Picture this: You just came across a "charming" fixer-upper in your ideal neighborhood—and it's in your price range! Crumbling 1950s cabinets, musty carpets, and frumpy rooms quickly become a vision of crisply painted walls, beautiful wide-plank oak flooring, and beautifully ornate weathered brass fixtures. You can already picture all the boho garden parties you'll throw once the current backyard/dump yard is landscaped and free of rusty nails, and you just know that the extra spare room could be transformed into a smashing walk-in closet. But before you sign the dotted line, you'll need a reality check. Unlike on our favorite renovating shows, gut jobs aren't over and done with in 22 minutes. Most of them take months—even years.
To help you tackle your future renovation as proficiently as possible, we called on a few experts. They say it takes a village to raise a family—we believe it takes a family to complete a renovation project. We asked a builder, a designer, an economist, and even a psychologist as series of questions to shed light on every aspect of a renovation project, from budgeting to hiring professionals, to maintaining your own sanity. Ready to roll up your sleeves and pick up a hammer? Learn from these trusted experts first, and tackle your renovation with competence and peace of mind.
Are you renovating for resale or for lifestyle? Experts agree—this is one of the first questions you should ask yourself before tackling a gut job. "In my opinion, one of the most common misconceptions homeowners make when it comes to home upgrades is avoiding renovations that may not be perceived as increasing value of the property," says HGTV star and Liberty Mutual Insurance consultant Chip Wade. "For example, upgrading kitchens and bathrooms is the first thing many homeowners think they must renovate for the biggest return on investment. However, I say customize your home so it works for your family's lifestyle—don't skip on that home office with backyard oasis just because it feels more personal or too small of an upgrade."
As it turns out, not many people choose to renovate to increase resale value, as principal economist at Houzz, Nino Sitchinava, discovered: "We are finding that the desire to increase the resale value of a home ahead of an upcoming sale is not a major driver of home renovations—only 13% of 2015 renovators listed this as a top trigger. The majority renovate because they wanted to do so all along and finally have the time or the financial means."
Renovating for resale can be quite different than renovating for lifestyle, adds Sitchinava. "Those who are preparing to sell their home tend to focus on exterior projects that enhance curb appeal, such as upgrades to exterior paint, roofing, exterior doors, and deck. On the flip side, those who are renovating a recently purchased home tend to prioritize kitchen upgrades, along with other major projects to improve the comfort of their home, such as home automation."
On the list of questions you should ask yourself before renovating, the second most popular among our experts was establishing a clear list of needs and wants. "Determining priorities can help homeowners decide on the proper scope for their renovation," says Sitchinava, "and make effective choices in order to stay on budget." Writing everything down before starting can help you get a clearer picture of what you need. "Separate what's on your wish list and what are your must-haves," adds Paula McDonald of Paula McDonald Design Build & Interiors. "Prioritize these for future budget editing."
Similarly, Wade recommends customizing your renovation needs to your lifestyle: "Upgrading kitchens and bathrooms is the first thing many homeowners think they must renovate for the biggest return on investment. However, I say customize your home so it works for your family's lifestyle—don't skip on that home office with backyard oasis just because it feels more personal or too small of an upgrade."
When working on a smaller budget, cosmetic upgrades can make a big impact on your home's overall appearance. "Cosmetic upgrades do not have to be expensive, and they can freshen up any room," says Sitchinava. "For example, updating your wall color, lighting fixtures, and refinishing flooring can make a big difference in any interior space. Upgrades to vanities and sinks and faucets can go a long way in the bathroom."
McDonald recommends painting cabinets and upgrading its hardware, changing door hardware and hinges, and updating baseboards and to make a big impact on a smaller budget. "Refinishing floors instead of replacing them when possible can also help you save," she says.
While nearly a third of renovating homeowners don't set a budget at all, according to the 2016 Houzz & Home Survey, "establishing a budget up front is key to determining the scope of the project the homeowner can comfortably take on, and maintaining their other financial goals," advises Sitchinava. "Setting a realistic budget for a home renovation can be a daunting task—perhaps that's why nearly a third of renovating homeowners don't set a budget at all."
"Financial worries are common, and a home renovation's costs can quickly spiral out of control," warns Dr. Simon A. Rego, cognitive behavioral psychologist and co-author of the Worry Less Report. "This is why I recommend consulting with an expert like a project manager or consultant who has navigated home upgrades successfully. Receiving professional advice will allow you to appropriately budget and also decrease uncertainty by planning for the unexpected," he says. "An expert will be able to assess your renovation plans and also let you know what to keep as an emergency cushion should something go wrong. "
If the initial number you set is too high, don't be afraid to break up your project into phases, suggests Wade. "Have the entire project designed out in detail; then let your budget decide the most responsible way to do it in reasonable chunks."
Nearly a third of renovating homeowners exceed their established budget, according to Houzz's study—but what are the main culprits of unforeseen costs? "Our research found that the decision to opt for more upscale products and materials was the biggest budget buster in 2015 renovations," explains Sitchinava. "Products or services being more costly than expected came next, followed by the homeowner's decision to change the product scope or design."
According to Wade, who's renovated dozens of homes, issues can range anywhere from the contractor finding a hidden problem to deciding to upgrade materials that may not have been in the original budget. "I always recommend to take an original estimate, and tack on an additional 15% to 20% to give yourself a cushion for the unexpected."
McDonald, who has over 20 years of experience in Manhattan-based renovation projects, knows all too well the additional issues that can arise in a large condo building. "Many substructure conditions have to change once they are revealed in older buildings." These can include vertical risers in the walls that run apartment communication like water and phone lines or plumbing that haven't been properly installed or have aged. "These issues become problematic and have greater costs because entire surfaces like floors and walls have to be replaced."
"Unfortunately, the most common unforeseen costs that can inflate a renovation budget are usually the result of something gone wrong," warns Wade. "More often than not, I see issues with existing items that have either been damaged or lost during a renovation. It's important to make sure your belongings are documented before allowing others to conduct work on your home. It's so easy to electronically document all of your prized possessions beforehand with apps like Home Gallery. It allows you to take a room-by-room inventory and add notes about when items were purchased and their value." Dr. Rego agrees: "Taking proactive steps, such as documenting your possessions, can help with peace of mind in case something happens."
"Bringing in a professional early in the planning process can help homeowners develop an accurate budget, choose the best products and materials for the project, manage the overall execution of the project, and much more," advises Sitchinava. "It's important for homeowners to thoroughly research professionals before determining the best fit for their specific project. This includes looking at examples of their previous work to gauge their quality, as well as getting insights from previous clients. It can also be helpful for homeowners to review bids from multiple professionals, especially for larger projects, before determining the best candidate to bring their vision to life."
McDonald recommends researching your professionals thoroughly, checking their references, and meeting them in person before hiring. Nothing works better than doing your homework and making sure their services suit your needs. She also recommends deciding whether you want a full-service service or hiring each service separately—which may involve you having to play general contractor and keeping a closer look on project deadlines, progress, and budget.
"Once you open walls, move doors, change floors, update appliances, change your electrical plan, or bring in new bathroom configurations, it's best to bite the bullet and pay for the expertise," she says. "Renovating is stressful, overwhelming, confusing, and difficult even in the best of circumstances. If you are in the right hands, it's a breeze. If not, it can be a nightmare."
Knowing the required documentation for approvals and permits can help you avoid major delays and move forward with your renovation plan. "Homeowners cite architects' understanding of the building code among the most valued contributions during renovations," says Sitchinava.
"Unforeseen costs can arise from not understanding the structural or site constraints," says McDonald. "Working with experienced, reputable professionals is the best way to avoid these problems."
To avoid delays, Sitchinava recommends working closely with a professional to develop a realistic plan. "Maintaining the original plan and the decisions that were made can help homeowners stay on schedule and on budget."
Wade recommends setting firm benchmark deadlines in writing and holding your hired professionals accountable for delays. "If you hire a contractor, discuss the schedule in advance, and hold the company accountable," he says. "If benchmarks are set from the beginning in writing, these worries can be better avoided. Even if you're going the DIY route, I suggest writing down your deadlines, because you will consciously hold yourself accountable."
"Homeowner stress, anxiety, and worry can run high when renovating," says Dr. Rego. "With so many moving parts, it is understandable for anyone to feel worried. It's important to be properly equipped with how to handle unwanted emotional stress that can overcome you mid-project. The last thing you need is to have your worries diminish the pleasure you'll get from the new renovation you have planned."
Instead of allowing worry to sneak up on you, he recommends setting a scheduled time to worry. "Allow yourself time for a 'worry session.' During this time, the goal is to allow yourself to think about the worries you have been feeling throughout the day about your home improvement project and develop a plan to overcome them." By being proactive instead of reactive to stress, you can manage your project more efficiently while keeping your mental health intact.
Nearly all the professionals we interviewed agreed on one thing: Finding alternate living arrangements can help homeowners reduce stress during the remodeling process. "I recommend moving out on a case-by-case situation," says Wade. "A good rule of thumb is that if your renovation is going to last for at least three months, or if you are renovating the main body of the home or your kitchen, you might want to consider staying somewhere else during the project. Anything less than three months I think is manageable; you just might need to rearrange living situations in your home."
Focusing on the endgame can help reduce worry during the project. "I suggest envisioning what you want the renovation to look like, along with the benefits it will bring to your home," says Dr. Rego. "There is a reason you decided to renovate, whether it be more room for your family or because your lackluster kitchen needs a fresh look. When you're able to envision the endgame, it's easier to think more positively if you run into any temporary obstacles." In the end, keeping the big picture in mind can help not only reduce stress, but also keep the project on schedule.