To really make a renovation work, it’s essential to plan ahead, secure a good architect and contracting and painting team, and get realistic about your budget and timeline.
Be realistic about the scope of project you’re willing to take on
“Before you even look for an apartment or home, you want to understand what type of project you’re comfortable with,” says Skema. It’s one thing to buy a minor fixer-upper that can be tackled with DIY projects—like pulling up carpet or laying down tile—but it’s something else entirely to buy a home that has serious structural issues. Not all fixer-uppers are alike, and the scope of the project you’re willing to take on will set the tone for your renovation. If you can’t commit the money, time, effort, and risk that goes into buying a place that needs a gut renovation, skip the open house altogether, even if the price tag looks appealing.
If you’re interested in tackling a fixer-upper, be realistic about how much money you can set aside for renovations after the down payment, including unexpected costs like finding an alternative living situation while it’s happening. An architect or contractor can offer an expert opinion on the scope of the project after accompanying you on a walk-through of the property.
As for the homebuyer, “Set a realistic range for your budget, and then communicate that range,” says Brownhill. “By setting the price, you’re setting the approximate level of craft, finishes and customer service that you’re looking for.” Sweeten, which pairs general contractors with renovation projects, offers an online tool to help parse out your budget.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Communication is key when it comes to a successful renovation. Larger projects require an architect, who then hires a general contractor, who then hires subcontractors for specialty work, like plumbing. You’ll need to establish a constant flow of conversation among everyone on the team to avoid delays and budget overruns. “The momentum of construction is dependent on many small details,” Skema says.
Homeowners also need to embrace being the decision maker at the top of that chain. “One small bathroom renovation is hundreds of decisions you’re going to need to make,” says Brownhill. “You have to understand who you are as a person, and how easily you make decisions.” If you labor over every decision, be open about it with your architect and ask him or her to take the reigns, or set a longer time frame for the reno so you don’t become overwhelmed. If you’re a control freak, communicate that, too, so that your team knows to keep you in the loop at every turn.
Secure the right team
As tempting as it sounds to buy a cheap fixer-upper and hand over the renovation job to the lowest-bidding architect or contractor, don’t, as it’s a huge risk, especially with older homes that may have structural problems. “Higher-quality firms limit the risk of the project,” Skema says. “Cheaper firms, many with less knowledge and less experience, will require more involvement from the homeowner and ultimately bring more risk.” Choose a team with relevant experience, solid references, and a complementary communication style to your own. This step may require extra research but will result in a reliable team that won’t make avoidable mistakes that will cost you more time and money in the end.
Get comfortable with the permitting process
The process of obtaining permits for construction depends on where you live, but in New York City, for example, it can be time-consuming and unpredictable. Upgrading plumbing and electrical systems, moving walls, or changing other structural elements will require a licensed and insured firm to take on the work, which may require additional permits or a more involved approvals process.
Prepare for the worst
In apartment buildings, contracts are typically required between the owner and the owners association confirming that renovations will be undertaken to code and without damage to the building. If a reno goes horribly awry, the building holds the homeowner responsible, so you want to make sure that your contractor has both liability insurance and workman’s compensation. Finally, make sure your homeowner’s policy will protect you in the event of a contractor-caused issue.
Preparing for the emotional labor
Homeowners don’t always recognize the emotional labor that goes into transforming a fixer-upper. “When [the moment for your renovation] finally comes, after you’ve saved money and bought a house and you get to make it look how you want it to look … a lot of stuff comes up,” Brownhill says. To plan for the smoothest process possible, be honest about your goals and your budget before finding an experienced and communicative team that can make make all your fixer-upper dreams come true.