Renovation DIY & How To

The One Step a Renovation Expert Never Skips (No Matter What)

It’ll help you save big.

We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs.

Renovating can be a daunting process, so we asked Jean Brownhill, the founder and CEO of Sweeten, a platform that helps people find expert advice and get matched with vetted general contractors, for her best remodeling tips and tricks.

Whether your renovation experience is limited to marathon binges of Renovation Realities or you sketch layouts on AutoCAD as a hobby, there are basic steps everyone should follow to kick off a remodel.

First things first: your budget. Many expenses can come as a surprise, especially for first-time renovators. For instance, don’t just think about what will go into funding those gorgeous Spanish tiles for your bathroom floor but also how much it’ll cost to install them (and who will do it). Another heads-up: If you plan on moving any plumbing or electrical around, you’ll most likely need an architect to get the work approved, and that costs a pretty penny too.

But here’s one more crucial step you might be overlooking: the creation of a list that includes “must have” and “nice to have” items. While this may seem trivial, it’s incredibly helpful in ensuring that your money is going where it should. The good news is that you probably already have this in your head because these ideas are driving your renovation urges in the first place. So what exactly goes into putting together that list? We outline every step below.

Crafting the Perfect “Must Have” List

Courtesy of Sweeten

Your “must have” items are a mix of things that have to get done—for example, fixing a broken heating system—and the things you’re not willing to compromise on, such as adding a farmhouse sink to your new kitchen because it reminds you of the one in your grandmother’s house. These are your nonnegotiables that need to be factored into your budget from the get-go. In Marie Kondo terms, these are the elements that you know will “spark joy” for you.

That list is different for everyone. In the renovation of one New Jersey mansion, the homeowner’s “must-have” list included a kitchen island for entertaining. In another, it was adding a third bedroom to a newly purchased two-bedroom home, as these Sweeten renovators did. For another renovator, her main directive was adding storage everywhere possible, including a built-in window seat and an Italian-style drying rack that would save her precious counter space.

The “must-have” list is not just about cost, either. If you know you absolutely need to have white oak floors throughout your home, like one of our homeowners, to achieve the look you’re seeking, that affects the entire visual plan for the space. Nailing down those kinds of details as early on as possible will help your project stay on track and give you a clear path to spending priorities.

Nailing Down Your “Nice to Have” List

Courtesy of Sweeten

Your “nice to haves” are items you want to include in the project plan but may not make it to the final plan. If your budget starts to run low, these items can easily drop off your list. It’s important to note that these extras aren’t going to make or break the functionality of your home and how much you love it. They’re called “nice to haves” for just that reason.

Do you need a medicine cabinet outfitted with a defogger, digital clock, and built-in lights? Yes, it may have gotten added to the project at some point, but it wasn’t in your original “must have” list. If it ends up getting cut to keep your budget on track, let it go. Remind yourself that you’re getting everything on your initial list and don’t let the momentum of the project take you away from your original vision of happiness.

Put Your Renovation Lists Into Perspective

Courtesy of Sweeten

It’s also worth considering your relationship with your home. Are you planning to stay for one to five years or 15 to 20 years? It’s your home, of course, so don’t sacrifice anything purely for the sake of resale value, but keep your overall timeline in mind as you plan for your renovation. Quality wood flooring will most likely be a more transformative change and appeal to future buyers more than all-custom cabinetry, for example. If you’ve found your forever home, you can also have fun with color or pattern in a way that won’t break the bank when you decide to sell.

Through the course of your renovation, these lists may change. Maybe you realize that fully tiled bathroom walls—which all the photos you pinned have—are no longer a priority, but the feeling of a top-of-the-line rain showerhead and hardware are. Creating these lists from the beginning is just a helpful step in prioritization and budgeting.

The biggest takeaways? “Must have” and “nice to have” lists help you guide your renovation, set your budget, and understand what you really want out of the project. You’ll see what’s most important to you and set those expectations from the beginning with your general contractor, who can also share their expertise on where to cut back on costs and what’s ultimately worth spending your money on to create your dream home. Who knows? This simple step early on may just end up saving you a ton down the line.

See more on renovating:

This Is the First Step When Planning a Renovation Chris Loves Julia Share Their Top Renovation Tips This Home Is Proof That You Can Do a Gut Renovation for Under $25,000

Jean Brownhill, named “The Contractor Whisperer” by New York and one of Inc.’s “Most Innovative Women Founders in America,” is a trained architect and CEO of Sweeten and has two decades construction experience.