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What to know before you renovate.

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Doing home renovations – even of only one room – can be stressful, particularly if you have kids.  But most homeowners who have lived through renovations agree that the final result is worth the stress.  Before you embark on this often expensive and disruptive journey, here’s what you need to know:



Make a wish list:  Make a list of all the things that you would love to include in your renovation.  Be specific and, when appropriate, include the brand names of any appliances or fixtures.  Then prioritize your wish list so that if things need to be cut, you can do so.

Discuss your wish list with your contractor or a construction expert.  If you can’t do it all, you may find that some items on your wish list are easy to accommodate at a later date, such as replacing an old dishwasher with a new one.  But other changes, such as moving a toilet or a wall, may be less expensive to do the first time around.

Be budget mindful.  Know how much you have to spend on your renovation.  Within this budget, make sure to account for unknowns that might crop up along the way. Most experts suggest padding your budget with 10-15%.  Our experience is that most construction projects go over budget by 20-25% due too the “might as well” phenomena, so plan accordingly.

When possible, consider energy efficient alternatives.  While it may not be financially practical to go all green, small high efficiency upgrades can save you money in the long run. Replacing older appliances with energy-rated, efficient alternatives is an easy way to save on electric and water bills and often don’t cost much more than their less efficient counterparts.

If you’re doing more substantial work in your home, be sure to look at less obvious energy-efficient updates, such as including foam insulation, sealing your duct work, or installing energy-rated windows. While these options may add to your overall renovation costs, the incremental increase is often worth it over the long term of home ownership.  Consider having an energy audit of your home before you begin construction so that you know exactly where you might be able to improve your home’s efficiency before you start the work.

Consider the timing.  You don’t want to replace your windows in the dead of winter if you live in New England.  Living through a kitchen renovation is easier in the spring and summer when you can BBQ outside.  When you’re looking at the calendar, make sure to consider both the time of year and the length of time that the work may take.

Also, understand the timeline of how the project will come together.  In general, structural work (foundation, framing, and windows) comes first, followed by siding and roofing. Once your home is weather tight, the business of putting your home back together on the inside can begin.  Electrical and plumbing typically occur while the walls are open, followed by insulation. Next is drywall, flooring, and any tile work that you might be doing.  The final piece of the puzzle before painting and other finishes is fine carpentry, which includes interior woodwork and cabinets.  Though cabinets are often the last thing to be installed, you may need to order them up to 12 weeks in advance for custom cabinetry and slightly less for stock pieces.

Get referrals, several estimates, and lots of references.  The best referrals come from friends and family who have actually worked with the contractor.  But a positive experience for one person doesn’t always lead to a positive experience for another, so make sure to ask for several references and speak to each one.  Ask about the quality of the work, whether the work was completed on time and within the expected budget, and how the site was left on a daily basis (this is particularly important if you will be living in your home during the renovation).

Also consider interviewing – and getting estimates from – at least three contractors.  Comparing the estimates will give you a better sense of whether the prices you’re receiving are reasonable.  Plus, each time you speak with someone new, you learn a little bit more about the project and may be exposed to ideas that you hadn’t thought of yourself.

When interviewing contractors, make sure to ask: whether the project will be billed hourly or by a flat fee (a flat fee may make more sense for a larger project); how many other projects he or she will be working on at the same time; what the time frame for completion is; whether he or she will be supervising the work; and finally, make sure to inquire about licensing, insurance, and bonding (all of which will vary depending on the state in which you reside).

Review the fine print.  Once you’ve selected the contractor who you’d like to work with, make sure to get a contract.  A contract will protect both your interests and should set out the scope of the work, the time in which it will be completed, as well as the amount and timing of payments.  As a general rule, you should never be asked to put down a deposit of more than 1/3 of the total before work has begun.  You also should withhold a final payment (anywhere between 5-10%) until all of the work has been completed to your satisfaction.

Image by Kromkrathog, courtesy of



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