Home Improvement Advice

Home improvement sounds wonderful.  When we were buying our home, every time we’d express doubts about some house feature, our realtor would counter that you can change your house but you change where it is.  Which is true.  Up to a point.  But unless you are quite wealthy, home improvement can cost you.  In 2013, the average cost of a home improvement project in the Pacific area (in California, Oregon, and Washington) ranged between $1,137 for an entry door replacement to a whopping $152,470 for adding another story to your home.  That’s not nothing.  But that doesn’t mean you should not remodel your home; I speak from experience here.  We certainly don’t have that kind of money and yet we are constantly remodeling our home.  But what we do—even more that actually remodeling—is plan by following (in more or less this order) the following steps.

Decide What You Want (the Most)

This may sound surprising but this one takes quite a bit of time.  Perhaps part of the reason is that when most of us think of a home remodeling project we think in terms of Better Home and Gardens or Country Living pictures.  Those kinds of remodels are lovely and pricey.  So we need to decide what we want to within the budget we have.

My husband and I had a lot of ideas about the major projects we want to do.  We would like to:

  • Add French verandah doors;
  • Add a sunroom;
  • Replace the patio;
  • Replace the stairs leading to the backyard; and
  • Convert half the garage into a studio.

We would also like to do a few minor projects:

  • Paint the house
  • Replace the front and back doors
  • Replace the kitchen tiles and cabinets
  • Landscape the front yard
  • Add shutters to all the windows.

Where to Start?

The first thing we did was work out a budget for remodeling.  And by budget, I mean we decided how much we would spend overall and per month.  Once we did that, we quickly saw that we didn’t have the funds to do every single one of those projects at the same time so we had to pick one major project and one minor one.  We finally decided on converting half the garage into a studio and on painting the house.

There were several reasons for this but these were the most salient.  All the projects on our list would have made our home prettier, nicer to live in, and would add value to our home.  However, there were a few crucial aspects of the two projects we chose that you may also want to consider.  Painting the house protects it from the elements.  So not only would painting the house make it prettied (and make it feel like it was really ours) it decreases the chances that the wood would rot, the stucco crumble, or mold and mildew grow on our home.  And dealing with those is far more expensive and far less pleasant than getting paint materials and arguing over the color (or colors) we wanted to use on our house’s exterior.

The second project we chose (converting half the garage into a studio) was more expensive.  In fact it may have been the most expensive one on the list.  But once completed, the room will have secondary uses.  It will of course be a place where my husband paints and plays the guitar.



But in addition to that, once finished, it could also serve as a guest room (something that is in short supply in our two-bedroom, just under 1,000 square foot home).  In addition, the previous owners had already started this project and, since we were not making architectural modifications, no permits were necessary and we didn’t have to do any costly electrical work.

Cutting Costs

Once we decided on what we were going to do, we needed to figure out how we were going to do it.  As I had said earlier, adding to your house is the most expensive thing you can do.  However, there are ways to save costs.  And the way to save money is by expending time and sweat.

We did not need to have the studio done right away, which meant that not only could we plan it all but we could better absorb the financial consequences when things did not go as planned.  It also meant that when we reached a milestone (painted the studio walls, for example) we would take a break and work on our minor project: painting the house.  In addition, my husband is quite handy with his hands which straight away meant we saved a bundle.

I would, however recommend having a plan B should you, like us, decide to do the remodeling yourself.  Not knowing your limits is one of the costliest mistakes you can make.  So before you start, you should know whom to call should things go wrong.  And, I would highly recommend that this person be someone your neighbors had luck with.  There are two reasons for this.  First, it is likely that most (if not all) the houses in your neighborhood were built around the same time and so have similar features.  Maybe you live in a neighborhood with Victorian houses.  If so, you probably have regulations about what you can and cannot do, especially on the outside of your home; older wiring and plumbing.  A contractor who has done work for your neighbors will already be familiar with some of your house’s peculiarities.  Second is the reputation.  If a contractor did shoddy work for your neighbors, there is no reason for you to expect different treatment.  And third is the price.  Let’s face it, when you start dealing with contractors you have to expect to pay.  But if you know your budget and you know what you expect, you can talk to neighbors who have similar expectations and budgets and contact those contractors who met their expectations in both price and quality of work.

Having a plan B however, also means that you should do the critical parts of the remodel, such as the plumbing, at a time when you think there is a reasonable chance that the contractor will be available.  That usually means doing those parts of the remodel, Monday through Friday 9 AM through 5 PM.  Inconvenient, I know but it may well be worth it.

Then there were still the tools.  And tools, for even a really basic job, can cost hundreds of dollars.  Here too, we got lucky.  As I had mentioned earlier, I am a member of the invitation-only amazon Vine program.  And that means I occasionally got offered tools to test and review.  Once we realized this was the case, we started planning our home remodel accordingly.  For example, we did the flooring when we were offered a miter saw to test and saved the costs associated with installing heat and air because we were given a portable air conditioning unit and a portable heater to test.  You can also save on tools by going buying them second-hand, at discount stores or when they go on sale.

We saved on the costs of the materials themselves by not being in a rush.  If you know what you want you should shop around.  Use discount web sites like Overstock, wait for items to go on sale and check Craig’s list often.  Companies that sell the materials you need are increasingly selling on Craig’s list—it is (in my experience) where you can get the best of all possible deals.

We followed all those steps.  And, although the studio is not yet finished, it looks far more reasonable today.




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