This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Renovating your own home is stressful. Done well, it’s also exhilarating, gratifying, even potentially life altering—in the best possible way.
But more often than not, living through it is a roller coaster of ups and downs: One minute you’re riding high, confident you’ve got a solid plan, a good team, and the cash to pay for it all. The next, you hit a bump—or three—and are plunged into despair, convinced your dream is derailed.
Luckily for you, our seasoned experts have seen every twist and turn along the remodeling track, and can steer you in the right direction. So buckle up for the best advice experience can buy—their key principles to renovate by.
Do your homework
There almost isn’t too much research a homeowner can do, according to our pros. Talk to a range of contractors and subcontractors. Pick the brain of the smartest salesperson at the lumberyard, hardware store, or home center. Do research online. Aim, in other words, to be a savvy consumer.
“You want to get yourself educated,” says TOH home builder Charlie Silva. “Most homeowners really don’t know about the amount of prep work required in a renovation.” For instance, floors and walls need to be level and square so tile and cabinets will look right. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” he says. “It’s my job to educate the homeowners so they understand the costs and know what the choices might be.”
Because what you don’t know now can catch up with you later. “A lot of times homeowners don’t start with a realistic budget,” says TOH carpenter Nathan Gilbert. The cost of materials alone can create sticker shock, even if you know the going price for a 2×4. And with materials costs rising, making the wrong assumptions can get even a small project, like building an on-grade deck, off on the wrong foot.
With larger projects, it’s important to acknowledge the cost of skilled labor. (Ever call a plumber for an emergency fix—on a weekend?) “Some homeowners might have an idea what materials cost,” Charlie says, “but they don’t really know what labor costs, and that’s a huge part of the renovation bill.”
TOH contractors are big believers in setting aside a healthy reserve fund—and they consider the standard 10 percent the bare minimum. Older houses are notorious for harboring long-hidden dysfunctions. When it comes to a large-scale renovation, “plan to have 15 to 20 percent of your budget in reserve to cover unforeseen things once the work starts,” suggests TOH home builder Jeff Sweenor.
That can be a tough pill to swallow for many homeowners. Tougher still? Don’t be surprised if your reserve isn’t enough in a bathroom or kitchen, where seemingly minor upgrades can get costly quickly. “If you’re doing a $25,000 bathroom renovation, and you set aside $2,500 as backup—well, that gets gobbled up real fast by changing your mind on fixtures,” Charlie says.
Take your time and don’t rush the process
“Some homeowners move too quickly,” says TOH plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey. “You should live in a house first and learn how it could be better—let the house speak to you.”
While having the budget to renovate is vital, it’s not always the best reason to start ripping up floors and walls. With larger projects, especially in vintage homes, where the layout doesn’t always fit with a casual modern lifestyle, waiting can reveal a house’s existing pluses and minuses. Filling in a doorway may make space for a closet, for example, but also block the flow of natural light between rooms.
“A year is the minimum you’d want to spend in a house to understand what you want to change and why,” says TOH editor Chris Ermides, a former remodeling contractor who’s now knee-deep renovating his 1905 Dutch Colonial of two years.
When you’re ready to make a plan, spend the time to think about how you really live. “That’s probably the thing people underestimate the most,” says Jeff. “Evaluate how you live and what a typical day looks like for you: How does a gathering look—how many people and how often? Do you watch TV while you cook? Is a fireplace or some other focal point important to you? Is there an outdoor-living aspect that you need? Spend a lot of time thinking about your lifestyle before you get too far down the line.”
Be sure you know exactly what you want
Homeowners who can’t make up their minds drive contractors and subs crazy. That’s partly because one decision invariably affects others, requiring adjustments that suck up time and expenses. TOH general contractor Tom Silva, who has seen it all, offers these words of wisdom: “Get the materials all picked out. Have backups for things like bathroom tile, hardwood flooring, and wallpaper so you’re not waiting if your first pick isn’t in stock.”
Projects move along with fewer hiccups when there’s a plan that spells out every step and consideration, from the location and size of a window to the finish on the doorknobs. No detail is too small. “A lot of homeowners have a general idea of what they want, but the more-prepared ones know it down to what colors, what style of trim, where they want built-ins, and how big,” Nathan says.
Some general contractors will help homeowners develop such plans, but consider hiring an architect or a designer who can generate detailed drawings and spec lists. Design pros have lived through many more renovations than you, and have a better understanding of what works, whether it’s traffic flow in an open plan or the proper height for a towel rack. They also know which decisions have to be made first in order for others to fall into place.
“Have good plans drawn up, and make sure you understand them,” Tom advises. “Once you’re sure that you’re sure about the windows, the fixtures, the tile—then you’re ready to start.”
Beware the low bid—and find a right-fit contractor
Often, a low bid indicates that the contractor has not accounted for the true costs of bringing the project to completion. To make up for it, he ends up using inferior materials or skimps in other ways. Or, worse, disappears. It happens.
“Jumping on the lowest bid can really burn you, because it inevitably leaves out details other contractors would include in their quote,” Richard says. “In the plumbing world, that’s things like proper shutoffs on your pipes, which make it easier to control the flow of water if there’s a problem. The best plumbing installations have more shutoffs than you can ever need.”
Such details may sound small, but they add up to a much better job. Charlie says, “You have to look closely at quotes for things like flooring and other materials that are easily priced per foot.” He cites the time a homeowner needed new hardwood flooring woven into old and went with the lower bid. The existing floor was beautiful quartersawn white oak, in long lengths that would be a pricey special order to match. The low-bid contractor who won the project used short, choppy lengths. “When I see that homeowner around town he tells me how much he regrets the decision.”
Most homeowners know to get at least three quotes for a job, but may not realize that the best contractors are very busy. Clients who work with Silva Brothers Construction often wait three years before the project starts. That’s an extreme, but it’s telling.
While an Internet search can simplify the task of finding pros in your area, make sure you know how they’ve been vetted. Richard advises starting with friends and family and also stopping by where the pros shop—lumberyards, plumbing-parts suppliers, stone yards, commercial nurseries—to ask for referrals.
Contractors are only as good as their last job, so references matter, and visiting a previous or an ongoing project can help you suss out the better pros. But you have to be willing to put in the legwork. “Getting references from a contractor is great, but don’t just get the names and phone numbers. Call those homeowners,” says Tom. “And don’t just ask for recent projects, either: Get ones from five to ten years ago so you can ask how the house is holding up. Is there any rot or mold? If he made a mistake, did he come back and fix it?”
Look for a contractor who works at the level of your project, advises Nathan. If you want to finish a basement or expand a deck, you may not want to work with a contractor who routinely takes on bigger jobs; a smaller contractor who does this work regularly is not only more likely to return your call, he or she may also offer a better price.
Avoid fads and pay attention to the pipes
Supply lines can often be easily moved a couple of feet, says Richard, “even after work has started.” And sliding the toilet over a little bit, as long as it’s in the same joist bay and not crossing structure, isn’t usually a budget buster. Nor is moving one of the smaller drains for a sink or shower.
But relocating larger pipes can quickly run up the bill. TOH host Kevin O’Connor deadpans that a waste line may be “the dumbest line—it just sits there carrying waste,” but he notes that changing it can entail serious costs. Relocate a toilet, he says, “and you could be into a full renovation of that floor.” Along with leaving a big hole behind, the shift requires dealing with a 3- or 4-inch pipe that has to maintain pitch to work properly.
Another way to run up the bill: investing in trendy bells and whistles that eventually fall silent. After the initial honeymoon of a finished renovation wears off, says Jeff, “showers with massive rainhead fixtures and multiple body sprays and all kinds of controls seldom get used.” In his experience, another fashionable upgrade, a freestanding tub, is often a waste of space. “While it’s a nice thought, it might get used a little bit out of the gate, then just turns into a giant laundry bin.”
Shop smart and stay on schedule
Delays due to materials not being delivered on-site are a prime source of contractor frustration. “You walking the aisle at the home center to find a fixture takes about two hours, but as soon as you’re in a showroom talking to a person behind a counter who is thumbing through a catalog, that two hours becomes three to six weeks of lead time,” says Kevin. That’s time you and your contractor have to factor into the project.
Even at a home center it’s easy to get bogged down by the choices—never mind clocking time on the Internet. And while smaller, design-oriented specialty stores can help narrow the field, that service may be reflected in higher prices. In any case, it’s a good idea to have your contractor review your selections before you add them to your cart.
Keep in mind that even the largest home center may not have the thing you want on hand, says Nathan. “You might see a faucet you like at the home center, but you want it in a color or finish that’s a special order, and that can take two weeks to arrive.”
And if you can’t get a particular product—a certain designer sconce, say—without a wait, you could be throwing a wrench in your timeline if it doesn’t arrive before the job is done. “You can’t assume the contractor is going to come back and install it the next day,” says TOH master electrician Heath Eastman. “We’ve moved on to another job. We’ll get there in a reasonable amount of time, but it won’t be the next day.”
Tom cautions homeowners to be proactive once boxes arrive, as doing a quick check can shed light on a small problem before it becomes a big one. An item like cabinet hardware or a shower fixture may be the wrong size or wrong finish. “Always open the box,” Tom says. “Don’t just hand it over. A good contractor should check it, too, but the homeowner should always verify it.”
Make sure your splurges count
It’s natural to want better finishes and architectural details, “but when you’re on a limited budget, they shouldn’t come at the expense of something you need,” says Kevin, who has seen homeowners go overboard obsessing over details like the trim kit on recessed ceiling lights.
“Keep splurges to high-impact areas,” he advises. As an example, he cites installing an expensive pendant light fixture in the entryway, where everyone will see it, and going for less-pricey fixtures in the adjacent living room. If you love hand-cut subway tile, consider using it only behind the range, where it can play a starring role.
Jeff puts splurges in a slightly different light: “Prioritize what’s most important to you.” If you spend a lot of time in the kitchen, for instance, paying the premium for a workstation sink with custom butcher-block and drainboard inserts might make sense. On the other hand, he says, “the dining room might be something you use five times a year, so is that where you want to spend your money?”
Invest in the stuff you don’t see
“A lot of homeowners overspend on certain fixtures and appliances when they should have put that money into better insulation or windows or upgrading their heating system,” says Charlie. He sees this syndrome when it comes to some smart-home technology, too. “Some people think they want to be able to turn on their hot tub from their phone while they’re driving home,” he says. “They’ll never use it.”
Homeowners should prioritize things like better framing, insulation, and HVAC equipment, Tom agrees. Too often the budget is skewed to flashier products; high-end countertops are one big-ticket item nearly all our experts agree aren’t worth splurging on at the expense of the fundamentals. “People are often reluctant to invest in things like heating and cooling and electrical while spending elsewhere, and they end up paying for it long-term in operating costs or as a maintenance issue,” says TOH home technology expert Ross Trethewey.
The misstep is understandable. Countertops, after all, are one of the first things you see when you walk into the kitchen. But if you’re going to own your home for a while, investing in technologies that make it less expensive and more comfortable to live there—energy-efficient air-conditioning, say—is always money well spent.
Tom, Jeff, and Charlie all point out that when projects are simply built to code, which is often merely a starting point for better builders when it comes to structural integrity and energy efficiency, they fail to fully realize potential long-term savings. “Satisfying the building code is like just passing a test in school,” Tom says. “Don’t settle for passing when you can ace it.”
Spend on what will be more expensive to fix later
This includes—but isn’t limited to—anything buried behind the walls. “You’re never going to upgrade your insulation after the renovation is over,” Charlie says. “Same goes for your windows and flooring.”
When it comes to flooring, Jenn Largesse, TOH DIY expert, says hardwood can be a smart up-front investment. “To redo flooring is a nightmare,” she says. “So that was one thing I was determined to get right when we renovated. Your floors work awfully hard. And they set the colors for the whole house.”
Factor in the costs of maintenance, repair, and replacement, including labor, when allocating funds. “Going backward to fix something is almost always more expensive than spending for the upgrade the first time,” Nathan points out.
Again, prioritize what you can’t see, like shower valves. Sticking to brand-name plumbing parts means they’ll be less likely to fail and easier to repair if needed. Spring for top-quality engineered lumber in important areas like the kitchen walls so they’re less prone to seasonal movement, and will make cabinets look their best. And when it comes to those cabinets, it’s worth paying for solid materials like plywood boxes and heavy-duty hardware. “Look at cabinets in person before you buy,” says Nathan, and make sure you know the marks of quality. “People buy particleboard boxes just because they fall in love with the face frame’s color.”
Make the best use of the skilled labor on-site
Better contractors will suggest ways to maximize your investment when you’ve got tradespeople on the job. “If you’re upgrading an older electrical panel to, say, 100 amps, the labor is the exact same to do it to 200,” says Heath. “The up-charge in materials is minimal when you’re talking about switches and panels.”
For Charlie, if you’re using PEX tubing for hydronic radiant floor heating, it often makes sense to run it outdoors, too. “If your system has enough Btus, and you’re getting a new walkway or patio anyway, then I’m going to suggest you run the PEX outside to melt the snow on the walkway because the cost of the extra tubing and the labor is worth it.”
Got a chimney that needs work? “A lot of times, homeowners don’t realize most of what they’re paying for up front is the time it takes to set up OSHA-compliant staging for us to get up on the roof,” TOH mason Mark McCullough says. “To set all that up and replace just five bricks doesn’t make a lot of sense when you could have us fix the chimney cap and replace punky mortar, too, so you won’t have to worry about those things for the next fifty years.”
Stick to the plan to avoid running up the bill
Change orders—another way of saying “on second thought” or “while you’re at it”—are a sure way to drive up the price of any remodeling project.
Tom, who has seen many homeowners tweak building plans after chatting with well-meaning friends, says: “There is almost no such thing as an inexpensive change order. The day the construction starts, that’s when you leave town so you’re not talking with friends, neighbors, and everyone else who’ll be stopping by with an idea of what you should change, because as soon as you start listening to that, it’s costing you money.”
While it’s a no-brainer to avoid making big switches—changing the type of insulation after the drywall is up, say—even the simplest change orders can snowball into budget busters. Both Chris and Heath point to something as basic as an interior door swing. “If homeowners want to change that after the fact, you’ll need to call the carpenter back to install the new door, the electrician to move the wall switch, the plasterer to finish the wall, maybe the HVAC guy to move a vent—it’s much more than just ordering a new door,” Heath says.
So does this mean you can never make a midcourse correction? No, it just means you have to evaluate the consequences. It’s fine to flip-flop on a paint color, for instance, Tom says, as long as it hasn’t been ordered or arrived at the job site, and the new paint isn’t more expensive, and it doesn’t require an extra coat or a special primer. You get the idea.
Remember, your comfort is the real priority
High-end finishes mean nothing if you’re cold in winter, hot in summer, or you hear a big whoosh every time a toilet flushes. Time and again our contractors have seen homeowners pull money out of the mechanicals budget in favor of showy upgrades. Or, as Richard puts it: “What good is a beautiful Palladian window if there’s sweat coming off it because you haven’t heated the space properly?” He cites a statistic that stated 7 in 10 homeowners just aren’t happy with the comfort in their house. “That’s a pretty serious indictment.”
Ross elaborates with a checklist of sorts: “We talk to clients about the quality of the indoor environment, which is the result of six things—thermal comfort, good air quality, controlling noise and vibration from HVAC and plumbing, reducing odors from cooking or finishes like carpeting, and comfortable lighting. Addressing any of these after a renovation is done is much more difficult and expensive.”
When reviewing a bid, keep in mind that even small things can influence an enviable indoor environment. For instance, without the proper clips or support, copper pipes connected to a dishwasher’s or washing machine’s quick-acting valve will knock and jerk each time you run the appliance. By the time you notice the annoyance, the wall’s been closed up and the installer’s gone.
While PVC and PEX piping have made many plumbing changes easier to accomplish, “think twice before getting the cheapest connections on PEX water lines inside the wall,” says Richard. “They have to last a lifetime.” Expanded PEX sleeves or stainless-steel cinch clamps are the best ways to make those connections. When it comes to big waste pipes, PVC costs less than cast iron, but it’s noisier. “It’s the kind of thing that you’ll hear when you’re in the family room and someone upstairs flushes the toilet,” he says. “That stuff drives you nuts long after the contractors have left—and you’ll never pay to remedy it.”
Tight budget? Extend the timeline
With some planning, big projects can be completed in stages. “Let’s say you’re going to put in a ducted heating system and you want air-conditioning, too,” Tom says. “You can put the coil and air handler in, and then later, when you have the money, add the condenser outside.”
It’s okay to put in some basic finishes with the idea that you’ll swap them out later on. “You can always upgrade plumbing fixtures, light fixtures, and countertops later,” Jeff says about the less critical details that often soak up a lion’s share of a renovation budget.
Long-term thinking also allows you to lay the groundwork for improvements you’ll eventually want outside. “Invest in the structure and bones of the landscape first—the deck, the patio, the walls; these components are permanent and dictate where the plantings will go,” says TOH landscape contractor Jenn Nawada. “If you know an outdoor kitchen or gas fire pit is in your long-term plan, but the budget won’t allow for it during the renovation, run the gas and electric lines to their locations while your yard is ripped up.” Likewise, you can put in conduit under hardscaping so you can run landscape lighting or irrigation lines the following year without having to tear up a walkway you just put in.
In terms of the electrical, adding that 200-amp service to the panel now will make it that much easier to install large appliances or new heating equipment later, Heath says, “and you’ll future-proof the house for any work down the line.”
Smart-home systems are bound to become more prevalent, so prep for the future by investing in conduit to house Internet, cable, and power lines while walls are open. That allows your connections to reach every corner in the house, so even if you use the home differently—moving into a first-floor bedroom suite later on, for instance—your electrician won’t have to rip open walls.
“We don’t know where smart technology is going,” Ross says, “but I assume we’ll have wireless power in the next five years, which will enable batteries—for smartphones, Wi-Fi cameras, or kids’ toys—to be charged wirelessly.” With that comes a heavier reliance on electricity as fossil fuels are slowly phased out. If you’re staying in your house for the long haul, you might want to plan for an electrical system that can, one day, power an electric car overnight. The goal of any big renovation is, of course, to not have to do it again—at least not for a couple of decades.
The road to a home in which you can rest easy is paved with projects that can drain a budget—yes, we’re looking at you, stone countertops—but keep your eye on the prize, and a properly renovated house will cost you less to enjoy in the future. As Tom puts it: “The house is going to get the money either way, so you can wince once and pay for the better products to be installed the right way, or you can spend more over time when the cheaper stuff costs more in energy, maintenance, or repairs.”
When you think about it that way, the choice is pretty clear.