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7 Questions You Need to Ask Before You Renovate Your Home

Updated: Sep. 01, 2023

Stop. Hammer time. Here's what to ask, answer, and clarify before you reconfigure a powder room, take down any walls, or simply paint your garage.

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What are my reno goals?

You’ve had it with your kitchen that has you imagining Alice presenting a roast to Mrs. Brady. But what are your actual needs? Do you want to bust open your walls because you are in a moment of design ennui or does your space lack purposeful function? Write a list of needs—more effective cooking space; loads and loads of closet space, for example. Then prioritize. Bonus: Are the goals attainable in real life? Taking walls down takes a lot more than TV magic—wiring may need to be rerouted, pipes may need to be moved, and pricey support beams may be necessary so your house literally won’t fall in on itself. Which brings us to Q two.

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How much can I realistically afford?

Whether you are tapping into your home’s equity or using savings to spruce up your space, you need to be clear about your budget. Draft one that includes a baseline as well as an absolute ceiling. Repeat after us: Overages seriously add up. Sure, the brushed brass facets are so now, but are they so you? Make sure you draft a budget with your contractor and stick with it. Research finishes, style options, and other materials ahead of contracting so you can avoid those extra charges. Maintain a contingency fund of 15 percent of the total project or unforeseen costs—deleading, we’re looking at you. While hammering out the numbers, don’t forget to explore federal tax credit programs and FHA initiatives. Check out the 11 home improvement projects you can do yourself without hiring a professional.

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Do I need permission?

Your house. Your rules. Well… If you own a condo or are a member of a homeowners’ association, it’s likely there are work-hour ordinances and some design restrictions. Get the rules in writing from your board or HOA. Such regulations may impact your budget and schedule. Similarly, independent homeowners may find there are limits on square footage expansion. “If you’re thinking of bumping out a wall to make more room for, say, your kitchen, make sure you understand your town’s zoning laws first,” says interior designer Lorri Dyner. “Many homes are already at capacity for their lot size and owners are surprised to find they can’t increase the square footage,” she adds.

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Can I get referrals?

Now the fun begins! It’s time to talk to an architect or contractor. Bring your design, budget, and scheduling outlines—and ask to see examples of work. “Referrals you get from friends are best,” says Howard Wiggins, interior designer and author of What Were You Thinking? He suggests getting photos of completed projects and discussing in detail the finishes. “Make sure you talk about the quality of windows, doors, trim, woodwork, etc,” he says. Get five bids to compare style and price. Wiggins advises against booking the lowest estimate; you’re likely to spend more in the end. Whoever you hire, make sure they are bonded and insured in accordance with your state and municipal requirements. Also, consider a quick search on any liens or lawsuits. These are the secrets contractors want first-time homeowners to know.

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What’s the pay schedule?

It’s customary to pay one-third of the cost upfront, another third mid-project, and the final installment upon completion of the punch list, advises Wiggins. As with everything in the process, you’ll want to hammer out these particulars before the work begins.

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Who is on the team?

Chances are you aren’t doing a Magnolia-style gut job, which means you’ll be living in your home while it is a construction zone. On the practical side you’ll want to know how many people to expect on a daily basis. A head count also figures into your budget and timeline expectations. Make sure you discuss protectant arrangements for the areas that aren’t being reno-ed. And be specific with any house rules, such as which bathroom to use, where to dispose of refuse, and what spaces are off-limits. Make sure you steer clear of these home renovation projects that you’ll probably regret later.

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What kind of documentation will I receive?

Upon completion, you are sure to receive contracts, permit paperwork, and design plans. In addition, ask for warranty and care instructions for any appliances and installation work, such as heating and cooling systems and countertops. Ask your contractor to provide photos of any machinery that you’ve had installed (be sure those include serial numbers). And make sure you’ll have post-project access to any subcontractors. Delineate your post-project needs prior to signing the contract.