a general contractor. Unless you really know what you are doing (that is, unless you’ve done this for a living yourself at some point), and unless you have a lot of time on your hands (i.e., you don’t have a full-time job outside of the remodel), do not try to be your own general contractor. Subcontractors are hard enough to manage for an experienced professional, but as an amateur you are a target for plumbers, electricians, drywallers, roofers, framers, and anybody else looking to cut corners by delivering less than what was promised to somebody who doesn’t know better. You are also the one most likely to be bumped back on their schedule when something else comes up because you do not represent repeat business. Your contractor knows what good quality work is and how to get it from the subcontractors. He has been through several projects with several subcontractors and for the most part he knows who he can trust. He will do a much better job of this than you can.


4.  Your architect, designer and general contractor are a TEAM and you should think of them that way. They need to work together to get the best result. Whenever possible, don’t play middleman between them. Put them into direct contact with each other.

5.  Choose a contractor you can TRUST. This is going to be one of the most expensive and complex projects you will undertake with your own time and money, and you need to be able to trust your contractor to be watching out for your interests. Don’t just hire the contractor with the lowest estimate. Hire the contractor with a competitive estimate and whom you would also trust with your most valued possessions. It will be cheaper in the end.

6.  Your agreement with your general contractor should be a Time and Materials agreement based upon an estimate for the total cost of the job. A good contractor will update the estimate if things change from the original estimate. While a fixed bid agreement might seem like a good way to manage costs, it actually sets up the incentives all wrong – under a fixed bid the contractor makes the most money by doing the least amount of work and by cutting corners on materials. Too, every time you change your mind or something unexpected comes up (i.e., you find some rot that needs repair) this necessitates a change order amendment to your contract, which can make for a lot of extra paperwork. As long as you can trust your contractor, the best agreement is a time and materials agreement. He can (and should) manage the subcontractors with fixed bids, but for the work he and his crew do for you directly the best results will come if you are on a time and materials basis.

7.  Plan ahead financially, and always have enough money in the bank to cover at least 1 month’s worth of work in advance. This keeps you and the contractor from stressing out about money flows. Understand that your contractor is often incurring out-of-pocket expenses and you put him in a very bad position if you cannot pay in a timely manner. This is not the path to a good business partnership … or a good remodel.

8.  Plan for unexpected costs. That’s a bit of an oxymoron, but the point is that the initial cost estimate from your contractor will represent the “best case” scenario – that is, he only needs to do the additional work specified in the drawings. It does not include any repair or remedial work that is discovered as you tear into the house. The older the house, the more likely you will find things that need to be repaired that are outside of the scope of the original project (dry rot, dangerous wiring, bad or inadequate plumbing, walls that need to be rebuilt, etc.). You may also find that you need to add significant structural support to walls that you and your architect assumed were more substantial than they turned out to be. Again, the older the house, the more likely you will find framing and support that will not meet today’s standards and pass inspection. Your contractor will do a good job of discovering much of this in advance, but you will undoubtedly uncover something unexpected during the project.

9.  Plan for upgrades. You will probably decide to upgrade some of your original choices for countertops, cabinetry, flooring or other finish work. Adding 10%-15% to the cost of your project for really nice finishes, fixtures and flooring is money well spent – these are the things that will show every time somebody comes to your house. That Formica counter-top might have saved you $3,000 over granite, but on a $30,000 kitchen remodel it seems silly to skimp on something that will make all the difference in the world in appearance for many years to come. There is a limit to this, of course, but try to avoid being penny wise and pound foolish.

10.  Know what you are getting into. No matter how well you plan and how well you and your contractor manage the process, a major remodel is a stressful undertaking. It affects your most personal space (your home) and puts a significant strain on your finances. It requires a million decisions and if you are married any differences in opinions or tastes can become a major source of conflict. Living in a home that is being remodeled is challenging no matter how courteous and professional the workers are. Every day crews are doing work that is noisy and very dusty. Move out if you can. If you can’t, cordon off areas to live in that are not involved in the remodel.

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