Think before you leap. It sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people rush into projects with their eyes on the finished product and ignore peripheral considerations. Start by consulting a reference guide. Write down your family's present and future needs and analyze them carefully. Think through the spaces you're envisioning: Are they economical? Perhaps you could combine spaces or, in the future, work out schedules for a new room's use instead of adding yet another room.
Have an informed financial plan in place before the work begins, advises Julie Watt, regional renovation sales manager with Wells Fargo Home Mortgage in Bloomington, Minnesota. Financing your mortgage and renovation simultaneously spreads improvement costs throughout the term of your loan. In addition, the interest on your renovation costs is part of your first mortgage and is tax-deductible. "Avoid 'ad hoc' financing," she says. Otherwise, "you might end up securing a credit card with a home improvement store or tapping into your savings," neither of which is tax-deductible.
Build a 10- to 20-percent contingency into your budget because you'll inevitably run into unforeseen costs. You'll tear into a wall and find pipes you didn't know were there. You'll unearth asbestos tiles that need to be disposed of properly. Or you'll find rotting structural elements that need to be replaced. With a financial buffer in place, these unexpected setbacks will be less likely to send you running for the antacid tablets.
"Saving money is all about communication between the client and contractor," says Lee Martens of Absolute Restoration in Lexington, South Carolina. "I always try to build a relationship with my clients immediately, by sitting down with them and helping them to understand the remodeling process. It's all about unknowns, because unknowns cost money. Good communication can help to keep those extra dollars from being spent needlessly."
Wish lists are exactly that; don't let yours strong-arm you into spending more than you have. If your budget can't accommodate granite surfaces everywhere, aim for a similar look with a slate backsplash and composite countertops. "Mixing materials saves money," says Daniel M. Gallant, principal of Gallant Designs in Bellingham, Washington. "For example, put hardwood floors in some rooms, and less-expensive coverings such as tile or vinyl in others."
If you have a standard-style home and your project is structural and relatively common, you might be able to use an existing plan and save a bundle over a custom drawing. Start by searching the Internet for "stock remodeling plans"; you'll get a couple of dozen leads to follow. If your home is unusual or has unique problems, consult a contractor.
If you can pitch in without getting in your remodeler's way, do it. Pick up a paintbrush, pull up that dreadful old carpet, or lay down the tile for your new kitchen backsplash. If you have the time and the knowledge, you even could be your own general contractor. "During the construction phase, one of the biggest ways you can save money is to clean the site daily," says Stan Stuurmans of Triple S Construction, Inc., in Lynden, Washington. This should be negotiated up front. "I like to keep my job site clean, so I often do the cleanup, but the client ends up paying for my time -- they pay me to clean up every day," Stuurmans says. "So grab the wet/dry vac and a broom!"
Don't nickel-and-dime yourself to death by doing several similar projects back to back. For example, if you're replacing flooring in one room and are planning to tackle five more rooms eventually, get all six rooms done at the same time. You'll save money in the long run because it's easier and less expensive for a flooring-installation company to do everything at once than to treat each room as an individual project.
Refacing cabinets or relining a bathtub costs about half as much as replacing them. "People like relining because there's no need to remove the old bathtub or tile, no extensive plumbing changes, and their bathroom isn't torn out for weeks," says Tom Poulin of Poulin Design Remodeling in Albuquerque. "They like the price, too. Typically, you can reline a bathtub for around $800; you can reline a complete bathtub and wall surround, or a shower, for $1,500-$1,800 instead of [replacing them for] between $3,000 and $5,000." And the job can be done in as little as 1 1/2 days, which minimizes labor costs.
Sometimes, money well spent is money saved. Because competing manufacturers rarely offer exactly the same color shades, "white" could be 100 different variations on the hue. If you buy an "eggshell white" toilet and sink from one manufacturer, then are lured to buy a bargain-basement "eggshell white" tub from a different manufacturer, the odds are against you: The colors probably won't match and you'll have to replace the tub. Save yourself the hassle; in this case, conformity is a good thing.
Never assume that your contractor has obtained the proper permits and that those permit fees are included in his fee. If you do and the project is not built to local codes, you might have to tear it all down and start over. Or, if you obtain the permit for your contractor and the project runs afoul of codes, you -- not your contractor -- will be liable. "The best contracts and specification documents are designed to clarify what is included and what is not, as well as to guide how different situations will be handled," says Kacey Fitzpatrick, president of Avalon Enterprises, Inc., in Mountain View, California. "You'll be in a weak position if you sign an ill-defined agreement."