11 biggest remodeling mistakes

Some homeowners get so excited about remodeling jobs that they don’t think through the process.

Focused on the end result, they jump into the project and make major mistakes like choosing a contractor simply because he's the cheapest, hiring someone who doesn’t specialize in the work they’re having done or trying to oversee the job themselves to save money.

Other homeowners let fear stop them from undertaking the projects that would make their homes more beautiful, more comfortable and more enjoyable places to live.

They wonder, even if the job goes well, will the months or years of savings they’ll spend really improve their home’s value?

Regardless of which category you fall into, our expert tips will help you avoid the biggest remodeling mistakes. We want you to proceed with confidence and get a successful result.

1. Not knowing your DIY limits

Home improvement shows love to glorify doing it yourself as a way to save money and achieve a sense of satisfaction.

The truth is, you might be better off hiring professionals. The cost to hire someone may be less than what your lost time is worth, and if you do a poor job, you may end up hiring a professional anyway to fix your mistakes.

Jamie Curtis, a writer and publicist in Columbus, Ohio, has spent the last 10 years remodeling homes with her husband. She documents their projects at LivingtheDreamHouse.com.

She says a rookie mistake that even veteran remodelers make is overestimating their DIY abilities.

"Be realistic about your time constraints, especially if you have children," she says.

That being said, there are several DIY projects Curtis says most homeowners can do if they have time and patience. These include demolition work, wallpaper removal, painting, replacing hardware and light fixtures, and refinishing woodwork or cabinetry.

2. Ignoring local building codes

Building codes vary by locality, and while most routine maintenance items don’t require permits, remodeling changes often do.

You might not know that you need permits for jobs like adding a bedroom, replacing a window or modifying plumbing, or that while your friend in the next town was able to redo her driveway without a permit, your town requires one.

Proceeding without the right permits could result in fines, delays, problems selling your house or even having to redo your project.

To get those permits — and many jobs require several — you’ll have to meet your city’s requirements for safe design and construction.

Even a small bathroom remodel requires permits in San Francisco, where interior designer Katie Anderson is based, and these can’t be obtained without construction drawings, she says.

Unless you are working with a design-build firm, you will need a designer or architect to create those drawings, because contractors do not draft plans.

Doing the work yourself? DIY jobs require permits, too.

3. Failing to make a realistic budget

Remodeling always costs more than you initially expect, especially if you’re not familiar with all the things that might go wrong.

Consulting with a professional before starting work will help you plan for contingencies and account for unexpected items like rewiring a kitchen that’s not up to code.

Older homes and larger jobs are more likely to have hidden expenses, as are projects involving plumbing, electrical or other work that is hidden behind existing walls or infrastructure. There could be mold, leaks, corroded pipes, termite damage, fire hazards or asbestos.

Even the best contractor won’t always be able to identify these potential problems before work begins, so don’t assume the contract’s cost is what you’re going to pay.

Expect to spend 10% to 15% beyond that amount. If you can’t afford the higher, more realistic price, scale back the work, downgrade the materials or keep saving.

Any changes to the job once it’s underway should be added to your written contract and described in the same detail as the original work.

4. Expecting your project to pay for itself

Don’t expect your home’s value to increase by the amount you spend on the project, and you won’t be disappointed.

Remodeling projects almost never pay for themselves, let alone make money when you sell your home, says Remodeling Magazine’s Cost vs. Value Report.

You’ll recoup more of your costs if you keep your project in line with what’s standard for your neighborhood. Resist the temptation to overimprove.

The projects with the highest returns — replacing your front door with a mid-range steel door, replacing your siding with fiber-cement siding and adding a wooden deck — still recoup no more than 85% of remodeling costs when the home is sold.

If selling is your main concern, fix any maintenance problems before you remodel. Buyers don’t want to spend money replacing missing shingles or repairing leaky faucets. If your home is seriously outdated, modernization projects might help it sell faster, even if you don’t recoup all your expenses.

5. Playing general contractor to save money

It’s tempting to act as your own construction manager and general contractor on a remodeling project and to choose individual contractors for each trade.

But while you could save 10% of the project cost up front, the work might be poorly coordinated, take longer and have cost overruns, says John A. Salat, a licensed architect in Orange County, Calif. You also have to factor in the cost of your own time and energy.

A better system is to first hire an architect, then hire a general contractor who subcontracts work out to specialists. Subcontractors have a greater incentive to do their best work under a general contractor because it means getting repeat business, Salat says.

The architect’s designs incur an extra cost, but they help you get competing bids from different contractors, lowering construction costs and the overall project cost. The architect can also serve as a construction manager and oversee your general contractor, and has an expert eye for spotting mistakes. You don’t.

6. Not using a designer

If you want your remodeling project to look polished and professional, you need a designer as well as an architect and general contractor.

"Contractors are not designers," says Katie Anderson, an interior designer in San Francisco. You need a good design to get an aesthetically pleasing and lasting solution to a problem.

The training and skill set for these two professions is quite different, Anderson explains. A designer has a more artistic eye, will explore the use of unusual materials, and will create a more unique and interesting result with colors and scale that are perfectly balanced and that complement the home’s architectural style.

While contractors are great technicians, Anderson says, they are more likely to think of how easily they can build or install something using familiar materials and processes, instead of thinking about the most attractive options. Contractors usually don’t have design training.

"A designer can see potential issues with the design a homeowner comes up with and can offer better solutions because of their design education and working experience," she says.

7. Failing to vet your contractor

Any contractor you hire should be licensed and in good standing. You don’t want them doing a shoddy job that looks bad and can make your home dangerous.

Contractors should have worker’s compensation insurance and liability insurance. Without insurance, an injured worker might sue you since they can’t rely on their employer for help with medical bills and lost wages.

Contractors should also have a surety bond, which guarantees that they will follow the law and gives you financial recourse if they don’t.

You can check a contractor’s license, insurance and bonding through your state contractors’ licensing board; call or check the website. The board can also tell you if anyone has filed a complaint about or claim against the contractor.

Ask the contractor for references, and call those clients to ask how responsive the contractor was, whether he stuck to the schedule and budget and how he handled any problems.

Also check Angie’s List, Yelp and the Better Business Bureau for both positive reviews and complaints

8. Choosing the wrong type of contractor

Don’t take a chance on getting ripped off and having to hire a new contractor two-thirds of the way through a botched job because the guy you thought was a licensed electrician is really a carpenter.

A contractor who is licensed to construct anything but who doesn’t specialize in anything is the wrong choice for your remodeling job, says Cynthia Ponce, co-owner with her husband of Ponce Construction, a residential pool and landscape design and installation company in Orange County, Calif.

For example, if you were hiring a pool contractor in California, you’d want to see that they had a C-53 license for pools and spas, not just a B-general license.

The recession left many contractors desperate for any kind of job, leading some to tell unsuspecting homeowners that they can do jobs they really can’t.

9. Choosing your contractor based just on price

It’s understandable that you’d want to choose the contractor who gives you the lowest bid. With your plans and design fleshed out, aren’t you just hiring labor?

"Homeowners look at price as the primary differentiator and tend to assume that everyone will provide the same quality, level of service, turnaround time and the same set of specifications," says Barry Miller, president of Simply Baths & Showcase Kitchens, a design-build remodeling company in Monroe, Conn.

But you can't know if you're comparing bids for a similar scope of work unless you give a detailed list of project specifications to each prospective contractor.

Your specifications should include the following:

  • Project summary.
  • Architect’s plans.
  • Designer’s plans.
  • Start and finish dates.
  • Details for each trade. For example, a paint job should specify the paint grade, number of coats and color, Miller says.
  • Special parameters. Miller says that it’s important to let contractors know about factors that might complicate the job, such as a family member with asthma or your homeowner’s association’s limits on work hours and days.

10. Starting work without a contract and a plan

After choosing a contractor, it’s time to flesh out your specifications into a detailed, written contract that you and your contractor will sign. It should thoroughly describe the scope of work, the materials to be used, cleanup and debris removal, the total price and the payment schedule.

You should also develop a plan for the order in which the work will be done, especially on larger jobs, says Charlotte, N.C.-based designer DeAnna Radaj, owner of Bante Design.

For example, you wouldn’t want to paint before having electrical work done, which might require opening up walls, and you wouldn’t want to put in new flooring before you paint, because paint could drip onto your new carpet or hardwoods.

Deciding what order you will do the work in also helps you do projects in chunks as your budget allows, Radaj says.

Make sure to update the contract anytime your plan changes.

Giving a contractor a large sum up front

It wouldn’t be difficult for an unscrupulous contractor to convince you to write a large check before work begins. After all, he has to buy materials, and he’s going to set aside a number of days for your project. If you cancel, he’ll have no work and no income.

11. Don’t believe it.

"Time and time again, we've gotten calls from homeowners who claim they gave 50% to their contractor and now they can't get ahold of him or her," says Cynthia Ponce, co-owner of Ponce Construction, a residential pool and landscape design and installation company in Orange County, Calif.

As the story unfolds, the homeowner finds out the contractor has skipped town or isn’t licensed to do the work agreed to. Check with your state’s contractors’ licensing board for rules about the maximum deposit a contractor can ask for.

In California, for example, contractors can only ask for 10% of the contract or $1,000, whichever is less, unless they have a blanket performance and payment bond on file with the licensing board.


This article originally appeared on Interest.com.

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