I get several inquiries a year from homeowners eager to start (or finish) their remodel project, looking to me for advice and connections. They often come to me with the impression that hiring or consulting with a designer will make their remodel project easier, and possibly less expensive. That can be true in some sense, but the truth is that remodels are stressful and expensive. There is no way around that. You will be stressed, and you will spend way more money than you are comfortable with. What does help is the ability to anticipate the problems you can and will face. I’ve assembled an ABC list of tips and general rules of remodeling, for the first or second time remodel enthusiast.
A. Apples to Apples-
The first stage in remodeling is getting quotes, right? Wrong! Without a detailed floor plan and specifications, your chance of getting accurate quotes from various sources is minimal at best. If budget is at all a concern, make sure you have a well-drawn floor plan, with specifications on cabinets, measurements, material types, fixture types, fixture locations, etc. before you start getting estimates. This will help you get an apples-to-apples comparison. This is where a designer may come in handy in the early stages. They can help you solidify your plans, and save you time and confusion later on. If there is one price that differs significantly from the others, make sure you clarify with that contractor/source the specifics of the design. It is possible they may not have accounted for some details that others have. This can also be an indication of their attention to detail, and you may want to rule them out entirely.
Whatever you think the budget should be, it’s a safe bet your end expenditures will be double if not triple that amount—or more. Don’t fight it. Just be prepared. If going over budget will mean financial ruin for your family, do not begin a remodel.
The bottom line is there is no perfect contractor. Contractors today are overbooked, charging higher rates, are often late, can often no-show, and will make mistakes. Like any normal person. The best you can hope for is someone who shows up regularly, and completes the job in a reasonable amount of time. All the research in the world will not give you the “perfect” experience.
Do not demo until you have all materials and fixtures (or close to all) in hand. The biggest issue homeowners face in remodels is having part of their home (usually high traffic zones) in ruins for longer than necessary. This is most often due to delays on cabinetry. If your cabinet maker estimates 4 weeks completion, plan for 6-8 weeks. If you want to minimize the amount of time your home is uninhabitable, hold off on demo until you have your new cabinets sitting in the garage. Also, ask your contractor in advance to tarp the floors and partition off doorways. Dust will be abundant and is very difficult to control. If you or your family have respiratory issues, it is best to schedule an extended vacation starting from demolition to countertop installation. (a 1 to 2 month period)
If you are comparing the cost of different contractors or products, bear in mind the that the initial estimate will not be accurate, probably not even close to accurate. If you have three estimates, and they are all within a couple grand of each other, you can probably expect them to come out about the same in the end, once you dot the I’s and cross the T’s.
F. Friends & Family
Don’t do business with friends and family, particularly if you want the job done in a timely manner. Contractors (active) who agree to projects for family/friends usually will fit them in while they are working on other projects, which means regular no-shows, regular tardiness, and in the end, chaos and stress on your relationship. Even if the price is lower, the stress may overwhelm you. If you are paying less, the priority will be on the other higher paying customers.
Do not expect your contractors to work around your entertaining guests. It is an interruption to the pace of the project. If you tell your contractor they can’t come on a certain day, expect that they will switch to another project, and you may not see any workers again for a week. If your kitchen or other high traffic part of your home is under construction, and you must have guests, put them up in a hotel instead, or better yet, don’t have guests. Don’t schedule guests until your remodel is complete.
Contractors are totally slammed the closer it gets to the holidays. They are under intense pressure to complete all their projects, which means there is a higher rate of mistakes, quality issues, and delays. No matter what, don’t start your remodel any less than five months before you expect to entertain family/friends. No matter what the contractor says, remodels (done properly) will take no less than four months to complete.
Don’t wait for your contractor to ask you what your paint or tile selection is. Choose finishes as far in advance as you can. Most of the time, the contractor will not ask for this information until they have scheduled the installer, which often gives the homeowner a week’s notice at best. This means that they will be in a rush, more likely to make a mistake, and will probably not get what they want. Quality materials typically take at least two weeks to deliver, and paint color some people can take months to select. If you're in a time crunch, call a designer and follow their instructions to the letter. But if you take initiative, make all your selections far in advance, this may not be an issue at all.
January tends to be a slower month for contractors. They’re finishing up their holiday jobs, and eager to sign new projects. This can mean more reasonable pricing and not having to get on a waiting list. If possible, have your designer create plans in November and December (which are usually slower months), and get pricing by January.
K. Keep tabs
If there is one task that homeowners can assist with during a remodel, it is keeping tabs on the condition of items as they are delivered by the vendors. Appliances, for instance, can take a long time to replace if they arrive damaged, and contractors don't usually inspect the items until install day, which can invite considerable delays. Cabinets ordered from big box stores (Home Depot and the like) will be delivered in packaging, in which case you need to inspect them promptly. Custom cabinet makers are more desirable because they tend to be better quality, and are able to perform touch-ups themselves, rather than go through a grueling claims process. If something arrives in a box, open the box as soon as you get it (or pay your contractor to inspect it and remind them as things arrive). Odds are at least one item will arrive damaged beyond repair. Plan for it.
L. Leaving the door open
Contractors will leave the door/s open. It is very typical and not something to fuss over. They are going in and out constantly and it is troublesome to open and close the door--especially with filthy hands, or when carrying extremely heavy objects like cabinets, appliances, or marble slabs. Let them do their job and stay out of the way. This is one really good reason to remodel in the early springtime, when temperature is mild and your heating/cooling bill won't skyrocket. If you have pets, you need to be prepared to keep them confined, or have them stay with a family member. Your contractor is not responsible for your pet.
Remodels can have a devastating impact on a marriage. Couples can disagree on layout, priorities, colors, budget…everything. One thing that can help is hiring a designer that will listen to both of your wishes and ideas, and develop a plan that blends the two in the most efficient manner possible. When there is a neutral and non-biased party working on behalf of both partners, they will feel that their opinions are being respected and fully considered during the design process. This can lighten the load of marital strain during the planning/design phase.
There will be NOISE. A lot of noise. Some stages are noisier than others, and some contractors are noisier than others. If you have a team of workers, they may converse, laugh, whistle, shout, and you pretty much should just let them do their thing. If there are individuals working, they may choose to play music, or they may be perfectly quiet. It varies. But one thing is certain. There will be noise during a large portion of your project. If you work from home, or are retired and spend a lot of time at home, just be prepared. And if you like to sleep in, get used to being woken up early.
One thing that can cause unnecessary stress in a remodel is overanalyzing. If you are an engineer, are generally indecisive, or cannot visualize, save yourself the time and hire a professional designer or interior architect. They are accustomed to visualization, problem solving, focusing on the big picture, and weighing the pros and cons of all decisions to ensure a pleasing outcome.
Contractors, like all human beings, need access to a toilet at least once during the work day. You need to be prepared to provide that necessity. If you don’t want contractors using your personal bathroom/s, you can rent a porta-potty unit. If you don’t want to take on that expense, make sure your toilet tissue is stocked and easily accessible, have a plunger handy, and if possible, provide disposable hand towels. Most contractors are men, and sometimes, the seat will be left up. If any of this will drive you nuts, just get the porta-potty.
You get what you pay for. With contractors and with products. With products, like cabinetry and flooring, if you shop around enough, or have the right connections, sometimes you can find great bargains. With contractors, if you cheap out, you will get poor quality service and installation. Always. If quality is a concern, call a designer. They will have access to high quality resources and can make solid recommendations.
Contractors and sales reps are people too, and deserve respect. You will find that if you treat these people kindly and with respect, you will get better service. General tips:
1. Don’t try to negotiate on price. If you don’t like the price, go somewhere else.
2. Be pleasant. Say please and thank you.
3. Be patient. Delays are normal and not always in their control.
4. Be grateful. Good contractors are hard to come by. If they do a good job on something, let them know you appreciate their hard work.
S. Space planning
Most people have no concept of space—what is possible within their space, or how something will appear in practice, rather than on paper. Consult with a designer or interior architect when designing your new space. They will guide you on proper clearances and efficient layout. This should be one of the very first steps in a remodel.
T. Time management
Here is the biggest reality check of all. No matter how good of a planner you are, no matter how many doctorates you have, you cannot always control the timing of your project. The key to efficient timing is in drawing formal plans that can be referenced by all parties throughout the project, selecting and ordering all materials and fixtures in advance, and being totally flexible on when contractors are allowed to come and go. One thing that homeowners seem to constantly fall prey to is completion time estimates from contractors. The contractor will be estimating the time it takes to do the actual labor on demolition, new walls, texturing, taping, painting, flooring, and fixture installations. What they don't factor in is the design process, the finish selection process, the 2-4 months it takes to get custom cabinets built and delivered, the damaged range hood that had to be re-ordered, or the tile that was miscalculated and is now backordered. There are a million things that can and do add on to that "three to five weeks". Plan for 4-8 months, or more, depending on the size of your project and whether you are pulling permits.
U. Under-promise Over-deliver
In the research phase, when interviewing contractors and specialists, you will find that some will be more positive, with the “should be no problem” approach, and some will be more reserved, with the “well we might run into this issue” approach. While the “no problem” guy might be more enjoyable to listen to, chances are he will come across the same issues that the other guy anticipated, and your price will skyrocket after the fact, rather than be factored in beforehand. The guys that bring potential issues up at the estimate stage are the ones with more experience, the ones you probably want working on your home. They are the “Under-promise Over-deliver” policy workers that will be straight with you, and handle things safely and properly.
The biggest hurdle homeowners face when selecting their materials and layout is the inability to visualize. Before you get estimates or do anything else, find a good designer and have them create a plan for you, complete with 3D renderings in color, to help you visualize what your finished space should look like. Have them select proposed finishes and fixtures for you that all flow together. It can save months of stress and hundreds of miles on your car, and may be the difference between a mediocre result and a phenomenal one.
Get it in writing. With any contractors you hire, you must have a written contract. It should specify the scope of work, the approximate lead time, the price, and the payment terms.
Like it or not, a remodel will mean strangers in your home, around your family and valuables. There is no way around it. The guy that comes out to give you a quote will not usually be the one doing the work, and the guy/s doing the work will not always speak English. It is your responsibility to vet your contractor, ask if he has employees, or if he hires random workers. If it’s a less expensive contractor, it is almost always the latter, no matter what they claim. If you want to be able to speak with anyone who is working in your home at any given time, be sure to address this in advance with the foreman, and expect to pay a premium for English speaking workers (or whatever language you speak). Also, in order to keep your project moving, you will need to issue at least one house key to the contractor. Expect contractors to show up early, or late. Make peace with having strangers in your home before you begin a remodel. If theft is your concern, lock your valuables in a safe.
Y. “You said…”
If having someone contradict themselves bothers you to the point where you need to schedule an extra session that week, you may want to rethink your plan to remodel. Remodels are a constant stream of issues, often resulting in contradictions regarding pricing, timing, and selections. There will be chaos. The best way to handle it is to hire an all-inclusive higher end construction firm that covers all the bases. The more money you spend on labor, the more detail oriented you can usually expect them to be, the fewer surprises and issues you will be burdened with (not because they don't exist, but because they will mostly be kept behind closed doors). Alternately you can hire a designer to perform project management duties. But be warned, schedules will change, items will be backordered/discontinued, pricing will vary, no matter what. If your mental stability is dependent on absolute consistency, don’t remodel. Call a realtor or make peace with what you have.
Z. Zeroing In
When you focus too closely on one thing, or focus too closely on each individual thing, a remodel can be a nightmare. The key is to have a firm foundation. To start with, develop a strong overall design plan. Professional interior designers can help with this—they can develop a layout and guidelines to keep you on track throughout your project. Second, vet any contractors you are considering. Ask for references, check Yelp reviews, use the NextDoor app. Once you’ve found your qualified contractor or specialist, trust them. Let them do their job. Don’t micro-manage or interrupt them unless you sense that something is seriously wrong (like you ordered white cabinets and they show up in navy blue). If you feel like there is a problem with how things are being done, call your project manager. Do not associate directly with workers (unless the worker is the manager). Call the manager or foreman. Document what is to be done specifically in advance, so you don’t have to worry later. Let them finish their work before you criticize. And if there are mistakes, then at least you can point to the paperwork/drawings, and they will redo it. Make sure you have a primary point of contact that you can rely on, such as a designer or project manager. If you are an engineer (or highly critical), either manage your own subs, or hire a high end building firm, delegate complete authority, and take a two month vacation while they complete the work.
In conclusion, your first step should always be to call a qualified designer. They can help you prioritize, formulate a design layout and theme, and give you some general recommendations on where to go for what. And remember, if you hire a project manager, it will only be worth the investment if you let them do their job. Listen to them, and give them the freedom to make your project a success.