With the average costs of home renovation projects climbing every year, even minor mistakes can lead to serious financial consequences for homeowners. Jean Brownhill is the Founder and CEO of Sweeten, a free online service that matches homeowners with vetted general contractors who are “available and interested” in taking on their renovation projects. A trained architect, Brownhill worked in design and construction for over a decade, where she picked up on some of the most common mistakes homeowners make during the renovation process. Prevent your next home reno from going wrong by following Brownhill’s expert advice.
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1. Not vetting your general contractor thoroughly
Word-of-mouth referrals can be a great way to find a general contractor, but you shouldn’t take them at face value. “Folks often don’t do the work we do to pre-screen general contractors,” says Brownhill. “Most haven’t even checked references, but we check publicly available information, the building department and their past permit filings.” As the homeowner, you don’t have to go full-on Nancy Drew, but you should pick up the phone and call at least three references and ask for photos of the contractor’s previous projects.
2. Not discussing your preferred communication style with your general contractor
“For some reason, when people are hiring a general contractor, they don’t put ‘communication style’ high on the priority list,” says Brownhill. “I will often see people who, even in the interview process, have trouble communicating with the general contractor or reading their estimate, but hire them anyway.”
If you have an inkling that your communication styles are misaligned, Brownhill says it’s best to nip it in the bud. “You need to be upfront about it and co-create the communication norms with the general contractor,” Brownhill adds. If you respond to texts in seconds flat but take three weeks to sort through your email inbox, be honest about it. You’ll prevent tension from arising later on.
3. Choosing the cheapest general contractor
“You should go with the general contractor that’s the best fit for your project,” says Brownhill. “If you’re looking for fast, cheap, good — pick two and stick to that!” The Sweeten team is frequently contacted by homeowners who have made poor decisions when hiring a general contractor. “They want us to help resolve the issue with a new general contractor who can finish the job, and honestly, it’s really tough to get a good general contractor to clean up somebody else’s mess! It’s really challenging — they’d rather just start fresh,” notes Brownhill.
4. Not leaving any wiggle room in the budget
The adage ‘expect the worst and hope for the best’ couldn’t be more true of home renovations. “Having some contingency and some room to change your mind or deal with unexpected site conditions is definitely important,” says Brownhill. “Anywhere between 10 and 15 percent [of the total renovation budget] is about right.” With that extra cash on hand, discovering mold behind the walls of your bathroom will have you saying NBD instead of OMG.
5. Not weighing your ROI or studying the current real estate market
Before you login to Pinterest to start planning your kitchen reno, the first thing you need to ask yourself is, ‘How long am I planning to stay in my home?’ The answer will dictate how much money you should sink into the project. “If you are planning to spend the next five to ten years in that home, return on investment shouldn’t be something that’s necessarily super high on your list [of priorities], but if you are going to be moving in the next one to five years, then, absolutely you should be thinking about not over-investing,” says Brownhill.
6. Harboring unrealistic expectations about your timeline
Don’t believe everything you see on HGTV. “The market is incredibly opaque, and the process is incredibly opaque. It’s totally understandable that people underestimate their project timelines,” says Brownhill. Don’t compare the timeline of your renovation to an episode of Property Brothers or your own brother’s second story addition for that matter. “You have no idea what the permit process in your local municipality or city is like — that could take two weeks, a month or six months,” says Brownhill. She stresses that it can sometimes take a year of planning to execute a four-month construction project. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes before the hammer is swung on demo day.
7. Falling in love with materials that won’t work in your space
“Often people fall in love with materials that won’t fit in their project,” says Brownhill. “They’ve centered this whole bathroom renovation around having this clawfoot tub that’s six feet long, but we can only put a five-foot tub in their space and the load-bearing requirements don’t allow for a heavy, cast iron tub.” That’s why it’s so important to speak with your general contractor, designer and/or architect before adding that $1,500 final sale tub to cart.
Photo: James Bombales, design by Soda Pop Design Inc.
8. Prioritizing aesthetics over function
“We encourage all of our clients — before they interview general contractors — to create a must-have list and a nice-to-have list,” says Brownhill. “If you have structural problems in your house and part of the motivation for this renovation is to address them — that’s on your must-have! Some people fall in love with a chandelier and forget about the structural work that inspired the project.” Creating a list that your can refer back to when the stress of renovating hits its peak will help you to stay focused.
9. Not reaching out to your neighbors prior to demolition
“I really encourage people to communicate to their neighbors that they’re going to be doing construction — just to be courteous and pre-apologize for any dust or noise!” says Brownhill. “You’re going to be living there and these are going to be your neighbors for a long time! What is a rude way to enter a new neighborhood or apartment building than with a bunch of jackhammers and dust.” If you’re unsure about what to say or write, Sweeten offers an example letter on their blog that will help you get started. But bribing your new neighbors with freshly baked cookies doesn’t hurt either.