Real Estate

How to avoid remodeling heartbreak

Early planning can ensure that you — and your contractor — know exactly what you’re getting into

You've probably heard it from every one of your friends who have done a home remodeling project, "It's going to take twice as long and cost twice as much as you expect." It's especially sad when homeowners pay for a full set of construction drawings and the bids come in at far more than they can afford. Now they are in the position of needing to significantly scale the project back, or abandoning the project altogether.

It doesn't have to be this way. An intelligent price check early on, along with some self-discipline, can help you avoid this heartbreak.

The typical process is that a novice homeowner will start by talking to a few contractors and describing their project, either with "arm-waving" or very crude sketches. Contractors, in a desire to be helpful — or just to get the project — offer optimistic estimates, one of which may be low enough to get the homeowner encouraged. Then the homeowner hires a designer or architect and proceeds to hop on, as one of my colleagues puts it, the Gotta Wanna Railway without looking back.

The best insurance for getting a project that is not over budget is to have a reasonably detailed set of concept drawings (architects call these schematic design drawings) with enough finish and product information on them so that a contractor can make a reasonable projection for budgeting. This price check needs to happen before you invest in full construction drawings.

It will usually cost something in design fees to get this "insurance," but it will be some of the best money that you spend on the project. And you're going to have to spend it anyway, at some point.

At a minimum, here's what should be in the drawings.

1. Plans that are detailed enough to show the location of rooms with accurate square footages, doors, windows, and generic finishes and fixtures. The contractor should be able to clearly understand the extent of the new work. Depending on the complexity of your project, you might need additional drawings such as a roof plan, exterior elevations, or cross-sections of the house.

Though you don't have to decide on every product now, you should make some preliminary choices to know, for example, that a room is going to have a hardwood or ceramic tile floor, approximately how many cabinets there will be, and any special structural considerations like beams, areas of vaulted ceilings, or otherwise tricky structural conditions.

2. Preliminary specifications that include generic material selections and allowances for fixtures that you know are realistic for your desired quality level. (An allowance is simply a financial placeholder that will get adjusted when final selections are made.) For example, if you are doing a high-end kitchen remodeling, your appliance allowance might be $30,000. For more modest kitchen, perhaps $10,000 is sufficient. This should be based on some preliminary shopping and product selections.

You should decide on allowances for plumbing fixtures, tile, flooring, door hardware, lighting fixtures, and cabinets. These allowances should be used by every contractor giving you a preliminary budget. If you let the contractor determine their own allowances, it will be very difficult to compare pricing between contractors.

Don't let finishes finish you

A basic rule is that if you don't specify something, it's the contractor's choice. Identifying seemingly picky items, however, can often avoid hundreds or even thousands of dollars of difference in budget prices, due to mistaken assumptions. A "builder's grade" brass door hinge might cost $3/hinge. The nice Baldwin brass hinge that you actually want might cost $23. Multiply 3 hinges per door times 10 doors, and you can see that you could be looking at $600 of misunderstanding on the door hinges alone.

Also, you will find that different contractors typically exclude different things from their budgets, such as appliances or light fixtures. If you are talking to several contractors, by giving them appropriate allowances, rather than letting them come up with them on their own, you will come closer to an apples-to-apples comparison.

If you are working with a design professional, such as an architect or interior designer, they can help you with all of this and have probably done it many times. Yes, this is more time, more work, more shopping, and more money than you may have anticipated at the beginning of your project, but it's really the only way to get accurate cost information before you are so far along that you can't get out of an overwhelming financial commitment.

With a preliminary estimate that you feel comfortable with, you can proceed with more detailed designs and construction drawings knowing that the final construction cost is likely to be in your ballpark. And one final tip; make sure that you have a contingency fund of approximately 15 to 20% over the initial preliminary budget, because that's the level of accuracy that a good preliminary budget has.

Richard Morrison, AIA (aka "The Kitchen Architect") is a residential architect and interior designer with a Bay Area practice specializing in home remodeling, and has well over 30 years of experience. His website is

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