• A Beginner’s Guide to Home Renovation

    By Karen DeVenaro

    Remodeled Kitchen at the Author’s House

    I’ve been an avid writer and video creator on the subject of DIY home improvement for about 8 years. I really believe that anyone can learn how to use tools and take care of their own homes, with just a little bit of training. As the co-founder of the youtube channel “See Jane Drill” I worked with tradespeople to create dozens of videos in which we taught people how to do everything from plumbing to carpentry to electrical work and more.

    Until this past year, though, I had never done a large-scale home project of any kind. But as it happened, I needed to sell my house, and my house needed a LOT of work! Most importantly, the house needed a new kitchen, as ours hadn’t been updated since the house was built in 1967. And I didn’t have a lot of money in my budget. So, after much consideration, I decided to jump in and manage the project myself. It was a learning experience! My family was eager to pitch in and help me, and I couldn’t have done it without them. Together, we did most of the work ourselves, only hiring contractors to do the parts we either couldn’t do or didn’t want to do. We ended up doing more work than we originally planned, and it took longer than expected. I spent more money than I had planned to spend. But I am so proud that we did it ourselves! It was a great experience for my 16-year old son, and it didn’t hurt that the house sold right away!

    If you own a home, chances are that you too have a running list of “to-do” projects around your house that you would like to accomplish.  Maybe you just bought your first “fixer-upper” home, and you need to prioritize which jobs you want to tackle first.  Or maybe, like me, you are renovating your older home in preparation for putting it on the market.  Or you might just have a dated kitchen or bathroom that needs updating.

    In this guide, I will share with you what I have learned about doing your own home renovation project, including:

    • DIY or Contractor?
      • Decide whether you want to manage the project yourself or hire a general contractor.  Alternatively, you could do some combination of both.
    • Set Yourself Up for Success 
      • Figure out how to fit the project into your work life and home life.
    • Scope of Project
      • Learn how to determine the scope of your project, and how much you reasonably can get done within the budget and time frame that you have available to you.
    • Financing your project
      • Set a reasonable budget for your project, and learn what to do to account for project overruns.
    • Scheduling Your Timeline
      • Learn how to set a realistic timeline for your project, and how to handle delays that arise.
    • In each section, I will also include tips and real-life lessons learned from my home renovation project.

    Section 1

    Hiring a Contractor vs. Managing the Project Yourself

    One of the first decisions you will need to make about your project is whether to hire a general contractor to manage it, or whether you will be your own general contractor and run the show yourself.  If you hire a general contractor, they will serve as the project manager, doing all the coordinating, scheduling, hiring of subcontractors and buying materials. They will give you a price for their services, which includes a healthy markup. This is certainly a viable route that many people choose. It is a great option if you have the budget to pay for a general contractor, and you don’t have the time or inclination to manage the project yourself. There is some peace of mind in not having to do everything yourself. At the same time, you will have less control over the project, as you will be subject to the general contractor’s availability and resources.

    The other option is to decide to be your own general contractor, and run the project yourself. This is what I did for the renovation of my house. If you choose this route, you have full control over your project, but you also have full responsibility for everything. One of the advantages is that you can decide to do all the work yourself, none of the work yourself, or do some of the work yourself (saving big bucks!) and hiring contractors to do jobs you don’t want to do.

    Yes, there is a learning curve if you have never managed a construction project before, and that needs to be considered. There were times when things didn’t go well that I wondered about whether or not I had made the right decision. But as with most things that involve taking some risks, the rewards are also potentially great!

    Project Manager Office and Crew Break Room

    If you are contemplating a large home renovation project, and are considering being your own general contractor, here are some pros and cons to help you make your decision:

    Being Your Own General Contractor: Pros and Cons

    • Saving Money
      • Pro: The biggest advantage to serving as your own general contractor is of course, saving money. The average markup that a general contractor charges in the U.S. is 20% on labor and materials.
      • Con: General contractors get bulk discounts on tools and construction materials that the average homeowner doesn’t have access to, even if you follow the tips below on ways to save money on tools and materials.
    • Better Resource Control.
      • Pro: If you hire a contractor, your project is subject to their available time, labor and resources.  If you are your own general contractor, you control everything, including the ability to decide which portions of the work you might like to tackle yourself, which order the jobs should be done in, which subcontractors to hire and what materials to use.
      • Con: You won’t have access to the same network of subcontractors that a general contractor is likely to have.  You will have to invest more research and time into ensuring you are working with quality tradespeople and paying them a fair price. If you want to do the work yourself, you will most likely have to invest a fair amount of time in learning how to do the project.
    • Quality Control and Delivering the Project:
      • Pro: Particularly on a large project that involves demolition and construction inside your home, you can monitor the quality of the work that is being done much more easily than if your GC is running the show, because you will be managing the subcontractors that are installing new plumbing, electrical, hanging drywall, etc.  Or you might be doing some of that work yourself. Managing your own project can be much more rewarding than hiring someone to do everything.
      • Con:  You are responsible for everything! Unless you are a skilled tradesperson with a lot of project management experience, there will be a learning curve to doing this type of work, and it can be stressful.  That is certainly something to consider when you are making this decision.
    Ask a Lot of Questions

    You Can Do It! Tips For Choosing Contractors:

    • There are some good websites out there that can help you choose contractors, such as Angie’s List and Home Advisor.  You can read reviews of contractors and also what the average price should be various types of jobs in your area.
    • If you are planning on selling your home after renovation, consider asking your realtor for recommendations for contractors.  Your realtor is going to have a long list of contractors that they work with on a regular basis that they can refer you to.  My realtor was very helpful about this. Don’t forget that they want your house to sell too. I got great referrals for some of the jobs that we didn’t want to do ourselves, such as flooring installation and had some great contractors for a number of the jobs that we didn’t want to do ourselves, such as exterior house painting, landscaping, and flooring installation.
    • When you are interviewing contractors, general or subcontractors, there might be room for negotiation.  What some people may not know is that you can request to do some portions of the job yourself, and your bill to the contractor will be less.  For example, if you demolish the old kitchen yourself and the contractor has a “blank slate” to work with, that will save you money. In our case, we bought our own new appliances on sale, as well as the kitchen cabinets and flooring. We poured our own concrete underlayment to level out the kitchen floor before the flooring installer came in and laid the flooring we had purchased. This saved us thousands!
    • Lastly, do check out the 20 Questions You Should Ask Before Hiring a Contractor!

    Section 2

    Setting Yourself Up for Success

    If you are going to be managing your own project, whether you plan to do some or all of the work yourself, perhaps the most important element that I can share with you is how to set yourself up for success. Take a small amount of time to do this planning piece, and you are very likely to have a successful home renovation project!

    1. Allow yourself time to work on the project. It seems obvious, right? But once you are mid-project, you don’t want to be surprised by how much work it really is to manage it, especially if you are doing a lot of the work yourself. I started out with a vague idea that I would be able to devote 2-3 hours per day to the renovation, but towards the end it became more like a full-time job! Try to decide early on, depending upon the scope of your project, whether you need to take some time off from your day job to accomplish the project, or whether it will be enough to work on it in evenings and weekends. Figure out how much time your family members and friends can devote to helping out. Check out the scheduling section below for an estimate of how long different types of projects might take you to accomplish. Once you have an estimate of how much time on a weekly or monthly basis you will need to invest in the project, add 30% to it to account for unexpected events.

    2. Set up a workshop/work area. Designate the garage as your workshop if you have one. Otherwise, find a corner of the house where you can set up a desk for making phone calls and working on the budget, and a place to store tools and equipment that you will be using for the job.

    3. Provide Work Gear and Personal Protective Gear. If you are going to be working on the project yourself, you may want to have some work gear that is only used for the project. You will be so glad you did! Some good items to have include:

    • Work clothes, such as overalls or painter’s paints, old t-shirts, old sweatshirts, sweaters or jackets (especially if you will be working in an unheated house or outdoors a lot)
    • Work Boots
    • Good Socks
    • Changes of work clothing, especially if you will be working in a dirty environment. For example, when I was removing all the popcorn ceilings in the house, I would get covered with the stuff, and needed to change clothes immediately afterward.
    • Personal protective gear – While this depends upon the work you will be doing, you will want to have appropriate masks, work gloves, nitrile gloves, a hard hat, safety glasses, and face shields available to you and those helping you. Be sure to have a first aid kit on hand, hand sanitizer and a fire extinguisher if you don’t already have one.
    Our Tool Bench Central

    4. Choose a designated area or large workbench as the “landing place” for tools, and train everyone to return tools to their proper place. I’m putting this tip in bold because it is so very important, and we initially did not know that we should do this. For the first month of the project, I found myself running up and down stairs to the garage several times a day and searching all over the house for that tape measure, wrench, drill or pencil that I was looking for. It became untenable, and so I built a large rolling tool bench out of scrap wood and casters, and used it as the main tool and equipment storage area. As the job progressed, I found we needed more storage space, so I got some inexpensive rolling carts from Harbor Freight to store various items as well. The nice thing about having caster and wheels on everything was that it was easy to move the carts from room to room. In addition to the main tool bench, I had a cart for painting supplies, one for drywall supplies, and one for screws, nuts and bolts. They were a lifesaver, and the job went much more quickly once everyone didn’t have to keep stopping and looking for things.

    5. Food and beverages. We weren’t living in the house that we were renovating, and it was in a suburban area. Although we generally made a coffee shop run every morning on our way to the house, it was impractical to eat out a lot during long continuous days of working in a house with no working kitchen! If your project involves a kitchen remodel, find a place to set up a hot water boiler, a microwave, and a refrigerator if you have one. Stock the refrigerator and some shelves or large plastic boxes with drinks and easy to eat items that everyone likes. It can be helpful to have an informal “break area” for people to gather for meals and coffee breaks. We found that this was a good time be a little “lax” on the healthy diet that we usually eat. In fact, our motto in terms of diet was “What happens at the shop stays at the shop“. And after a hard morning of running a jackhammer or hanging sheetrock, a snack of cookies or ice cream was definitely appreciated by all!

    You Can Do It! Tool Tips:

    As anyone who has ever done a home improvement project knows, tools and work equipment can be costly. Here are my best ideas for outfitting your home shop for success without spending too much money:

    • Assess what tools you already have, what tools you can borrow from family and friends, and what tools you will need to buy. Many cities have tool libraries that work just like a book library…you check out tools and then return them when you are done with them. It’s a great resource!
    • Buy the less important items from a cheap source. While I generally advocate for using the best tools you can afford, there are certain tools and other items that I think makes sense to buy really cheaply from Harbor Freight or other discount tool retailers. Some examples from my project included clamps, ladders, microfiber cloths, masks, goggles, and sandpaper.
    • If you are contemplating a large power tool purchase, such as a table saw, consider the following questions:
      • Will it help you to complete a job that you otherwise would have had to hire a contractor to do? (If yes, it might be well worth it)
      • Can you use it for multiple components of your project?
      • Is it easy to learn to set up and operate?
      • Can you use it after your project is over?
      • If not, can you sell it after your project is over?

    Section 3

    The “Nuts and Bolts” of Construction Projects: Scope, Schedule & Financing

    If you were working with a general contractor, they would be laying out the scope, schedule and costs in a formal contract with you. If you are managing your own project, it’s a good idea to plan for these items yourself.

    1. Scope – The technical word for describing what you plan to accomplish in a project. It is very much dependent upon your schedule and budget.
    2. Schedule – The timeframe you need to complete your project.
    3. Budget – The money you can allot for this project, whether funds you already have on hand, or money you plan to borrow.

    Most importantly, do plan for budget overruns and schedule “slippage”. A general guideline is the “30% rule”, which basically means that most projects, with few exceptions, will run at least 30% over budget and take 30% longer than what you had planned for. Some people might advise a lower margin of 10% to 20%, but I found the 30% rule to fall closer to the mark.

    “Scope Creep”

    Scope creep is an informal term for when you end up doing much more on a project than you planned to do at the beginning. There are two types of scope creep issues that generally come up in a home renovation project:

    1. Cosmetic reasons. Let’s say you have a plan for your kitchen that involves leaving the existing lighting in place. You think you can live with the lighting that you have. Once you get into the project, though, you suddenly realize that the old fluorescent lights are going to look terrible with the new modern cabinets and countertops that you carefully picked out. You want to rip out the lights and put in nice new can lights. There is nothing wrong with doing this, and you may decide to go ahead with it. But it will add costs to your budget and time to your schedule.
    2. Unforeseen Issues. Unforeseen issues will arise, and they are the reason why it is advisable to follow the 30% rule outlined above. Some typical issues that can arise or become apparent once the job is underway:
      • A spot in the floor by the tub where the wood is completely rotted, and needs to be replaced
      • Electrical outlets or switches that are incorrectly wired, and need to be fixed for safety reasons
      • Leaking valves in sinks that need to be replaced
      • A floor that isn’t level, and needs to be leveled before you can install that beautiful new floor

    Fun Fact: All of the above are actual examples from my own project!

    Here is another example from my project of a type of issue that can arise that as a new project manager, you might not realize can happen:

    The Drywall Move

    One of the items in my work plan was to hang new drywall in the master bedroom and bathroom in the upstairs of the house. I demolished the old walls. I ordered the drywall and had it delivered to the house. I had planned for the cost of the drywall, including ordering 30% over the amount I thought that I needed. I planned for the time I thought it would take to cut, hang, tape and mud the new walls. I thought I had done everything correctly.

    And then I realized that carrying 75 8’x4′ pieces of sheetrock (which they call “rock” for a reason) up 2 flights of switchback stairs was going to be a problem! Even if all 4 of us were working on it, it would take us days to do this without exhausting ourselves. This was a huge stumbling block that I not anticipated.

    My solution was to rent a materials lift from my local equipment rental place, and use it to hoist the sheets of drywall up to the second floor of the house. This is what it cost me in overrun:

    • Cost: $85 for one weekend-long rental of the material lift, and $100 to rent a pickup truck to pick it up and then return it at the end of the weekend
    • Schedule: 2 days to rent the lift and transport it to the house, set up and use the lift to hoist the drywall to the second floor, and then pack up the lift and return it to the rental place.

    This actually wasn’t too bad in terms of overall cost and overall delays! I think if you have any kind of large or heavy material or furniture to move to an upper level of a house, these lifts are a great option.

    Here is a quick video of my son operating the lift:

    Roman Operating the Materials Lift

    You Can Do It! Project Planning Tools for Getting the Job Done

    1. Workflow. To help you plan the order in which you will do the jobs on your list, I have put together a visual showing the usual workflow and order of jobs when you are doing a home renovation project:

    2. Common Total Home Remodel Timeline: Below are the general guidelines for how long to plan for to accomplish each task, assuming 8 hours per day and 40 hours per week. The range of time listed assumes 1-2 rooms, and accounts for homeowner skill level vs. contractor skill level:

    • Planning: 2-4 weeks
    • Demolition: 2-3 weeks
    • Framing: 2-5 days
    • Behind the Walls: 1-2 weeks
    • Drywall: 2-4 weeks
    • Painting: 1 week
    • Stationary Items: 3-6 days
    • Flooring: 1-2 weeks
    • Finish Work: 1-2 weeks

    3. My Favorite Money-Saving Tip: Lastly, if you want to get some of the same discounts that contractors do, a little known fact is that anyone can join some of the loyalty programs at the big box home improvement stores, and get some great discounts. You don’t have to be a pro to join the Home Depot Pro Xtra rewards program. That program saved me hundreds of dollars on my project!

    Remodeled Living Room with Fireplace We Built

    So if you decide to manage your own home renovation project, it will be a journey, for sure. You can expect a lot of work, but hopefully a lot of fun too!

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