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Remodeling a house: Where to start

Remodeling a house: Where to start

How to start a remodel or renovation

If you follow me you know that I am passionate about buying and remodeling condominiums. It may seem like I always knew exactly what to do when it came to the remodel, but the truth is that I had to learn it all on the fly. It was humbling to walk around inside and wonder “How do I actually start my remodel?”, and realize that I had no idea!

Luckily, I made it through the process, and I have a lot of learnings that I can pass on to you.

ALSO, I would bet that you are anxious about something else: how much is your remodel going to cost? Read my full post on that, or skip to the bottom of this post for an interactive cost calculator to help you figure it out. This post will not directly deal with cost, but process.

The first step to remodeling: Find a great team

Unless you are a professional builder, or a handywoman/man of some note, you are going to need help in your remodel if you plan on doing anything beyond paint, cabinetry and flooring. Personally, I view it as a worthwhile investment to hire an architect and a contractor because you’ll have an experienced and confident guide to help you through the remodel process. To put it another way, I know that I will always use professional help with my remodels in the future because it’s worth the money.

Finding an architect

The very first step in remodeling anything is finding an architect. The architect will be the head coach of your remodel team, making sure the plan fits your desires and budget, that the permits and engineering are properly filed, and that the contractor has what they need to move forward.

When I remodeled my condo I hopped onto Houzz and browsed through architect listings for a couple hours. As I looked through I made a point to not only evaluate the reviews, but also the pictures, and wrote down 5-10 architects with good reviews that had a similar style to what I wanted to accomplish. Then I emailed them and explained who I was, explained the property I was remodeling, and the scope of what I wanted to do, and my budget.

Then, I waited for responses. Out of the 8 I reached out to, 3 didn’t even respond at all! I received swift responses from 3 architects who I immediately wrote back and asked for an in-person consultation at the condo. I weeded out the responses that came later - no sense in working with someone who can’t respond to an email in a timely fashion.

When you have your in-person consultation, it’s important to get a sense for their style, both artistically and practically. Do you like the same types of design? Are they straightforward and deliberate, or aloof and un-engaged? Can they give you a straight answer? It’s important to feel them out and ask yourself if they would be responsive to you.

It’s also important to ask about the parts of your remodel that are important to you. For me, I wanted to remove the wall you see on the right in the kitchen photo below, and I wanted to know if we could do that from a structural standpoint. I also wanted to get rid of the bathtub below, which I wasn’t sure would be easily accomplished. The architect I went with had a good idea of how to deal with both of these problems, and it made me confident that she would be the right person for me. She also gave me a direct answer when I asked her how much it would cost… although her estimate ended up being much lower than the actual cost.

Architects will work for either a fixed project fee, percentage of the total cost, or hourly retainer. It’s up to you and your architect to decide what that should look like. In my case her fee ended up being around 8% of the total cost of the project. We agreed to 10% of her original bid, and when the project fee went up her fee did not.

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Finding a contractor

Once you have your head coach (architect), you need a quarterback! Finding a great contractor can be terrifying -everyone has a bad contractor war story- but there are good contractors out there and I was lucky enough to find one myself.

During my remodel, I found my contractor through my architect. She had 3-4 people that she had worked with in the past, and offered to introduce me to them.

The first contractor we identified verbally agreed to take on the project, but then bailed after he got an offer on a bigger project. This isn’t too uncommon in a hot economy: contractors only have a limited amount of time and if your project isn’t a big money maker they may take a better offer if it comes along.

Luckily, the second contractor that my architect recommended was fantastic. He was very measured and considerate, but he also wasn’t afraid to give specific answers to direct questions. Just as with architects, this is so important. It’s easy for contractors to say “it depends…”. Of course it depends! It’s a remodel, everything is a variable. You want to find someone who can look at the wall you want to remove, or the plumbing you want to change, or the washer-dryer you want to add, and tell you the implications and cost.

Most contractors will charge you based on the cost of the project, with a fixed percentage fee on top of the materials and sub-contractor labor. In my case the fee was 12.5%, which for a smaller project isn’t unreasonable.

Step 2 in your remodel: Draw up an estimate and plans

Once you have your architect and contractor, you’ll need to work together to develop plans for your remodel and an estimate for the total cost. As you are doing this, it’s important to keep a couple of things in mind.

  1. The cost estimate will be LOWER THAN YOUR ACTUAL COST. This doesn’t mean you are being ripped off. Changes happen mid-process, and nearly everything ends up costing a bit more or taking a bit more time than expected. To be safe, I would anticipate spending 15-20% more than the estimate.

  2. Make sure to consider if you will need additional team members. Are you moving walls? You might need a structural engineer. Are you removing asbestos or lead? There will be remediation concerns.

  3. Remember to get permits started as quickly as possible. In a city with lots of building going on, like Seattle, you need to get your permit in as quickly as possible. The architect and contractor should know how to do this, and quickly.

Step 3 to starting your renovation: Secure financing

If you don’t already, you’ll need to have the money to start your remodel. It’s my preference to work with cash in a remodel since it’s easier than securing a loan, however in most cases people will need to take out a HELOC or other loan in order to finance their remodel.

Step 4: Dig in and get going!

Once you have your team assembled, your plans in hand, your permits secured and your financing ready, it’s time to get started with demo and actually remodeling. Your team will be there to guide you and answer your questions through the process. It won’t be perfect. There will be many moments where you get frustrated, where the estimate goes up, when you wonder if all of the work is worth it. Just remember that at the end of the day, you’ll have a beautiful, finished home to live in.

The moment I took these pictures all of the stress of the remodel disappear and I knew I had made the right choice to remodel.

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Wondering how much this is going to cost? Figure it out below!

I know, you probably just want to know how much this is going to cost. Well, use the calculator below to begin figuring it out. It was made for interior renovations, so keep in mind that remodels with extensive exterior modifications will be more expensive than shown below.

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