How to Renovate a House

Plan your home remodeling project carefully, and consider your skill level combined with your budget.

U.S. News & World Report

How to Renovate a House

Outdoor portraits of carpenter working with wood. Shallow DOF. Developed from RAW; retouched with special care and attention; Small amount of grain added for best final impression. 16 bit Adobe RGB color profile.

From performing maintenance to trying out a new design style, homeowners have many reasons to take on a home renovation project.(Getty Images)

There’s a good chance you have home improvement plans in the near future, whether you just closed on a fixer-upper or you’re looking to update the house you’ve lived in for 20 years.

A well-thought-out plan will set you up for success, for both small remodeling projects that change or update the look and function of a space or larger renovations, which might involve knocking down walls. Even a small repair or home improvement task, like annual maintenance on your HVAC system, will benefit from some planning and consideration of the scope and cost of the project.

Here’s a checklist for renovating your home:

Before you start drawing up plans for an addition to your house or a major kitchen conversion, identify the reason behind your home improvement project: Does your plumbing need an update? Are you looking to convert a room to more usable space? Are you simply ready for a change? Understanding your motivation behind the project will give you a better idea of how to apply your budget and prioritize tasks as well as whether you should tap professional help.

Here are five primary reasons you may want to remodel your house:

  • Maintenance.
  • Update rooms.
  • Try out new styles.
  • Get ready to sell.
  • Improve efficiency.

Maintenance. Whether the house is five or 105 years old, maintenance is required to keep everything working smoothly. Especially if your house is decades old, you’ll likely find the electrical, plumbing and even the foundation may need a little love to maintain a safe, stable structure for you and your family.

A renovation project driven mainly by the need for maintenance will likely mean the majority of the budget goes toward hiring licensed professionals and replacing dated materials. Depending on where you live, extensive work on the structure or electrical or plumbing systems may require permits and an inspection.

Update rooms. The plumbing may still be OK, but a 1980s kitchen might be an eyesore. Plenty of homeowners remodel to bring a space out of decades past and into current times.

For a kitchen or bathroom, much of the renovation budget may go toward new appliances. These updates may also involve high-cost materials like marble, new tile and custom cabinetry.

As a result, consider splitting your budget between updating the function and the appearance of the room.

Try out new styles. You may have redone the living room 10 years ago, but those beige walls now make your stomach churn. So your remodeling project may simply aim to bring your home in line with current interior design trends. In many cases, this might be a small remodeling job, so the budget can be dedicated to paint, furnishings or other decorative materials.

Because trends are, by definition, fairly short-lived, avoid taking on a major renovation purely for the sake of embracing a new trend. Stephen Pallrand, owner and president of Home Front Build, a design-build and renovation company based in Los Angeles, recommends keeping the original style of the house’s architecture in mind. “The mistake a lot of people make is you walk into a Spanish colonial or even Craftsman house, and then you see a 1990s Home Depot kitchen or a modern kitchen,” he says.

Get ready to sell. Homeowners who are prepping their house for the market may need to make minor repairs, give rooms a fresh coat of paint or install a trendy backsplash to appeal to buyers when they tour the property.

When selling is the goal, home improvements are aimed at maximizing the return on investment. There’s no need to install a state-of-the-art kitchen when many homebuyers want to customize it to their needs; restained cabinets and a new countertop may be enough to freshen up the space for sale.

Improve efficiency. Many homeowners are looking to do their part to reduce energy waste and their utility bills by making energy-efficient upgrades. These may include adding solar panels to the roof, insulation inside the walls or a smart thermostat.

Some rooms are more likely to see changes every few years, while other areas of your house, like your roof, may not need to be replaced for 30 years.

If you’re looking for inspiration or are curious to know whether your plans for renovating are considered out of the box, here’s a breakdown of some of the most popular home improvement projects.

Maintenance. In Houzz’s 2020 study of renovations in the U.S., 49% of more than 87,000 surveyed homeowners reported that they’re actively engaged in projects to repair issues in their homes.

Popular maintenance-related projects include:

  • Plumbing.
  • Electrical.
  • Automation.
  • Roof.
  • Heating and cooling.
  • Water heater.
  • Ventilation.
  • Insulation.
  • Structural or foundation upgrades.

Updates to rooms. It's no surprise that kitchens and bathrooms are the most popular remodeling projects. The Houzz study reports 27% of surveyed homeowners renovated or added to their kitchen in 2019, while 25% renovated a secondary bathroom and 22% renovated a master bathroom.

Homeowners aren’t just looking for a fresh, customized look in the common areas of the house – they're focusing on the more personal areas as well. On average, homeowners renovate three rooms at a time, says Marine Sargsyan, senior economist for Houzz.

Popular room updates include:

  • Kitchen.
  • Guest bathroom.
  • Master bathroom.
  • Living room or family room.
  • Master bedroom.
  • Outdoor living.
  • Dining room.
  • Home office.
  • Master closet.

Even if your renovation is motivated by a repair or preparation to sell your house, envision what the finished space will look like and what styles or trends will appeal to you or a would-be buyer. Start by getting an initial feel for the project by looking online, says Leah Tuttleman, an interior designer certified by the American Society of Interior Designers and corporate designer for Re-Bath, a full-service bathroom remodeling brand.

“Always do a little bit of research on your own to understand what your style is that you gravitate towards,” she says. It’s not just about knowing what you want the room to look like, but realistically taking your budget into account as well.

Know that if you fully embrace a current style or trend – whether it’s the farmhouse-chic look or a minimalist, modern aesthetic – it may eventually look dated, simply because styles evolve and trends fall out of favor.

Whether you’re looking to update a room or incorporate a few trendy pieces, there are some areas where it's easier to embrace a trend than others. Here are a few examples:

Lighting. You always have the option to make permanent lighting changes or simply add lamps throughout a room. Recessed lighting is currently popular and considered a classic, long-lasting look, although track lighting, which many now consider dated, may have once held the same appeal.

Color. Embrace the hottest colors of the year – Pantone’s color of 2020 is classic blue – by painting your living room walls or buying an accent pillow. Trade out the dark-stained wood floors of the 2010s for a lighter or varied stain option. Paint your front door to make it pop. Bring in a multicolored rug to infuse some life into your guest bedroom. Color trends change annually and month to month, and they’re fortunately fairly easy to implement and switch out in a room.

Furnishings. The simplest, least permanent way to bring in a current style or trend is with furnishings. Lamps, couches and a coffee table in the midcentury modern style may be exactly the look you’re going for now, while midcentury modern wallpaper will likely be a change you'll regret in a couple years.

Know how much money you have to make renovations before you start your project, and research your options to get a better understanding of how much certain upgrades, materials and changes cost.

Among homeowners who renovated in 2019, 31% went over budget, according to the Houzz report. Most projects also end up costing a hefty sum – 64% of renovation projects in 2019 were over $10,000.

Homeowners are taking on more small-scale projects around the house as well. Compared to the previous two years, projects under $5,000 saw a slight increase in popularity, making up 20% of the share of renovations among surveyed homeowners in the Houzz study, compared to 19% in 2018 and 16% in 2017.

Here’s how you may choose to fund your remodel:

Cash. Most homeowners don’t want to take on additional debt to fund their home updates or renovations. In fact, 83% use cash from savings, according to the Houzz report. Necessary renovations for system updates or, say, a water heater breakdown are often considered good reasons to tap a rainy day fund.

When using savings, however, be sure to budget accurately from start to finish on the project. You don’t want to get halfway through a bathroom remodel and run out of money, leaving your bathroom unusable for the next six months while you save.

Financing options. For major renovations and home rehabilitations, financing the updates will likely get you to project completion faster. You have the option to take out a home equity loan, which allows you to borrow an amount based on your home’s value – specifically, the equity you currently have in it based on how much of the mortgage you’ve paid off.

Home equity loans are a great option for home improvement projects because they can increase the value of your property, but borrowing for frivolous spending can lead to financial problems down the road. Only borrow what you feel confident you can pay back over time.

Credit card. The Houzz report notes the use of credit cards to fund a home renovation have steadily grown since 2011, becoming the source of funding for 38% of renovating homeowners in 2019. In the short term, placing the cost on your credit card can be a helpful way to take advantage of available credit, but it can quickly lead to problems in the form of added interest or long-term financial struggles should you default on your credit card payments.

Budget is typically the deciding factor on the scope of your project – whether you’ll be installing a new shower or changing the layout of the toilet, sink and shower as well, which can cost thousands more.

Plumbing and drains are often a major cost in bathroom and kitchen renovations and can be a limiting factor.

Plans to remove a wall or otherwise adjust the structure of your house can also cost you. HomeAdvisor reports that removing a non-load-bearing wall can cost as little as $300, while a wall that plays a supporting role in a two-story house can cost as much as $10,000.

The bigger your project, the more time you can expect it to take as well. A major renovation can take weeks or even months, and you have to factor in the level of inconvenience if you’re still living at home during the renovation, or the cost of living elsewhere temporarily.

Approach the planning process carefully, and don’t rush into demolition or upgrades without a solid plan from beginning to end. “The planning takes a long time, and (Houzz’s) data shows that in 2019, for the renovations … homeowners spent longer on planning than renovating itself,” Sargsyan says.

If you have a limited budget, you may be hoping to take on a DIY home renovation. Home improvement tasks can be fun, rewarding and far less expensive than hiring a professional, but keep your level of expertise in mind as well as the amount of skilled work the project requires.

Many municipalities require permits for electrical and plumbing work, and those permits often require a licensed professional to at least sign off on the work if not complete it entirely. Even if it’s a simple repair, leave any project that could potentially harm you or the house to a professional.

When working with a contractor, you may be able to save a bit of money by offering to demolish the existing room on your own. However, it’s important to keep in mind that demolition is a very small portion of the total cost – roughly 6.25% for a bathroom, according to home improvement information site Fixr.

Demolition may be a bit more involved than you think as well. It’s important to know the location of plumbing, electrical wiring and studs before you send a sledgehammer through a piece of drywall.

At last, it’s time to begin transforming the space into the room you’ve planned. If you’ve hired professionals, it’s best to let them take control – a general contractor will oversee subcontractors doing specialized work, whether it’s electrical components, tile installation or a buildout for custom cabinets. You’ve hired experienced hands for a reason, so don’t micromanage.

“Not everything seems logical to an inexperienced eye,” Tuttleman says. It's important to allow a hired project manager – whether it’s the general contractor or interior designer – to be in charge of ensuring everything gets done as efficiently as possible. More sound advice: Avoid last-minute change requests and be clear on your expectations from the start.

By the point that either you or contractors are working on the space and installing anything from walls to appliances, you want to feel confident about the style and material choices you’ve made. “That should take serious consideration, because once things are ordered, you have almost no ability to return anything,” Tuttleman says.

If your renovation involves any major electrical, plumbing or structural work, there’s a good chance your local municipality will require an inspection to approve the permitted work. This inspection ensures the work was done properly and won’t be a danger to the home or anyone in it.

A beginning-to-end general contractor will often handle the permit application and inspection scheduling process as part of the total cost of the project, though that is something you should clarify in advance. Otherwise, you are responsible for providing the paperwork in advance and scheduling the inspection. For some work, like plumbing, the inspection must be conducted before walls are installed to cover up the pipes, so be sure you don’t skip this key step in the renovation process.

Finally, you’ve completed the more labor-intensive work and are able to assemble the space with furniture and decor. In a kitchen or bathroom, this often involves merely stocking the drawers, shelves and cabinets with the items you normally keep in the space. For a living room or bedroom, you’re moving furniture around, placing art and finding the best spot for tabletop accessories.

If you’re working with an interior designer or full-service renovation company that includes interior design, the professional will continue working with you throughout this phase. But this is the time to really make the space your own, from the angle of the sofa to the TV to the decor on your shelves, and enjoy your newly renovated home.

Updated on June 17, 2020: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

Wealth of Knowledge Podcast

Wealth of Knowledge is a weekly podcast featuring tips and expert insight on all things money: personal finance, careers, investing, real estate and more.

Wealth of Knowledge logo