Remodeling is a great way to turn the home you have into the home you've always dreamed of. Often, renovating your current space is less expensive, faster, and easier than buying a new home. A well-thought-out renovation that's executed according to plan can be a simple, affordable process that improves the look, feel, and function of your home.
Even though it's usually an easier process than relocating, remodeling your home is still a major event. Even the smallest renovations can result in monumental disruptions to your home and lifestyle if they're not well-researched and carried out by experienced professionals. Before you begin a remodel, it's important to take steps to prepare your home and your family. Adequately preparing for the project is the best way to minimize the chance of construction delays or unexpected costs along the way.
Use this guide as a starting point for your remodeling project. In it, you'll learn how to effectively research everything from permits and licensing to contractors and design elements. You'll also learn how to hire a great team of contractors and what to expect during the construction process.
Researching Your Remodel
Before diving into a home remodel, it's crucial to do your homework. Whether you're developing a basement, renovating a kitchen, or remodeling your entire home, you should take time to look into necessary licenses and permits, project costs, and tradespeople who can help you make your dream a reality.
Online research is typically the easiest place to start. If you're undertaking the bulk of the work yourself, you'll want to check whether you need to obtain a building permit. You can usually obtain information about this from your city or county building department. If you don't plan to DIY your home reno, it's vital to find reliable, licensed contractors who work in your area.
On top of finding the right permits or licensed contractors, you'll need to determine your budget and research the estimated cost of your remodel. Lumber and other materials often carry different costs in different regions, so as you look for estimated prices for your renovation, be sure you're researching the information that's pertinent to your geographic area.
Make Your Remodel Wishlist
Before you commit to any remodeling plan, it's a good idea to set aside some time to make a complete remodel wishlist. If you don't live alone, invite your partner, family members, or housemates to join in and create a comprehensive list of everything you'd like to see in your home.
As you create your list, here are a few things to consider:
Outlet and light switch locations
Layout, including furniture placement
Colors and styles
As you explore styles, colors, and materials for your new space, creating a lookbook can be the most effective way to relay your tastes to designers and contractors. A lookbook contains visual representations of the designs you love. Consider using resources such as Pinterest and home design websites, or visit showrooms to view tiles, lighting, and other materials to gather inspiration. Collect photos and drawings of the styles you love most in a single book or document.
There are several great resources available online to help you create a digital lookbook. Tools like Pinterest and Flipsnack allow you to collect and organize your favorite photos online, while Google Slides offers an easy way to present your images to your partner, family members, or contractors. Alternatively, you may want to flip through magazines, collect swatches, and print out online images to create a lookbook that you can carry with you to meetings with designers and tradespeople throughout your renovation.
Creating a Line-Item Checklist for Each Section
A scope of work is meant to ensure that you, your general contractors, and other tradespeople are all on the same page. A clear master scope of work is vital to ensuring that your project is completed according to your plan and within your budget. For most home renovations, a master scope of work is simply a single page of paper that encompasses checklists for each section of your remodel. The most effective approach in creating your master scope of work is to build a comprehensive checklist for each portion of your project.
Below, we've outlined the best ways to create a checklist for some of the most common remodeling projects. If you've hired a general contractor to oversee the project, they can help you create your master scope of work. If you're tackling the reno yourself, each of these checklists can help you make sure nothing is missed along the way.
Accessory Dwelling Unit
An accessory dwelling unit is a secondary unit or guest house that's located on your property. As these units aren't legal in all states, before you dive in on this type of project, make sure to research the guidelines for dwelling units where you live.
These units typically include a living space, bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen or kitchenette. That means you'll need to create checklists for each segment or trade involved, including carpentry, drywall, electrical, plumbing, and HVAC needs (among others). Checklists should include each task you expect your contractors to take on, including lighting placement, the number of fixtures to be installed, and the layout of your project.
Converting your garage means turning it from car storage to functional living space. Just as with accessory dwelling units, garage conversions aren't legal in every state, so it's important to check your local zoning laws before you get started.
The master scope of work for a garage conversion depends on exactly how you're converting it. If you're turning your garage into a secondary rental suite or guest house with a full kitchen and bathroom, the process should be similar to that of an accessory dwelling unit. You'll need to include checklists for each trade you hire and be sure to include each of the tasks you've hired them to complete. For a smaller renovation, your scope of work checklist will generally be shorter, and chances are you'll find yourself hiring fewer contractors.
Kitchen renovations typically involve removing and reinstalling cabinets, countertops, and appliances. Depending on the state of your pre-reno home, you might include installing a new kitchen island, plumbing fixtures, lighting, and appliances. Depending on the updates you've planned for your kitchen, your checklist will vary. You might need to include details about tilework for your backsplash, knobs or handles for cabinetry, under-cabinet lighting, or outlets you'd like added along the counter or island. Regardless of your plans, be sure to include every small detail in your checklist to ensure that your contractors can easily work through your kitchen remodel without issue.
Bathroom styles change quickly, so it's not uncommon to want to update yours from time to time. If you're getting ready to remodel your bathroom, you're likely looking at new bathroom fixtures, including a shower, tub, toilet, and vanity, as well as new tiles and cabinetry. As such, your checklist will largely be focused on plumbing. Make sure your contractor understands which fixtures you want to replace and what you're replacing them with. Additionally, be sure to include information about tiles and flooring, cabinetry, and paint colors on your bathroom checklist.
Whole House Remodel
If you're remodeling your entire house, it's important to prepare cautiously and create a plan for each room of your house. If you're changing the layout of your home by relocating walls, doors, or major structures like your kitchen island, include extensive information about the layout and any utilities that may need to be moved during the process.
For many, a whole-house remodel isn't quite as extensive. It may focus on cosmetic changes such as paint, flooring, and fixtures, or it might simply involve repairing and updating things that have become worn or out of style. If that's the case, think about each of the design elements you've chosen or repairs you need completed and use that information to create a detailed checklist of every task that needs to be completed.
If you're starting to feel claustrophobic in your own home, you might be considering adding on to your home. That might mean adding a second story to your home or expanding outward if you have enough land to do so. When you add on to your home, you'll likely need to work with an architect or home designer who can help you design your new addition and make sure it fits with the current style and structure of your home.
Depending on the room you plan to add to your home, your checklist might include a variety of trades. You'll need to extend your utilities, including electricity and HVAC, into the newer part of your home. You'll also need framers, roofers, and drywallers to build the structure.
Remodeling your backyard might consist of a simple landscaping project, or you might be planning to add an in-ground pool, outdoor kitchen, patio, or pergola. If your yard is relatively large, you might want to work with a landscape designer who can help you determine the placement of different features and the best way to create a beautiful space around them.
Your backyard remodel’s checklist might include fencing, decking, lighting, seating areas, and landscaping elements such as a garden, trees, shrubs, or your lawn.
Who Is the Right Person for Your Remodel?
Depending on the scope of your project, you might be considering a DIY project. Typically, if your home remodeling project is something relatively small, taking care of it yourself or hiring a local handyman could be the most affordable way to get it done. However, it's just as important to consider the skill level required to carry out the work as it is to consider the cost and scope of the project. Undertaking major projects, such as installing new cabinetry, rewiring electrical systems, or replacing large plumbing fixtures, is best left to those who've been professionally trained and are licensed to take on this caliber of work.
Estimating Your Budget
To figure out the overall cost of your remodeling project, you'll need to do some research. You can speak to people in your network who have completed similar projects to get an understanding of what they've paid, or you can request estimates from a general contracting company or tradespeople in your area.
Alternatively, you can do some research yourself by searching costs online. Home remodel guides, such as the GreatBuildz 2021 Los Angeles Remodel Cost Guide, can help you find location-specific data about average remodeling costs for different types of common projects. As you search for cost details, keep in mind that prices of labor, materials, and cleanup can vary a lot throughout the country, so it's important to search for costs in your own area.
When you receive quotes and estimates for your whole project or its individual parts, it's important to make sure they're fair and reasonable. The best way to do this is by obtaining estimates or bids from several contractors. By doing this, you can compare their prices, as well as reviews, to find an affordable rate.
If you're taking on a DIY project, visit your local hardware store online or in person to check out the cost of materials and tools you'll need to complete the project. Be sure to include the cost of renting trash bins or hiring a cleanup service once the project is complete.
Other Costs: Can you stay in the house?
If your remodeling project is relatively large, you might not be able to stay in the house while it's being completed. It's important to have a safe place to eat and sleep, as well as a functional washroom and kitchen for the duration of your renovation. If your project impedes these spaces, it might not be safe to stay at home. Even if it is safe to stay, you might decide to move out temporarily to avoid dust, noise, and the overall invasion of your privacy while contractors take over your home. If this is the case, make sure to budget for a hotel stay or temporary rental while your project is being completed.
Make a Decision
Once you've determined your remodeling costs, you need to decide if your budget can accommodate your plans. If you're paying for your renovation with a line of credit or a loan, make sure the monthly payments are manageable. If you're finding that the scope of work is beyond what you're able to afford, you might still have some options when it comes to improving your home.
Prioritize Your Improvements
If your lookbook is overflowing and your list of improvements is running a bit long, take some time to prioritize your needs over your wants. If you're improving your home in preparation to sell it, decide which improvements will actually help your house sell or increase the value of your home. If you're planning to stay, start with small improvements that will enhance the quality of life for you and your family as you save up for the larger, unnecessary improvements.
Consider Upcycling and Repurposing
As you source materials for your home remodel, there are some things that don't always need to be purchased new. Cabinets, floors, and other wooden fixtures can often be built from reclaimed hardwood, which is usually far less expensive. You can also consider sourcing antiques or second-hand items and upcycling fixtures for your bathroom, kitchen, and other rooms throughout your home to save on the overall cost.
Finding a Great Contractor
A contractor is someone who's passed examinations and gained work experience through apprenticeships. These people have earned a general contractor license through their state, city, or county licensing departments and have the necessary qualifications to conduct repairs and construction work. While general contractors are qualified to work in a variety of trades, specialized tradespeople, such as electricians and plumbers, can only perform work within their specialty. On a major project, a general contractor may oversee the project while employing tradespeople to take on tasks such as electrical, plumbing, and HVAC work.
A Good Contractor vs. a Great Contractor
When you're ready to hire a contractor for your project, look for one who's honest, reliable, and has a great reputation. While a good contractor can come in and get the job done as requested, a great contractor goes above and beyond the typical call of duty. They bring experience and honesty to the job, communicate effectively throughout the project, and aren't afraid to point out flaws in design and suggest improvements whenever necessary.
Where To Find Contractors
If you know a friend, family member, or colleague who's recently worked with a great contractor, ask for a referral. The best remodeling experiences come from working with contractors who have solid reputations and excellent referrals.
If asking around isn't an option, you can easily search for contractors in your area online. Expertise maintains extensive lists of licensed and insured home renovation contractors throughout the U.S. Alternatively, consider asking local groups on your social networks, reviewing Google listings, or inquiring at your local hardware store.
Licensing & Insurance
Hiring a licensed and insured contractor is vital if you want to make sure your remodel is done correctly and your home is protected against construction accidents and excessive costs that can be associated with them. While unlicensed contractors are typically less expensive, their work is never guaranteed, and if permits are required, most counties and municipalities won't approve them without a licensed contractor on the job.
When hiring a contractor, ask for proof of licensing and insurance. Most states assign license numbers to contractors. You can use this number to confirm the contractor's license and ensure there aren't any derogatory licensing issues filed against them.
Setting an Appointment
Depending on the contractor, your initial appointment might be with the contractor themselves or with a salesperson who's been hired to represent the company and book appointments. This initial appointment is when you'll describe the scope of your project so that the contractor can later provide you with a detailed estimate.
In most cases, contractors can set up a first appointment within one to two weeks. Those that are in higher demand may have longer booking times.
Questions to Ask Potential Contractors
When you first meet with a contractor, there are several questions you should ask before you hire them:
When can you start?
How long will it take to calculate an estimate?
Will I be responsible for any additional material costs or cleanup?
Will you obtain building permits?
How long do you anticipate this project taking?
Will my family be able to remain in our home while the project is being completed?
If possible, have contractors show you photos or sites of projects they're currently working on or have worked on in the past. You can also ask for references from past clients. When you call, ask questions such as:
Were you happy with the quality of work performed?
Did your project encounter any delays or unexpected costs, and how were they handled?
Was your home left clean and in good repair when work was completed?
Did you have any complaints about the contractor?
How to Compare Bids
If you're shopping around, you've likely obtained estimates or bids from several contractors. It's important to compare these bids carefully, as some might include materials, services, or other line items that others don't. Instead of looking at the overall project cost on each estimate, take time to review each line item in detail and compare bids side-by-side.
Remember to consider your experience with each contractor while you compare bids. If you weren't impressed or felt unsure of one, it's probably best to consider other bids over theirs.
How to Review Contracts
After selecting a contractor, you'll be provided with a contract for their services, as well as a payment schedule. Each company's contract is different, so it's important to read thoroughly and ask questions if you don't understand something. If there's a large amount of money at stake, it can also be a good idea to have an attorney review the terms and negotiate anything you don't agree with.
As you review the contract, there are several key questions that you should ensure the contract addresses:
What happens if the contractor forfeits the job?
What happens if you're unhappy with the quality of work?
When will work begin and when is it expected to end?
What happens if work isn't completed by the projected end date?
What happens if costs are higher than estimated?
Who is responsible for site cleanup?
Your payment schedule should also include extensive information about how much you need to pay, how you can pay it, and when it needs to be paid. If you aren't happy with the payment plan proposed by your contractor, you may be able to negotiate different terms before you sign your contract.
Four Red Flags With Contractors
There are several red flags to watch for while selecting a contractor for your remodeling project:
The contractor seems egotistical and mentions how great they are when compared with other contractors or how bad other contractors are.
They ask for money upfront to hold a job because they're busy or overbooked.
They're pushy and ask you to change the scope of your project by suggesting expensive additions.
They're slow to respond to your calls or emails, or they simply don't reply to you at all.
Make a Decision
When the time comes to narrow it down to a single contractor, there are several things to consider before you make your final decision. While cost and schedule are important issues, taking time to research reviews can be just as important if you want to be sure you find a great contractor for the job and not just a good one. Additionally, your decision should be partially based on how responsive the contractor was to your inquiries, how quickly they produced an estimate, and how knowledgeable they are about the work you need to be done.
What To do During Construction
Once your project is underway, it's important to continue playing an active role in the remodeling project. While a general contractor will manage the job itself, it's up to you to make sure that your general contractor is following the master scope of work you provided them and overseeing the work that's being done to your satisfaction.
Set Communication Expectations
Prior to getting started, it's recommended that you have a conversation with your contractor and set clear expectations for communications. Ensure that you're provided with phone numbers for the contractor and any other members of their team who might be overseeing the project, as well as tradespeople who will have access to your home.
While it's important that you can reach your contractor, it's just as important that they're able to reach you, as well. Provide them with accurate contact info, the best times to reach you, and alternative numbers or contacts in case an emergency occurs while they're working in your home.
Tour the Project Regularly
Take time to regularly tour your project with your contractor, as well as on your own. This ensures you're able to oversee progress on the project and communicate with your contractor regularly. Touring it alone also gives you the opportunity to check for errors in their work that you might not catch while taking a guided tour. These tours should take place at least weekly if you're undergoing a full home remodel or building an extension onto your current space. If you're working on a smaller project, touring or viewing the renovations should occur more frequently to ensure that small details aren't missed.
During tours, watch for signs that your contractor or tradespeople aren't caring for your space and be sure to ask for continual updates on what's going on with your project. If your contractor has any questions for you or important details to update you on, this also provides them with regular opportunities to do so.
Manage Availability of Materials
A major reason for construction delays is unavailable or delayed shipments of materials. These delays can sometimes be avoided by continually touching base with your contractor in regard to material availability. Make sure they have a plan in place to procure materials on schedule and that they're inspecting received goods for damage to avoid any long-term delays in your project.
If your contractor expresses issues with the procurement of materials, you can take it upon yourself to follow up with the retailer to discuss when it will become available and if the resulting delay is substantial, consider shopping with other retailers or using different materials that are available immediately.
Evaluating Change Orders
On nearly every project, changes will be required that are outside of the original project scope and cost. When this happens, your contractor might submit a change order to request authorization to complete the work as required. When change orders come in, be sure to evaluate them with the same duty of care as your estimates, contracts, and payment schedules. If applicable, conduct research to confirm that cost adjustments to your overall project cost are reasonable and necessary.
Concluding a Project
At the end of your project, it's important to inspect work thoroughly for quality issues and tasks that weren't carried out according to the project scope. As you do, create a punchlist, or a list of repairs and fixes that are needed, and provide it to your contractor before finalizing the project.
If you feel that the quality of work is lacking, consider hiring a home inspector to ensure the work was completed safely and according to building code. If building permits were needed to complete your project, you might also need an inspector to approve any work that's been done to comply with local laws.
Four Common Complaints When Working With Contractors and How To Avoid Them
Delays can be the fault of the contractor if they schedule work incorrectly or don't have the necessary manpower to get the job done according to plan. However, delays can sometimes be outside of your contractor's control due to issues such as weather, inspections, and material delays.
As the homeowner, it's imperative that you help your contractor to ensure that delayed materials don't hamper your project. Ultimately though, if you're finding that delays are the result of issues with your contractor's staff, it's important to remind the contractor of your agreed-upon schedule and ask them to come up with an immediate solution.
Poor Quality Work or Craftsmanship
In some cases, contractors might not complete work according to your expectations or according to building codes. When this happens and the quality of work is lacking, the best solution is often to cancel your contract with the contractor and look for someone who can meet your standards. If you find yourself in this position, be sure to vet future contractors thoroughly by asking to see work they've completed, contacting their references, and looking into past complaints that may have been filed against them.
It's not uncommon for a home remodeling project to run over budget. As a homeowner, you should expect that some surprises will arise and the contractor might be required to do some work that's outside of the original project scope. In preparation for these surprises, it's always wise to put aside an additional 10% to 20% over the total cost of your budget. That being said, some contractors do attempt to increase project costs dishonestly, so it's important to do your homework before agreeing to project changes.
Communication can be a huge issue between homeowners and contractors. As a homeowner, it's important to keep on top of your project and understand what's happening within your home, so it's reasonable to expect that your contractor will respond to questions and inquiries in a timely manner.
Of course, it's also important to understand that contractors are often handling large equipment and might be unable to answer calls immediately. As such, patience is important when awaiting a call back. If your contractor hasn't responded to your calls in a reasonable time frame, consider emailing them or contacting their company office staff. When all else fails, certified letters should be sent to your contractor prior to pursuing legal action.
How do I compare bids between different contractors?
Review outlined costs of individual materials, as well as labor. Ensure each bid contains the same information and that it's in line with the scope of work you provided to the contractor.
When do I need to hire a general contractor?
You should hire a general contractor when you have a relatively major project that cannot be handled by a handyman or a single trade contractor like an electrician or plumber.
Why do my contractors estimates vary so significantly even though the scope is the same?
This may be a result of contractors' varying understanding of the project scope or due to the challenge of the project itself. Alternatively, some contractors are more expensive than other contractors because they have a large staff and a significant marketing budget.
What questions should I ask a contractor when I'm interviewing them?
Questions about when they can start and how long they anticipate the project taking are a good place to start. You'll also want to inquire about who will be responsible for procuring materials, creating plans, obtaining permits, and cleaning up the job site.
Where can I check a contractor's license and insurance?
You can check the status of a contractor's license by contacting the state or local government body that issued their license. You can also ask your contractor for a copy of their insurance certificate or phone number for their insurance broker to confirm their policy.
How much should I budget for contingency or cost overruns?
You should anticipate your project will cost 10 to 20% more than the contractor’s estimate by the time you are completed.
How long should it take for a contractor to provide me an estimate?
In most cases, it shouldn't take longer than one week to provide an estimate unless there are special circumstances. Delays in obtaining estimates can occur when special materials need to be imported from overseas or when the scope of the project is unusually large.
Where can I research more about the cost of my project?
Research can usually be done online, but it can also be helpful to discuss your project with friends or family who've recently completed renovations. Additionally, you might want to consult local experts for help with research about typical costs and schedules for your project.
What can I do if a contractor took my money or a deposit and never showed up?
If the contractor is licensed by the state, file a complaint with the licensing board. Additionally, you can file a lawsuit in small claims court to recoup your deposit.
Paul is a partner at Greatbuildz, a free service that matches Southern California homeowners with quality, pre-screened renovation contractors and provides project support from start to finish.