After months (or years!) of saving and dreaming, you’re ready to embark on a renovation that will put Chip and Jo to shame. You’ve taken your “before” pictures and you’re eager for the improvements to begin. And yet you know you’re committing to a long, expensive project that will disrupt your normal routine. There’s so much to manage, and the process can be full of unknowns. While there’s no way to avoid every single bump in the remodeling road, having the right guidance can improve the trip. We asked top design and construction pros to share their best insights into every stage of the process.
Phase 1: Before You Begin
You’ve heard the old saying “Measure twice, cut once”? Turns out it’s good advice for the renovation process: The more time you spend planning, the more smoothly the project is likely to run. So go slowly at the start, and follow these tips.
Pick the right starting point. Not everyone can a ord to remodel their whole house at once. “Start with the room you use the most, or the one that’s stealing your happiness as soon as you walk into it,” says interior designer Emily Henderson. Kitchens and bathrooms are usually good candidates to tackle first. “They’re both really important to how the house functions,” says interior designer Lauren Behfarin.
Alternatively, live in the house as is until you can afford to do all the work at one time. “You’ll save on materials by ordering them all at once, and the contractor’s bid will usually be less for one large job versus multiple smaller ones,” says interior designer Marina Hanisch. While you’re waiting, you may learn a thing or two about how you live in your house. “It takes some time to see how the spaces work for you,” says Sherry Petersik, author and DIY blogger at younghouselove.com. “If we had renovated our kitchen right when we moved in, we would have added sliding doors to an existing deck—a deck we ultimately ended up removing.”
Come up with a look you love. Gather inspiration from magazines, Pinterest, Houzz, and more. “Give yourself at least two weeks for this process—really let things percolate,” says Petersik. “Then pick out your very favorite images and move them to a new folder or pinboard. You’ll find that they are all very similar, or that there are elements repeated in each one.” Use that style to guide you.
Develop a budget. A financial planner can help you decide what you can afford. Once you have a handle on your resources, consider talking to a local real estate agent to see what renovated homes in your area are selling for (or look at listings online). Don’t invest more than you could get back, especially if you plan to sell in the next five years, says architect Suzie Mariniello.
Next, make a list of your priorities, divided into must-haves and nice-to-haves. How to decide which is which? The must-haves are the features that will change how you live in the space. These are the things you really don’t want to cut or compromise on, because they’re essential to your lifestyle or vision. In a kitchen renovation, for example, a must-have could be removing a wall to open the area to the family room, while a nice-to-have might be a pot-filler faucet behind the stovetop.
Hiring help You’d never ask a stranger to babysit without checking their references and background, so don’t rush past those steps when hiring the professionals you’ll invite into your home. “Talk to their past clients,” says Behfarin. “Ask if they were responsible, trustworthy, and punctual.” Also, contact your local Better Business Bureau to make sure there are no complaints registered against the pro.
Look for signs of professionalism. “It’s a red ag if your contractor writes the estimate on a napkin, doesn’t o er a contract, or only gives you a cellphone number as a contact,” says Petersik. “You want business cards, proof of all required licenses and insurance, an official estimate, and a contract that spells out the job, the timeline, and the payment schedule.”
Getting bids from at least three contractors is essential. “You’re evaluating how the contractors conduct themselves and present their estimates, but you’re also looking for confirmation of the ballpark estimate you did yourself before asking for bids,” says interior designer Tracy Morris. “If one is really high or low and the others are close together, you’ll know that the outlier is either out of whack or including different elements in the project.” Rule of thumb: Go with the bid in the middle, since it’s probably the most accurate.
If you are faced with unexpectedly high bids, it’s time to return to your prioritized project wish list and start cutting items from the bottom. Or you may have to divide your project into smaller chunks and do some elements now and others in the future. You could try to negotiate with the contractor on some items, though Morris advises doing so very carefully: “If you put the screws to your contractor at the beginning of the project, they may be less likely to include freebies—like repainting a room because you decide you don’t like the color—later.” One exception: “If you’ve gotten several bids and the contractor you really want to work with is higher than one of the others, you can absolutely be open and honest about that and see if they’ll meet you halfway,” says Morris.
Phase 2: Ready, Set, Remodel
Your plan is in place and your team is prepped—but you can’t just sit back and watch the action. Staying involved (judiciously) can help keep the reno on track.
Be aware of the pitfalls. Altering the plan after the work begins (“changing orders,” in construction speak) almost always adds time and expense to the job. “Take the extra time to nail down all the details before the project starts rather than making changes midcourse, when it will throw o your schedule and budget,” says contractor Howard Molen. Most designers and architects will use drawings and renderings to show you what they’re planning so you can see what the space will look like—and make adjustments.
Another tip for a smooth project: “Make sure all the materials arrive at the site before the work begins,” says Henderson. “You don’t want contractors to have to wait midjob. They might hop on someone else’s project during the downtime, and then it can be hard to get them back to yours.”
Keep in mind that wood flooring requires extra prep. “It should be delivered to the site a minimum of two weeks before installation and stored in the room where it will be used so it can adjust to the temperature and humidity inside the home,” says Molen. Otherwise the wood could expand or contract after installation, causing buckling or gapping.
Communicate effectively. When it comes to getting your ideas across to your team, “pictures are worth a thousand words,” says interior designer Amber Lewis. “It’s the best way to explain what you want, because designers and architects are so visually driven.” Plus, you can just point at something you like if you don’t know the technical term for it. “On our projects, we’ll laminate a drawing and stick it up on the wall,” says Henderson. “That way anyone working in the room can see the plan and all the measurements, and we can mark changes with a Sharpie.”
Handle challenges with grace. Structural, plumbing, and electrical issues. Bad weather. Construction mistakes. Some moments will test you. But know that there is a solution to every problem. “Trust your team—you hired them for a reason,” says Lewis. “That said, also trust your gut. If there is something that you know you 100 percent do not want, you have to speak up.”
Phase 3: It’s Done! What Now?
The plaster dust has settled, the crews are gone, and your rooms look amazing. But there are still a few things to do before you post those before-and-after snaps.
Complete the punch list. At the end of the project, you may still be left with nicked paint in the hallway, crooked outlets in the kitchen, and sconces that were installed upside down—in other words, with a lot of little mistakes that need fixing. Construction pros call these final items the “punch list.” Your contract should include a plan for attending to them and (typically) a provision that you will not make the final payment until they’ve been completed to your satisfaction. “When a job is finished, I walk through every space with a pad of Post-it notes and stick them to anything that needs fixing,” says Hanisch. But there’s no need to wait until the end of the job to alert your contractor to any issues.
Think ahead. Stay in touch with your renovation team if you think you might want to work with them again. Bolster your good relationship by providing referrals or writing a positive online review. Then relax and enjoy your finished renovation. Until you’re ready to start thinking about the next one.