Let’s Renovate—Local Experts Provide Tips

By Larry Floersch

Let’s say you can no longer stand the pink toilet, sink, and tub and the aqua-colored tile in the only bathroom for your family of five. Now what? If you’re like most homeowners, you’ll consider renovation. Keep in mind that “renovation” is a word for the 5,000-plus decisions you will have to make to get rid of those pink fixtures and add a second bathroom.

One of the first decisions you will need to make, according to Maryellen LaPerle, vice president of mortgage banking with Northfield Savings Bank, is how much money you want or can afford to spend. “I would say first and foremost people should have a budget in mind.  They should do their research and get some estimates from contractors so they know what the cost will be,” she said.

Second, she recommends if they are going to need financing, they should come to the bank sooner rather than later. “Home equity loans are usually what people use to do renovations, and a home equity loan may need an appraisal before it can be completed. Depending on the season and market activity, it can often take a few weeks or more to get an appraisal,” said LaPerle.

Third, she cautions not to start construction prior to approval of your financing. “A home equity loan uses the ‘as-is’ value of your home. You do not want the house to be under construction when the appraiser comes,” she said.

Last, LaPerle points out home equity financing is typically a lower cost option, so it tends to be the perfect tool for a renovation, but if there is not sufficient equity in the property prior to the renovation project, you may need a construction loan, which is a costlier and somewhat more complex process.

Once you know where the money is coming from, it’s time to decide who it will go to. If the project is going to be extensive, complicated, and has structural aspects, or if you do not feel terribly creative, you may want to look into hiring an architect. Such a move may cost you more up front, but it could also save you from nasty and expensive surprises.

If you decide you don’t need an architect, and unless you are a handy do-it-yourselfer, you’ll need to at least select a contractor to do the work. Ask friends and neighbors for recommendations on contractors, and don’t settle for the first one who comes through the door. Ask for references. “I think it’s important to call references to see what it was like for those people to work with a contractor,” says Malcolm Gray of Montpelier Construction. “Were there any problems, and if there were problems, how were those problems resolved?”

Gray also pointed out that when dealing with people in the trades, pick ones who can appreciate your situation and be flexible. In most cases you will still be living in the house while it is undergoing renovation. “Will the sounds of circular saws and nail guns at 7 am bother you? Some contractors may be more willing to work with you to minimize disruptions and intrusions—such as when you’re trying to get the kids off to school. Make no mistake about it,” says Gray, “renovation can be disruptive.”

It’s also important to get the perspectives of several different contractors on how they will solve your renovation needs. For example, if you want to replace and expand a dormer, how would each contractor approach the work. And keep in mind the least expensive approach may not be the safest structurally.

Once you’ve settled on a contractor and your project begins, the pace of decision making will pick up. Styles, textures, colors, flooring, lighting fixtures, the placement of wall switches and outlets—you will be asked to make decisions on all of it.

Work with your contractor and be as comprehensive as possible when planning renovations. “Always try to step back and look at the big picture,” says Gray. “Putting new R-11 windows in an existing R-19 wall is probably not a good idea.”

“With most projects, I like to ask the client ‘What’s important to you?’ rather than having them focus on what’s trending,” says Gray. “For example, if you want to renovate a kitchen, what are the three to five things that mean the most to you in that new kitchen? And what are the three to five things that mean the least? That helps me shape the project so the client will be satisfied.”

Gray also feels the renovation should fit the flow of the house. “It’s an either/or situation,” says Gray, “For example, an addition should fit the house so it looks seamless, or it should be entirely different. You don’t want it to look as if you tried and missed in terms of siding details, windows, overhangs, cornices, and such.”

Gray also recommends investing a little extra in small details and things that look and feel good, such as lock sets, door hardware, and towel bars. “These things do not add that much to the overall costs, but they can have a great impact on the overall results,” he said.

“Most importantly, try to think of styles and finishes that are enduring. Stay away from colors or styles that you’re going to get tired of in 20 years. You can paint a wall with an accent color in an afternoon, but replacing fixtures or cabinets or countertops is a much larger, longer, and expensive project,” says Gray.

Always keep in mind it was someone’s bad decisions 40 years ago that resulted in your needing to replace that “trendy” pink toilet and aqua tile today.

Is renovation worth it? “As a rule of thumb, you can expect to get back about 60 percent to 80 percent of your renovation investment in terms of the overall value of the house, especially if you are renovating a kitchen or bath, since a 40-year-old kitchen or bathroom may have dragged the overall value of the house downward,” said Gray.

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