Top 10 Tips for a Successful Remodeling Project

If you're planning on remodeling your own property, you are likely either: 

A homeowner who recently purchased a home that needs a bit of an update or a homeowner remodeling their existing home

An investor purchasing homes that need TLC and looking to flip it for profit

This post is intended to help those of you with little to no remodeling experience and have absolutely no clue on how to even begin. Don't worry, we have you covered so hopefully you can learn from our mistakes and have your remodeling job go as smoothly and quickly as possible! 

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1. ESTABLISH A BUDGET

Before embarking on your exciting new project, take the necessary time to go over all your finances to set a realistic budget for the project. People often start off with creating a list of work they want to get done (e.g. complete kitchen remodel, new hardwood floors throughout), then get an estimate from a contractor and end up spending much more than they can afford.  Establishing a budget early on sets expectations on what is feasible. Prioritize what work needs to be done vs. what you would like to get done. For example if you can only afford $50,000 for your entire house remodel, maybe consider gutting the very dated master bathroom and simply refacing your kitchen cabinets instead of replacing the whole kitchen. Your complete kitchen remodel with brand new cabinets could cost around $50,000 on average, while refacing might only run you $15,000. 

Another important note is to factor in roughly 10-20% over what you think your project will cost or what your contractor estimates in the original work order. Extra costs easily add up. You want Calacatta gold marble countertops now instead of Quartz? That'll cost you double what you accounted for in materials.

2. RESEARCH LONG AND HARD FOR A REPUTABLE CONTRACTOR

You have probably heard plenty of nightmare contractor stories where work is subpar, the project is dragged on for months with no end and meanwhile you are still paying your mortgage on this house that you can't even move into! My first remodeling job was truly a nightmare: the contractor would tell me workers would come to the house and no one would show up, subcontractors damaged every kitchen cabinet door while drilling the hardware into it and I almost sued the contractor's company for damages! My mistake? Not doing enough research. I simply went on Yelp, found a contractor and briefly looked at the positive reviews. 

I recommend using several sources/websites and cross-referencing their reviews. I only relied on Yelp, when I should have checked their reviews on Houzz, Angie's List and Home Advisor to make sure they were truly a reliable company. Also, be cautious when using Yelp to research contractors and check the profile of the user who left a review. My first contractor had 13 reviews and an overall 4.5 rating on Yelp, but I realized 6 of these 5 star ratings were fake reviews completed by staff who worked for the company as well as the actual subcontractors. You can usually tell these are fake reviews when a lot of the users joined Yelp at the same time and their reviews were completed on the same date/similar time. So Emma H, George S. and Victoria M. all left a 5 star review on 4/26/2017, joined Yelp on 4/26/2017 and have only left this review all year? Chances are they are fake. 

Initially when I began remodeling homes, I would be skeptical of the usefulness of a general contractor. I thought, I can just find subcontractors myself so I don't have to pay the contractor for what is essentially a middleman fee. The truth is, whether you need a general contractor or not depends on the scale of your project. If you're planning to do a single bathroom remodel, maybe you can find these subcontractors by asking material suppliers (where you're getting the tiles, slabs, fixtures from) for references. It gets a little complicated and difficult to co-ordinate once you are doing multiple jobs (bathroom, kitchen, floor, exterior), and that is where the general contractor's expertise comes in. They do this full time and are able to source subcontractors, get discounts on materials/labor, and organize the whole project. 

3. GET MULTIPLE ESTIMATES FROM DIFFERENT CONTRACTORS

It can be tempting to enter into a contract with the first company or contractor you meet with to get an estimate but my advice to you is do not rush. As cynical as it may sound, contractors are also salesman looking to book a job. They will persuade you into thinking they can make all your remodeling desires come true, promise you that you are getting a good price and they will complete everything to the highest standards within a short time-frame. Don't fall for this sales tactic! Do your due diligence by meeting with multiple contractors and getting several estimates. Also use your gut instinct with these contractors - do they seem trustworthy, or do they seem like an overly aggressive, loud salesman trying to close a deal? I have learned from experience that contractors who take their time to really scope out the house and write a formal, electronic work order estimate (versus a piece of paper with terrible handwriting) are the better contractors. 

4. GET EVERYTHING IN WRITING & REVIEW THE WORK ORDER

Get any work estimates and change order forms in writing, preferably electronically so you'll always be able to find it and refer to it. Once you pick your contractor/remodeling company, review the work order carefully and make sure it is detailed. Good work order forms break down the cost of each item/job, describe every detail for each job and include a separate document that breaks down the total cost into stage payments (Receiving payments upon completing a certain task, versus paying the total cost upfront). Never work with a contractor who asks for a large upfront payment or even 100% down to start the project. That is a clear sign for you to steer clear from them! 

5. ESTABLISH EVERY SMALL DETAIL YOU WANT IN THE BEGINNING

I experienced this problem early on in my remodeling experience and could have saved a lot of money by forward planning at the start of the project. The small details you think are no big deal can turn out to be a real, costly nuisance if you don't express this need to your contractor or designer early on. In the beginning of one project, I envisioned having fancy LED mirrors mounted above every vanity, wall mounted sinks (vs. deck mounted) and a wall mounted toilet in the master bathroom with the in-wall tank. My contractor initially said: "Yes, I can do all that for you," so I assumed everything would be alright. Once all the tiles were installed in the bathrooms, I realized that the entire accent wall in my powder bathroom was already tiled without any wiring for the LED mirror. My contractor told me I didn't explicitly say I want it in every bathroom, and he only wired two of the four bathrooms for the LED mirrors. I also use toilets with electronic bidet seats, so I need outlets right next to every toilet in every bathroom. I failed to tell my contractor early on that I needed outlets next to every toilet, but luckily none of them were painted and tiled yet. If the walls were all tiled it would have been very costly to remove the tiles, drywall, run wiring and redo all that work. 

Items you want and must convey to your contractor at the beginning of the project include: 

  • home automation systems (complete wired home security system, complete built in speakers in ceilings all over house) 
  • wired lighting (outlets, chandeliers, recessed lights, stairs pathway lighting, underneath kitchen cabinets)
  • unique plumbing fixtures (rainfall shower head, body jets, wall mounted faucets and wall mounted toilets) 
  • flush baseboards (modern style baseboards that are flush with the drywall) 
Flush baseboards for a modern look

Flush baseboards for a modern look

6. PURCHASE ALL THE MATERIALS TOGETHER & PLAN AHEAD

As someone who is very particular about interior design, I tend to have a clear vision of what style, materials and look I am hoping to achieve for a remodeling project. Therefore, I am not the type of person to source all my materials from a single store (e.g. Home Depot, Lowe's) and I prefer to research and find my own tiles/fixtures from a variety of places. Your contractor will probably refer you to several stores to purchase your materials from and tell you that they have been working together for a long time so they can give you good prices. I advise you to do your due diligence and physically go out to as many stores as you can to compare prices and see what options are out there. I probably spent a whole month (hopefully you can condense this into a week) going to various areas around Orange County and the San Fernando Valley picking out tiles, fixtures and marble slabs to ensure I was getting a great price and high quality materials. 

Unfortunately some of the materials I ended up ordering delayed the project as they were shipped from Italy with an ETA of 6-8 weeks after purchasing. This delay couldn't have been avoided as I was very set on the tiles I picked out, however it is important to relay this to your contractor so they can try to plan around this and schedule work to start on other areas of your project first. If you have a strict deadline to follow for a flip house, we advise you to purchase materials that are already in stock so they are either immediately ready for pick up or ready in 3-5 business days. 

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7. STAY ON TOP OF THE WORK & YOUR CONTRACTOR

Hiring a contractor to complete your remodeling job takes a lot of the hard work off of your shoulders, but it is important to keep track of what work is being done and the progress of your project (this is essential if you aren't at the home every day to monitor the work being done). Always ask your contractor for weekly plans on what work is going to be done at the house on which days, and follow up to make sure the work has been done. If you can't physically be at the property, ask for weekly photo and video updates that can be sent via text. 

For my most current remodeling job, I visit the property every week to make sure the work has been done properly and to my satisfaction. Many times your contractor will tell you certain tasks will be completed and upon inspection you realize the work hasn't even started. Frequent visits to the remodeling site is important especially for larger projects where starting a task is contingent on completing another task first - for example, you must make sure they installed your shower head and all the plumbing perfectly before they fabricate a whole marble slab for the shower walls (that have cut outs for the fixtures), otherwise it can create a very costly delay to your project! 

8. DON'T LIVE IN THE HOUSE

Although this might not be possible for every situation, we recommend that you don't live in the house during your remodeling project. This applies more specifically to new homeowners who have just purchased a property. Having no furniture and personal property at the site makes it easier for workers to get the job done quicker and also ensures that none of your property gets damaged or stolen. For full home remodeling projects which requires extensive demolition, you should expect your house to be uninhabitable as there will be too much dust, debris and potentially dangerous materials (e.g. exposed framing with nails sticking out) around the property. 

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9. CALCULATE & MONITOR PAYMENTS TO CONTRACTOR

Payments to your contractor should be a straightforward process as it was already planned out as stage payments in the original work order - right? Unfortunately this ideal situation rarely plays out as your project will likely include change order forms, which change the price of your project and consequently the stage payments to your contractor. Be very aware of the money you are handing over to your contractor/company and calculate any modifications to the cost of your project. Especially if you requested to take certain jobs out of your project, make sure this is reflected in a proper contract change order form and request your contractor to re-calculate payments. To avoid any hidden costs and mark ups we also recommend you purchase materials yourself, as any savings your contractor can get you can usually be obtained anyway by requesting the material supplier for wholesale or "contractor pricing."  

Another tip regarding payments is to always withhold a "final payment" before the project ends to ensure the entire job was done to your complete satisfaction. Inspect the property and point out any details you would like them to correct. Most reputable and larger remodeling companies already factor this into the stage payments as "upon completion and final inspection." On a remodeling job of around $100,000, you can expect this final payment to be around $2000. 

10. WARRANTY AND GUARANTEES

This is rarely addressed in house remodeling articles because it is often overlooked in most projects. Most reputable contractors from larger companies generally have a guarantee or warranty for around one year so if anything happens as a result of poor quality workmanship or faulty installation, they will fix it. This is important particularly because if anything was installed poorly, you will likely realize this very early on. For example, you might notice your beautiful white carrara marble tiles are turning brown in the shower which was a result of a poor installation and broken water pipe behind the tiles in the wall. Your contractor should resolve this by breaking open the wall, redo the plumbing properly and re-tile the wall (provided this is done within the guarantee period). Certain materials also have guarantees from the manufacturer such as Caeserstone. Caeserstone provides lifetime warranty for their products so if your countertop chips, they will replace it for you. 

Keep all these tips in mind for your remodeling project and it should be a smooth and successful one. Remember to always plan ahead and enjoy the whole process, as it can be a very fun, rewarding experience. 

Good luck!