A dozen ways to save on your remodel: insiders' secrets

This Old House
A dozen ways to save on your remodel: insiders' secrets
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One remodeling trick: Skip the recessed lighting. Installing six cans costs triple what a single surface-mounted fixture would at the same wattage. (Photo credit: Thinkstock)

Busting the budget is everyone's biggest fear when it comes to renovation. And with good reason. Even if you follow the essential advice we've been doling out for years—build in a 20 percent cushion to cover the nasty surprises, get contractor references and check them, banish the words "while you're at it" from your vocabulary—it's hard not to end up shelling out more than you want to, even if you want to pen a check for a million bucks.

But why scale back a project or forgo that Viking range? No, what you need to do is get your dream at a price you can afford. And not by cheaping out, either. With some strategic thinking about design, materials, and timing, you can cut costs without cutting corners. We'll show you the ways, from the big to something as small as choosing a wall sconce over a recessed light. But another universal truth about renovations is that every little thing adds up. So save a little here, save a little there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money. To see even more ways to save on your remodel, visit This Old House online.

1. Increase efficiency, not size.

If you can reorganize and equip your kitchen for maximum utility, you may not need to blow out the walls to gain square footage. Start by replacing space–hogging shelves with cabinet–height pullout drawers 8 inches wide, containing racks for canned goods and other items. "You're getting three or more horizontal planes where you might otherwise get only one," says Louis Smith Jr., an architect with Meier Group, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. You could easily shell out a few thousand to outfit cabinets with upgrades like dividers, pull–out pot trays, and lazy Susans, but you'll save many times that amount by skipping the addition you thought you needed.

[Want to create more space in your kitchen? Click to find the right contractor now.]

Cost to expand kitchen by 200 square feet: $48,000 to $95,000
Cost of super–efficient, custom–designed cabinets: $35,000
SAVED: Up to $60,000

2. Donate your trash.

Before you begin a remodeling job, invite the local Habitat for Humanity chapter to remove materials and fixtures for later resale. "About 85 percent of a house is reusable," says B.J. Perkins, Habitat's ReUse program manager, in Austin, Texas. "We can do a total takedown, or do a cherry-pick job and take the cabinets, the tub, the sink, and so on." You save space in the landfill, collect a charitable tax credit for the donation, and help a good cause. Visit Habitat's website (see Way to Save #3) to find an affiliate near you.

Cost to trash a suite of bathroom fixtures: $50 to $75
Cost to donate: Nothing, plus you get a tax deduction
SAVED: Space in the landfill (and a little bit of your soul)

3. Consider long–term costs, not just short–term gains.

If your addition calls for clapboard siding, for instance, you can save more in the long run by ponying up now for the preprimed and prepainted variety. It costs an extra 10 to 20 cents per foot, but "you'll wind up paying for half as many paint jobs down the road," says Paul Eldrenkamp, owner of Byggmeister, a design–build remodeling firm in Newton, Massachusetts. The reason? Factory finishes are applied on dry wood under controlled conditions—no rain, no harsh sun. "I used prefinished claps on my house about ten years ago and the only flaw in the finish is the occasional mildew spot, easily washed off," Eldrenkamp says. "The paint looks as if it'll be good for another ten years, easily."

[Time for new siding on your home? Click to find a contractor now.]

Cost of unfinished siding for a 10–by–40–foot addition, plus two paint jobs: $5,000
Cost for prefinished claps and one coat of paint at installation: $3,750
SAVED: $1,250

4. Limit recessed light fixtures.

"The more recessed lights you put in, the more it's going to cost," says Tom Silva, This Old House's general contractor. In addition to the fixtures, there's the labor to cut all the holes and insulate them properly. A wall– or ceiling–mounted light can also deliver more wattage, which means you may be able to get away with fewer fixtures.

Cost to install six can lights: $900
Cost to install one surface–mounted fixture of equal wattage: $300
SAVED: $600

5. Consult an architect.

Depending on the scale of your project, you might not need a full–on architectural commission, which involves extensive meetings, multiple job–site visits, and several sets of construction drawings, to the tune of about 8 percent of a project's construction budget. You might be able to tap an architect's design savvy by having him undertake a one–time design consultation. For example, for a $400 flat fee, Baton Rouge architect Kevin Harris will meet with a homeowner, examine the problem, and sketch out a few solutions that could be as simple as opening up a partition wall or moving a door. The homeowner can then give the sketch to a builder or take it to a drafting service, which will charge about $1 to $1.50 a square foot to crank out formal construction drawings.

Architect's fee to design a 300–square–foot home office: $2,250
Fee for design consultation only and plans: $580
SAVED: $1,670

6. Partner with a contractor.

Though the practice is controversial among the trades, some contractors will offer consulting and mentoring services to skilled do–it–yourselfers on an hourly basis. Chicago–area builder Ted Welch charges $150 per hour for such coaching, with a two–hour minimum commitment. "The most satisfied clients tend to be those who have good manual dexterity, who realize that skills need to be practiced in order to be perfected, and who are willing to risk making a few mistakes and then learn from them," he says.

Cost to drywall one room: $1,000
Cost with DIY consultation: $300 (2 hours of coaching), plus materials
SAVED: $700

7. Make sweat equity count.

Unless you've got loads of time (and expertise) to spend on your project, the best way to add sweat equity is upfront, by handling your own demolition, or at the back end, by doing some of the finish work yourself. "If you want to save money, dig in and start helping out," says Tom Silva. "You can insulate, you can paint, you can sand." Or better still, he says, help with cleanup every day. "Instead of paying someone to pick up sawdust off the floor, put your money into the time it takes to trim the window properly," he advises.

Cost for construction crew to handle cleanup: $200 per day
Cost to do it yourself: $0
SAVED: About 3 to 5 percent of the overall job cost

8. Wait until contractors want your business.

Don't schedule your reno in the height of summer or between September, when the kids go back to school, and Christmas. "That's premium time," explains Lisa Stacholy, owner of LKS Architects, in Atlanta, Georgia. Suppliers tend to be busier, labor scarcer, and deliveries slower. One Virginia–based contractor offers discounts of between 4.5 and 5.5 percent (depending on the overall budget) on projects during his down time, right after the new year.

[Click to find the right contractor now.]

Cost of a major bathroom remodel in peak season: $25,000
Cost in January: $23,625
SAVED: $1,375

9. Skip the foundation.

If local code allows, you may be able to support a small addition on posts and beams, as you would a deck, explains contractor Dennis Gavin, of Gavin Design–Build, in Media, Pennsylvania.

220–square–foot addition with poured foundation: $40,000
Same–size addition on posts and beams: $35,000
SAVED: $5,000

10. Don't move the kitchen sink.

Or the toilet, if you can avoid it. "That often becomes the biggest part of the plumbing–price increase," says Richard Trethewey, This Old House plumbing and heating expert. If your new layout requires that you move the toilet, use the opportunity to upgrade the pipes at the same time. "That will save you money in the long run," says Richard.

Cost to move toilet more than 3 feet: $500—$1,000
Cost to leave in existing location: $0
SAVED: Up to $1,000

11. Plan with stock sizes in mind.

"Ask yourself, 'Why am I building something 10 feet wide if plywood comes in 4–foot–wide sheets?'" says Lisa Stacholy, of LKS Architects, in Atlanta. The same applies to stock windows and doors: Use manufacturers' off–the–shelf dimensions from the outset and you will save the premiums of custom fabrication.

Cost of custom doors: $1,500—$2,500
Cost of standard doors: $500–$800
SAVED: Up to $2,000

12. Make decisions early.

Start prowling the aisles at the hardware store or home center way before the wrecking crew shows up. Get a good feeling for what you want in fixtures and appliances and what they cost. If you aren't absolutely specific up front about what you want, you'll have to rely on your contractor's estimate, called an allowance, and his notion of what is acceptable may be quite different from yours. "Ninety–eight percent of the time, allowances are too low," says Tom Silva. For instance, you may have had a glass–tile backsplash in mind, but your contractor's bid was for ceramic.

Cost to plan ahead: $0
Cost of change orders midstream: The difference in the item price, but also time lost to project delays and communications glitches
SAVED: Up to thousands

To see even more ways to save on your remodel, visit This Old House online.

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