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8 baselines before starting your renovation

A 20-year construction veteran offers eight baselines to consider before you pick up a hammer

Gieves Anderson

You’ve scoured the internet for hours, pinning inspiration for the perfect bathroom upgrade. You’ve re-watched the entire first season of Fixer Upper and know your home would be better off if that wall between the kitchen and living room could just come down. These days, there are more ways than ever to get psyched for a home renovation—but how do you really know you’re really ready for the process?

Daniel Thomas has been in the construction business since he was 16 years old and landed his first house-painting gig. Throughout college in the late 1980s, he spent his summers working with a construction firm in California. "The owner was a fantastic mentor, teaching me that even the best-intentioned contractors can go out of business," Thomas says. "The other mentors were the truckloads of drywall we carried up the stairs."

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In 1995, Thomas co-founded his own company in Portland, Oregon, called Hammer & Hand. Twenty-one years later, his firm has garnered a reputation for high quality construction, providing everything from historical home renovations to high performing green buildings throughout the Pacific Northwest. He offered Curbed eight baselines before picking up a hammer. Spoiler: He didn’t mention Pinterest or HGTV once.

1. Plan for lifestyle improvement, not resale

It might seem obvious, but a good place to start is to ask yourself why you want to renovate. Are you planning on staying in the home for the long haul and need it to better suit your family’s lifestyle? Or are you thinking in terms of improving the home’s resale value? Sometimes a possible project will accomplish both of these ends, but don’t count on it.

Thinking of a renovation as an investment in your lifestyle, rather than future resale, will help you evaluate whether you really want to spend the money.

Take the common kitchen remodel. Thomas cautions that, contrary to popular opinion, kitchen remodels don’t add much market value unless the existing kitchen is a slop bucket and a hole in the floor." He says, "Kitchen remodeling is a lifestyle choice. It is about the value to the homeowner now while they are living in the house." Thinking of a renovation as an investment in your lifestyle, rather than future resale, will help you evaluate whether you really want to spend the money—or leave the project for the next homeowner to enjoy.

2. Be wary of misinformation

Ask professionals in your area about the reality of the costs and value to certain remodeling projects in your market, in order to parse out misinformation that could be influencing your decision.

Thomas uses the example of ADUs, or Accessory Dwelling Units, in Portland. These are secondary units created on the same lot as a main home, such as a garage converted to a "granny flat" or a basement remodeled into a rental apartment. ADUs have been a hot topic in the city since the local government started waiving System Development Charges in order to encourage development. SDCs are one-time fees assessed to new construction and remodeling projects that are collected to offset the impact of the project on the city’s infrastructure system. Exemption from paying SDCs can save homeowners thousands of dollars, but that doesn’t mean that building an ADU comes cheap.

"If kitchens are the most common work we do, the most common inquiry is about creating ADUs," Thomas says. "But we actually build only one in 10 of the inquiries, as there is a lot of misinformation out there about the costs involved." Having conversations with the experts beforehand will help you figure out whether a project is worth your time and money.

3. Get referrals

First and foremost, starting a remodeling project means assembling a team of craftspeople. In order to get the best pros for the project, ask friends, acquaintances, and even professionals that you don’t know for their recommendations.

"Call architects that have residential experience and ask for recommendations," Thomas suggests. "Ask people who are having or have had direct experience with the architect or contractor." Thomas advocates for reading internet reviews but cautions against relying solely on online outlets. "Take Angie’s List and Yelp with a large degree of skepticism, both its glowing reviews and scathing indictments," he says. "Remember that there is no moderator to these comments."

4. Partner with an architect and a builder early

Thomas says that the number one mistake he sees homeowners make is not hiring both a designer and a builder early, so that the input of each can inform the project as it moves from the design phase to the construction phase.

"The engagement of a qualified architect and contractor early in the planning process is crucial to a project’s success," he says. If that collaboration is established early on in the planning process, says Thomas, the project has a better likelihood of being completed on-time and on-budget.

5. Better planning saves money

"Every dollar spent on design and planning is five dollars saved," says Thomas. "We strongly believe that the old model of ‘design, then bid, then build’ results in higher costs and a non-collaborative project." Instead, he encourages prospective remodelers to think of the collaborative design-build process outlined above as a means to save on their budgets, too.

"We emphasize a ‘design-build’ process, one that has us—the builder—at the table with the client and architect giving important real-cost information through the design process," Thomas says. Such a collaboration means clients can get their form, function, and budget needs met from the beginning.

6. Budget for the house's history

Old houses may or may not have "good bones" for a renovation, says Thomas. For instance, in the Pacific Northwest, he finds that homes built in the 1940s through 1960s tend to have better foundations, with solid framing composed of old-growth Doug fir.

"But just because a home is an 1888 working-class shack that has been remodeled badly every decade since—I am referring to my own home—does not mean that there isn't a reason to remodel. [There are] probably more reasons," he says. Allocate a budgetary cushion for homes with older "bones," to be prepared for unexpected problems that arise.

"I just know that in my 19th century home I can start a project to put in a dimmer switch and end up having to fix part of the foundation, patch the roof, and re-do the plumbing. It’s like pulling a thread on an old sweater," says Thomas.

7. If you think you want to DIY, know yourself really well

When considering whether to tackle your home renovations on your own, Thomas recommends realistically taking stock of four things: The project’s scope, your spare time, your talent, and local regulations. For scope, how big is the job and how many craftspeople will you need to organize? "Is herding cats something you enjoy?" Thomas asks. For example, he suggests that if you have a day job that pays more than the hourly rate of a drywaller, stay at your job and hire the craftsperson to finish the project in a quarter of the time.

"Do you enjoy doing the work? Are you any good at it? When you paint a wall, does it look like it was painted with a shoe?"

"Perhaps most important, do you enjoy doing the work?" Thomas asks. "Are you any good at it? When you paint a wall, does it look like it was painted with a shoe?" Such questions and their answers will let you know if the DIY route is right for you. Lastly, learn the local permit requirements for the project and what code allows for; some jurisdictions are stricter about the homeowner’s involvement and require certain remodeling work to be done by a licensed contractor.

8. Check your attitude

A common misconception is that remodeling projects have to be soul-sucking and grueling, "that there has to be a fight, where contractor, architect, and client are adversaries," says Thomas. "I would hate my work if this was the case." First and foremost, a home renovation project is about creative collaboration, so check your expectations and attitude before diving in. Or, as Thomas recommends, "have a glass of champagne to celebrate the start of an exciting process."