What to Expect with your Renovation

So you’ve decided to jump in and renovate. Excited? Intimidated? Nervous, or anxious about what’s next?  A renovation can bring out all those emotions and many more.  Home renovations are ranked among the most stressful events that couples go through together, but having realistic expectations up front can go a long way towards the ultimate success and the feeling of satisfaction when your project is complete.  Whatever you do, don’t just watch a few renovation shows on TV and think you have a good idea of what it’ll be like.  TV renos can give you a false sense of timeline, costs, and the realities of what really goes into a major renovation.  And that says nothing about the realities of living through one… if you must (more on that later).

We have taken the advice of some of the leading experts in the field and compiled them here.  Get ready to roll up your sleeves - armed with a little knowledge of what to expect and tips on what to do will have you ready to embark on your reno adventure. 

Design BEFORE price.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but we often come across homeowners who have received a “quote” or estimate on a renovation even before any design has been completed or specifications been determined.  This is like getting a price on a car without specifying whether it’s a BMW or a Kia.  They both do the same thing, but with drastically varying degrees of comfort, performance, and panache. 

If a contractor gives a price based on an undefined scope of work or an incomplete (or non-existent) selection of product specifications, how do you really know what you’re getting and what the REAL cost will be? Sometimes they will provide a predetermined set of “allowances”, but unless you are an industry expert, how can you really compare that to what YOU may actually want? Either way, there is a good chance he’s either covering himself by charging too much, or he will surprise you later (sometimes frequently) with the cringeworthy and often very costly change-order, saying, “Sure we can do it, but that’s an upgrade and will cost more”.  Either way, this leaves you in very little control of what your renovation will ultimately look like or cost.  

However, many (perhaps most) reputable renovators that offer top quality, custom renovations opt for a cost-plus model which is their actual construction cost, plus a management fee.  With this approach, typically you will establish a budgetary figure of anticipated reno costs based on a preliminary set of parameters, which allows you to guide your designs and specifications accordingly in order to meet your budget.  Once the final design is complete, your contractor can provide you with true costs based on solid information, rather than assumptions.  But this is not to say that you are stuck with those eventual costs.  If your design tastes end up surpassing your budget, the beauty of working with a contractor that respects this model is that you can always tweak your design specs to better meet your budget.  You have the option to make changes without cost penalties or change order fees BEFORE you pull the trigger on construction. 

Budget with a capital “B”.  I'm an optimist.  I’m one of those people that believes in spending money for quality rather than cheaping out.  However, contrary to what I might want to believe, the necessary funds for that quality renovation don’t just magically appear.  So make sure you do your homework. Talk to a friend who has been through a similar reno, do as much window shopping and cost-comparisons as you can. Make sure that you tack on an extra 10% or more for those inevitable issues that will spring up.  And be realistic with your costs.  I can’t tell you how many times we were called out to look at a project where the homeowner’s idea of costs were a quarter of what they would actually be.  Sorry people… unless it’s just some minor modifications you’re after, the days of the $15,000 kitchen or basement reno are long gone.  And once you and your contractor have agreed on a budget, and the project is underway, check back with your contractor periodically to ensure you are still on track.

Use a designer!  Believe it or not, paying a designer can often make the single biggest contribution to LOWERING your renovation costs and keeping things on track.  This is especially true if you’re working with a design/build contractor who has responsibility for the overall project costs.  Designers do this for a living, so on top of knowing what to focus on, and when, designers are aware of what products from which manufacturers will meet both your tastes and your budget.  And they steer clear of the rest!  They will also make design suggestions that are non-emotional in nature, helping you to avoid the trap of “I absolutely had to have it!”  In 15 years of doing renovations and custom homes, the biggest budget overruns we encountered were almost always because the homeowner wanted to be their own designer.  There are far too many incredible products on the market - at hugely varying price points - to avoid falling in love at least every few days!  And if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years: when it comes to renovation materials, higher cost doesn’t always equal better quality.

The fees you pay your designer - especially when he/she is part of a design/build renovation team accountable for the overall budget - are very often made up for by their experience in getting you the most for your renovation dollars.

Tip:  The best tip we’ve heard is to try to make as many decisions as possible that are 10% UNDER your budget target.  For example, which kitchen sink to buy, which hardwood flooring to choose, granite vs. laminate, etc.  There will always be those ones where you decide it’s worth it to “spend just that little bit extra”, but all those “little bit extras” can add up to a big number in the end.  By keeping your product selections in check, you get what is really important to you without ending up with the “champagne taste, beer budget” scenario.

Get out. Go on vacation. Stay with in-laws. Rent.  I can’t over-emphasize this point.  You might think you’re the rugged type, and a little inconvenience won’t bother you.  Maybe you’re okay with the idea of “roughing it” in the basement while your kitchen is being renovated.  “It’ll be fun” you might say.  “It’ll be romantic huddled together in the basement”, you may ponder. 

Take it from thousands of people that have lived through renovations: While it may indeed be “character-building”, it certainly won’t be fun, romantic, rustic, or resemble any other slightly positive-sounding description you can think of!  The fact is, 4 letter descriptions are more likely to be what comes to mind first if you’re living through renovations!  

“Why”, you ask?

  1. Dust. It will feel relentless. Within mere hours of cleaning it up - sometimes minutes - it’s there again, coming to rest on everything important to you - even your baby sleeping in her crib! Dust is an unavoidable byproduct of renovating - even if there is no demolition involved - but especially if there is. And all the poly and tape in the world does little to truly control the fine layer of dust that continues to settle everywhere. If you can, try to close off the construction area from the rest of the house with a temporary wall of sorts, and plug whatever furnace ducts you can. That will help, but not eliminate the dust. Otherwise, air purifiers, duct tape, and vacuum, vacuum, wipe and repeat are your only real options to reduce this annoyance.

  2. Noise. Incessant pounding. Saws screaming. Nailers rat-a-tatting. Compressors blaring. Oh, and did I mention the tradesmen's 24/7 classic rock station? At least between the hours of 8 until 5, there will be no peace in your home, and nowhere to escape the constant din. Work from home? Don’t expect 100% productivity. Like to nap? Not likely. Have small kids at home? See the heading above that starts with the words “Get Out”! And what to do if a tradesperson asks to work past 5:00 and into your “private time”? It won’t be that easy to send him home knowing the more hours they work, the fewer days you’ll have to endure.

  3. Tradespeople. You may really like the people working on your home, and may truly respect their craftsmanship and work ethic. You may even start to develop friendships with some of them. But they are human beings too, and after a week or two, you may wish they could work invisibly and silently. They’ll come to the door when you’re still in your pyjamas; just when you’re sitting down to watch your favorite show; and from time to time they’ll still be working when you’re trying to enjoy a quiet take-out dinner. And unlike you, they aren’t living through the mess, they’re just working there. So while the dust and noise is aggravating to you, to them it’s just another day at the office and they may not take the same degree of care and attention in controlling it that you would like. All the minor irritations that on their own don’t bother you, can often add up to a full blown Cabernet binge, just to keep your sanity!

  4. Like Pizza? You’d better. Pizza, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, or burgers. There are only so many countries you can tour culinarily-speaking before you’d beg your somewhat peculiar neighbours for a home-cooked meal taken at a real dining room table. You'll be amazed at how quickly you tire of fast-food in front of the TV, doing dishes in your bathtub, sleeping in your family room, or sharing one dirty bathroom with the entire family - all under the hazy shroud of drywall dust. Yes…character building, that’s it!

Aside from these items, know this one fact: Vacating your home during a renovation is good for more than just your sanity - it usually results in the project being completed in a shorter timeframe. For example, sometimes trades people keep hours outside of 9 to 5.  Perhaps your project is a small “filler” job for them.  But if you want your privacy on weekends or evenings, it means they can’t schedule your project into those times to get it done more quickly.  If the electrician needs to cut the power for the afternoon, he can’t very well do it if you’re putting a roast in the oven.  If the plumbers need to cut the water, but you’re showering for work or your kids are just coming home from school, it makes it more difficult to get the work done.  All these things add up to time.

You can see there are some very compelling reasons to leave your home while your project is underway.  That said, if you can’t make it work - it’s not impossible to have a successful renovation without it having a huge impact on your lifestyle - especially if your contractor is sensitive to your needs.  Just know you will need to grin and bear it, and keep your eye on the inevitable prize! 

Decisions, decisions, decisions.  There will be more than you imagined.  They will come at times you don’t expect.  You WILL get tired of having to make them. We once had a homeowner ask why on earth we needed to know what type of mirror she wanted in her bathroom before the electrician had even roughed in the wiring.  The reason was because the electrician needed to determine where to put the vanity plug (below, beside, or cut into the mirror).  If your contractor is highly experienced and you trust his judgement, it can go a long way towards minimizing the hundreds of little decisions you have to make, but they can still be a little overwhelming at times.

Tip:  Under the guidance of your designer and contractor, make as many decisions as possible in advance of the construction phase.  Materials can be ordered in advance, thus avoiding delivery delays, and it can minimize the number of emails or phone calls you’ll get at work from your contractor.  When decisions do pop up, try to handle them swiftly so as to keep the project flowing.  2 days agonizing over which backsplash tile to choose can easily result in a week long delay or more because the product sold out of stock in the meantime. 

Trade Schedules.  It’s true that tradespeople’s greatest strengths are typically on the quality of their work, and not necessarily on the quality of their scheduling.  Trade delays are an unfortunate reality in the construction business, and it’s one of the main reasons general contractors exist in the first place.  I once had a client that told me he had a new found respect for me because my job was like herding cats!  While I don’t necessarily agree 100%, I certainly see his point.  There is usually a valid reason for a tradesman showing up at noon instead of at 9:00 am like you were expecting.  Usually, it’s because the job he allowed a day to complete turned into a day-and-a-half.  Sometimes when things don’t go right, it can be 2 days.  But just as you wouldn’t want them leaving your project unfinished, good trades will finish the job before moving to the next one - even if it disappoints a few people.  

There are also flat tires, truck breakdowns, material backorders and other things to contend with. But small delays don’t necessarily have to turn into big ones.  If your contractor is worth his salt, this is where his project management skills will come into play.  He’ll take steps to minimize those delays by juggling the schedule to avoid the ripple effect that can happen when one trade is behind.  So even if that plumber is behind a day or two, the project as a whole stays on target. For example, maybe he schedules the electrician to start early while waiting for the plumber.

There will be surprises.  Almost every project has surprises.  From the mould found behind the bathroom wall to the microwave that was taller than the specification sheet showed, problems and challenges are an occurrence on every job.  90% of these problems will be completely transparent to the homeowner and handled by the contractor, but every once in awhile you may need to be informed if there is a decision to be made.  Be sure your contractor recognizes that his #1 job after planning and scheduling is problem solving.  He needs to quickly and efficiently resolve these challenges as they arise, with minimal impact to budget or timing.

Celebrate the drywall…then buckle down.  Seeing the drywall go up is an important milestone that many homeowners get excited about.  Especially if there was substantial demolition involved, seeing your walls boarded with fresh gypsum can make you feel like you’re almost there.  Enjoy the “drywall party” while you can, but this is when the hangover sometimes begins.  Countless homeowners have experienced the triumphant high of seeing this stage, but the light is not quite shining at the end of the tunnel yet.  The finishing stage starts now, and depending on the scope of the project, that eventual feeling of “dancing on the beach” can be anywhere from 1 to 5 months from now - even more for larger projects.  And from drywall onward can also be the most costly phase of the reno.  Components such as cabinetry and granite countertops, custom millwork & carpentry, flooring, lighting & plumbing fixtures, tile work, carpet & paint, appliances and accessories are yet to come.  And they can easily make the project back-end loaded in terms of cost and construction time.  Which brings us to the last item on our list:

Get a good pen.  I can almost guarantee that you will never write as many cheques as you will with a renovation.  Your fingers might get a little sore some days.  There’s no other advice to give here other than to keep reminding yourself of the rewarding new lifestyle you’ll have at the end!

If you’re still reading, it probably means you’re ready and eager to take on the challenge.  Dive in… while it can sometimes be daunting, a home renovation can often be one of life’s most rewarding experiences!