Really, I blame my parents. Virtually every year in my childhood home, it seemed like there was some new project afoot. Put up a wall here, tear one down there, upgrade this, resurface that, construct an addition out back, go from a duplex into a single-family home, then back to a duplex again. It was almost compulsive.

So 20-plus years after moving out of that house and after a few more house renovations of my own, I’m again living in a construction zone. My wife and kids are jumping over piles of mud to get into the house. That old familiar smell of sawdust is in the air.

Every project is a learning experience. Over the years, I’ve learned mainly from mistakes. But there are some lessons I brought to the latest project.
First: The magic minimum number of estimates is three. On my current project, there was a significant swing – about 30 percent – between the highest bid and the lowest. As it happened, the third bid I got was the lowest even though it covered a longer to-do list.

Also in the category of things that should go without saying: Consult an architect and an engineer. In fact, I like to get as much advice from disinterested parties as I possibly can. I hired an engineer to gauge the feasibility of my project. I showed my drawings to an architect friend to make sure I got the aesthetics and functionality right. I ran everything past a buddy who is a commercial contractor.

Patience is a virtue.

It took a couple of years of talking over the project design. Work didn’t start until six months and five months from the time we got our first bid.

It’s also good to get to know your would-be contractor. Find one who comes recommended by a trustworthy source. Look at his other work. Make sure it’s easy to communicate. Make sure he responds to inquiries promptly and fully. In my experience, contractors who are unresponsive at the front end will also be unresponsive when the job commences.

Also, it’s critical to get firm commitments on numbers. If a contractor gets squishy on the costs, there’s a better chance the numbers will go up than down.

Even with the most earnest commitments, problems arise. On my project, I was surprised when it turned out I couldn’t configure my central A/C to serve the new space. The need to install a ductless mini split system will go a few thousand dollars over the budget. You have to account for these problems arising or for a costly change of heart on some aspect of the project. If the bids are scraping the ceiling of what you can afford, negotiate downward or subtract something from the project.

It’s important to keep a paper trail on everything. That means demanding an itemized estimate of the job; exchanging e-mails on details and decision-points; and getting good drawings of the project. In many cases, I send pictures illustrating exactly what type of design or fixture I’m looking for. And I’m not shy about asking questions. I get updates on an almost daily basis, and significant issues regularly come up.

Finally, I’ve learned the hard way that it’s vital to talk to your spouse about every detail you can think of. I recently got in hot water for failing to update my darling wife on a certain aspect of a walkway design. You can’t take anything for granted in this regard.


Renovation Rules of Thumb
Be patient.
Consult an architect and an engineer.
Get at least three estimates.
Get firm commitments on numbers.
Stay within a comfortable budget.
Get to know your contractor.
Get everything down on paper.
Ask questions.
Talk to your spouse about the details.