The dreaded gut job. You know, that big home renovation project that looks so easy when the Property Brothers do it, but can be so hard in real life.
Unless you’re a contractor, the only way to really learn what it’s like is by experience, as my wife Lily and I did over six long-but-rewarding months in 2016, when we remodeled our Miami house. We wound up with a home we love and, along the way, picked up lots of useful tidbits that can help anybody have a successful renovation. So I wrote ’em up, and here they are!
1. Accept that Renovation Costs Will be More than Expected, and the Job Will Take Longer than Estimated
This is kind of an open secret in the home renovation world. As a general rule with extremely rare exceptions, the remodel will cost more than initially estimated, and will take longer as well. I think the reason is because a remodel has many moving parts, so many things can (and will) deviate from the plan. For example:
- The city or county may demand plan changes.
- Materials and fixture orders may be delayed.
- You might want to make changes.
- A subcontractor can mess up.
- You may ask that some work be redone.
- The home may have unexpected flaws behind the walls.
For these same reasons, the job will probably come in over budget, even with the best renovation contractor. In fact, it’s almost unavoidable to get caught up in the excitement of the remodel, and to splurge on fixtures or tiles or what have you.
From my experience, I’d say, for a major remodel, add 2-3 months to the initial time estimate and 10-20% to the initial budget, in order to have a realistic idea of what can happen. If it winds up taking less or costing less, great. If not, well at least you’re not surprised.
2. Hire A Good Licensed Contractor
Going with a second-rate contractor is being “penny wise, pound foolish”. Not only will the entire project absorb all your time and energy, but you’ll wind up with unsafe and shoddy work. Heck, you might even get one of those crooks that takes your money and runs.
On the other hand, a first-rate renovation contractor will make the process as easy as possible for you, and will be fair and honest. And yes, you’ll have to pay for good work. But if it means living in a safe, well-built house or apartment, I’d say it’s a worthwhile expense.
In our case, we interviewed six contractors until we found our dance partner. They were good – real good. And they took care of everything, from architectural plans to permits to making sure we were satisfied with the final product.
So invest the time – make sure you’re dealing with a licensed contractor, interview them, ask to see their portfolio. Six months down the road, you’ll be glad you did.
3. Prepare Yourself for A Big Time Commitment
Even if you hire an awesome renovation contractor and sign off on a plan, you’re going to have to make lots of decisions over a period of months. For example:
- Choose the paint colors.
- Select light fixtures.
- What kind of flooring will you have?
- Choose the closet doors.
- What will be the shower tile?
For each decision, you’ll have to consider costs, aesthetics, quality, and other factors. Add that up for tens (or hundreds) of decisions, and we’re talking a major time commitment. And it’s not really possible to make all of these choices ahead of time, because you’ll want to see how they actually look as the work is coming along.
4. Get Permits for Everything
Yes, permits cost money and are a hassle to get. And it’s not uncommon for the city or county to deny permits unless you make changes. But doing un-permitted work can not only get you in legal trouble, but will also wind up hurting you in the long run.
You see, proper permits mean that a government inspector will have to approve the work that’s done. That’s a great thing, because it means that a neutral person with no financial incentive to cut renovation corners will make sure that everything is up to code. Your family can sleep better, because there’s an assurance that the work was done right and the walls won’t cave in.
Also, if and when you try to sell the house, you may have to reveal if you did un-permitted work on a “seller’s disclosure” form like this one:
If you did do un-permitted work, that’s going to lower the value of the home, and may make it that much harder to get a good offer.
5. Find Kitchen Remodel Ideas on Pinterest
Ok, I didn’t do this. Buy my wife Lily did, and wound up designing a sleek, modern kitchen. Speaking of which, it’s a big bonus if your renovation contractor also has design chops. It’s much cheaper than hiring an independent designer, and better than doing design by yourself (and learning on the job, so to speak).
So click on over to Pinterest when you need kitchen remodel ideas. There’s literally thousands of these on it and other sites!
6. Reduce Your Kitchen Renovation Cost by Going With A Local Carpenter or Craftsman
When we started our kitchen renovation, we went to a few fancy kitchen stores all over Miami. Guess what they quoted us.
Ok, I’ll tell you – $50,000! And that’s without the appliances!
So we went to our contractor, and asked them to find a solution. And they did – they found a local carpenter who did it for less than half of that. To save on design, Lily spent countless hours drawing it up.
But it was all worth it, since we wound up with a high-end kitchen for less than half of retail price. Yup, it’s “generic”, but it looks designer.
Oh, and make sure you negotiate for the appliances, and play retailers off against each other.
You can also get an IKEA kitchen, which can be guaranteed up to 25 years. We don’t have one, but we’ve heard nothing but good things from friends who do.
7. Strategically Buy IKEA
Lily tells me there’s a fashion concept called high-low, where you mix expensive stuff with cheap stuff to achieve a classy look for less. Like maybe pair some fancy shoes with a fast-fashion shirt.
You can apply this to home renovations by buying IKEA where quality is not critical, or where the IKEA stuff is well made. For example, you can get IKEA closet doors, mirrors, and ceiling lamps. I especially like things that don’t move, like said lamps. After all, how’s that going to break? If it’s made of glass and isn’t being touched, I reckon it’ll last forever.
Oh, and my favorite IKEA buy is the $2.99 Schottis shade – who on earth makes a $2.99 shade?!? IKEA, that’s who.
You can also look around the Internet for IKEA hacks. There are literally hundreds of them, whereby you get parts at the store and make all sorts of creative creations.
8. E-Mail Communication Is Best
Throughout the whole process, you’ll be communicating a lot with your contractor (and maybe other people). Try to do it mostly by e-mail, especially the important stuff. Here’s why:
- There’s a clear record of everything, reducing or eliminating misunderstandings.
- Promises in writing tend to be promises kept.
- You can go back and look at what was said.
- It’s harder for things to slip through the cracks or be forgotten.
Some things can be said by phone or text. But, the more important it is, the better it’s to have it forever in your e-mail records.
9. Don’t Fall Into the Fixation-Overspending Trap
When you’re making a lot of little decisions during the remodel, it’s easy to fixate on each one and overestimate their impact. In reality, as long as something looks decent, you’ll get used to it once the house is done. Remember this so you don’t overspend on something that’s not going to make much of a difference.
Allow me to illustrate with an example. You can buy wall plates (electrical outlet covers) in two main varieties: with a screw and without a screw. You can get the ones with the screw for about $0.80 to $1 on Amazon:
Or, you can buy the ones without a screw for about $3.29 each:
Yikes! That’s over 3 times as much just for removing that screw!
Now I think most would agree that the screwless ones look better. But is it worth paying over three times as much, multiplied by tens of wall plates all over the house? I’d say no – just get a few screwless ones for the most visible rooms, and the rest with screws.
This makes sense from a logical perspective. But in the heat of the moment, it’s easy to think you want the house to be perfect, say “screw it” and buy the pretty ones. And if you make these kinds of decisions many times over during the entire remodel, you’ll “get screwed”, breaking the bank in no time.
So, when faced with a money decision, try to step back and think about whether it’ll really be that important within the context of the entire house. If it won’t, save that cash.
10. Get A Japanese Toilet
Ok, hear me out. This is one of those things you didn’t know you couldn’t live without until you tried it. For me, the defining, happy-crappy moment was my honeymoon, when Lily and I went to Asia. In the hotels in Japan, they had these Toto toilets with integrated, electronic bidets. They clean you after you do your business, greatly reducing the need for scratchy toilet paper.
Stop for a second and imagine that! A smooth stream of water to tidy you up, rather than abrasive TP. Trust me, it’s wonderful.
Granted, Totos are expensive, but I think well worth it since they’ll improve your quality of life on a daily basis. And I mention them here because they do need a power outlet to function, so you’ll want to have that installed as part of your remodel.
Summing It Up
Home remodels are an adventure, and not one that I’m going to idealize or romanticize. They’re hard work and will suck up a lot of your time and brain power. But, they’re worth it if done right, because you’ll wind up with a custom home that will probably have gone up in value by more than what you paid for the remodel.
So my main, big-picture advice is to do it right while controlling those renovation costs – get a good licensed contractor, control the kitchen renovation cost by going with a local carpenter or IKEA, communicate with your people by e-mail, and get those permits. And try to enjoy the process!
What do you think about renovations?
1/8/2018 Update: I’ve now included a picture of my actual kitchen, designed by Lily. That’s the only picture that is of my house.
Last Update: 5/15/2018