Cost-Effective Home Upgrades: Planning Home Improvements: Time for Action

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Now that your master plan is finished, it’s time to get to work. Sticking to the priorities you’ve established and following the master plan will ensure that the most important and financially sensible jobs get done first.

Creating Specifications and Building Plans

You will use the master plan to create exact project specifications and a set of plans.

Specifications are important because the price and quality of products such as doors, windows, floor coverings, and faucets vary widely. It is important to find out why price differences exist (usually because of differences in quality and the number of features), decide on what is important for your purposes, figure out how the products will fit into the final project, and select a specific manufacturer and model for each product.

This is where knowledge of home improvements becomes extremely valuable, especially for large projects. You can hire architects, designers, and design-and-build remodeling contractors to create specifications from scratch, but this can be expensive. By performing the basic investigation yourself and making eliminations and selections before meeting with a professional, you can save a lot of money. If you plan on doing the project yourself, the same sort of investigation is essential.

The first step in creating a list of product specifications is to gather information, such as brochures, about different products. Then make the specification list, including such information as make, model, color, style, texture, size, and so forth. This list can then be used by an architect or a designer— or by you if this is a do-it- yourself project—to produce a set of detailed building plans. A complete set of building plans is especially crucial on all large projects, regardless of who will perform the work.

Using Resources

A wealth of information exists on home-improvement and remodeling projects. The library is a good source of free information from both books and magazines. Well-stocked bookstores will likely have dozens of illustrated home remodeling publications. There are many fine publications and web sites—some encyclopedic in their approach, others concentrated on specific areas, such as tile, kitchen remodeling, and so on. Numerous home-improvement magazines exist; some emphasize design, others construction and technique. A variety of residential building and decorating magazines is widely available in supermarkets and drug stores. Cost-estimating guides can also be useful; look for them in the local library or ask a contractor if you can borrow some. Most construction and remodeling trade associations produce a variety of informational booklets with tips de signed to help you get the most for your remodeling dollar. There are also several building schools around the country where you can learn how to build or remodel your home.

Doing It Yourself

For many homeowners, the first, and seemingly the least expensive, option for a home- improvement project is to do the job themselves. This works best on small- and medium- sized improvements, but if you enjoy working on your home, and you have the necessary skills or the time to learn them, it's possible to do even large projects yourself.

Be aware, however, that there is no guarantee that doing a large project yourself will save money, especially when you apply a dollar value to your time. If you do decide to undertake a large project your self, be sure that you are willing to perform a great deal of physical work and that you have the self-discipline to plug away at the job, no matter how long it takes.

Unlike small remodeling projects, which can be completed in a weekend, bigger jobs can take weeks or even months to complete. As such, they require careful planning to avoid delays and to minimize disruption in your life. It may be helpful to think of the project as a second job: Set a work schedule and stick to it.

Even if you work at it faith fully, a large do-it-yourself project can take much longer than if you hired professionals. For most working people, the only time available for do-it- yourself projects is in the evenings and on weekends, and in a typical workweek that doesn’t add up to very many hours. It’s important to know, too, that building inspectors and most suppliers work regular business hours, and so someone will have to be home during the day when they are expected.

A less time-consuming option is to perform only parts of the large projects yourself and to hire professionals to do the rest. The following are a few tips if you choose that alternative.

+ Do the work of the highest-paid construction professionals (usually electricians and plumbers) if you have the skills.

+ Do labor-intensive and costly jobs, such as hanging wall board, insulating, and painting.

+ Do general labor, such as demolition, daily cleanup, and refuse and materials hauling.

You can also act as your own general contractor and hire sub contractors—carpenters, plumbers, electricians, wallboard finishers, cabinet installers, painters, tilers, and so on. Acting as your own general con tractor is a big job that's loaded with responsibility. You must be well organized, persistent, and clear about the details of the project. You must be available to spend hours on the telephone and on the job site. You must be comfortable negotiating with subcontractors and suppliers. You must be articulate, firm, d patient, and be willing to -ay out of the way and , when appropriate, get involved. You must be skilled in handling money, and you must make payments promptly and keep a budget. You are responsible for reporting the wages of salaried workers to the IRS, withholding state and federal taxes, and paying the employer’s share of those taxes. You must also carry workers’ compensation insurance.

As general contractor, you are responsible for the schedule. It is the key to a successful job subcontractors depend on it. If the job isn’t ready for their part when scheduled, subcontractors must reschedule. It could be days or weeks before they are able to come back, sometimes at extra cost. And that delay can scramble the project schedule even further. Yet in every project delays are to be expected, and as the general contractor you must stay on top of them, adjust the schedule, and inform the sub contractors as far in advance as possible.

If you decide to be your own general contractor, it's wise to add 20 percent to the project budget as a contingency. For example, if you expect the project to cost $68,000, plan on reserving an extra $11,000 to cover unforeseen costs and in experience. Contractors usually allot 10 percent for this purpose, and even experienced contractors sometimes find that 10 percent is insufficient.


A former narrow kitchen was given a feeling of spaciousness and light with the addition of skylights and an island divider to replace the previous wall between the kitchen and family room. The tongue-and-groove ceiling in the family room has been retained; upgrades in the remodeled kitchen include a new tile back splash and random plank oak flooring.

Hiring a Building Team

For most people, the best way to make home improvements that are cost-effective and to spend money wisely is to hire professional help, especially for large projects or those they don’t feel comfortable doing themselves. In the long run, hiring a professional can often save money, as well as time and the aggravation of living with partially completed do-it- yourself projects. The key is to find an honest, reliable professional. The time you spend locating one can be the deciding factor in whether this option is cost-effective. A little detective work, some common sense, and a few simple guidelines will help you to compile a list of good-quality professionals from which to choose. The following sections describe how to choose the potential members of the building team.

Selecting an Architect or a Designer

Many architects and designers are specialists in remodeling, which is different from new construction and takes specific design talent. The best way to select this member of the team is to look at examples of his or her work and talk to past clients. A reputable professional will be happy to provide the necessary addresses and telephone numbers. It is also important to talk to several current references who have had a similar type of project designed. Some professionals may be good at interior design but less successful on exterior alterations.

Architects must pass an exam to be registered in the state in which they work. In addition, they may be registered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. Registered architects may also be members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Designers handle work similar to that of architects, but they can't call themselves architects because they have not been licensed or registered by the agencies previously mentioned. Designers are generally less expensive to hire than architects and are often used for projects such as small room additions and kitchen and bathroom remodeling projects.

Because many building agencies require that an architect or a structural engineer approve the plans submitted for building permits, when designers are hired to create plans that involve structural changes, they must hire an architect or a structural engineer to stamp the plans with their registered seal. This is perfectly acceptable. In many cases, especially large projects, licensed architects are also required to have their work approved or structurally designed by a licensed civil or structural engineer.

Most of the rules that apply to hiring a contractor can be used to find a good architect or designer. See below.

Selecting an Interior Designer

Interior designers deal more closely with furnishings, deco rations, color, and style than architects or designers. You can hire an interior designer individually or in conjunction with an architect. Better designers are registered by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) or the International Society of Interior Designers (ISID).


Sliding French doors opening onto a new brick patio add charm and appeal to this older home. The chair rail with wallpaper below it was added to enhance the traditional look.

Selecting a Remodeling Contractor

An increasingly popular alter native to hiring an architect or a designer is to seek the assistance of a design-and-build remodeling contractor, or a design-and-build team (an architect or a designer and a remodeling contractor who regularly work together). In a team, the designer or architect works with design features such as light, ventilation, and traffic flow, whereas the remodeling contractor provides input about mechanical difficulties and other construction-specific details, current costs, and product availability.

There is a difference between a remodeling contractor and other types of general con tractors. Remodeling contractors specialize in renovating existing structures, generally ones where people are living. Therefore, the remodeling contractor must be highly skilled in communicating what’s happening as each event occurs. The remodeler must also be skilled in dealing with older types of construction as well as current building methods and codes and approved methods of conversion. General contractors who build custom homes and subdivisions are not trained to deal with older building methods, and are usually not experienced in performing construction when people are living in the house while the work is being done.

Your project will be more pleasant for everyone involved if the remodeling contractor you select is skilled in business, is familiar with and follows the law, and knows how to give a fair and correct price. A careful search for a professional can help you avoid incompetent, unprofessional contractors. The following checklist will help you select a reputable remodeling contractor.

+ Verify the name, address, and telephone number of the contractor. If the address given is a post office box, the contractor may be hiding the actual business location.

+ Ask for financial data and references. It is wise to get the same information from a remodeling contractor that a bank would need to process and approve a loan for a prospective borrower. One excellent way to get this information is to ask a local bank for a credit application form and have the contractor fill it out. Then check all the references, including suppliers, subcontractors, and past customers.

It’s important to make sure that the remodeling contractor you select is financially solvent. Lien laws in many states may eave the homeowner responsible for paying the subcontractors if the contractor fails to do so, even if the homeowner has already paid the contractor for the work.

+ Ask for the names and telephone numbers of past and current customers for whom the contractor has performed similar work, and call them to see if they were satisfied with their projects. It is also wise to visit several of the remodeling contractor’s completed jobs. A telephone opinion may suffice, but seeing is believing.

+ Make sure that the contractor is licensed (where required), carries liability and workers’ compensation insurance, and is bonded. Get copies of all license, insurance, and bonding certificates. Verify the current standing of the remodeling contractor with the issuing agencies. A call to the Better Business Bureau in your area can also help you deter mine whether the contractor is in good standing. (Check the Internet or phone book for the number.)

+ Comparison-shop by obtaining two or three bids for the project. Bids will usually vary by as much as 8 to 12 percent between reputable remodeling contractors. When the range is greater than that, be extra cautious. Usually, low bidders have omitted something, are using faulty estimating techniques, are planning to take shortcuts, are working with poorly detailed plans, or don’t have experience in bidding on your type of job. They may also be bidding low to get the job, planning to tack on an increase during the project. A tip: If anything doesn’t make sense, ask the contractor to explain it.

+ Don’t automatically choose the lowest bidder—remember that price is only one of the selection criteria. Higher bidders may be using higher- quality materials. Make sure that the bids are detailed enough to permit you to com pare them. The bid should list all the work required; work not listed—even providing a light bulb—will probably not be performed.

+ Consider the contractor’s professionalism, demeanor, and interpersonal skills. Since he or she will be in your home for many hours every day, it's important that the person you hire be pleasant to be around.

Reviewing the Contract

Once you have selected a remodeling contractor, the con tract is the next step. The following checklist will help you make sure that all parties are treated fairly.

+ Get everything in writing. The contract documents should include the contract, a copy of the plans, a copy of the specifications, and copies of all other documents related to the project. The contract should spell out exactly what the con tractor will and won’t do, and it should include financial terms, starting and finishing dates, warranty information, and a payment schedule. (Be aware that in many states it's illegal to pay for the work in advance.) Make sure that the contract allows you to withhold a reasonable percentage (usually 10 percent) of the total payment until the job has been completed satisfactorily.

+ Insist on building permits where required. A permit sets the inspection process in motion and ensures that the construction is done in accordance with the building codes. Building codes are interpreted differently from city to city, but all are designed to promote the health and safety of the occupants of the building. No other job requirement is more important than permits.

+ Make sure that the remodeling contract includes an arbitration clause. Arbitration can sometimes help to resolve disputes without the need to re sort to costly lawsuits. To learn more about arbitration, contact the nearest office of the American Arbitration Association.

+ Make sure that the remodeling contract specifies that changes to the work be approved in writing by both the owner and the contractor. This prevents arbitrary changes from being made at arbitrary prices.

+ Make sure that the remodeling contract includes standard clauses concerning governing law in the state where the con tract is written, who will pay attorney fees in the event of a dispute, and what measures can be taken by a party if the other fails in its responsibilities under the terms of the contract.

+ Read every word in the con tract and attached documents, and don’t sign anything that seems confusing, incorrect, or unclear. If you are in doubt about anything, it may pay to have an attorney review the contract documents.

+ Don’t sign a certificate of completion for the job before it has been inspected by the appropriate authorities and has been completed according to the contract.

Preparing for Disruption

Even the neatest and most experienced remodeling contractor can make a mess of the house. Remodeling is dirty work. Dust will be everywhere. Expect it and plan for it, and the mess won’t be so difficult to deal with. Be aware that during construction you may temporarily lose the use of a toilet, shower, dishwasher, or stove, and you may not have hot water or a clothes closet for a day or two. Plan for these interruptions. Focus your thoughts on how beautiful your home will look once the work is done.



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Updated: Friday, November 12, 2010 9:47