What I Wish I Knew Before I Renovated My Home

These tips will help demystify the home remodeling process.

Even if you are a devoted DIYer and own the best tool kits, home renovation projects can still be daunting. If I could go back in time and talk to my pre-renovation self, here's a sample of things I'd say: 1) Assume nothing. You may think it's obvious that refinishing the floors would include that little strip on the opposite side of the stair railing, but your flooring installer may disagree. 2) Do not crowdsource design decisions in your Instagram stories unless you are prepared to triple-guess everything. 3) Most projects will cost more than you expect. As my friend pointed out after redoing her kitchen, even Lisa Vanderpump had to think about her remodeling budget—and she was on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

If you're planning (or just dreaming about) a closet, room, or whole-house renovation, heed this word-to-the-wise advice from homeowners who've already been through it before you start pulling out the tape measure, so you can pull off a savvy, remorse-proof redo.

Your Budget

Homeowners often underestimate the cost of updates. "We discovered that renovating a small kitchen in our area costs at least $30,000," says Lindsay from Arlington, Va., who ended up having to take out a second loan to pay for repairs to her recently purchased ranch.

Ask for an estimate—not a textimate.

Andrew is in sales, so he knows the importance of written estimates. His wife, Melissa, assumed that texts counted when they were redoing their deck in Austin, Texas. "I thought we'd be OK," she says. "Famous last words." The foreman for a demo crew gave her an estimate via text. On the day of the work, the company owner asked for $1,000 more. While the couple ultimately didn't pay it, the rest of the day was tense between them and the workers.

Factor in the price of temporary housing.

During their whole-house renovation in Piedmont, California, Etienne's family stayed in a friend's guesthouse for five months and then had to move into an inconvenient Airbnb rental. Remember, too, that if you lose access to your kitchen, you might have to spend more on takeout and restaurant meals.

Your Crew

Hire a general contractor rather than individual installers.

For her mudroom remodel, Lindsay started by parceling out projects to pros affiliated with the big-box stores where she bought the supplies. But she found that they often couldn't problem-solve: When the tile installer discovered the floor wasn't level, he simply left. General contractors know how to troubleshoot and coordinate with a variety of tradespeople—so a carpenter would level the floor, and then a tiler would go in.

Work with a designer to avoid decision fatigue.

Don't get bogged down by small choices, Etienne says. If you're super indecisive, consider getting a designer's help, and request to be presented with just three options to choose from.

Think about bringing in an architect.

When Jennie and her husband decided to update their New York City condo's awkward galley kitchen, they couldn't figure out how to make it flow into the adjacent rooms. "Our indecision dragged on for months until my friend recommended an architect she knew. I'd thought the job would be too small, but she said she likes solving that kind of problem and being brought in for just one room." The architect sketched a plan within days.

Lock in the best contractor for the job—even if patience is required.

Landscape architects are often design-and-build firms. You pay for the plan and then also pay for the construction and planting. Due to a scheduling conflict, Andrew and Melissa's deck designer couldn't execute the build for a few months. Rather than wait, the couple jobbed it out to get it done ASAP. "If we'd hired the landscape architects when we liked their plan, we could've saved a lot of hassle, stress, marital tension, and months of living without stairs on any of the entrances to our home," Melissa says.

Specialty materials require specialty install.

When Catherine added a small en suite bath—just 40 square feet—to her principal bedroom in Hastings, N.Y., she splurged on Moroccan floor tile, which came with very specific installation instructions. "My contractor promised he knew how to work with them," she recalls. "I should have been pushier because he didn't—he never even opened the instructions. So if you really look, you can see where the tiles are imperfect."


Limit the places you shop.

To stave off decision overload—and stick to her budget—Lindsay only let herself browse for fixtures and finishes from brands she'd ordered from (and liked) before. For lights, that was Cedar & Moss, and tiles came from TileBar. Her tight budget actually helped hasten her decision-making: "I looked at it as a positive because it automatically narrowed my choices."

See and touch materials in person.

Don't rely on internet images when purchasing supplies. Request samples or swatches for everything—from fabric to flooring to landscape materials. Melissa ordered the wrong gravel because an image of crushed granite looked too large online, so she went with one size smaller. It turned out to resemble sandy dirt, which becomes mud when it rains.

Splurge on high-visibility everyday items.

Etienne chose the budget option for kitchen counters but regrets not springing for the Corian she had in her previous home. "The quartz cost half as much—but that doesn't account for how, every single day, I wish I could change them."

Your Space.

Mock-up built-ins in 3D.

Just as her kitchen cabinet order was being finalized, Etienne wanted to add an L-shaped bar. To show her how little space they had to work with—and how uncomfortable a bar would be in the room—her architect made one out of tape and furniture so she could fully visualize (and veto) it.

Know that upstairs plumbing affects downstairs walls.

Catherine's new second-floor bathroom didn't stack directly on top of the downstairs powder room, so her contractor had to run thin water lines inside the wall—and a thicker drain pipe outside the wall. "They did drywall it in, but it's about a 6-by-6-inch square that bites into my mudroom," she says. Be prepared to make necessary adjustments.

Don't be too kid friendly.

Keep in mind how quickly your kids will outgrow almost everything, Etienne says. Avoid designing spaces for littles: Get the $20 step stool, not the low bathroom sink that will cost $500 to reposition in a couple of years.

Think outside the box for doors.

Catherine's favorite part of her bedroom redo is the little walk-in closet, where she maximized every cubic inch with California Closets. For a more dramatic effect than typical closet doors, as well as easier access, she went with floor-to-ceiling patterned drapes. "It looks like art on the wall," she says.

Remember: It's your space, not the next owner's.

When Rory and Jeremy did laundry in the low-ceilinged basement in their Brooklyn, N.Y., home, they had to hold their heads at 90-degree angles to avoid smacking their foreheads on joists. The only place it made (affordable) sense to relocate the laundry to was the bathroom. And in order to make room for a stacked unit, they'd need to trade the house's only tub for a shower. "Everyone says that a house needs at least one tub— for resale, for potential buyers with little kids. But I do laundry twice a week, and heaven knows the last time anyone took a bath," Rory says. "Bucking convention and giving up the tub was a no-brainer if it meant easy access to the washer and dryer."

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