How to plan a renovation

June 23, 2015


This is the first of at least three posts on renovations–in general, and ours in particular. Come in!

You’ve heard the scare stories about the renovations from hell, right? The ones that stretch on for months? Where contractors screw up and don’t fix it? Or don’t even respond to phone calls?  I’ve heard them, too. This was my very first renovation and it will probably be my last, as we plan nothing else for this house.  Which is a shame, since I learned so much redoing our kitchen and family room. But I CAN share my renovation tips with you in the hope that they might spare you some aggravation.

The word “plan” is in the title on purpose, because it all begins with a plan. Get the plan right and the rest can go smoothly.  For most people, the construction is the problem. For me? I agonized over the plan. The hardest part was finding all the right pieces that would integrate into the whole that I envisioned.


Some visions are clearer than others.

Every renovation must begin with a vision. It seems obvious, but, as it turns out, I had a rough idea of what I wanted but no clue how I could get there–the details of the vision didn’t easily come into focus.    A lot is said about the website Houzz, but I found it difficult to work with because it doesn’t allow you to save photos from its site except in an account on THEIR site. I understand why, but for me it was a flaw.  Good for a few ideas–but it was overwhelming–so much! I looked online until I had carpal tunnel. But in the end, I didn’t want someone else’s renovation, I wanted mine.  Mine would have color and action and would be modern. I knew it would also be one of a kind. I wanted it to be tasteful. What it wouldn’t be is traditional. I wanted to look at it and say “Wow!”

I knew it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea and I didn’t care. I wanted it to be mine.

2815dc37ee0b16955c36648b42c305b0-1HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOUR VISION!
Some people will love it and others will give it the stink eye. Believe me on that. Even if they say nothing, you will know. (All the stink-eyes became believers, though, when they saw the finished product.) Forget them. What matters is that YOU love it. No one else’s approval is needed. You’re the only people who matter in this equation.


I knew I had an eye for design but worried that left to my own devices, I’d be unable to integrate the color and shapes and motion I had in mind. I didn’t want it to be a circus kitchen. Nor did I want to be unhappy in the end. So I engaged the assistance of a designer, selectively, to help me find and validate some of my choices. And to problem solve. As in saying “I want it to look like X, how do I get there?”


Family room palette: where we began

You may think it’s money you don’t need to spend. I thought so, too, the first time we started this more than a year ago. We stopped because I was overwhelmed with doing it myself. Making it happen this time required some help.

We knew this was going to be an expensive renovation and wanted to avoid expensive mistakes. You know, the ones you don’t know you have made until things are bought and installed and your first thought is OMG, no! I’m a creative soul who wasn’t confident she could turn a wild idea into a practical implementation. It just made sense for me to engage a professional to bounce ideas off of and to help make my vision reality.  It was some of the best money we spent.

Caveat: Make sure you like your designer! Otherwise, you’ll butt heads way too much.

fireplace tile w trimIn our case, the designer was our partner in crime, which meant we used more of her time than I’d originally expected. I’d narrow things down, then bring her along and often, she knew what was practical and what wasn’t, what would be affordable, and where the potential trouble spots where. Invaluable. At one point she and I spent almost two hours in our cabinetmaker’s large shop. We could see his work was meticulous but I didn’t see what I wanted. He painted, washed and coated different wood until I could tell he was a little frustrated and that was about the time that I found what I liked. My designer hung with me throughout, giving voice to her trained eye. But I had to bring the sample into the sunshine outside to see how it would look in the bright room.  Alder with a clear wash just rocked. And I was right.

You can also pick and choose how you use a designer–maybe you want to get ideas at the front end and then buy an hour every so often throughout. Or only at the front end.  Our designer played a validating role for some of our wilder choices and also played a huge role in driving implementation. She worked with the cabinet maker to ensure that we got the insides we wanted. She helped with paint choices. She and I picked silk fabric combinations to wrap a mat for a huge framed piece. She came with me to the glass place in San Francisco for the backsplash decisions. She winnowed down tile choices for the fire place so I could choose. It was super helpful to have her in that role.

Locating a designer is a whole story in itself. I’ll do another post on finding the right designer for you, because through no action of mine,  I started with one but ended up with another.  But more on that later.

Some of our crew.

Save yourself a lot of aggravation and stress. Use a professional general contractor that you have references for–check the references. And don’t go cheap. The adage penny-wise and pound-foolish applies to renovations.

I used Yelp and a neighborhood e-list, plus recommendations from our network. We narrowed to five recommendations and interviewed them all. We checked references. In the end, M was impressed with the professionalism of one. He was not the cheapest but he was clearly the best. We were confident that he, like our designer, had a problem-solving orientation. His schedules were detailed and he routinely shared them via a Dropbox. (This is, after all, Silicon Valley.)  And, it turned out, he was the right choice.

Every one of his subs was superior and had worked with him for years and years. His operation was finely honed and everyone did their part on time and on schedule, overseen by his operations manager, whom we also liked. They showed up on time, they cleaned up, they even came with their own toilet tissue, soap, towels and sanitary wipes!

Despite some (normal) hiccups, the schedule was met–actually, they were ahead of schedule–had it not been for my repainting the family room– ahead of schedule?  We know it’s not that common in renovation.

I should tell you that M’s late father owned a chain of lumber yards and M is no stranger to construction. He could have been our general, but the stress would have killed him. There are so many moving parts to a renovation, it’s better to have a general with a longstanding crew. The crew continues to be motivated because they get all his business. A homeowner doesn’t have that same leverage.

It’s rare that
a project comes in on budget exactly. Once you start tearing into walls and moving appliances, well, you see just what’s behind there and sometimes it means you  have to do additional work. When the previous owners of our home renovated, they did it on the cheap. We had insufficient circuits. The gas line for the fireplaces didn’t run all the way to the fireplaces. They failed to vent the stove. The family room wall had to be re–drywalled so it fit the fireplace.

You know, things like that. Things that are going to cost more money.  Be prepared

We decided to bring the rooms up to code and that did cost more. But it was the safe thing to do and the right thing to do.   We exceeded our budget and our contingency, but we made a decision to go forward as planned, anyway.

When it was over, we were thrilled to no longer have to live in the back of the house, using the guest bathroom as a makeshift kitchen. But we kind of missed the crew. They were all so personable, Riley liked them and it was fun watching them do such a good job. I know, I sound crazy, don’t I? Maybe that illustrates how much we liked every single one of them.

Part 2 is coming soon, with before and afters.

Your thoughts?


29 comments on “How to plan a renovation
  1. Lux Ganzon says:

    The thought of renovation excites me. Out with the old, in with the new. I’m a sucker for home makeovers on TV, you know.

    Can’t wait to see your before and after photos. 🙂

  2. Sandy says:

    Ooh, I can’t wait to read part 2! I’m not sure if I am brave enough to tackle a large project on my own, either. It’s always great to have the professionals around! 😉

  3. Since we just got an offer on our house….

    But these are great tips for those who need to renovate. Well done, Carol.

  4. Sheryl says:

    Where were you when I needed you all those years ago?? (You don’t have to answer that). Great tips – and I will definitely hold onto these for the future! Thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. Lisa Froman says:

    Such great advice! I saw some of the pics from your renovation and they were stylish and cool. So the proof is in the pudding!

  6. We are planning on renovating a few rooms in our house this fall so these are some great tips that will come in handy. Thank You

  7. Amy says:

    Hi Carol…I can relate to renovation headaches and thrills. We had an addition and covered patio built onto the house last year. It was one headache after another, but we love the finished product. The room width had to but cut short because it couldn’t get too close to the fence out back, but other than that, we are pleased with it. I’m glad you are happy with the result.

  8. Thanks so much for the tips, renovating anything is intimidating to me.

  9. Love the idea of buying a designer’s time an hour or two at a time. We’re considering a kitchen reno and I’d love to have a designer’s help but thought it might be too much money. Smart idea, my friend, and one I’ll use!

    Great tips all!

  10. Erin says:

    These are such great tips! And so timely too as we are in serious need of a bathroom renovation! Thank you for posting these. I am pinning to come back later!

  11. Helene Cohen Bludman says:

    We actually built our house almost 20 years ago, so it was similar to a renovation. I was overwhelmed by all the decisions that needed to be made, so I did hire a designer — she was a godsend.

  12. T.O. Weller says:

    We recently moved into an unfinished shell on the lake property of our dreams. We have the summer to get it in proper shape for the long Canadian winter. (That includes land clearing, electrical, plumbing, heating, insulation, drywall, floors, bathroom and kitchen … and, hopefully, a garage.)
    I hear you about the general contractor, but the guy we were referred to (we’re in a new town) ended up being a dud well before our moving date, and I found myself doing all the planning and resourcing anyway (along with packing up and storing our things).
    Do I wish we had someone doing all of it? Do I long for the security of knowing that things will be done on the dates I have marked in the wall calendar? Yes!!! But it is what it is.
    We’re at the beginning of our journey and, so far, we’re doing okay. Ask me in August … hopefully the stress won’t be quite as bad as you say!

  13. We’ve moved a lot and I can’t recall one that didn’t need a renovation. Fortunately, we LOVE to renovate. I’m the designer/ idea person, my husband is the contractor (to a point). He’s very handy, but you still need pros. My father-in-law asked us once, “Why don’t you just buy a house you like?!” We said, “Where’s the fun in that?”
    Now that we’re in our ‘ahem’ forever home, we are taking it in smaller bites. It gives us something to look forward to.
    From what I’ve seen of your reno, it is beautiful.

  14. Britney says:

    Thanks for sharing this! Great information!

  15. Carolann says:

    All great advice for sure. It is very stressful redecorating especially a huge project like yours….which I love btw. I love everything you did from the colors to the decor. I can’t wait to see more pics Carol. What an amazing transformation.

  16. I hope never to do another renovation. Our last one, although it came out great and I love our house, was so stressful. Thankfully we had an amazing designer.

  17. I have never done a renovation though when consulting with a decorator or a designer has been helpful when moving into a new home

  18. we’ve lived in our house for 13 years now and things are starting to get a bit tired. We need some perking up and I just can’t get motivated to get it done. Great tips

  19. I have many reno projects in my head that I’d like to do one day.

  20. Liz Mays says:

    I actually really like your idea of hiring a designer. I’m sure they’d help me think of things I hadn’t considered and prevent me from making some serious faux pas.

  21. I haven’t done much in the way of renovation but I have a lot of projects that I would love to do.

  22. What an amazing way to do a renovation – sometimes it’s just worth sucking up the extra expense to get a much better (and ultimately faster) job. I can’t wait for part 2 and the before and after!

  23. We are just a few weeks from renovating most parts of our house, so I decided to look around for some ideas. Last time we did this, the budget went beyond the budget and was somewhat stressful. We are looking to do things more perfectly this time round. I have found your renovation guide to be of great help. Thanks for sharing.


  24. Awesome renovation tips that everyone can follow through. Thanks for sharing.

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