4 things to consider before starting your home renovation

DAVE McGINN   The Globe and Mail


When it comes to home renovations, there are two unassailable truths: It’s going to take longer than expected and it’s going to go over budget – sometimes way over. Oh, and given the number of nightmare stories out there, chances are you’re going to loathe your contractor. (They probably won’t be too thrilled with you, either, a lot of the times.) If you are thinking of undertaking a renovation this spring or summer, spare yourself the migraines and the moping and the complaining to friends about how awful it has all been. Get going now on the most important step of the process: proper planning.



Danny Ritchie, president of Ultimate Renovations in Calgary, has been in the business for more than three decades. The biggest mistake would-be renovators make? “Not doing enough homework up front,” he says. Even small renos, such as redoing a kitchen or bathroom, take 30 to 60 days of planning. That’s the time you will need to find a contractor, create a design and make more decisions than you can imagine. Meanwhile, you’ll have to decide how you want to use the space, visit stores to price materials and comb through design magazines for the look you want.

Kathy Saunders began renovating her Toronto home in May of last year, digging out the basement to put in a man cave and adding a new kitchen, living room and two-piece bathroom on the main floor. She had expected to be enjoying the new spaces last fall; now she hopes to have things wrapped up by next month.

“What we should have had is a much clearer picture of the timelines,” Saunders says.

The good news is that if you start planning a relatively small reno now, you can sort out those timelines. The bad news? If you’re hoping to do something more major in the next six months, such as adding a storey or putting an addition on the back of your bungalow, you’re already too late. “If you’re planning on anything major, you’d never be ready for the summer,” says Jim Caruk, host of the HGTV show Real Renos.



To find the right contractor, you need to do more than ask for a few references. “We’re all going to give you references, and we’re going to give you the best ones we’ve ever had,” Caruk says. For all you know, those references could be friends or family. “What you should do is go and look at one of the jobs [the contractor] is halfway through right now.” Talk to the client. Is the contractor reasonable to deal with? Is the job running on time? Has the contractor been going over budget?

Bryan Baeumler, host of House of Bryan and Disaster DIY on HGTV, recommends going to where contractors shop for their supplies and asking a few questions. Do the suppliers know the contractor? How often is he in buying materials? An electrician who has been purchasing thousands of dollars worth of material week in and week out for years is probably a lot more reputable that someone with a spotty shopping history.

It’s also worth going to where the pros go if you’re doing some or all of your reno by yourself, says Jennifer Flores, a Toronto-based design blogger who has been renovating her home room by room for the past five years. “We had a plumbing issue, so we went in to the plumbing supply store. Go to where the contractors go. Ask questions,” she says.



There’s no shortage of complaints about bad contractors. But know this: Even the good ones are frustrated by clients sometimes too.

“Whether you like it or not, I’m part of your family, and it’s going to be a love-hate relationship,” Caruk says.

What do clients do that drive contractors crazy?

“The biggest thing is getting the client to make decisions,” Ritchie says. Micromanagement is also a big one, Baeumler says. Both of which can be avoided by “making up your mind, having a plan and sticking to it,” he says.

And remember, you’ve hired a contractor, not a maid service, so don’t be too finicky about the cleanliness of the job site. “The homeowner should expect the contractors to be neat and tidy, but not to dust the trim every day at the end of the day,” Baeumler says.



There are the big questions – How should I find a contractor? How long will the project take? Do I really want to do this? – then there’s what Baeumler says is the biggest question of all, the fundamental starting point: How much are you willing to spend?

More often than not, the people Baeumler meets at trade shows tell stories of going 50 per cent over budget, if not more. In some cases, that could be a symptom of getting scammed. But more likely it’s indicative of a failure to plan properly. “If we’re going over budget that often, is it possible that we’re under-budgeting to begin with?” he asks.

A good rule of thumb, Caruk says, is to budget for $200 per square foot. “That gets you a good job,” he says.


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