Chapter 2

Most young people would love to have a car of their own, and would settle for something simple--steering wheel, brakes, maybe air conditioning--but once you have owned a car with the extra goodies like power locks or a CD player it's hard to go back to basics. It's the same with a house. Once you have lived with some of the "extras" it's hard to live without them.

The past fifty years have seen great changes in our idea of what is essential in a new house. A dishwasher, two or more bathrooms, and a double garage are usually considered basic features even in "starter" homes. When you move up in housing quality, you will find an impressive array of special amenities that will enhance the function or appearance of your home. While some of these goodies are expensive, others are relatively reasonable and can be added to an existing home. If you are going to stay in the home for a while, you will get your money's worth from the project just in terms of the time you spend enjoying the improvement. If other homes in your area have any of these features, adding them to your house could also enhance the resale value.

Planning Your Project

For any project, it is wise to start planning early and maintain organized records. Create a filing system, three-ring binder, or some other system to keep track of the process. A portable plastic file case can be invaluable. Ask yourself many questions about what you want, and keep notes documenting your progress as you consider possible answers.


For small projects, usually under $2000 or so, you may be able to check prices for a "ballpark" estimate simply by phoning the supplier and finding out typical prices for this type of work. You will almost certainly have to pay cash for the job, and financing could include credit card cash advances, signature loans from a bank or credit union, personal savings, or loans from others (parents have been the source of funds for many remodeling projects!).

For larger projects that require a loan, it is often a good idea to find out how large a loan you will qualify for (up to the amount you want to spend). Then work backward (or at least back and forth) in deciding how much you can afford. A simple room addition may be within your means, but adding expensive custom features could double the price. Is the project worth doing if you can't do it the way you want? Remodeling can seldom be estimated at this stage with a figure "per square foot," and you don't want to spend a lot of time planning a project that is fundamentally out of your reach financially. On the other hand, you don't know if you can afford it if you don't know how much it costs. How can you resolve this question?

First, use common sense. Wishful thinking is useful in setting goals, but it will not make a $50,000 room addition cost $20,000 (which still seems like a lot of money!). If you can describe your project simply, you may be able to get some rough estimates over the phone. Contractors are obviously reluctant to give any quotes this way, but if they are used to doing projects in your area they may be able to give you a price range for similar projects they have done recently. Another possibility is to call your local city or county to see if they have a rehabilitation loan program. Even if you exceed their income guidelines for assistance, they may be able to recommend a contractor or give you an idea of what remodeling projects cost in your area.

If you feel that you can afford at least some of your dream, keep going. Start working up an estimate yourself. List the features you want, with possible prices, and keep a running total. A computer spreadsheet program is handy if you want to build this estimate over time, adjusting your figures as you get more information. See the section on estimating in Chapter 4 for a more complete discussion.

Record Keeping

Take notes! When you call anyone for information, note the date, name of the contact, and what that person told you. You can't remember everything you hear, or who you talked to, without documenting it. If you review your notes before calling someone back, you can avoid the embarrassment of quoting one contractor's comments as if made by another. If you note the phone number along with the name, you won't have to look up the number again when you want to get more information.

Take pictures! This can be a good record of your project, and can give you valuable information about your house if you photograph the inside of the walls when they are opened during the job. In some cases, good pictures can also help resolve disputes. "Before" and "after" shots are always fun, and if you don't take the "befores" in time, you lose your chance once the project is underway.

Keep a clipping file. Every time you see something in a magazine or catalog that looks good to you, save it. Make notes when you see something that you like, and drop your notes in the file. Collect brochures from suppliers. Later, when you are really into the planning process, your "tickler file" can help you recall good ideas.
Save all documents relating to the job. This includes bids, contracts, change orders, invoices, receipts, appliance brochures and warranties, service agreements, building department records, and other notes. You can decide how extensive to make your filing system, as long as it is well-organized and maintained.

Small Projects:
Some Suggestions
Here are some suggestions for ways to add a classy touch to an existing house. Many of these projects can be done by a single company or individual. Check the web and the Yellow Pages.

* Install a gorgeous new front door. This is what most people see first, and replacing your plain door with a beautiful new one is relatively simple, as door openings are fairly consistent. You can stop by your local lumber store to look at catalogs and make a selection. Natural wood grains offer a rich appearance which can be enhanced by one or more window panels featuring beveled glass, stained glass, or frosted designs. Today's technology allows such decorative features to be installed while maintaining high security and energy efficiency. For less maintenance, consider a fiberglass door or an insulated steel door, painted with an accent color. These doors come with many different patterns such as the traditional "six-panel" look, and also come with decorative windows. Steel is a high-security material, and is easier to maintain than natural hardwood. There are also steel doors manufactured to look like wood. Fiberglass doors resist denting and don't get as hot in direct sun. There are countless styles to select from.

* Replace your door hardware with better-quality locks. Hardware can become scuffed through hard use; and fresh, shiny decorator styles will add a classic touch. Replacing interior hardware, such as towel bars in the bathroom, can also dress up a small space.

* Replace a window with a garden window, or add a glass sunroom. If this is too expensive, consider installing window awnings. They can add interest and color to the exterior of the house as well as shading the interior of the room. Shading west-facing glass can also reduce your cooling bills.

* Redesign closet interiors. Modular systems can be purchased, or your own design can be built in place by a carpenter. Adding shelves or cabinets in your garage is another way to add storage space without adding a room.

* Add a fireplace. Whether you prefer a wood-burning fireplace or the convenience of gas, there are many styles to choose from. Some are free-standing and others can be built into a wall with a designer finish; the zero-clearance models need very little floor space. A handsome fireplace design will dress up your living room, family room, or bedroom even when you don't have a fire burning.

* Install a whirlpool bathtub. If you don't have the space or the inclination for an outdoor spa, you can still relax in your own bathroom with bubbling warm water soothing away stress. (Be aware that this may require adding another electrical circuit to your bathroom, and possibly reinforcing the floor.)

* Replace light fixtures. You can improve the lighting as well as the appearance of a room with an attractive new fixture. Styles range from smooth contemporary designs to ornate, traditional ones. Upgrading exterior fixtures will give your house a new look, especially if you maintain the trim and landscaping as well.

* Paint exterior trim. The moisture from rain or fog can cause the paint on your trim to crack and peel faster. Scraping and repainting the areas of your home that are painted with an accent color will help to protect the wood and vastly improve the appearance. Paint the whole house if it needs it. Updating the colors can make a tremendous difference in how you feel about your house, and can improve the chances of a sale if you wish to move.

* Install a new sectional steel roll-up garage door with opener. This will provide much easier access to your garage, and may be safer than the old tilt-up styles. If the door is insulated it will provide better protection for the things stored in the garage. Many houses have the garage in the front, facing the street. A new door can vastly improve the appearance of an older home if the old door is aging.

* Replace your floor coverings. New carpet will help make your house look like new. Styles change, and carpets wear out. Kitchens and bathrooms can also sparkle if floor coverings are replaced.

* Replace your window coverings. There are many new window treatments available today. New shades, valences, blinds, or drapes will bring a contemporary look to an aging living space.

* Replace your counter tops. Plastic laminates come in a wide range of colors and textures. Ceramic tile is attractive and durable, and will upgrade the look of even a small kitchen. Check with remodeling experts to see the wide range of products available for kitchens and bathrooms.

There are many books and magazines available that showcase new products. Browse through them to get ideas for goodies that will work for you. Just like the advanced features of a new car, new accessories for your house will increase your appreciation of something you take for granted--your home.

Kitchen Remodeling It may be too late to remodel your kitchen for this year's holiday cooking, but it's not too early to start planning if you want to have the kitchen of your dreams for next year. Even if you would be happy with just a new countertop and floor covering, it is worth doing some real homework if you want the best results.

Start by thinking about how you use the kitchen you've got. Keep a list of the things that annoy you--such as a lack of counter space, not enough cabinets, or poor lighting. Be aware of other places that please you--a good color scheme in your favorite restaurant, or even a nice view from a window. Look critically at your existing kitchen, and visualize how making a few changes could completely alter the atmosphere, the function, or both.
If you want to proceed with the project, you can begin to create a "wish list." Your budget will help you decide how extensive this list should be, but even a modest budget can generate surprising results.

New window coverings, such as valence curtains or blinds, can brighten the look of almost any space. Fresh paint and a new vinyl floor takes this one step further. If you go much beyond this, you may want to work with a design and/or remodeling professional. However, all the planning you have already done can help save time and make your consultation with the professional more effective.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself about your potential project:

* Is the kitchen original, or has it been altered since the house was built? Does the floor plan work, or have there been additions or changes that may have suited the former owner better than you? Adding or removing part of a wall may improve the plan for your own use.

* What is the condition of the appliances? You may prefer to switch to a freestanding range, if removing a built-in oven gives you more counter space.

* Are there enough electrical receptacles? If your house is old, you may want to upgrade the electrical service to this area.

* Is there enough natural light in the kitchen? Mature trees can cut down on the light that comes through windows. A skylight could give extra brightness, and even a new fluorescent ceiling fixture could give you better work light.

* Sinks and faucets wear out. Consider changing these fixtures as well as your countertop. This can make a surprisingly big difference in even a small kitchen. Combined with new vinyl, your kitchen can shine!

* New cabinets can be quite reasonable in price. Visit some of the stores that sell prefabricated cabinets to see what styles are available. Call some cabinet contractors to see what they can offer in the way of custom cabinets, especially if you have some unusual conditions in your kitchen.

When you have an idea worked out, it's time to call for outside help. If your project is extensive, there are companies that specialize in design as well as construction. Your contractor can give you additional ideas and begin to work up an estimate. If your friends have had work done, ask them who did it and whether they are satisfied. If you find yourself consulting the Yellow Pages for a contractor, ask for references and follow up on them. Call several construction companies so that you can compare prices and styles. Remember, your contractor will be in your home often for the duration of the project. This person should be someone you can talk to and that you can trust. See Chapter 6 for guidelines on selecting a contractor.

Remodeling projects can be small or substantial, but they will have one thing in common: the project itself will inconvenience you. You will not be able to use the space for a day or a month or more, depending on what you are doing. There will be a mess, and you will probably have some or all of the kitchen's contents stored in other places. If you install new floor covering, the refrigerator will have to be moved. If you opt for new countertops, your toasters, mixers, and other display items will be temporarily in the family room.

Think of this as an opportunity to do some spring cleaning, but be sure that you are prepared. Allow enough of your own time to deal with this, even though the actual work is being done by others. Obtain a schedule from the contractor to help you prepare for the magnitude of the coming inconvenience, especially if you will not be able to use the space for routine cooking and eating. Plan for a major remodeling project many months in advance, so you can adjust your schedule to avoid conflicts with special events such as the Christmas holidays or the beginning of a new school year.

Bathroom Remodeling

There are many reasons to remodel a bathroom, including the need to correct problems as well as the desire for a more attractive room. The floor coverings, fixtures, and cabinets in a bathroom take a beating over time. Painting the walls, replacing the plumbing fixtures, and installing new floor coverings can maintain an attractive and functional bathroom. Often these changes are a result of discovering dryrot in the floors or walls due to leaking fixtures.

Replacing the tub or shower surround is an important choice, because this is the material that keeps the water out of your walls. It should be carefully installed and sealed. Some of the options are tile, cultured marble, laminated plastic, and fiberglass. Prices can vary significantly depending on which product you choose, and they all have a very different appearance. Tile, cultured marble, and laminated plastic are also used for countertops. Check them all before making a final decision, especially if cost is a factor.

Many existing bathrooms are too small to add many features without expanding the floor space, although skylights and garden windows can brighten an otherwise small room. Installing a larger mirror can make a small room feel bigger. Adding a new bathroom or expanding an existing one can allow for luxury features like a whirlpool tub or a larger shower. You will probably need technical advice if you are planning to add a whirlpool tub, as they require special wiring and may not be aligned with existing drain lines. Check a plumbing supplier to see the wide range of fixtures available.

Adding an exhaust fan, heat lamp or wall heater can make the room more comfortable, and will help prevent mildew from forming on the ceiling.

Other Remodeling Projects Maybe you've been thinking about it for a long time, or maybe one day it will just hit you--your house needs a facelift. You can your home a a contemporary new look by making some minor changes. A major remodel can be like getting a new home.

The following suggestions for improvements range from regular maintenance to major surgery. A fresh coat of paint will help protect the exterior of your home as well as improve the appearance. A room addition can allow a growing family to remain comfortably in their own neighborhood, close to schools and friends. Even if you intend to sell your home and move up, some creative improvements can allow you to get top dollar for your existing home.

There are many popular remodeling projects to consider. Here are some more ideas for enhancing your home:

* Add a family room or enlarge the living room. Just expanding the space needed to meet your family's needs can revolutionize the usefulness of your home. The explosion of multimedia such as computers, VCRs, large-screen TVs, etc. has put a strain on houses that were designed before these items were widely available. You can include office space, extra storage, and larger windows to provide a whole new look to the main living area of your home. If no plumbing is required and your existing heating and air conditioning system will handle the addition, this extra space can often be added at a surprisingly reasonable cost.

* Upgrade the landscaping. Both the front and back yard areas can be used as extended living areas if they are attractive, shaded, and well-designed. Creating an entry courtyard sets the tone for the whole house, and can actually make the front yard seem bigger. Consult a landscape design professional for ways to include fountains, benches, and shade structures to take full advantage of this space.

* Replace windows. Many older homes have windows that are not energy-efficient, and that no longer operate smoothly. In some cases old windows don't lock properly, creating a security risk. Replacing windows with new dual-glazed units will save energy and actually improve the appearance of the house. Windows that are easy to open and close also help the occupants take advantage of fresh air to maintain comfortable temperatures instead of turning on the air conditioner. Increasing the size of a window can be more costly, but may dramatically enhance the appearance of a room. In many cases windows can be replaced without affecting the exterior siding of your house. Check with a reputable glass company for more information on window replacements.

* Replace the roof covering. If your shingles need replacing due to age, consider upgrading the quality of shingle for your new roof. Modern composition shingles come in a wide variety of styles, and architectural-grade shingles will vastly improve the appearance of your home from the street. A few extra dollars spent at re-roof time will last over twenty years, and will add to the marketability of your house if you decide to sell.

Start with design and remodeling magazines for inspiration. Some of these projects can be done by a specialty contractor, such as roofing or carpeting. Others require the help of a general contractor. The time you spend planning your project today can lead to many years of enjoyment once that remodeling job is completed!

Review Let's Review the Steps in Planning and Completing a Remodeling Project

1. Establish a budget. This is also a good time to begin to organize the necessary paperwork. Separate file folders for each aspect of the project will help you keep track of the many different topics you will be covering. The first file will contain information about how you will finance your remodel. Loans may be secured by the property or obtained from relatives, a credit union, or in some cases through your City or County housing office if you meet their qualifications.

Some purchase loans can include financing for remodeling (ask you lender about the availability of 203(k) loans), but it is usually easier to finance a remodel after you have built up some equity in the house. Compare the terms of your loan options before making a decision. Different lenders offer a range of points, rates, and terms. If interest rates have gone down since you purchased your home, it might make sense to refinance your entire mortgage. On the other hand, you may be able to avoid title fees, appraisals, and other costs if you opt for a loan that is not secured by your home.

2. Begin a collection of pictures from magazines, lists of ideas, brochures from suppliers (light fixtures, appliances, etc.), and phone numbers or business cards from anyone you might wish to find again. Go to home shows, showrooms, and open houses to get ideas. If you see colors or patterns that you like, write down the brand name, what store you found it in, and the price. Take pictures of your own house now--it's easy to forget in the excitement of starting the job. Take pictures in the winter when the leaves are off the trees, if you want to see the structure of your house and roof.

3. Based on your budget limitations, begin to list the things you want to change. Moving plumbing fixtures and appliances to new locations in the room is usually more expensive, but it may be worth it if you get better efficiency. Draw sketches of the changes you want to make, preferably to scale. Keep a measuring tape handy to see if an appliance would fit if you moved it to a new location.

4. At this point you can decide if you need to go to an architect or other design professional, or whether you can begin dealing directly with general contractors. Some contractors also help with design work, but you may be charged for their time. Others will provide design services in the hope that they will get the job as an equitable result of the time they put in up front. Some contractors are better at construction than at designing; if you are not getting the results you want it is a good idea to change to someone who is good at design.
While competitive bidding is wise, don't take unfair advantage of any small business person. If you have promised the job to a friend who is a contractor, don't waste other people's time. If you are shopping around, disclose that fact. Most contractors are happy to help as long as they know that the process will be fair.

5. Define the project in writing. It helps to have a clear idea of what you want, including the brand, model, and color of appliances, floor coverings, light fixtures, etc. If the job is modest, written specifications are probably enough. You should be able to understand everything that the specs call for, since this determines what you will be paying for.

Be as specific as possible--there is a big difference between "replace the front door" and "install a new embossed-panel foam-core steel door manufactured by Stanley model no. K-1 with threshold and bottom shoe, including new jamb and casing, with combination unit deadlatch and 1" throw deadbolt in polished brass finish. Door to be painted with..." (you get the idea). Be specific about everything; otherwise you may get the lowest product that meets the minimum standard called for in the specs. There are often huge differences in the price of ranges, dishwashers, light fixtures, carpets, etc. You can control the price of your project if you do your homework in advance. See Chapter 4 for additional insight into the estimating process.

If your project is extensive, you may need to work with an architect or professional designer. Even if your budget is generous, it is worthwhile to do some preplanning. The more you know about your own desires and the range of possible options, the better you can communicate with a professional. It is helpful, though not essential, to have a floor plan, a view of the walls with cabinets and appliances in place ("elevations"), and enough detail to meet the demands of the project before you start. Even simple sketches and notes will help you communicate with the people you will be dealing with both before and after you have selected a contractor.

6. Begin talking to one or more contractors to get proposals or competitive bids. There are advantages to both systems. Strict bidding procedures may result in a lower competitive bid, but direct negotiation may give you a better idea of what your prospective contractor is like to work with. If you know one or two construction firms that are highly recommended, you will have some confidence in working with them right from the beginning. If you are unfamiliar with any builder in your area, get bids from several companies and pay a great deal of attention to how they conduct themselves during the initial stages of the process. You will be seeing a lot of the chosen contractor before your job is completed, and this is your chance to screen them before your final decision is made. See Chapter 6 for more information on selecting a contractor.

Next Chapter: Landscaping Projects
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