6 Steps to Keep Your Next Reno on Time and on Budget, According to Pros

published Feb 7, 2020
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So you’re finally taking the plunge on that remodel you’ve been thinking about for so long. It’s exciting to think about the transformations that are about to happen in your home—a new kitchen island! A shower you can turn around in!—and also a little daunting. (You’ve heard stories about projects that take months instead of weeks, crush the budget, or drive the homeowners into couple’s therapy.) But good news: You can avoid many of these worst-case scenarios with careful and realistic advance planning. Here’s what to do before you renovate.

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Know what you want (and need)

Start big—huge, even!—with a list of everything you’ve always wanted in the space. Include the fun stuff, like bold wallpaper in the entry hall or a soaking tub in the bathroom, but consider which “wants” you’d be willing to give up if budget push came to budget shove. 

And be practical: Spend as much time thinking about function and efficiency as you do style; if you don’t, you won’t like using the new space, no matter how good it looks. It helps to get specific about all the products you’d like to include, and to look up their prices—that way, you have a sense of which you can really afford and which should go on the “maybe” list. 

Having firm goals in mind ahead of time will help the pros you eventually hire estimate the job accurately, and will save you time. “Don’t rush the pre-planning process,” says contractor Aaron Gordon of Aaron Gordon Construction in San Francisco. “The more decisions you make ahead of time, the faster the actual project will go.” And, the fewer changes you’ll make as the job proceeds. In remodeling, changes = more money, since contractors typically charge you more for every “change order,” or adjustment to the plan.

Run the numbers

Figure out how much you can really afford to spend on the project—then subtract 10 to 15 percent for a contingency fund. If you’re lucky, you won’t use all of this slush. But you probably will. “There are unknowns in every job,” says Sonia Santos, Master Certified Remodeler, of Don Van Cura Construction Co. in Chicago. “When you open a wall you might find rusted pipes, or outdated electrical, and those take money and time to bring up to date.”

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Assemble the right pros

If you’re just doing a cosmetic update—for example, replacing kitchen cabinets and appliances, but not changing the positions of plumbing or appliances or moving any walls—you probably only need a general contractor, or GC, who will usually hire subcontractors like plumbers, electricians, and the like. But if you’re reconfiguring the layout, moving structural walls, or changing electrical or plumbing positions, you’ll need an architect, too. And if you want help in getting the most efficient kitchen or bath layout or a high-end design look, you might appreciate the help of a kitchen or bath designer or an interior designer.

Something to consider: While it might be tempting to take on the role of general contractor yourself (which might save you about 10-15 percent on the job), it’s only a good idea for a large project if you have prior renovation experience and a lot of time to devote. You’ll be doing everything from hiring and scheduling all the subs to pulling permits and arranging for inspections, as well as managing the site each day—it’s a big time commitment that can feel like a full-time job.

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Hire carefully—and establish trust early

Personal referrals are the best way to find any remodeling pro, say the pros. “Be suspicious of online reviews, says contractor Howard Molen, of HFM Company in New York City. “You never know who wrote them, or if they’re real.”

Be brutally honest with any pro you interview. Explain your expectations and hopes and share your real budget. “Too often people think they have to hide their budget,” says Gordon. “Get your contractor involved early and be clear about what you can spend and what you’re hoping to get, so you’re not disappointed later.” The contractor can also help walk you through any “extra” costs that you might not expect. For example, some New York City buildings require special documentation, permitting, and planning that can double the basic labor-and-materials cost of a job, says Molen.

Ask to see licenses and proof of insurance from all the pros you or your GC hire. And always insist on a detailed contract with the GC. “It should spell out everything from the estimated timeline to the procedure and charge for change orders (changes to the scope of the job made after the work has begun),” says Santos.

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Understand the schedule

Construction timelines are usually an estimate, and are usually bare bones. “Most GC’s give the client the shortest timeline possible, because they think if the client knows how long the job will actually take, they won’t do it,” says Gordon. He advises adding 20 percent to the official timeline. And don’t throw the team any curveballs: If you have an event that sets a “hard” stop for the project—you’re expecting a baby, or hosting a wedding or other large event in the house, for example—let them know. 

Don’t forget about the day-to-day routine. “If you’re living in your house during the renovation, you’ll want to know what time the construction team will get there in the morning, and what time they’ll leave,” says Santos. Designate a bathroom for the crew to use, and discuss details like where debris will be discarded or stored.

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Prep your family and your home

Remodeling is messy, loud, stressful, and disruptive. “If you can move out, do,” says Gordon. If you can’t, make sure everyone in the family understands the work that’s involved and how long it will take. If your kitchen will be out of commission, set up a microwave and a fridge in another room. Talk to the contractor about dust control—they can seal the work area in plastic. Wrap or store furniture and artwork. If you have pets, figure out how to contain them, or keep them calm during the chaos. And then… relax, stay flexible, keep communication lines open, and enjoy the project (or at least the gorgeous results).