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 What We Learned from Our Major Home Renovation Project (Part 1)

What We Learned from Our Major Home Renovation Project (Part 1)

Part 1: The Planning Phase

This time, last year

At this time last summer, we could hardly believe we’d finally found a house in our neighborhood, gotten an offer accepted, and closed in July. We were also in the process of realizing just how large of a renovation project we had just begun to undertake with our contractor.

Oh, and I was pregnant with our now-seven-month-old baby boy, while our older little boy (now four and a half) kept us pretty busy.

From August through November, it seemed like every spare moment we had was devoted to making decisions about the house. We’d bought a 1930 Colonial revival (we think—architecture experts, please feel free to weigh in on what style you’d call our place!). The owners had loved it for the past 40+ years, and they’d done some nice updates like a mid-2000s kitchen (we replaced appliances but haven’t otherwise renovated), a two-story addition, and the conversion of a garage to a living space and bathroom. We knew when we made our offer, however, that there would be a lot of work we’d want done before we moved in...and that most of it involved projects that we didn't have the experience or ability to do ourselves, so we were fortunate to have a trusted contractor (more on that to follow).

We were mostly through with renovations this spring; the exterior got only a small portion of the makeover. The new bay window was one of the later elements; we'd planned to leave the existing one, though we'd swapped out nearly all of the other windows, but after a drafty winter, we included the bay window replacement in the second round of projects.

We were mostly through with renovations this spring; the exterior got only a small portion of the makeover. The new bay window was one of the later elements; we'd planned to leave the existing one, though we'd swapped out nearly all of the other windows, but after a drafty winter, we included the bay window replacement in the second round of projects.

Our area has experienced extreme inventory shortage, so we’d been looking for several years in our particular neighborhood without finding much that we liked or could afford—and losing one bid on a great house before finding this one. So even though we were a little intimidated by the scope of work to modernize it while still keeping the original character, we also felt that it was unlikely we’d find a better place in the near term, and were eager for more space than our 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom condo by the time the baby came, which our new place more than provided. 

Now that about eight months have passed since most of the renovations were completed (except for one major surprise project more recently undertaken), we’ve had a chance to think more about what went well and what we might have done differently. I thought it could be useful to share for those of you about to embark on renovation projects of your own. 

I'm breaking this up into a few posts, starting with the planning phase. Please let me know what else you'd like to hear about!

Planning our purchase and renovation

When we’d been looking at homes, most were fixer-uppers. In our area, many people sell homes more or less “as is” and many successful bids include waiving an inspection, so with an introduction from our realtor, we’d met a general contractor who had come with us to houses we were serious about for a pre-offer assessment. This house had impressed him more than the others he’d seen with us, as having a solid structure with no obvious red flags. While we were preparing our offer and going through the buying process, we were also talking with him about the scope of work. With his estimates, we had a rough assessment before the offer of approximately how much additional money we’d have to sink into it for renovations, so we could determine how financially viable the entire project would be for us. We also consulted with our financial advisor on how we’d fund the down payment and renovations. We talked with our contractor about his availability to make sure he’d have time to do the work that summer and fall. These all turned out to be important planning steps.

If you’re buying a new house, try to accomplish as much of the renovation as possible prior to move-in to save on costs and future inconvenience.

We were in the fortunate position of being able to live in our condo around the corner during renovations, as we weren’t selling and were instead planning to help my mom move in after we moved out so she could be closer to us instead of an hour away. This worked out well for us because the gut renovation rendered our new house completely unlivable. We were glad we could have the renovations done before we moved in. While it might not be feasible to renovate before move-in, if it’s an option, I’d definitely recommend getting as much done as possible ahead of time versus waiting a few years and then having to move yourselves into temporary housing and your possessions into storage. The plus side of waiting to renovate until after you've lived in the house for a while would be accumulating more funds for a potentially fancier renovation, but for us it was less stressful to keep the renovation a little simpler and start right after closing on our home.

Our contractor had an excellent work ethic and was dedicated to keeping our project moving along, which was fantastic (in some cases, we were the hold-ups because we were having a hard time deciding on finishes or other "cosmetics"). He was also very pragmatic, which was great from a cost-saving point of view as he didn’t try to sell us on bells & whistles. This had its drawbacks, however. While we had some idea of what we wanted it to look like, and our contractor was great at the structural elements of the renovation, it could have helped to have someone think through finishes with us and give us ideas of some small incremental costs that could make a big impact on the look and feel of the house, like built-in cabinetry in the living room or home office (which we don’t have but wish we did). For someone without a clear vision of how the project should look, it could make sense to use an integrated design/build firm or to start with an architect and hand off plans to a contractor.

Purchase and renovation planning takeaways:

  • If you’re considering buying a fixer-upper, get a sense of the total investment as early as possible: if you know before you bid, you’ll know how much you can offer while still reserving enough money for necessary renovations. In our case, bringing our contractor with us when we were serious about a home also saved us from making offers on properties that would have required too much work—he even pointed out flaws in one that he explained would have made it more of a tear-down than a renovation project. It cost us very little to have him come for this kind of “pre-inspection” each time.
  • Make a plan for how you’ll finance the different home-buying and renovating expenses. Our financial advisor was key here.
  • Try to accomplish as much of the renovation as possible pre-move-in.
  • Working directly with a general contractor can be a great choice if you have a very clear vision of what you’d like the home to look like in the end.
  • Consider engaging an architect or design/build firm to talk through the finer details of renovation plans that could enhance livability of the home.
  • Choose a contractor or firm you trust and have good rapport with, since you’ll be having many conversations over the course of the project.
  • Discuss the project timeline with your contractor, leaving padding for unanticipated delays, whether in permitting, procurement, or other surprises.

Renovation elements

As a preview to the coming posts, here are some of the major elements of our renovation:

  • Upstairs bathroom—gut renovation of a very small existing bathroom to combine it with a very small adjacent bedroom and make one large space that includes 2nd floor laundry hidden behind bi-fold doors (previously had basement laundry).
  • New windows—the house had older replacement windows, some of which had broken seals and didn’t match each other. We replaced these with new construction, wood interior, aluminum-clad exterior windows (with dark bronze exterior finish and white trim to be a little fancier). This was one of the priciest elements of our renovation because there were nearly 30 windows.
  • New walls and ceilings—this house had many, many textured walls and ceilings. In some cases, we had new walls or ceilings installed over the existing ones; in other cases, the rooms were gutted and new insulation went in, followed by new walls and ceilings.
  • New trim—work on the windows, walls, and ceilings meant that new interior trim was appropriate in most cases. We used period-appropriate trim that matched the earlier trim closely. We also needed new exterior trim for the windows.
  • Refinished floors—they were stained nearly black in some areas but light colored in others, and in poor condition in the bedrooms; now all are the same stain.
  • Painting—lots to discuss here. With all the new walls and ceilings, we needed plenty of new interior paint. A whole house full of it.
  • New heating system and new central air conditioning system—the house did not previously have central A/C. We have some lessons learned to share from this experience in future posts.
  • New electrical and recessed lighting—a lot of electrical work was necessary to bring the house up to code.
  • New appliances—while we didn’t renovate the kitchen, we did upgrade the refrigerator and dishwasher to stainless steel and bought a microwave. We also bought a new high-efficiency washer and dryer for the new 2nd-floor laundry area.
  • New doors and hardware—we were pretty sure we had a lead paint issue with the original doors, and replaced with new doors. One lesson learned has to do with the original hardware.

If you have any questions you’d like me to cover in future posts about any of these topics, or questions on our planning process, please let me know!

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