Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Five Home Remodeling Mistakes to Avoid


Spring is in the air. Out in their driveways, your neighbors are beating on old Turkish rugs with broomsticks, maybe more enthusiastically than is really necessary. Birds are building nests in your trees, without asking. No matter where you look, spring cleaning and other restoration projects are underway. The warm breeze is whispering in your ear: “Time to start pulling your weight.” Or maybe that’s your spouse, and it’s proceeded from a whisper to plain speech to aggressive beseeching all the way up to a flat-out demand, which has become increasingly hard to ignore. So it’s time to bite the bullet and agree to a home remodel. This experience can be anything from transformative to ruinous to existentially harrowing, like a Lars Von Trier movie. Here are five mistakes to avoid.

Mistake #1: create a budget

Too many earnest homeowners think the first step in planning their renovation is to figure out how much they can afford, and scale the project accordingly. This is pure folly. As all home improvement veterans know, every single task will run over budget, and every part of the structure that is touched will unveil previously hidden damage. For example, what you thought of as a simple case of catastrophic dry-rot will turn out to be an ongoing termite infestation, and a foundation you thought was only rotating will turn out to be twisted like a strand of fusilli. That seismic retrofit you paid $5K for, to have the foundation bolted, will turn out to be purely cosmetic, as the foundation is bolted to nothing—that is, to thin air in your crawl space. And as often as not, routine excavation will turn up a body, meaning the murder squad forensics team is going to turn the whole place upside down. Where remodels are concerned, the #1 rule is, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” Rule #2 is, “If you have to borrow money to pay for a remodel, you can’t even afford the home you have.”

Now, if you’re one of those data-driven people who simply must have hard numbers to work with, budget your entire nest egg for this, and what’s left over at the end will determine how long you’ll need to postpone your retirement. If you’re not prepared for that kind of commitment, you can opt for the “zone defense,” meaning you start with a single room to renovate and then if there’s any money left over, you can start to think about the next room, or at least the hallway.

Mistake #2: collaborate with your partner on the design

In some cases, a widowed or divorced homeowner will renovate his or her home, but usually these people are spending their money on fancy clothes, cool cars, and plastic surgery—as well they should. The truth is, most remodels are the work of a couple. And since this project will disrupt both of their lives for months or years, and define the space they’ll get old and die in, it can often seem like the two should work together on design decisions that will please both of them. But this is just a fantasy. It is the exceedingly rare couple that could agree on anything aesthetic or functional, and trying to find common ground is a sure way to bring on a protracted, acrimonious battle, threatening the marriage to the point that the house may end up being sold off instead of fixed up.

Where real-world remodels are concerned, one party or the other needs to call all the shots. Am I saying that one member of every couple should be a complete pushover? Not at all. I’m saying every good couple includes a person who is completely devoid of any opinion on matters of home design and d├ęcor. This person won’t mind foregoing all input and having blind faith that his or her spouse will make great decisions. In my own marriage, I have a verbal prenuptial agreement that my wife unilaterally makes all the choices, aesthetic and otherwise, about the home. I, in turn, get to store my racing bike in the home office.

Mistake #3: find alternate lodging during construction

Home remodels create an incredible amount of dust, noise, and other disruption, so it’s tempting to relocate your family to a hotel or Airbnb during construction. Bad idea. If your situation is typical, there’s about a 50% chance that your contractor will bail on your project halfway through, totally ghosting you and pocketing the hefty retainer you unwisely doled out. You need to do everything in your power to improve your odds of seeing your project through, and being onsite is part of that. As the saying goes, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer”—and your contractor so close he can smell you. Breathing down his neck and threatening to micromanage his crew is the best way to motive this person and his minions to get the work done, get their tools packed up, and get the hell out. (And if you’re worried about the health effects of inhaling all that dust, sawdust, and the welding fumes, consider that these people do asbestos abatement for a living, and they seem a hell of a lot healthier than you.)

Mistake #4: pay attention to ROI

Unlike many things we spend money on, fixing up our homes improves their value such that the project can seem to pay for itself. But this kind of thinking is a trap, and a sinister one. Real estate agents will tell you that all that matters, financially speaking, is location and square footage. This is true if you’re hoping to sell your home to a complete idiot, but hopefully you live in the kind of neighborhood that idiots can’t afford. The fact is, if you’re lucky, your home was designed by a professional who knew what he or she was doing and made the most effective use of the space available. And now you’re going to go tack some extra room onto the side of your house, like some kind of tumor, just to add square footage so your kids might inherit more money when you die, if some idiot buys the house? How does that serve you, exactly? The floor plan was right to begin with. Stop being greedy, and just resurface a couple floors, replace that grody tile, slap up a fresh coat of paint, and honor what your home is supposed to be: a living space, not an investment vehicle. In other words, forget about ROI.

Mistake #5: get all the necessary permits

A responsible homeowner doesn’t cut corners, and gets all the necessary permits when remodeling. Though this obviously makes all kinds of sense, it’s not enough to protect you from serious financial distress or even complete ruin—because permits don’t prevent cost overruns, they enable them. That’s where the proper approach to permitting can really save you. Just follow this rule of thumb: if you need to pull a permit to get something done, that shouldn’t be part of your remodel. For example, if you want to add a bedroom, that definitely requires a permit, whereas adding a bed to the existing room does not. (May I recommend a bunk bed in this instance?)

Obviously there are simple things you can do without a permit—such as painting, tiling, carpeting, installing new counter tops, and finally scrubbing that toilet—that will make your home much more livable without burying you financially. But did you know there are other, bigger improvements that still don’t require a permit? In Berkeley, as you can confirm here, you’re allowed to construct an oil derrick without a permit! Do your neighbors have one of those? Didn’t think so!

One mistake you shouldn’t avoid

You might have thought it redundant that I’ve listed “mistakes to avoid,” since “something to avoid” is baked into the very meaning of “mistake.” But we’re not robots, we’re people, and I’m going to actually recommend a mistake: dare to fall in love again. You loved this house once, with its avocado-colored appliances and its knob-and-tube wiring, its total lack of insulation and its single, overworked bathroom. How come those weren’t show-stoppers before? Didn’t you used to find it charming when you’d start the microwave oven and all the lights would flicker? Wasn’t it cozy staying in bed because it was too cold to venture out? Isn’t it possible that all this desire for so-called “improvement” is just a result of boredom? Haven’t you lived ten, twenty, or more years in your home without having an oil derrick out back?

Gosh, I made such a good case just now for leaving well enough alone, I might have convinced you this isn’t a mistake. Well, it is. Once your spouse starts lusting after home improvement, you’ve have to be crazy to stand in her way … but it just may be a lunatic she’s looking for. No, it isn’t. Damn, I’m really losing the thread here. Let’s just say at least you now know what the mistakes are. Make them or don’t—it’s none of my business.


As you may have gathered, I’m not really qualified to dispense advice here. I did very little research for this post, and what I try to convey as sound practices are based mainly on my own knee-jerk reaction to a prospect that frightens me. Also, my neighbors have never beaten their rugs out in the driveway … I don’t know where I got that.

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