Remodeling 101

No two remodeling projects are alike, but here's a broad look at what to expect during each phase. Two words will see you through: patience and planning.


+ enlarge image A remodeling job involves your whole family as well as a "family" of pros.

A remodeling job requires at least one and possibly two professionals to draw a plan and execute it. For suggestions on choosing the pro or pros you need, see "Finding the Help You Need."

Obtain at least three written bids for your particular job, using identical plans and specifications. Do not automatically accept the lowest bid. Discuss each bid in detail with the person who submitted it, and make sure you understand the reason for any variations in price.

Beware of any bid substantially lower than the others. It probably indicates that the contractor has made a mistake or is not including all the work covered by the competitors' quotes. He or she may be planning to recoup the costs by charging you with change orders (a written order specifying any change from the agreed-upon plan that is not included in your contracted price) after the project has started.

  • Sketch a preliminary plan. Even if you're not an artist, you can draw lines that indicate just where you want your new kitchen to start and stop.
  • Be open to constructive criticism. Your architect or designer will help you decide whether it makes more sense to reuse existing space or build an addition to meet your needs. He or she will tell you whether your house can structurally support an addition or the other changes you have in mind.
  • Review preliminary designs prepared by your designer or architect. To prepare the preliminary designs, your professional will measure your existing residence, research local building and zoning requirements, and prepare floor plans and elevations in 1/4-inch scale. Typically, this phase requires several meetings with you to modify the designs to set your dreams on paper. The goal is to create a functional design that meets your needs and that enhances the look and style of your home.
  • Establish a construction budget. Construction budgets are prepared to determine if what you want is in line with the amount of money you can spend. Because design drawings are done to scale, they can be used to determine accurate material and labor estimates and to establish a usable construction budget. If necessary, designs and material selections can be changed to fit the budget.
  • Allow time for the working drawings to be prepared. Working drawings are technical drawings and calculations necessary to acquire building permits and to receive subcontractors' bids. The drawings typically consist of a site plan, floor plan, foundation plan, elevation section, general notes, and details. In most cases, plumbing, mechanical, and electrical symbols appear on the floor plan.
  • Pay for the building permit obtained by the contractor. The contractor must show proof of workers' compensation insurance and a city business license to receive the permit.

The contract binds both you and the contractor to the project. The approved plans and specifications should be part of the document to help clarify the extent of work to be done and the responsibilities of both parties. Make sure your contract includes at least the following:

  • The name, address, and license number of the contractor
  • The start and completion dates of the project
  • A description of materials and work to be done
  • The price of the project and a schedule of progress payments (which should coincide with city inspections to ensure each phase of work has been properly completed)
  • A description of what constitutes substantial commencement of work
  • A notice that the contractor shall substantially commence work within 20 days of a specified date

Unless you have a substantial legal background, it's a good idea to have a legal adviser look over the contract your contractor has prepared.

The details of your remodeling project will be unique to you and your contractor, and will probably be filled with ups and downs, delays and surprises. Almost surely there will be a demolition phase, followed by a time when the basics, from walls to wiring, are rebuilt or upgraded as needed. Then cabinets, appliances, and so forth will be installed, and paint, hardware, and other finishing touches can be put in place.

During the remodeling process, keep your relationship with the contractor and his or her workers as cordial as possible. It's normal for both sides to get on each other's nerves, but here are a few suggestions to keep things running smoothly.

  • Take responsibility. If you have pets, keep them on leashes or confined. Supervise your children and instruct them not to bother the workers. Talk to your neighbors before construction starts, informing them about the time frame of the project and the nature of the work involved.
  • Stay out of the way. A job runs more smoothly if the remodeler and crew can concentrate on their work with minimal interference.
  • Speak up. When you do talk with the remodeler, be clear about your concerns. Tell him or her what's on your mind; don't allow problems to fester.
  • Be friendly and supportive. Greet the contractor and workers when they arrive. Put out refreshments occasionally. Thank them for good work.
  • Be patient. Mistakes and misunderstandings happen. When they do, resolve the conflict and move on.
  • Be nice to yourself. Treat yourself and your family to meals out. Keep your sense of humor, and focus on the big picture: how much you and your family are sure to enjoy your new space.

When you and your contractor agree the job is done, set a time for a walk-through to ascertain that everything was completed as ordered. You already know your professional's policy regarding problems that arise after completion, but identify as many potential difficulties as possible before he or she leaves the site.

A few weeks down the road, show your appreciation for a job well done. A small gift is perfectly appropriate, as is a letter of thanks in which you offer to serve as a client reference for your professional's future jobs.

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