Before You Remodel Your Home

A Checklist for Your Remodeling Dreams

Man and woman standing in room under remodeling
Prepare for Remodeling and Renovations. Photo by Amy Eckert/Taxi/Getty Images

It all begins with a dream. Cathedral ceilings! Skylights! Room-sized closets! But, the dream may turn into a nightmare, unless you plan ahead. Before you remodel, follow these steps to get your home improvement project on the right start.

How to Remodel a House:

1. Draw Your Dream

Even before you consult an architect, you can begin sketching out your ideas and imagining your dreams—just get over the reasons not to remodel your home first.

If you are adding or expanding a room, think about how the space will be used and how the changes will affect traffic patterns. Also consider how new construction will affect the overall context of your home. An oversized addition may overwhelm your house or crowd a small lot. A simple home design software program can help you visualize your project.

2. Learn From Others

One of the best ways to get inspiration and to avoid pitfalls is to follow the experiences of other homeowners. A number of Web sites offer online chronicles of home improvement projects, along with reply forms, message boards, and chat rooms that let you ask questions and get feedback. Ask around about local networking in addition to these:

3. Think Ahead

Although you may dream of having a spacious new addition, the project may not make sense if you plan to sell your house in a few years. A luxury bathroom can price your house beyond the values in your neighborhood. Some projects, such as vinyl siding on a Queen Anne Victorian, will actually decrease the value of your home.

Moreover, your own family's needs may be very different in a few years. Will the plans you draw today fit your future?

4. Count Your Money

Even the best-laid budgets can go bust. Chances are, your remodeling project will cost more than you expect. Before you set your heart on high-end ceramic tile, find out how much you have to spend and make sure you have a cushion against cost overruns. For must-have items that could wipe out your savings account, explore home improvement loans and other financing options. If you own your home, a line of credit is often the best bet. Consider online borrowing from reputable companies that bring together small investors with borrowers. The Better Business Bureau reviews companies such as the Lending Club. Some people depend on crowdfunding, but you should know your comfort level and understand what you're getting into.

5. Choose your team

Unless you plan to take on the entire remodeling project by yourself, you'll need to hire helpers. Naturally, you'll want to make sure that the folks who work for you are qualified, licensed, and properly insured.

But, finding the best team for your remodeling project goes beyond a simple reference check. The architect who has won top awards may have a design vision very different from your own. If you have an older house, hire someone who knows the time period when your house was built; putting a finger on historical appropriateness is an undervalued skill. Use these resources to find the professionals you feel comfortable with.

6. Negotiate a Contract

Whether you plan a simple carpentry job or a major project requiring the services of an architect and a general contractor, misunderstandings can lead to disaster. Do not begin remodeling without a written contract. Make sure everyone agrees on the work that will be completed and how long it will take. Also be clear on the types of materials that will—and will not—be used.

7. Get Permissions

In most parts of the world, a legal permit is required before you make structural changes to your home. The building permit assures that the remodeling project meets local building codes and safety regulations. If you live in a historic district, the permit also assures that exterior changes to your home are in keeping with neighborhood guidelines. General contractors will usually take care of the paperwork, but small-time workers may not... and the permits become your responsibility.

8. Plan for Problems - Make Ground Rules

The larger the remodel job, the greater the chances are for frustrations. There will be equipment breakdowns, supply shortages, miscommunications, and delays. Draw up a few friendly rules for workers—tell them where they may park their trucks and store their equipment overnight. If concrete is involved, know where the leftover will be dumped. And, don't expect contractors to take care of your pets—the family dog and cat may be happier at a relative's summer camp. Also, take care of you and your family. Plan for ways you can indulge yourself when times become especially stressful. Schedule a day at a spa and reserve a night at a romantic bed and breakfast inn. You deserve it!

Why Remodel a House?

There's a difference between renovation and remodeling. Renovation is aligned with preservation and restoration—keeping up with repairs and the original intent of an historic house. The word itself means to make new again—re- + novus.

The root of remodeling is something different. It shows a dissatisfaction with the current "model," so you want to do it again, to change something. Too often people get involved in remodeling a house when what they really need to do is remodel themselves or a relationship. So you might want to ask yourself this: Why do you really want to remodel?

Many people have good reasons to make a change—life events (does someone now use a walker or wheelchair?), different circumstances (are the parents about to move in?), or preparation for the future (shouldn't we install a home elevator now, before we need it?). Some people just like change, and that's okay, too. The first step in any home remodeling, though, is to take a step back into self-reflection. Know why you're doing something before you make the plan how to do it. You might save yourself a bunch of money—and a relationship.

Good luck!