Remodeling Without Getting Hammered

A new kitchen, cozy den - maybe you don't have to move

The usual assumption about home renovation is that it will be twice as exasperating, twice as costly, and take twice as long as anticipated.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

If you do your homework, know what you want, and follow some basic rules, you can save both frustration and money.

Decide on a budget, find a quality contractor, and stay involved as the project progresses. When it's finished, you'll soon forget the hassle and the mess.

Barry and Terry Savage built a family room and bedroom in the basement of their new house to accommodate their four growing children. And they came through the process unscathed, happy with the results, and just a bit poorer than expected.

The project went over-budget, in part from work added by the contractor and in part from work added by the Savages.

Like the Savages, a growing number of Americans see remodeling or expansion as a better alternative to buying a bigger or better house. This year, they will spend $119 billion on such projects, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Building can be cheaper than moving after all the hidden costs of moving are included - taking the kids out of school, closing costs on a new house, sales costs on the old place, and moving fees.

But having your home torn apart can be dirty, noisy, and disruptive. So there are a few basic rules to follow to make the process as bearable as possible.

Suitable space

The starting point for most people is deciding what they want in their new space. Help can come from an architect, a designer (with less engineering knowledge than an architect), or a computer program.

Computer programs let you create and move walls, furniture, cabinets, and other fixtures and then print out a floor plan.

A designer can help match the space with your budget, though fees can run to 10 percent of the project's cost.

And don't neglect rooms or space adjacent to the one getting the attention. Al and Janice Donatello say there's just one "sour spot" in their house after two years of renovations.

They started with the kitchens in their two family house in Medford, Mass. Then the back porches, hallways, and living rooms look shabby, so they redid them, then the bedrooms and the closets. Now the back staircase, between the kitchen and the porch, doesn't blend in, Al says.

"Too many customers fall into the trap of not taking the time to understand what they're going to get, and what it's going to look like," says David Welch, a contractor in Wayland, Mass.

He also stresses that you should know as much as possible about your house to reduce unforeseen problems.

A contractor should be willing to look and even drill pilot holes in the floor, walls, or ceiling to see what's behind them. It costs a few bucks, but could save hundreds or thousands more than being surprised once the project is under way.

The right contractor

Finding the right contractor is the hardest part, but it's also the most important.

If you're good with tools and have lots of time, you could be your own general contractor and perhaps save a few dollars.

Otherwise, ask your friends, architect, and local lumber yard for candidates.

Keep in mind that for jobs on this scale, a contractor is not someone who shows up, blueprints in hand, to direct activity.

He's usually the carpenter, and his job is to bang nails and hire and supervise the plumber, electrician, etc.

Once you've developed a manageable list of potential contractors - three to five choices - get at least three bids. It helps to look locally, since you might need warranty work later, and it's important to make sure your choice is licensed and insured.

Most local contractors work by word of mouth. Ask for references, and call other clients. "Nobody ever asks me for references," says Mr. Welch, "and I wish they would."

Make sure all the contractors are bidding on the same job. You should present the same design to each contractor in as much detail as possible.

The lowest bidder won't necessarily win the job, but the most professional contractor, with the best references and the highest "comfort factor" with you should. Don't let price dictate the choice. Six months after completion, when a crack appears in your new ceiling, the low bidder may be the one who doesn't return your calls.

When the Savages chose Welch to renovate their basement, they picked him "because he showed up on time," says Terry.

Likewise, when the Donatellos rebuilt their kitchens, they interviewed three contractors and picked the one "we felt like we could talk to," Janice says.

It's important that you feel comfortable telling the contractor what you don't like.


Once you've chosen someone to do the work, you need to sign a contract that includes a start and finish date and a down payment, no more than 10 percent.

Subsequent payments should coincide with completion of major stages of the project - 30 percent each after the electrical and plumbing, the wallboard, and the cabinets on a kitchen renovation, for example.

The contract should include a start and finish date for your project, and the contractor should stick to them.

If your project is remodeling a kitchen or bath, this is the time to order the cabinets, as they take several weeks to be delivered. In the meantime, you can finalize your selection of appliances, lighting fixtures, flooring, and tile and find your best prices on them.

Terry Savage recommends keeping a close hand in selecting appliances, fixtures, and trim. She's still not happy with the contractor's choice of a light fixture.

Once the project is finished, and you're happy with your new space, the frustrations of construction will soon fade away.

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Tip Sheet


* If you decide the job needs a contractor, ask friends and people in the trade for names. When you find a contractor, get references and check to see if former clients are satisfied.

* Ask to see proof of your contractor's license and insurance.

* Look at previous projects.

* Set a budget before you start. Know the costs of your appliances and other accessories and include them in the budget.

* Add 10 percent for cost overruns. Remember the first rule of construction: Takes longer; costs more.

* Check on progress at least every day, and don't be shy about discussing problems with the contractor.

* Consider how other rooms of your house will look next to the fresh, clean new space. Don't overimprove the room, and don't overimprove your house.

* If you're remodeling your kitchen or bathroom, think about how you will manage without those facilities.

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