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How to Start Your Home Renovation

Design Plans

You’ve probably been thinking about your renovation for years, now how to actually begin? Start by knowing what you want. Spend some quality time with your household members and really define what you need in your home, write it all down. And then maybe some quality time with an accountant or financial planner to decide how much money you can spend.

Once you know what you want and what you can afford, should you call a contractor first or an architect?

I asked Walter Russell of Home Sweet Home Builders, a full-service construction company focusing on residential remodeling, based in Woburn, Mass.

Call either an architect or a contractor, he said. Soon enough, you’ll need both.

“As an architect, you go into a space and you look at the potential of it. As an expert, you know what might be possible and what might not be possible,” Walter told me. “And when I go into a space, I’m thinking budget – is this within their range?”

Ideally, you should bring the two together early in the project. “Without both, you won’t get an accurate representation of the project, either the scope or the cost.”

Set your scope

Whether you start with a contractor or an architect, it’s time to get a professional opinion about whether your hopes and dreams are realistic. An architect will work up a vision of what can be done and a scope of work, and then the contractor will be able to give a rough budget number based on that.

The scope of work also includes the methods to be used. For example, if you’re concerned with the environmental impact of your renovation, ask your potential contractor and architects if they’re knowledgeable and interested in working with you on sustainability.

Good designers and builders will listen to what you want, but also know how to explain to you the available options, including those that you might not be familiar with. Now’s the time to make sure you’re comfortable working with your architect and contractor, and if not, keep looking- there are many to choose from.

Set your budget

Your designer and your builder need you to be honest about how much money you have to spend.

“Without knowing what you can afford, we can’t really have a conversation,” Walter told me. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and money to start designing a project that’s going to be out of your price range. “Before they invest five, ten, fifteen, twenty thousand dollars into the process of building a plan set, they need to understand where this might take them” in terms of total cost”

If your contractor tells you that your dreams will be more expensive than you had dreamed they’d be, then it’s time to reconsider the scope.  You’ll need to reduce the scope or expand financing options.

Plan carefully

I’ve had clients who came in asking for a master suite and a new kitchen but then threw their whole wish list into the project, just to see what it would cost. But that’s a risky strategy. In my experience, it’s hard to cut things out of the scope once you’ve made them real by putting them on paper – or in three-dimensional renderings.

If you try to put everything you want into the plan when you know you can’t afford it, you’re probably setting yourself up for unnecessary disappointment.

You need a master plan that details what’s possible in the space and what the maximum scope of the project could be – what the house and your budget will allow. Having a realistic plan will also help you build a good relationship with your architect and contractor.

Walter said, “A lot of my initial questions when I meet a homeowner are about how prepared they are, how far along are they in the thought process. Do they have plans? If a customer has a plan set, I know that they’ve put the work in.”

Walk don’t run

“I think that the biggest mistake that homeowners and younger contractors get into is that they rush into projects, they don’t plan it through the planning and scheduling processes that need to happen,” Walter said.

No planning out your renovation is like not reading through a whole recipe before you start a new dish.   You’ll get halfway through before you realize you need six eggs that you don’t have. Then it will take all afternoon to make something that should have been much easier. Don’t take that risk on the much bigger scale of your home renovation.   Take your time and be sure you know what you’re doing before you begin.

To hear more of my conversation with Walter Russell, including some ballpark prices for common projects, and mistakes we’ve seen other people make, please check out the first episode of my renovation podcast Talking Home Renovations with the House Maven:

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