For most homeowners, the hardest part of any home renovation project isn't the work itself – it's finding a competent and reliable contractor to do the job. Installing kitchen cabinets, knocking down walls or retiling floors are straightforward tasks compared with the struggle of hiring a quality contractor who will perform at a high level from start to finish.
Everyone knows stories of horrendous contractors who tore apart the kitchen and never returned or projects that ended up costing three times the contractor's original estimate.
"Those are the nightmare kind of stories I hear all the time," says Angie Hicks, who in 1995 started the company that would become Angie's List, a go-to resource for reviews of contractors and other service providers.
Even with a good contractor, home renovation can be stressful, expensive and involve unpleasant surprises, such as rotted subfloors that are revealed when tile is removed or dangerous electrical wiring or leaking pipes behind walls.
Here are some tips to find the right contractor while still keeping your budget – and sanity – under control.
- Know what you want before you get estimates.
- Ask friends, relatives and co-workers for references.
- Interview at least five contractors.
- Be realistic about availability.
- Ask what work will be done by subcontractors.
- Choose the right contractor for the right project.
- Check licenses, complaints and litigation history.
- Check references.
- Read online reviews.
- Sign a detailed contract.
- Get the proper permits.
- Don't pay more than 10% of the total before the job starts.
- Don't sign a contract for your entire renovation budget.
- Negotiate ground rules.
- Talk to the contractor frequently.
- Verify insurance coverage.
- Get lien releases and receipts for products.
- Don't make the final payment until the job is done.
Know What You Want Before You Get Estimates
First things first: "Start with a plan and some ideas," Hicks says. "Don't start by talking to contractors." You'll get a more accurate estimate if you can be specific about what you want done and the materials you would like to use to make it happen.
Ask Friends, Relatives and Co-Workers for References
People in your neighborhood who have done similar projects are great resources. If you know anyone in the building trades, ask them as well. Employees of local hardware stores may also be able to provide contractor referrals.
Interview at Least 5 Contractors
Ask a lot of questions and get a written proposal with an estimate from each. When you compare bids, make sure each one includes the same materials and the same tasks, so you're comparing apples and apples. Dan DiClerico, smart home strategist and home expert for HomeAdvisor, recommends reaching out to as many as 10 contractors, but a detailed conversation and estimate from at least five will help you feel more confident as you compare options and make decisions about the project. "It really is such a valuable part of the process from an education and experience perspective," DiClerico says.
Be Realistic About Availability
A contractor's availability can depend on the time of year and where you live, but the best contractors have consistent work, so expect to wait a few months for your project to start. "Three months is going to give them time to hopefully finish up their current project and get yours on the calendar," DiClerico says. "But if you can plan it six months out, that's even better."
Ask What Work Will Be Done by Subcontractors
A large renovation may require the contractor to bring in subcontractors for specialized work such as electrical, plumbing or detailed carpentry. You'll want to know when outside workers will be in the home, and you also want to know that your contractor will manage and supervise their work. "(Homeowners) really should have as little interaction with the (subcontractors) as possible," DiClerico says.
Choose the Right Contractor for the Right Project
Someone who did a good job tiling your neighbor's bathroom isn't necessarily the right person to build an addition to your home. Aim to find a company that routinely does the kind of project you want done. "You don't want them to use you as a guinea pig," Hicks says.
Check Licenses, Complaints and Litigation History
General contractors and most subcontractors should be licensed, though the procedure varies by state and municipality. Check your state disciplinary boards, Better Business Bureau and local court records for problems. Ask the contractor for a copy of his or her license and copies of the licenses of the subcontractors who will be involved in the project.
Talk to both clients and subcontractors, who can tell you if the contractor pays them on time. Ask previous clients if the contractor's estimate was close to the final cost, if they got along with the project manager and if it's possible to see closeup photos of any completed work.
Read Online Reviews
Read reviews on sites like Angie's List, HomeAdvisor, Yelp and Google to make sure the contractor is the right person for your job and will work well with you. Keep in mind that reading reviews is not a substitute for checking references. While a series of negative reviews over a long period of time should raise a red flag, one negative review or particularly nasty comment may not provide an accurate picture of the business.
Sign a Detailed Contract
Make sure your contract spells out exactly what will be done, including deadlines, payment schedule, the exact materials that will be used down to the model number and who will provide which materials. If the builder's contract is not detailed enough, write up your own or provide addendums. Any change in the project, whether you change your mind about products or request additional features, should generate a written change order that includes the new work, materials and cost.
Get the Proper Permits
Nearly all home renovation projects require permits. Many fly-by-night companies, as well as some licensed contractors, will suggest that the job can be done without permits to save money, or they may not even broach the topic. Not only could that violate local ordinances and subject you to fines if you're caught, it means the work will not be inspected by the city or county to make sure it's up to code. Unpermitted work can also cause problems when it's time to sell your home. Be wary of contractors who ask you to obtain the permits – that's the contractor's job.
Don't Pay More Than 10% of the Total Before the Job Starts
You don't want a contractor to use your money to finish someone else's job. The contract should include a payment schedule and what triggers each installment to ensure you're not paying for work on schedule when the contractor is behind the projected timeline. Expensive materials needed early on may require more deposit upfront to cover the cost, but that should be laid out in your payment schedule.
Budget for Unexpected Costs
No matter how careful you and the contractor are in preparing for the job, there will be surprises that add to the cost. "They can't see through walls," Hicks says of contractors. Expect to spend at least 10% to 15% more than what is estimated in your contract.
Negotiate Ground Rules
Discuss what hours the contractor can work at your home, what kind of notice you'll get, what bathroom the workers will use, where they will park and what will be cleaned up at the end of every workday.
Talk to the Contractor Frequently
Regular talks with your contractor are typical, and you may even speak daily when discussing a change order. If you see a potential issue with the work, speak up immediately. Something that is done wrong will be harder to fix later after your contractor has packed up and moved on to the next job. But you don't want to micromanage – DiClerico stresses that you should hire a contractor you can trust to give honest updates and oversee work.
Verify Insurance Coverage
In case of accidents or weather events that cause damage to your home while work is being done, know what is covered by your homeowners insurance and what is covered by your contractor's business insurance. Get a copy of the company's insurance policy.
Get Lien Releases and Receipts for Products
If your contractor doesn't pay his subcontractors or suppliers, they can put a mechanic's lien against your house. You want copies of receipts for all the materials, plus lien releases from all the subcontractors and the general contractor before you pay. You can ask for some of those when you make payments that cover completed subcontractor work.
Don't Make the Final Payment Until the Job Is 100% Complete
Less-reputable contractors could finish most of the job and then move on before they get to the final details. Don't make the final payment until you are completely satisfied with the work and have all the lien releases and receipts. Make this clear in your payment schedule.
What will your budget let you renovate?
Home prices are high and interest rates are rising, so many homeowners are opting to stay put and renovate rather than search for a new house. According to Houzz’s 2018 study of renovations in the U.S., 51 percent of Houzz users have plans to renovate in 2018, with a median budget of $10,000. But how far can your budget get you? We're breaking down the cost of some popular home renovation projects to help you figure out the best ways to spend your remodel money.Kitchen
It doesn't matter if you're a gourmet chef or a microwave connoisseur – you want a welcoming kitchen that makes the space worthy of spending time, not just prepping food. A kitchen renovation is the most common planned project for homeowners, according to the Houzz study, with 31 percent of respondents noting they plan to remodel their kitchen. But it's also a costly project. Remodeling Magazine's 2018 Cost vs. Value report breaks down the national average cost for kitchen remodels as such:
Midrange minor kitchen remodel: $21,198
Midrange major kitchen remodel: $63,829
Upscale major kitchen remodel: $125,721
How much you'll spend all depends on your planned makeover. Read on for a breakdown of some popular kitchen updates.Kitchen: cabinets and countertops
Kitchen: cabinets and countertops
Cabinets and countertops are two of the most visible aspects in a kitchen, not to mention that they take up the most space. You have a lot of price wiggle room when it comes to material and installation of both: The installation for countertops alone can range from $1,700 for butcher block to $14,000 for quartz, according to HomeAdvisor. For a kitchen with 30 square feet of counter space and 40 linear feet of cabinets, here are some cost estimates for materials, based on HomeAdvisor information:
Budget: $3,600 for stock cabinets, butcher block countertop.
Midrange: $13,800 for semicustom cabinets, midrange quartz or granite countertop.
Splurge: $52,050 for custom cabinets, concrete countertop.
Kitchen: new appliances
If you're not looking to drop $50,000 on surfaces, consider freshening your kitchen with new appliances. Stores like Home Depot and Lowe's often offer significant discounts if you purchase kitchen appliances in a package deal, with the added benefit of having the same brand appliances that match in color and style. Consider these budget options to replace your fridge, range, dishwasher and microwave all at once (based on prices listed as of Sept. 14, 2018). You're more likely to get a deal on appliance purchases close to the end of the month, on a holiday weekend or just after the new year.
Budget: $1,234 for mixed brand.
Midrange: $2,794 for Whirlpool Kitchen Suite through Lowe's.
Splurge: $6,476 for Bosch Kitchen Suite through Lowe's.
Kitchen: knocking down walls
Removing a wall tends to cost the same in every room, but these days it is commonly done in the kitchen to create a more open floor plan. Wall demolition costs vary based on whether the wall is load-bearing – meaning it's a key part of the house's structure – or if there is plumbing or electrical wiring running through it. HomeAdvisor provides national averages for the cost of removing a wall:
Budget: $300 to $1,000 for a wall that doesn't bear any weight.
Midrange: $1,200 to $3,000 for a load-bearing wall in a single-story house.
Splurge: $3,200 to $10,000 for a load-bearing wall with two or more stories.
The second- and third-most popular home renovations, according to the Houzz study, both fall under the bathroom category, covering guest or secondary bathrooms and master bathrooms. Current design trends show homeowners want a spa experience in their bathroom, whether that means a rain-style showerhead, double vanities or exquisite tile work. Remodeling Magazine separates the cost of remodeling a bathroom into two categories, based on national averages for 2018:
Midrange bathroom remodel: $19,134
Upscale bathroom remodel: $61,662
Beautiful tile in a bathroom can make the room a showpiece in your home, not just a necessary space for privacy. But depending on your tastes, new tile can get pricey. Home renovation cost estimate site RemodelingCalculator.org notes the material and installation costs increase with the intricacy of the design and rarity of the material. Based on Remodeling Calculator's estimated costs, here's some pricing to consider:
Budget: $4.60 per square foot for ceramic tile, $3.80 to $6.70 per square foot to install.
Midrange: $6.70 per square foot for granite tile, $5.45 to $7.50 per square foot to install.
Upscale: Up to $25 per square foot for custom mosaic tile, anywhere from $15 to $300 per square foot to install.
Bathroom: moving plumbing and drains
Plumbing changes are often one of the most expensive parts of a renovation. If you're looking to relocate the toilet, shower or sink in your bathroom, the cost to move both the plumbing for water and the drains can add up quickly. Home improvement marketplace and information site Porch.com – a former U.S. News contributor – estimates the national average to move one plumbing line costs between $653 and $802 – and that’s just for the work. Be sure to factor in the cost of new fixtures and any additional work related to opening up the floor and walls.
Budget: $653 to $802 to move shower.
Midrange: $1,306 to $1,604 to move shower and toilet.
Splurge: $1,959 to $2,406 to move shower, toilet and sink.
To renovate a bedroom that's more focused on the furniture inside than the four walls means a simple bedroom remodel should be fairly attainable for someone with a small budget. Often a fresh coat of paint can do the trick to bring new life to a bedroom, but sometimes a little more work is involved. Home remodeling cost guide Fixr estimates the national average to completely remodel a room – from replacing the drywall on the walls and ceiling to new flooring – at nearly $8,000.
Budget: $200 for paint and painting materials.
Midrange: $800 for high-end painting, professionally done.
Splurge: $7,880 for new walls, floors, etc.
Bedroom: master suite addition
Sometimes, though, the bedroom you have isn't the one you want or need. Master suites are frequently high on the list of homebuyer wants, but they're also not always common in older houses. Making an addition to a house is an extensive project that will cost you a lot of money, but your investment does come back to you, at least somewhat, in the increase in property value. Remodeling Magazine notes a master suite addition recoups just over 48 percent of the cost in resale value for upscale projects and more than 56 percent for midrange projects. Here are the average costs for both projects, per the Cost vs. Value report:
Midrange master suite addition: $123,420
Upscale master suite addition: $256,229
Easily transforming your closet to fit all your clothes and having extra room for storage is the dream for many, but a custom closet can cost you. The overall price tag will vary depending on the size of the closet and how customized you want the space to be – a hanging rod and a couple shelves can put you back a few hundred dollars, but once you factor in wood finishes, built-in shoe racks and rolling drawers, that price tag climbs. Here's what Fixr estimates for closet costs:
Budget: $400 to $1,000 for small closet.
Midrange: $300 to $3,000 for walk-in closet.
Splurge: $400 to $6,500 for custom closet.
Once your kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms are right, it's time to tackle those rooms that aren't as frequently used but can make a big impact on your daily life. A revamped laundry room can be just the ticket to taking the household chore of cleaning clothes from a hassle to downright enjoyable. The cost to redo or build a laundry room varies based on what you have already and whether you need plumbing and electric moved. Fixr breaks down the range of costs depending on if flooring is replaced, whether appliances are new and if professionals are required.
Midrange: $6,000 to $7,000
While it's more out of necessity than luxury, your roof is certainly a major home improvement project to consider if you’ve experienced leaks or it's near the end of its functional life (about 25 years). It's possible you'll only need repairs done to the existing roof to ensure the rest of your house is protected from the elements, but you may need an entirely new roof installed.
Budget: $334 to $1,243 for repairs.
Midrange: $2,380 to $12,100 for new asphalt shingle roof.
Splurge: Up to $84,000 for a new slate roof.
Updated on Feb. 14, 2020: This story was published on an earlier date and has been updated with new information.
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at email@example.com.