What to consider before you remodel:

In our market, with limited availability of in-town building lots and an aging inventory of homes, renovation is frequently a person’s best bet for achieving their housing needs, within the constraints of their budget and location. As you consider your own renovation project, think about the following:

Take stock.
Identify the key priorities and motivators that will drive your remodel and will help clarify scope.  Why are you remodeling this home? Is it a structural/functional necessity? Is your home too small for your current or future needs? Is it outdated? Dysfunctional? Inaccessible? The reasons behind different renovations will run the gamut from simple updates and cosmetic issues to updating outdated designs to repairing structural defects. Clarify your motives; you will come back to these priorities throughout the process as you refine your budget, your scope, and your team.

Determine your budget.
Your budget will be the big driver in the project. Consider the following from the very outset of your remodel:

  1. Build consensus around your budget! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down with a couple to discuss their project, only to find that one partner believes that the budget is wildly different than what the other partner had been assuming. Although a builder can give you a better idea of what things cost, he cannot help you determine your own finances. Discuss your finances, your budget, the sources of funding, and the potential value of the finished project before you begin putting together your team.
  2. Remodel, or move? Consider the expected value of the home after you have completed your remodel. Is this a good investment? Is the value of the finished product going to be in-line with the value that you need to have in your home? For some people, whether or not they will ever get money out of their remodel is not the driving force. Rather, they are investing in quality of life and the comfort of their surroundings. As a builder, I obviously appreciate this approach. However, many people do not plan to be in their homes forever and may even plan to sell or upgrade in the near future. If this is the case, then understanding what your home will sell for is very important.
     ~ Consider the following scenario: You own a home for which you paid 500,000, and you are thinking about investing another 100,000 in the remodel. You need to be able to recoup that total investment in 3 years when you move. In this scenario, it would be wise to take a hard look at what other homes in the same style, age, and location are selling for so that you can make some reasonable projections about your home’s post-remodel market value. It may well be the case that instead of investing another 100,000 to do the renovations that you have in mind, you could buy a different house for 500,000 that already meets your needs.  As much as you love your home and neighborhood and dread moving, it is always worth looking at what else is on the market before you make the decision to invest more money in your current home.
     ~ As painful and unpleasant as moving can be, doing a large-scale renovation will be equally disruptive. Rather than letting a renovation be your first plan of attack against a house that doesn’t meet your needs, I highly recommend exploring your market thoroughly before you take this step. The reality is that your dream home may already exist. Simultaneously, it is very unlikely that you will recoup your full investment if you remodel and then sell.  

Let budget & priorities drive design.
I realize that many people don’t have a good sense of what a renovation will cost, so instead of examining their budget, they reach out to professionals in the field, first. However, the reality is that your builder can’t know, exactly, what the project will cost, either, until it has been thoroughly designed and all specifications and selections made and cost out. It is my belief that a person should let their budget, along with their goals for the home, drive the cost of the renovation.  

If, on the other hand, you let the design drive the budget, the probability that your remodel magically aligns with your budget is very low. Instead, the end result, in this scenario, is that you have a high likelihood of ending up pretty unhappy about the amount of money that you ultimately invest in the project. Even worse, there’s a good chance that you choose to scrap the renovation, wholesale, due to the final price tag.

Minimize “Scope Creep”.
Your scope will be determined primarily by your goals and your budget. However, limiting the scope can be very difficult in a renovation. Consider the example of a kitchen remodel. While this may seem limited in scope, this retrofit often bleeds into many of the other areas of the home. Are you going to have to take out walls, in order to accomplish the look and functionality that you are going for? When you remove the cabinetry, you likely will be replacing the floors. If the floors are contiguous with the other rooms, you will likely be refinishing or replacing the flooring in those other rooms, as well. Additionally, your new kitchen will likely be in an updated style, which may lead you to consider replacing trim and doors through the rest of your home. In fact, maybe now is the time to replace windows? If you are going to replace the windows, you might want to change the exterior siding and trim, as well? And, you’ll definitely want to get rid of that old textured popcorn ceiling throughout the downstairs…

Through this type of scope creep, what started out as a small kitchen remodel with a $50,000 budget can easily turn into a $150,000 whole home project. While this isn’t always a bad thing (after all, some issues will only come to light when you begin to talk through the process with your builder), it can lead to people doing much more and spending much more than they had initially intended. For this reason, I believe that coming to the table with as clear a scope as possible and doing your best to limit that scope to the priorities and budget that you have identified, will help you keep you stay aligned with the budget, goals, and priorities that are driving this process.

Identify your builder.
There are many things that are going to drive this decision. Among them are availability, style and design, compatible modes of communication, shared values, reputation, and relationship, and budget.

The harsh reality for all of us is that renovations are messy, time-consuming, and inherently problematic. No matter how good your builder and his team, things can and will go wrong. Consider who you want on your team when problems arise. Commitment to quality and budget are non-negotiable, and most reputable builders should be able to cover these two bases. You need to look at your potential builder and try to determine how they are going to react if or when things go wrong. How has your builder dealt with problems in the past? How well-insured are they? Do they have their own crew who can mobilize quickly or are they going to have to rely on the availability of subcontract crews? Ask your builder how he/she handles communications. How often do they respond to phone calls and text messages? Do they return emails daily or even multiple times a day? Likewise, what are their expectations for how quickly you will respond to questions? I would suggest that since a construction project is so dynamic and so time-sensitive that a good builder needs to respond to their emails/texts/phone messages and messages through their constructions management software on a super-timely basis. Making sure that you and your builder are aligned in what is meant by “a super-timely basis” is the difference between a successful relationship and an incredibly frustrating build-out.

While reputation is important, the value of the relationship should also be considered. In fact, if you live in a sizable community, no doubt there are multiple options for good and reliable builders, who are going to be able to overcome any obstacles that arise. However, not every one of those builders is going to be people with whom you want to forge a long-term relationship. Depending on the size/scope of the project, you are going to be working closely with your builder and his team for several months to a year or more. Beyond that, this same team will work to maintain your home into the coming years. Meet with your builder. Have dinner together. Ask to meet his crew and tour their job sites. Definitely, ask for a list of client contacts and, along with more recent clients, make sure to ask to speak to some clients from several years back so that you can hear about how this builder treats call-backs and warranty work. The fact is that your builder is going to have a huge influence on the finished cost and design for your project. Your builder is going to lead you towards options and decisions that could make or break your budget. There is no way to be certain how your remodel will go, but through a thorough vetting process, you should have a pretty good sense for how your builder is going to communicate with you and respond to anything that arises over the course of the job.  

Identify your designer:
Do you need a designer or an architect? This is a difficult question to answer. The reality is that there are many different configurations of design and build teams. Some homeowners do the design work themselves. Some homeowners even act as the general contractors.  Likewise, some builders have design services in-house, while others have designers and architects with whom they partner. In any case, the more complex the design, the more important it is to ensure that you are pulling together the right design team.

If a client approaches me before she has a designer on board, then I am able to make a recommendation about whether or not an architect or designer is necessary for this project. If the answer is yes, I can provide a list of architects/designers with whom I have had positive experiences.

An important thing to consider is that most reputable builders in your community are already going to be busy when you call them because their services are in demand. If yours is a sizable project, you can expect that a builder will need anywhere from 3 months to over a year to work it into their schedule. If you hire the designer first and wait to interview builders until after the design is complete, then there is a good chance that you will end up waiting another significant period of time before your builder can start your project. However, if you settle on the builder at the same time that you are choosing the designer (or before), your builder will have you penciled into the schedule from the outset, will be working through the problem-solving and pricing concurrent to the design work, and will be able to hit the ground running as soon as the design services are complete.

Plan to move your family and your stuff out of the house during construction!
I can’t emphasize this enough. If you move out, you will like the builder better, you will enjoy the process more, it will happen more quickly, there will be fewer chances for collateral damage, and you will be happier with the finished product. On the flip-side, if you live in the house during construction, the crew is going to have to wait until you are up and about before they start making noise, they are going to have to do a much more thorough cleanup at the end of each day so that you aren’t tracking dust and debris into your living spaces, and they are going to be working around your stuff, moving your stuff, and potentially damaging your stuff on a daily basis. I could write a short novel on the things that can and do go wrong when your remodeler is forced to work around a family and their things, but I will not. Just take my word for it that moving out and moving your stuff out is the absolute best approach to ensuring that your remodel goes smoothly and quickly. I’ll leave you with the old sausage metaphor. While the end product may be wonderful, you will enjoy it more if you don’t have to watch it being made. The same is very much true of the remodel. It will be dusty, dirty, loud, and chaotic. Move out!