Lessons Learned from a Home Remodel

We recently had some major renovations done in our home. These are some of the things we learned throughout the process.

Before & After

Living room and kitchen before remodel

Living room and kitchen after remodel

TV niche before remodel

TV niche after remodel

Background

We remodeled most of the downstairs level of our home including new kitchen cabinets & countertops (from IKEA), rebuilt the TV-niche area in our living room, added a few lighting upgrades, new toilet and vanity in the bathroom, and installed new flooring & baseboards throughout. Then, we painted everything.

Construction lasted about 2.5 months, and for 2 of those months we did not have a functioning kitchen at all.

We hired a general contractor, and almost all the work was done through the contractor.

On to the lessons!

Get bids from multiple contractors.

The difference in quality of bids from different contractors was amazing. We had one contractor come to the house for well over an hour doing various measurements, filling out notes with details about what we wanted, and confirming all sorts of details with us. Then, the received quote was a short summary, missing about half the project details, with fairly nonsensical pricing. We still have no idea how things fell apart from the visit to the quote, but we certainly didn’t go with that GC.

In the end we went with Pro.com, and we had a great GC experience.

Gather as much information as possible before you start your project.

If you’re reading this article then you’re already ahead of the game. The better prepared you are going into the project, the better the process will be for you, and the better the outcome. There are a million little details to every remodel project, and having some idea of what to expect will really help you feel comfortable and help you keep your project on schedule.

Search the web, read blog posts, and ask anyone you know who’s done a remodel about their experience and any tips they might have for you.

Tell your contractor every last detail about what you want done, even if you think it’s obvious.

Your contractor can’t read your mind, and doesn’t know that you want a subway tile backsplash unless you tell her. Don’t assume that the ceiling will be painted just because you’re asking to have the walls painted. If you want new wall plates around your switches and outlets, you’ll need to bring that up.

Everyone is trying to save money on their remodel, so contractors are used to people wanting upgrade as few things as possible. If you’re upgrading something, or even if you might want to upgrade something, let your contractor know. You can always pull something off the list later (assuming it hasn’t already been done). It’s a lot easier to pull something out of the schedule than to fit something new into it.

Ask your contractor for a list of decisions you need to make.

Once you’ve talked through the scope of your project with the contractor, ask your contractor for a list of decisions you’ll need to make. For us, it wasn’t always clear what we needed to have decided on. There are likely many decisions that someone needs to make, and you might not care about the topic (5.5” baseboard vs. 6”), but your contractor isn’t going to make a decision for you unless you ask them to. They’re on the hook for the work that is done, and they have to assume that you care deeply about every last bit.

Your contractor is (probably) not an architect.

If you’re building something new, or out of the ordinary, and you aren’t an architect yourself, don’t assume your contractor can fill in the gaps for you. Most contractors are familiar with traditional framing and construction techniques, and can help you with solutions in those categories, but if you want to go outside the box you’ll need to bring someone else in to help. Some GCs can refer you, some might have one in-house. But don’t assume that your GC will have a brilliant steel-and-glass solution for your new patio foyer.

Your contractor is (probably) not an interior designer.

It’s going to be up to you to pick colors, styles, and materials. Which means that you have to some research to find out what’s even possible.

Are you doing new baseboards? Do you want 3” , 4”, 5.5”, 6”? What sort of routing style do you want? What color do you want? Do you want corner cases?

What are my options? Is always a good question to ask your GC in a situation where you’re unsure.

Don’t be afraid to sleep on a decision.

A remodel is a big job. Ideally you’ll be living with the results for 10 years or more. If you’re not sure which baseboards you want, or which countertops, or if you want the brown flooring or the other brown flooring, sleep on it for a night or three. You won’t regret being confident in your decision a year down the road.

It’s really hard to live without a kitchen for 2 months.

If you’re having your kitchen remodeled, be prepared for a rough time, especially if you don’t have another sink nearby. We ended up using our old applianced outside on the patio for a month and a half, which made cooking meals... challenging.

Especially if you have young kids, be prepared to eat out a lot, or eat over with friends & family.

And anything you can do to setup a make-shift kitchen area while you’re waiting for your new one to be finished will be time well spent.

Living that patio kitchen life

Think about the project in terms of types-of-subcontractor-labor, not individual items or areas in your home.

Since you live in your home, it’s natural to think about it in terms of function or spaces. Over there is the coffee nook, that’s the TV area, and over there is the dining area. So naturally you might think of your remodel project in terms of those same spaces. Today we’ll do the TV area. Next week we’ll work on the kitchen. Week after that we’ll do the dining area. Construction isn’t like that, though.

Demo is demo wherever it is, and your contractor will want to do all of it at the same time. Same with framing. If you’re having a wall moved and having a built-in TV niche built in the same project, they’ll want to do all that work at the same time. The same thing goes with electrical, drywall, painting, flooring, etc.

So while you’re planning and thinking about your project, don’t think about the TV Area, think about demo, framing, electrical, plumbing, drywall, texture, flooring, finishing work, etc. across the whole project.

Take advantage of those all-at-once opportunities to keep your project as efficient as possible.

Expect to think of new ways to take advantage of the construction phase. These are the, “Well, while we’re in here we could just…” sort of things.

Are you going to have to have a crew in to drywall a new wall or major fix? Then you might as well fix that crack in the ceiling and add a new light fixture at the same time. Repairing an extra two square feet of ceiling drywall is going to be peanuts in the context of putting up a new wall.

If you have the walls and ceiling already opened, it’s probably not going to cost much more to have that 7.1 speaker wiring installed.

And if you’re going to have a plumber in all day anyway, you can probably get that extra faucet you wanted installed for the patio, on the other side of the kitchen wall.

You’re going to have to fight scope creep during the entire project.

While all those “while we’re here, we might as well” ideas are great, you do have to draw the line at some point. If you can define that line before your project starts it will really help when those decision moments pop up in the middle of a long week.

Having strangers in your house every day isn’t great.

All our subcontractors were great, and we were happy with their work. No one made us feel creepy, no one broke anything, no one stole anything. They all did great work and cleaned up after themselves.

Still, having strangers in your house day after day is exhausting, and the more you can do in advance to find ways to give yourself a reprieve from that (closing off private areas of your home, etc.) the better you’ll feel.

Home builders do some pretty awful work.

Nearly all the work we had done during the remodel was vastly superior to the sloppy work done by our home builder. The new framing is square and plumb, the electrical is clean and tidy (as is the plumbing), and the flooring is tight, neat, and solid.

Unless you’re remodeling a custom home (and even then) expect the work done on your remodel to be high-quality work, much better than the original construction.

Take before & after photos for yourself.

It’s really fun to be able to compare the new side-by-side with the old. After such a long project it can be hard to appreciate how much better your new work is. Take some before photos so you can revel in the finished project!

I also to a ton of photos during the project, which have served as a sort of project journal, reminding us of what the process was like.

Having tile removed is incredibly messy work.

Our original flooring was concrete tile, and it was astonishing to me how messy the demo was. We had the upstairs to our house sealed off with plastic, and an industrial fan running downstairs to pull the air through and outside quickly, and we still had dust everywhere. If you’re having tile removed you’ll want to be out of the house for that entire process (especially if you have young kids).

Despite all the hassle, we are thrilled with the results.

Everything came out wonderfully. We love our new kitchen and floors (especially our IKEA cabinets and countertops, which I’ll write about in more detail in another post), and we can’t imagine that our TV niche ever looked differently. Our remodel was a stressful and disruptive process, but it was absolutely worth it.

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