Renovating your house is an adventure, one that can easily go off the rails. There are a mind-boggling number of wrong turns homeowners can take, from going over budget, to hiring a shady contractor, to just realizing that the quartz counters or paint color they picked are so wrong—after the work is done.
So if you want to make sure your renovation turns out all right, it’s essential you be prepared. Here are eight things you should do before embarking on any major home improvement project to avoid a whole bunch of headaches and regrets.
1. Know what you like
Oh that part’s easy, right? You want a totally new kitchen. But what exactly does that mean? You have to narrow down whether that’s just cosmetic (e.g., new cupboards, counters, and appliances) or structural (e.g., reconfiguring your space or knocking down a wall).
“I suggest my clients spend time browsing Pinterest, flipping through home decorating magazines, and watching design shows on TV to assemble a ‘visual wish list,’ which helps them get a handle on their design direction,” says Barbara Mount of Barbara Mount Designs and Windermere Realty Group, in Lake Oswego, OR. This is a particularly crucial exercise to get couples, whose tastes could be wildly different, on the same design page.
2. Run the numbers
There’s a reason we call it a “dream house”: It might not exist in real life—at least within the parameters of our budget! So before you get too attached to single-slab counters or spendy light fixtures, take a stroll down the aisles of your local design center to start pricing materials and labor.
3. Do a reality check
You might be wildly off base on what’s feasible in home renovation. For example, a project that might seem simple, such as adding a laundry room upstairs, can easily become a budget buster when you realize you have to configure complicated plumbing because of the location you chose. Having a consultation with an architect or a contractor can give you some insight into which projects will be workable—and which you might want to abandon before you even get started.
4. Decide to DIY or go pro
For all but the simplest jobs—or if you’re extremely handy (and patient)—using a professional contractor is the way to go. And even if you want to do some of the work yourself, be realistic about what skills you have to complete it to your satisfaction. Also consider how much free time you have; no one wants to have to use the downstairs bathroom for a month because the convenient one in the master bedroom is all torn up.
If your goal is to move load-bearing walls or tackle other more involved projects, it’s definitely time to bring in the pros. You might even want to consider enlisting design help in addition to a contractor, suggests Mount.
“A designer can go a long way in easing the pain of design decisions and decorating drama,” she says. There’s also the sizable discount a designer is often able to wrangle at building supply and furnishings markets.
5. Test run your colors and materials
Have you settled on the most amazing periwinkle for the powder room or aged oak for the cabinets? Order samples of absolutely everything you can, from carpet to fabrics, recommends Mount, and then take a few days to live with them.
“Color and pattern change with the light throughout the day, so walk by the room several times and get a feel for what you really want,” she says.
Also, don’t be shy about putting as many paint colors on the wall as possible. She suggests clients paint a sample on a board or piece of sturdy cardboard and move it around the rooms throughout the day and into night.
6. Vet your contractor
We’re not talking about doing just a cursory audit of online reviews or references, although those are helpful. You have to do a full-blown check and get proof of the following:
- Contractor’s license
- Certificate of insurance for general liability and workers’ comp
- Lien history
- Bond number and certification
And remember, you are going to be spending a lot of time with your contractor, as well as parting with a lot of cash and potentially a good bit of your sanity over the duration of the renovation. Your contractor is soon to become an almost-roommate, so take the time to conduct in-person interviews to find both a personal and professional fit.
7. Insist on an airtight contract
Starting a project is the “honeymoon” phase, but you want to be prepared for the days that are less dreamy. That’s why your contract with an outside professional needs to be specific and include the following:
- Payment schedule (make sure you never complete final payment until you are 100% satisfied)
- Potential penalties for missed milestones
- Details on all the work, down to how many cabinets are being installed and how many square feet of which tile will be laid
Not only will the document protect you, it will also show your contractor you mean business, says Jody Costello, founder of ContractorsFromHell.com.
“Requiring a detailed written agreement with protective clauses for the consumer will certainly deter a smarmy contractor who prefers vague language and little detail—the very thing that destroys a homeowner’s chances of having a drama-free renovation,” Costello says.
8. Time your renovation right
Renovation projects are notorious for running over schedule, often through no one’s fault. Weather can delay projects; necessary materials can be on back order; subcontractors can get sick; tricky wiring can take longer than expected. It’s wise to just expect there will be delays, so plan the renovation with ample time if you have a “due date,” such as house guests coming or a special trip that will take you out of town.