I’ve seen some really odd advice for saving money on renovations. Lots of places suggest doing site cleanup yourself, which might work, except that cleaning up as they work is a sign of a good contractor: if you have to do the work, you’re likely to have other problems. Some places suggest being your own general contractor, which is basically another full-time job for you. These suggestions are more systemic than that, and can really help both save money and streamline the process.
1. Follow a professional design process
Don’t start calling contractors before you’ve done some work. The less prepared you are for the contractor, the more the project will cost. Contractors are great people, but they really just want to start throwing a hammer. Get your design professionals (engineer, draftsman, architect, whoever) lined up on your own. Set a scope of work, a budget, and a rough timeline. You need to know what you want, what you need, and what you absolutely need to avoid. You should have a good idea of your priorities in this project, and writing them down before you begin will help a lot.
Knowing what you want before you begin will get you pointed in the right direction. There are some exceptions: design-build firms do collaborative in-house design and construction. But make sure that’s what you’re dealing with if that is the route you choose to go. Most contractors are not design-build, and when builders do design, it inevitably costs more. In architecture firms, the process is usually a standard: schematic design (what does this look like), design development (how does it all fit together), and construction documents (the legal documents you need to get a building permit). The construction documents are given out to contractors for bidding, so they know what it is they are going to try to build. Even if you don’t work with an architect, get this work done before you start talking to contractors. Have a specification (what materials are to be use where) and plans ready for your contractor. Try to get as much into the plans as possible, because every change you make later is going to cost you more money.
2. Take advantage of professional discounts
It may seem like you can save a lot of money by buying your own appliances and fixtures, but there’s a good chance that your contractor or design professional can get them for less with a professional discount. Sit down and figure out how much they will charge you for the item, and how much you can get it for on your own. Most professionals don’t care either way where you get the item, but if you do buy it yourself, keep in mind that you have to store it safely until it can be installed, and you are responsible for dealing with the vendor if it arrives damaged.
3. Be realistic about luxury finishes and resale value
Things like stone countertops and handmade tile backsplashes cost a lot of money. Professional-grade stoves, commercial refrigerators, that sort of thing adds cost and will look dated in a relatively short time. Spend the money where it matters to you, not on something that is in fashion right now. Don’t think about resale value, because if you’re selling your house right away, you’re never going to recoup luxury remodel costs. When you do get around to selling, buyers are unpredictable. Build for yourself and for your own needs.
4. Don’t make your contractors think
Don’t get me wrong: contractors are smart guys. But every time you make them think about something, they’re going to charge you for it. If you have an unusual construction detail, make diagrams showing how to build it. If you want something that you haven’t figured out, you can save money by figuring it out yourself. This is why you wanted to get your plans ready. You don’t want your contractor going back to his office and charging you while he learns how to do design work. You want him working on your project.
5. Get a really good contract
Hire a construction lawyer. Just do it. You think it’s lots of money, but a good lawyer is there to protect you and save you money. For a small fraction of your construction costs, you can get a contract that will cover eventualities that could end up very costly in the future. In professionally managed jobs, contractors are used to being handed the contract for the job, so there’s no need to take any guff about that.
6. When you get a quote that seems really high, ask where money can be trimmed from the budget
. This is not unreasonable: the contractor got their price by figuring out what costs he would have and adding some profit and overhead to it. He knows that that custom seven-foot tub is half the cost of your bathroom remodel. Maybe that tub is essential to you, but he might have some alternatives to offer (a site-built tile tub, perhaps, or another brand). Make sure to clear these changes with your architect or engineer, because they might change some important part of the rest of the design.
7. Don’t change your mind during construction
As mentioned, changes cost money. If you hate the tile when it’s in place, ripping it out and buying and installing new tile is going to cost you real money. Some changes are inevitable, but try to avoid the ones that aren’t. This is why you spent time at the beginning working out what you really wanted.
8. Hire professionals to do professional jobs
One of my favourite architects said he has given up designing his own lighting, because inevitably a lighting consultant comes up with a better design for less money and lower operating costs. This is true for a lot of things: mechanical systems, lighting and electrical systems, cabinetry, so on. I think a lot of people decide to save money by designing that stuff themselves, and they end up spending more than they should have, both in initial costs and in ongoing maintenance. I’m not talking about going to Home Depot and using their design services (cringe), but finding good, qualified consultants to do this work for you.
Hire an architect for really complex jobs
OK, this is a personal prejudice and one where I have an obvious bias, but architects can and do save their clients money. They are trained to come up with ways of building things that are affordable, safe, and practical. An architect will think of things you didn’t think about when you drew that kitchen layout. They can take a budget and design in response to it: you may not realize that there were six cheaper and just as nice alternatives to the material you were thinking about. Architects can also tap into a professional network of consultants and contractors that you probably don’t have the time to deal with. These professionals will be much easier to work with through an architect for one simple reason: you individually probably hire somebody to redo your kitchen once, maybe twice in your life. An architect may help hire somebody to redo a kitchen once a week.