Advice from the designers behind the 2021 Real Simple Home that will make or break your next renovation project.

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Front entrance of Real Simple Home
Credit: CHRISTOPHER TESTANI

The 2021 Real Simple Home was our fourth annual idea home, but our very first down-to-the-studs home renovation project. Collaborating with Gialluisi Custom Homes, we gut renovated a 1902 Victorian in Westfield, N.J., and then worked with professional interior designers to make over each room. With so many design choices to make along the way, it's easy to feel some decision fatigue when remodeling, while also worrying you might make a mistake you'll regret later. Luckily, we had a team of experts to guide us through every step of the way. Here, the pros share their best renovation advice—plus the top mistakes to avoid—so you can stress less and focus on building your dream home.

DO think about your family's lifestyle.

"When considering renovation, my best advice to you is to think about the people in your home and how you would like the spaces to function," says interior designer Natalie Papier. The goal should be to increase your home's efficiency and functionality—then, once you have that figured out, think about the aesthetics of the space.

DON'T lose the forest for the trees.

"Some people don't approach renovations as a whole," warns designer Eduardo Rodriguez. "At times, they just focus on particular rooms without having a clear vision of the whole project. The first thing to do is to have a cohesive concept for the project before embarking on the renovation so that look and feel is carried out through the whole house." Even if you're tackling the project room-by-room to space out the expenses over time, begin with an overall design plan for the entire house so rooms don't start to feel disjointed as the project continues.

DO shop around for the right contractor.

"One of the hardest things about doing a remodel is finding the right contractor who's going to make their dream a reality," says Rodriguez. "I always recommend getting a few estimates before narrowing it down to one person. But most importantly, don't be afraid to ask all the questions you might have before making the decision." Especially if you're renovating an entire house, you'll be working with this person for several months (at least!) during what is typically a stressful transition for many families. Make sure you shop around for the best price, as well as the person who matches your work style and understands the overall vision for the space.

DON'T underestimate the cost.

"From my experience with renovations, people always underestimate how much things really cost," says Anthony Vavrica, a project manager with Gialluisi Custom Homes, who oversaw the renovation of the 2021 Real Simple Home. "Especially in these times when materials are super expensive," he adds. When the cost of certain common building materials, like lumber, is high, it will affect the overall cost of the renovation. During a time when the market is particularly volatile, the estimated project cost from six months ago may now look very different. It's a good idea to budget for at least 20 percent above the estimated cost and check in regularly about changes to avoid surprises.

DO work with what you've got.

"The more you can work around the existing conditions, the better," recommends designer Raili Clasen. Clasen experienced this first-hand while designing the multi-purpose basement in the Real Simple Home. "We wanted a fun light installation over the media area, but the ceilings were so low, so we had to come up with other design details. Being flexible to come up with other creative ideas instead of trying to change heights of ceilings will make for a smooth remodel."

DON'T just follow Instagram and Pinterest.

"From magazines, to social media, to Pinterest, and elsewhere, there is so much 'inspiration' that can influence our design decisions," says Keyanna Bowen, an interiors photographer and design blogger. "So when designing your home or defining your style, I think it's important to sometimes step away from external sources and find inspiration within yourself to ensure that you are curating something that looks and feels truly unique and special to you."

DO prioritize necessary projects.

"Do the most necessary upgrades first, and then the least over time," advises Vavrica. That way, you can be sure the most necessary home updates are covered in time and before your budget runs out. "Homeownership is a marathon not a race," he remind us. Once you have your bases covered in terms of the safety and security of your home, take your time on the more cosmetic upgrades to design a home you love.