Published on June 2, 2019

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Photo by Laure Joliet

A renovation can be a daunting process. Between construction delays, unforeseen costs, or the sheer analysis paralysis that comes with picking a white paint color, there are a ton of things to learn, but there are also a million tricks in the book to make the whole process more seamless. We asked Jean Brownhill,  founder and CEO of Sweeten, a free platform that helps people find expert advice and get matched with vetted general contractors, for her best tips and expertise to take the intimidation out of renovation. Next up, the first steps to get your remodel going.

Congratulations: You’ve landed your house or apartment. You’ve closed on the home, you took possession of the keys, and now comes the fun (albeit daunting) part—making it your own. Few people are lucky enough to move into a turnkey space that fits them just right.

For most, buying a home involves a few tweaks, from the low-lift floor sanding and coat of paint to the full gut reno (and everything in between). But the path to your own lovely “after” photo can feel overwhelming. I understand this all too well: I’ve been doing renovations for more than 20 years. After thousands of projects completed, I’ve found the perfect recipe to set you up for success.

There’s no doubt that the renovation process has many layers. While it might be tempting to start demolition as soon as possible, TV renovation programs have taught us that a well-laid plan is crucial to have before anyone starts swinging a sledgehammer. Here are the first seven important steps to take before getting your demo gloves on.

Step 1: Find Inspiration to Drive Your Vision    

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Photo by Cody Guilfoyle

Ahead of diving into the nitty-gritty, get a sense of the look you’re trying to achieve. How do you picture the final result: a contemporary kitchen with a marble waterfall island? A boho-chic bath with colorful tiles? Save images on Instagram or pin photos you love to a board so you can see a theme of what you like.

But always remember inspiration is just that: inspiration. The bones and size of your space (along with your budget) will influence what’s doable and what’s not, so the final result won’t look exactly the same as the photos you love. As you work with a contractor, designer, or architect, these guidelines will help make your ideas a reality.

Step 2: Make Must-Have and Nice-to-Have Lists

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Courtesy of Studio DB

This renovation list will ensure your money goes to the right places and keeps your goals on track. In short, your must-haves include necessary repairs (electrical, plumbing, structural) and features you won’t give up. For example, we had homeowners who had to fix water damage from a bathtub leak.

Your nice-to-haves are elements you’d like to include but are nonessential in the big picture. In other words, you won’t be missing them too much when the project is done. Making these separate lists is an exercise in prioritization that will set the stage for a successful project, so get ready to flex those decision-making muscles.

Step 3: Pick Two of the Three: Fast, Cheap, Good

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This is the standard rule for almost any project management endeavor, whether it’s renovating a home or landing on the mood (okay, maybe that one is a little more complex). This rule basically takes into account the three main resources of a project: time, money, and quality. In most cases, you’ll be able to achieve any two of these, but rarely all three. In fact, I’ve never seen all three. There are always trade-offs!

Set your priorities early on to drive the expectations for the renovation. Would you prefer tackling your renovation fast and cheap and skimp on the overall quality? Or would you prefer fast and good, but spend big money to make it happen? Maybe you prefer going the cheap and good route, which will likely involve a much longer lead time.

Step 4: Research Renovation Costs and Who to Hire

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Think about your budget in buckets: labor, materials and finishes, additional fees (like permits), and then add a contingency. Understandably, many people focus on the visible parts of the project. How much you spend in one area is based on the tier of what is needed behind the scenes (upgrading electrical, for instance) and the finishes you’ll want, from low-end stock fixtures to high-end custom everything. Savvy renovators choose where to splurge and where to save, putting their money into features most important to them.

One Sweeten homeowner saved $25,000 with a cabinetry trick, but then had a fabricator book-match marble slabs as a statement-making splurge. If you’re thinking about switching your kitchen or bath layout, any major structural work or movement in plumbing or gas lines will require an architect. You can also consider design-build firms that handle both the design and the construction phase of a project. Want an expert take on finishes or a second opinion on your new space’s look? An interior designer should be on your list, too.

Step 5: Interview Potential Contractors

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The trick is to find the right general contractor match for your specific project and communication style. Interview and meet with at least three to five. Prepare a list of questions, ask to see their previous work, and call references from their past few jobs to get a sense if they’re the right fit. If you want help finding a vetted general contractor, Sweeten will match you with contractors based on all of that criteria, and the team can help establish a budget, evaluate the bids, and monitor the project until completion. We’re basically a renovation wingman!

Step 6: Get Estimates, Choose a Contractor, and Set a Start Date

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After meeting with potential pros for your project, you’ll receive estimates for how much the work will cost. It’s in your best interest to get at least three bids from contractors for comparison’s sake. Remember that the lowest bid isn’t necessarily the best one! If a bid is dramatically lower than others, it could mean the contractor missed something or perhaps doesn’t fully understand the project.

If the estimates are all in the same range, and you like the person who bid the lowest—then go with them. A tip for comparison? Look at the biggest categories of work in each and see where they diverge. Once you’ve met with all the candidates, reviewed bids, and decided on the best option, it’s time to sign the contract and set a start date. At this point, you will typically pay a percentage up front (25 to 50 percent, depending on the length and overall budget of the project).

Step 7: Fill in Your Neighbors

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Be sure to let your neighbors know construction will start soon. This way, they can plan for noise and possible disruptions (like water access and electricity). Especially if they work from home or have small children, it’s nice to have advance notice. Send an email or letter outlining the nature of the work, plus when it’s expected to start and end. They’ll appreciate the heads up, and if issues arise, they’ll likely be more understanding than if you’d kept them in the dark. It doesn’t hurt to show up with a bottle of wine (or better yet, invite them over for a glass when the reno is complete).

See more renovation tips:
This Is the First Step When Planning a Renovation
The Most Popular Room to Renovate This Spring Is…
The One Step a Renovation Expert Never Skips (No Matter What)

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