Home Remodeling: Making a Great Before & After

Home | Home Remodeling: Making a Great Before & After

By Kelly McCall Branson

You have the perfect house – well, nearly perfect. Maybe it’s the super neighborhood or the great location, the architectural charm of another era or just a sentimental attachment; fundamentally, this house is the place for you. It just needs some massaging — a little extra room, a more open flow, some updating to the 21st century — to make it truly the home of your dreams. Are you ready for the home remodeling plunge? You’ve heard the horror stories of renovations gone awry, the rooms that didn’t quite match up, the contractor who dropped from sight, the unrealistic schedules abandoned, and the costs that spiraled out of control. Is it possible to enter the world of remodeling and come out not only intact, but with the custom-tailored home you have in your mind’s eye? The answer is indeed a resounding YES! Following a few rules of the road can help ensure your “before-and-after” is picture perfect.

You are in good company in your quest to transform a less-than-perfect house into your dream home. Last year, Americans spent more than $130 billion remodeling and renovating their homes. That’s the largest volume since the housing downturn began in 2007. The National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) estimates that kitchen remodels offer one of the highest rates of return on your investment—sometimes more than 100%. Basement and attic finishing and bathroom and family room additions are also generally a good investment.

A general rule of thumb when it comes to kitchen remodels is to stick within 15% of the total value of your home, but recouping your expenses, while certainly a concern, should not be your primary focus. “One of the first questions we ask a homeowner,” says Catherine Dobbins, co-owner of Wake Remodeling, “is, ‘Is this your forever home, or just your home for a few years?’ And, ‘How will you be using this space?’” The intrinsic value of high-end appliances for an avid home cook or an elaborate outdoor living space for a family that truly lives outdoors should always be weighed against the dollars-and-cents calculation of return on investment. Experts agree that the driving force behind any major remodeling or renovation project should be the homeowner’s enjoyment. Your goal here is to make your house more functional, more efficient, more beautiful, for you to live in.

Thinking Things Through

Before you get the professionals involved, it is important that you define what it is you are hoping to accomplish with this remodel. Do you want to modernize the look of the house? Do the systems of the house need updating (heating and air conditioning, plumbing, electrical)? What are your reasons for wanting more space? How will you use that space? Will some cosmetic sprucing up accomplish your goals, or do you require a major gut-and-rebuild?

After you’ve created a wish list, it is a good idea to refine it. Dividing items into “must-have,” “really-want” and “would-be-nice” categories. And don’t forget an “under-no-circumstances” list, to include such prohibitions as not wanting to block a particular view or not wanting to use vinyl siding. Identifying caveats can be just as important as expressing desires.  

Bring in a Pro

Now that you’ve defined your goals, it’s time to bring a contractor into the process. Choosing the right professional can be the single biggest factor influencing the final outcome of your project. Your area Remodelers Council, under the auspices of the Home Builders Association (HBA), provides a referral service that can be invaluable in selecting a qualified professional. Membership in the Remodelers Council requires, in addition to a contractor’s license, experience in remodeling and adherence to a strict code of ethics. The Council can identify area contractors who have earned the Certified Graduate Remodeler (CGR) designation and also areas of specialty—whole-house additions, kitchens, room additions, etc. “We recommend homeowners ask potential contractors if they have any special designations, like certification for Aging in Place,” says Wake Remodeling’s Dobbins. The National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) likewise offers referrals to reputable remodelers in your area.

After your initial screening, take the time to thoroughly interview prospective contractors beyond “When can you start?” “When will you be finished?” and “How much will it cost?” (see Ten Questions to Ask a Contractor). Ask to see samples of previous work, and talk to several of the contractor’s references (see What to Ask a Reference). This is your best insurance against unqualified or unscrupulous builders.

A qualified contractor should not only have experience in the kind of work you are planning, but also a track record of careful budgeting and bidding, accurate scheduling and attention to detail. You might gain valuable insight into the kind of work your contractor will do by observing how thorough his or her estimating and bidding process is.

Once you’ve settled on a contractor, careful and thorough planning is vital to a smooth project. “We like to have all the fine details worked out before we swing the first hammer,” says Dobbins. While you might be anxious to get the job started, most remodeling projects are a bit like dominos, with one component affecting the next and so on and so on. Time spent up front getting all those components squarely in place will go a long way in preventing snarl ups and delays.

And don’t forget — planning for how you will live while the work is going on is just as important as ironing out all of the design details and selecting your appliances or cabinet finishes. If you’re doing a kitchen remodel, how will you cook and store food for the next six to eight weeks? “We actually have a crock pot and toaster oven we will lend to people setting up a temporary kitchen,” says Dobbins.

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Ten Questions to Ask a Contractor

  • Are you licensed and insured in the state of North Carolina? (Ask for proof of general liability and workers compensation coverage.)
  • How long have you been in business?
  • What special designations or experience do you have? Are you a member of NARI or an HBA?
  • Can you provide written references that I may contact?
  • Will you apply for the appropriate permits from the local building department?
  • Who will be supervising the work, yourself or a project manager or foreman?
  • How will you keep me informed of scheduling and progress?
  • How will you handle cleanup, both during and at the end of the project?
  • Is your work guaranteed or does it have a warranty? For how long?
  • How are payments handled? (Be wary of any deposit requirement greater than 20% of the job.)

What to Ask a Reference

  • Were you pleased with the quality of the work?
  • Did you find the remodeler’s business practices professional, ethical, honest, and fair?
  • Were the contract specifications thorough enough to minimize change orders?
  • Did the remodeler communicate adequately throughout the project?
  • Was work done as scheduled?
  • Were you comfortable with subcontractors and trades people who worked on the project?
  • Were the final details completed in a timely manner?
  • How did the remodeler handle any issues that arose during (or after) the project?
  • Would you use this remodeler again without hesitation?