Saving Money on a Remodel

I'm combining my notes and some links in one post on this one, because they're all related and I don't have as much to say that's not about the links.

How to save money on a remodel is the single most common question I am asked. After, maybe, "what will it cost to do a remodel on my house?" with no other context at all. The answer is a simple one: I have no idea. I don't know what you want to do and where your skills are, how much patience you have for disruption, or how desperate your need is. All these things make a difference.

Years ago I wrote a set of steps to save money on a renovation. That's still true. But let me supplement:

1. Scale back what you want to do. Remove everything you don't absolutely need to do right away. The less you are doing, the cheaper the work will be. If you can, hold onto old appliances or fixtures and reuse them, planning to replace them when you have more money (this may not be possible with plumbing fixtures in California).

2. Do as much of the actual design and construction as you are able yourself. This is only good if a) you can actually do this stuff or are interested in learning, and b) you have the time or energy to deal with it (know that it will take a lot longer than hiring a crew to come in and bang it out). But yeah, the reason contractors make money is that they can deliver work faster than you can and without having to spend two Saturdays re-reading books on plumbing to puzzle out how the vent for the toilet is going to run.

In project management there's an old saw that is an old saw because it is true: fast, cheap, good: pick two. Most people aren't willing to compromise on good, and should they? Not unless they want to. So it becomes a balancing act between speed and price. Only you can make the call about which one you are up for.

If you look at my house work and think "I could never do that," do not try to do anything big yourself. Or, well, plan to pay a lot for it (renovation prices are $250-400 per square foot around here right now, and rising).

3. Set up really clear boundaries with any contractors and stick to them. If you are doing some but not all work yourself, do not interfere with your contractor or get in their way, or it will cost you money. Have things set up for them to come in and do their thing, and stay clear until they are done. Do not use their tools when they are gone. Just don't. Have good, detailed drawings of what you want ready for them the day they show up, because nothing not in writing actually exists. If you are buying materials, have them on site and ready for them before they start work. Do you want to pay hourly for a contractor to run to Home Depot? Doubt it.

4. Maybe if you are doing only a small job, you can do your own demo. For large, complex jobs, or anything where you are taking down structural walls, only do your own demo if you are extremely fit and do not mind being potentially injured for life. I took a lot of Construction Management classes in architecture school -- it was my minor -- and a good number of my classmates were having their tuition paid for by worker's comp re-training settlements for injuries on the job doing demolition. Consider getting good supplemental accident insurance.

Now to look at what everybody else is saying:

Apartment Therapy: 5 Places Where It's OK (or Better!) to Skimp at Home

Here's my take on where you can save with renovation/redecoration:

Spend money on things that will be installed permanently and will be expensive to replace (cabinets, windows, heating systems, flooring for an entire house).

Spend money on the things you touch all the time (faucets, doorknobs, countertops) and save money on things that are easy to replace and/or rarely touched (flooring for a limited area, decorative items, dishes, towels), and DEFINITELY save money on things that get broken all the time (glassware, chopsticks).

I also am willing to spend money on premium paint, because I am the one painting most of the time. And I'm not willing to spend huge amounts on surface-mounted or hanging light fixtures, because I am fickle and know I will change my mind and want to switch them out. (By not a lot of money I mean I balk at prices over $500 for decorative fixtures; I don't want to set the house on fire. Recessed fixtures are much cheaper.)

Apartment Therapy: 5 No-Regrets Ways to Safely Skimp on a Home Remodel

1. Do the purchasing yourself

Sometimes this works. Sometimes you can find fixtures and so forth for much cheaper online than locally. Be aware that you really have to know what you need by the part number, and you have to be aware of where you are purchasing things, but knock yourself out. Walk through the process of installing the item after it arrives to make sure you have all the parts.

2. Shop sales

This may work. A lot of things just never go on sale, but for things that do, getting started a year early and working on procurement can save you money. You will need to basically warehouse the stuff in your own home, but if you have the patience for that (I have had a toilet in my hallway for three years!) then yes, this can work. Be extra careful because if you break it, there is no returning it. Plumbing supply is not like Nordstrom.

3. Do your own drawings

Yeah, this will save you money. You may still need to hire an engineer, but you can save 10-15 percent of your project cost by skipping hiring an architect. Be aware that building departments hate dealing with people (not just homeowners, but everybody) and each one has its own crusty secret requirements and obscure rules that are not written down, and also be aware that if you have no architect you have nobody to be on your side with any contractors you may hire, but you may not hire any contractors. So yes, you can save money doing this. I would not recommend it for anything larger than a single-room remodel, though. (My method of literally going to architecture school and becoming my architect is maybe not the most efficient way to save money on a home renovation, and I'm still hiring an engineer and an interior designer for our renovation work.)

4. Be your own contractor

Hiring subs is complicated and they require supervision. Unless you have experience as a general contractor I would not do this. Your incremental savings will not be so much, and the subs who will work for a homeowner rather than a general contractor will charge you more because they know you are going to be harder to work with. The best subs I know won't even return calls if you weren't referred to them by a contractor they trust.

5. Doing work yourself

I think this is rather optimistically written up. If you can do the work, do it. But don't work around your contractor. It will take them longer to do the work, and it will cost you more. Give them a specific section of work (rough in the bathroom plumbing) and stay out of their way until it is done.

21 Ways to Save On Your Remodel

1. Increase efficiency, not size

It is always going to save you money to work on less space. Another way of saying this is to rein in the scope of the project to what you can afford.

2. Bring in natural light without adding windows

I agree that light tubes are great -- we are actually adding a bunch of them in the upstairs hall to make up for lack of windows, since there's no reasonable way to add windows to the historic facade of the house where the hallway is. But light tubes do not always work, and if your roof is on the edge of needing replacement, you should have it replaced at the same time as you install the tubes. That can make light tubes very expensive, indeed.

3. Hit the recycling center

Reused fixtures can be a great bargain. This ties in well with taking the time to do all your project procurement yourself; if you get started early you can haunt these places for just the perfect thing.

4. Donate your trash

I don't know where these guys live (well, This Old House is Boston-based), but recycling is actually mandated by law around here in most cities depending on the project size. I mostly use Craigslist ("there is a non-compliant toilet at X street, will delete this post when it is gone"), but there are a plethora of reuse places around here that will at the very least take stuff and give you store credit to help offset the cost of the reused fixtures you buy.

5. Do your own demo

See above.

6. Consider long–term costs, not just short–term gains

Yes, it is worth spending money for factory-applied finishes. Factories can control for a lot of things you can't on site, like moisture content and wind debris. Also consider spending more on roofing material to get a roof that lasts twice as long. Where you don't want to be fussing with things sooner than later, consider spending more money to get a higher quality or a better warranty so it is not your problem any more.

7. Tap your contractor's sources

Yes, it is frequently worth it to see what kind of discounts your contractor can get you on materials before you spend a ton of time procuring them yourself.

8. Limit recessed light fixtures

This will save you money, but at the price of the design. I am putting in a ton of recessed fixtures in our remodel.

  1. We need more light in this house; I am sitting in the library now and it is straight-up DARK in here with the overhead light on
  2. When else am I going to be willing to deal with the kind of chaos that installing recessed lighting causes?
  3. The number of surface-mounted fixtures I'd need would look profoundly ugly. If i did it as hanging fixtures it would look just weird.

So remember this is a tradeoff of design and cost.

9. Consult an architect

I disagree with their assessment of how to save money, because I don't know any architects who work that way (my drawings are instruments of service; you only get them by paying me to provide the service) but an architect can certainly help you get the design you want in your budget. Also, their suggested fees are confusing and weird. My fees are between 10-15 percent of construction cost, depending on what is being designed. At $250/sf on the low end of construction costs right now, that would be $7500 for a 300 square foot addition, not the $2,250 they cite.

10. Partner with a contractor

If you can find a contractor who does this, it seems reasonable, and a good way to learn.

11. Make sweat equity count

I disagree with the amount they think this will save. The contractor is paying for his guys to be out there every day. They're not going to charge you less if you tell them to knock off early. You could probably save money by not requiring the job site to be clean every night, but not much. Probably not enough. A good contractor is cleaning as they go, not just at the end of the day.

12. Do your own schlepping

Yeah, go ahead. I'm not sure we've saved so much money by buying the big truck and hauling our own stuff. Certainly not enough to pay for the truck yet. But if you already have a big truck, save yourself some money ($250 per delivery, in some cases) by hauling your own stuff. Certainly, if it can be carried in a passenger car, you should pick it up yourself. But be aware that we nearly bottomed out Noel's car with the tile for just the side porch floor. Tile is heavy. Concrete is heavy. You will not carry much in a small car.

13. Don't overspend on wall prep

This is a good idea for damaged plaster.

14. Consider look-alikes

When a material is too expensive, yes, by all means get something that looks the same but is cheaper. Be careful about durability, check warranties carefully, but you can definitely save money by going for lower-cost alternatives. In fact, one thing our interior designer at my office does a lot of is hunt for lower-cost equivalents of expensive tiles or materials that clients have fallen in love with.

15. Demolish the whole house and start from scratch

This sounds insane, but not all houses are precious, and maybe you bought a cheap tract house with moldy drywall and water issues. In that case, yes, look into a total teardown. It may be a lot cheaper than trying to repair everything wrong with a house where a lot of things are going wrong.

16. Wait until contractors want your business

This is irrelevant in the Bay Area. Unless you are willing to wait until the next economic downturn.

17. Skip the foundation


18. Don't move the kitchen sink

Moving plumbing costs money, so yeah, avoid that as much as possible.

19. Plan with stock sizes in mind

Definitely. Especially for kitchen cabinets. A lot of lines have stock sizes and won't charge you to downsize the cabinet. But you'll still be paying for more cabinet than you get if you change a lot of sizes. Try to change only the end cabinet to fit. Likewise, try to size rooms to use sensible amounts of drywall. Our living rooms are 11'-6" tall, which works well with standard drywall sizes. If they were 12'-2" (or 8'-2") tall they would be a pain in the ever-loving ass with that extra 2" of drywall needed. That's worth considering when you plan an addition.

20. Buy building supplies at auction

This is one of those hit or miss ways to save money. You could save money, but you could also end up buying a bunch of stuff you didn't plan on buying because auctions are exciting.

21. Make decisions early

Yes. Make decisions early, document them thoroughly, and don't change your mind unless a problem comes up that prevents the plan from working (not everything is solid and confirmed in renovation).

Expert Advice: 15 Secrets for Saving Money on a Remodel

1. Pay attention to the foundation

Sure, a bad foundation can be an expensive thing, but keep in mind where you live. In the Bay Area, foundation replacements are common, and there are many companies that do them, so the prices are not insane. You may be able to get much more house if you are willing to pay for a replacement (call contractors and ask about pricing while you are preparing to buy a house, if this is your approach). In San Francisco, adding a second parking space in a renovated foundation will more than pay for itself in home value.

2. Make at least one spectacular change

This is a sanity thing. Yes, do something that will make your heart soar every time you see it.

3. Keep the same size windows, if possible

Changing window size may not be allowed by your city, and it costs money. So yeah, use your existing openings where possible. Or decide that is where you are going to spend money, because you want more natural light. I think good windows are worth spending money on. They are like jewelry for your house.

4. Use existing plumbing locations, if possible

Moving plumbing costs money. Agreed.

5. Insulate all exterior walls and ceilings

Anything you open up, insulate (you'll have to, in most places). Anything you have access to, insulate. Anything else, this is not going to save you money unless you are in a winter climate.

6. If you can afford it, go for custom cabinets

Agreed. Though semi-custom has some nice options available. Get plywood boxes and solid wood doors, and many of the custom features will not matter to you.

7. Two words about countertops: Remember resale

Nope. Unless you are planning to move out in 5 years, of course. Then consider resale for everything. But for yourself? Choose the countertops you want to touch every day. Don't skimp on countertops.

8. Unless you're a serious cook or money is no object, don't buy an expensive commercial-style range and fridge

Agreed. Decide if you want to pay for style or function, and choose the function to match what you actually cook, rather than upgrading like mad for no reason. If you don't do a lot of cooking, you will literally not miss that giant stove one bit, and you will have much more space in your kitchen. And there is never a reason for a commercial-look refrigerator other than aesthetics.

(I should note: if that aesthetic is that important to you, spend the money on it with my blessing. Your values are what you should reflect in your home, not mine. Just know that this is a place where you can cut a lot of money out of your budget if it is not that important to you.)

9. There's a trend now to make kitchens and bathrooms huge, but they needn't be—after all, they're also the most expensive to build

Yes and yes. Sheesh, yes. They're expensive to build and take the most maintenance.

10. Buy a good toilet—the new ones are quiet and use less water

And get clogged less often. And are often self-cleaning. Consider that one.

11. Choose shower curtains over custom glass shower doors

Yeah, to save money. They are cheaper. But I've had my say on glass doors.

12. Study your lighting needs—it's much more cost effective to introduce lights during a remodel than after

This is true, especially for recessed lights. Also less disruptive.

13. Don’t overlook the big-box hardware stores as a source for materials and inspiration

Inspiration, yes. But keep in mind that the big box stores have negotiated with vendors for lower-cost versions of the things they sell, which are often made with cheaper parts. So that light fixture you love the look of may be very poorly made. The faucet may have plastic parts that wear out fast. Consider that when you go low-price shopping. Look carefully at part numbers and model names, and consider why they have special models only available at X store that look almost exactly like another model.

14. Spend on door hardware, light fixtures, and faucets

Everything you touch, yes. I'm not convinced on every light fixture. Certainly on recessed lights (where spending more is not spending a lot), but not decorative chandeliers or sconces, where fashion will change.

15. Never underestimate the transformative powers of color

A lot can be solved by painting. I am a big fan of making bold moves in paint, because they are mostly reversible.

Contractor Tips: 10 Ways to Get the Remodel You Want for Less

This is actually a really good explanation of how to save money, and no surprise it is written by a contractor.

1. Finish the plan

I find clients are often anxious to get started, to the point where they skimp on figuring out the design and getting materials nailed down. Don't be anxious about schedule and you will get a better job for less (choose good and cheap, give up on fast).

2. Find a contractor willing to value engineer your project

Most contractors I work with are more than happy to sit down with you and your designer to tighten up the design and help you fit it into your budget. You may need to pay them an hourly fee, but do it. You'll spend probably a couple of hours going through the plans and talking about what things cost, and you could save a lot of money.

3. Use eBay and Craigslist

Another suggestion to look for stuff for less where you can. Online is a little more reasonable a suggestion than haunting resale stores or auctions, but you may enjoy that kind of thing.

4. Schedule work for the winter

If you are in a climate where work slows for the winter, go ahead. This won't save you much in the Bay Area, where we work year-round. One thing that will save you money is if you don't need your work to be finished up for a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas. If you can be flexible on that, most contractors will love you to pieces.

5. Be nice

This is much overlooked. Be nice, don't pester your contractor or architect with daily calls asking for status, understand you are not the only job they are working on. These things come back to you in ways that save you money. I may be thinking of your job in the back of my head all weekend because you make me happy, so you get hours of my time and attention without paying for it. Similarly, your contractor will cut you those small breaks that add up if he always thinks well of you.

6. Be 'good pay'

This is not about being a sucker. This is about paying for work that has been done, promptly and with a check that does not bounce. The contractor has to pay his workers whether you like that shade of beige you chose or not.

7. Focus on what you need

This is part of paring down your scope. Need is stuff that is expensive or hard to replace when you have more money and want to upgrade. Need is not fancy cabinet pulls or $100/sf backsplash tile.

8. Barter

If you can make it work, go for it. This works well if you are a: interiors photographer, structural engineer, civil engineer, lumberyard owner, tile store owner, architect, subcontractor in a specialty. This does not work well if you are a: web developer, accountant. You might think a small business would need an accountant or a web developer, but chances are they already have one they work with and have a relationship with. And bartering doesn't work as soon as you get out of the allied fields and into fields like teaching or marketing.

9. Don't do everything now

Phasing work intelligently is the better part of project management. Only do the things you must do now. If you must get it all finished, you cannot save money this way.

10. Do some of the work yourself

Maybe. At least this guy is actually realistic about who is willing to work with homeowners this way.

Apartment Therapy: Kitchen Renovations: When to Save and When to Splurge

I strongly disagree with some of this article. Let me tell you why.

SAVE on cabinets

It is quite complicated to switch out a cabinet that breaks down after ten years. You will probably have to redo the counter above it. The specific cabinet that broke may not be made any more, so replacement could mean a custom box to replace the one that is damaged. But really, if one broke down, the others are soon to follow, so you should replace them all.

Your choices are not solid wood bespoke cabinets or IKEA. There is a whole world of custom and semi-custom cabinets in between there. I would actually recommend a plywood cabinet over a solid wood one, because solid wood is not very good at being thin.

The first place I see wear on cabinets is MDF doors getting scratched and puffing from airborne moisture. The second place I see wear is particleboard shelves and too-wide drawer bottoms sagging. Then I see shredding of particleboard at inset hinges. These are all signs of cheap cabinet construction.

So no. Do not save on cabinets by going as cheap as possible.

(Disclosure: the firm I work for sells cabinets from a couple of different lines. I make cabinet decisions regularly. I do sometimes use IKEA cabinets, but not in kitchens. The upper cabinets we installed in our own kitchen are IKEA, and we are happy with them, but they are mostly empty so no overloading issues, and we knew they only had to last until we got to the point of redoing the kitchen. Our new kitchen will not have any IKEA cabinets at all, but we will probably move the ones we have now into the basement.)

SPLURGE on hardware

Maybe. It's possible to spend a ridiculous amount of money on kitchen hardware. It will save you a lot of money to keep looking and to try to find hardware that suits you AND your budget.

SAVE on floor

If the floor is a confined area, yes. If it's a continuous floor through the whole home, no. Anything where you have to move out to replace or repair any issues should be top quality. But just the floor in the kitchen? Cheap is just fine.

SPLURGE on backsplash

Why? Why in god's name would you splurge on a backsplash? Is this to make up for saving so much money by buying cheap cabinets?

If it's a focal feature of your kitchen, go crazy with the backsplash. But know that if you run out of money -- which almost everybody is doing by the time they get to the backsplash installation -- a totally legit option is a really minimal backsplash that you can change out when you have the money to do what you want (or when you have the time away from construction chaos to make up your mind).

SAVE on freestanding vs. built-in appliances

I will not argue with this one. I'm not crazy about built-in appliances (except dishwashers) because they're more expensive for no good reason, both to install and to repair, and later to replace, if you are even able to find something to fit your extremely specific cutouts. This is why I prefer a range to a cooktop and wall ovens.

SPLURGE on worktops

Yes, anything you touch every day is worth spending money on.

posted by ayse on 01/23/15