Seven Crucial Rules You Need to Survive Remodeling Projects

By Rick Goldstein, registered architect and co-owner, MOSAIC Group [Architects and Remodelers]

A remodeling project is exciting! It gets our blood pumping when we imagine how that new master bath or gourmet kitchen will change our lives.

Before you get lost in the excitement, recall the horror stories. You may even know someone who had a less than pleasurable experience.

Surprises and budget overruns are endemic to the remodeling process, but you’ll have much better odds success if you follow these seven rules.

Rule #1: Educate Yourself

It’s always easier (and cheaper, too) to learn from someone else’s mistakes. Speak with family members, friends and acquaintances about their past remodeling experiences and the lessons learned. You’ll be amazed at the wealth of information they’re willing to share with you.

Rule #2: Set a Realistic Budget

Remodeling always costs more than expected. Costs will vary significantly based on the size, complexity and quality of a particular project. Expect to spend $200 to $300 per square foot (or even more) for a high-end kitchen or master bath.

Understand that there will be trade-offs, and you may even consider phasing the project to meet your budget needs. Remember to put about 10 percent in reserve for unexpected changes.

Rule #3: Hire a Contractor

Don’t try to be your own general contractor. This could cost you much more than hiring the right pro.

Ask for referrals from friends, neighbors and colleagues. Look for job signs in your neighborhood. Interview several contractors to find a good fit.

Speak with contractor references and ask detailed questions. Visit an ongoing job as well as a recently completed project. Understand how the company’s design process works. Do they have designers on staff or refer you to a third-party architect? Make sure contractors are licensed and insured.

Rule #4: Plan Properly

Don’t be seduced into starting a project before it’s ready to begin. Preparing all the decisions upfront will save a boatload of unnecessary stress, headaches and mistakes during construction. Think globally, look into the future and don’t design yourself into a corner.

A design professional should ask many questions, not only about the project at hand, but about potential future projects and their impact. Pay attention to the details. Make a list of your “wants” vs. “must haves.” Unless you have an unlimited budget, prioritize these items and understand what you can live without.

Rule #5: Manage Expectations

Be honest with yourself. Understand your tolerances for dust and disruption. It may be fun to visit all the local restaurants for awhile during your kitchen remodel, but this will get old eventually.

Determine how you will cope with the noise during baby’s naptime. Where will you sleep while your master bath is missing in action?

Expect the unexpected when walls are removed and the innards of your house exposed. The contractor may find unexpected water damage or foundation problems that will cost money. Be mentally prepared for these issues.

Rule #6: Negotiate a Contract

The days of a nod and a handshake are long gone. Although most of us would prefer less paperwork and legalese, the fact remains that a good contract sets the stage for a good project.

Understand the terms. Is it a fixed price or cost plus a fee? What are the payment terms? Are disagreements handled by mediation, arbitration or the courts? What are the responsibilities of the contractor and the homeowner? Is a start date and a completion date clearly stated? What is the contractors’ warranty? Have your attorney review the contract.

Rule #7: Get Permission

There is much confusion and misinformation about the need for a building permit. A remodel project of any consequence requires a building permit. If there is electrical, plumbing, carpentry and/or heating and air conditioning work, it needs a permit.

Typically, city inspectors will inspect the work of each trade at both rough-in and finish stages of the project, and are responsible that the work was installed safely. Run away from contractors that shy away from permits and inspections. This could result in steep fines and re-opening of walls and ceilings.

A remodeling project can be a wonderful step in making your home your own. Research and preparation will help ensure a smooth process.