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8 Renovation Mistakes—And How to Avoid Them

Stop worrying about who might live in your home next, and don't sacrifice everything on your wish list

Carlos Chavarría

Emerick Architects, founded by husband-and-wife team Brian and Melody Emerick, has tackled dozens of commercial and residential renovation projects over the last 16 years, with an emphasis on preserving both historic housing stock and environmental resources. Their projects include everything from rehabbing a 1914 Ford Model-T factory into commercial space as part of a "massive adaptive re-use project" to numerous home remodels around the Portland metro area.

With a lot of experience comes a lot of learning, and Melody can easily point to the top renovation mistakes that she’s seen homeowners make along the way, as well as her suggestions for how to avoid them.

Mistake #1: Renovating for someone else

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"One of the biggest mistakes people make is worrying too much about the next person who’s going to be in the house," Emerick says. She believes that thinking too much about prospective buyers undermines what a homeowner ultimately wants to achieve with their renovation. So the lesson here is to stay your ground. "Besides, what I’ve come to realize is that for every person out there, there’s somebody similar," Emerick says. "Everybody’s been trained to think they need three bedrooms and two baths or something that’s very typical, but actually the world is full of a-typicals."

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Mistake #2: Renovating for an ideal self

Emerick explains that people often think that a home renovation will be some sort of magic bullet that transforms their ingrained habits. She gives an example: "People might say, ‘Next time I’m going to be super organized in my kitchen and never leave anything out on the counter.’" But the truth is that habits are hard to change and it’s better to design a space that will ultimately support how you live now.

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Mistake #3: Cutting things that you really, really, really, want

Budgets are very real limiters on any project and people’s wish lists are always a bit beyond their means, says Emerick. But when she surveyed past clients and asked for their feedback, they invariably told her the same thing: "They said, 'I wish that I hadn’t made certain cuts.'"

Small cuts can add up to certain savings during the construction process, but they can also chip away at the enjoyment of the final product. Try to be aware of this and prioritize your wish list, so you have a clearer idea of what you can’t live without.

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Mistake #4: Succumbing to "fashion architecture"

"People try to treat architecture like fashion," Emerick says. "And architecture takes a long time to build, uses a lot of resources, and needs to last a while." Emerick cautions against being too influenced by trends, as "those are the things that date a project really fast," she says.

Instead, invest in the home’s bones and honor the original character of a house’s provenance. "You can change out a countertop or tile, but it’s a lot harder to re-do windows and doors," she says. "Make these the highest quality that you can and it will be money well spent."

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Mistake #5: Ignoring proportions

During the renovation process, people tend to focus on the results, without considering how those tweaks will affect the overall feel of the entire home. "People will just want to add on and say, ‘I want a family room that’s 12 by 18 feet,’ rather than seeing if that fit is right for the character of the house and how it flows," says Emerick.

Keeping an eye on proportions, or the relationship between the governing elements of a space—things like the size of windows and doors and ceiling heights—helps a remodel ultimately feel seamless and appropriate rather than a tacked on afterthought.

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Mistake #6: Missing the bigger picture

If a project involves the big stuff—moving walls, adding dormers, rebuilding foundations—think in terms of a master plan for the entire site to avoid potentially expensive mistakes.

"We’re big proponents of master planning," Emerick says. A master plan means that a renovation can be tackled in phases, which is also easier on the budget. "It helps guide you as you move forward," she says. "This year, you might tackle the kitchen. Next year, the upstairs. But you’ll already have the plumbing in the right place and have dealt with the structural, so you’re not going backwards."

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Mistake #7: Rushing the process

People often approach a renovation with its end date forefront in their mind, without leaving enough time for the planning process. "But it takes longer than you think," says Emerick. "And that’s because it usually takes homeowners a while to process the changes."

She suggests talking to experts sooner rather than later to better understand the deadlines involved and plan for plenty of time to make decisions. A good rule is to add 10 percent more time than originally anticipated.

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Mistake #8: Worrying too much

Most importantly, trust your instincts. "For the most part, we all want the same things," says Emerick: A comfortable house that flows to the outdoors, that feels open and airy and light-filled.

"We all want a warm and comfortable home for our family, and a reprieve from the day-to-day life at work," she says. "So don’t worry too much. In the end, almost everyone says, ‘It’s so much better than I ever imagined.’"