If you’re lucky enough to own a home, you know it can be both a blessing and a curse. The idea of tailoring your home to your tastes is appealing, but getting there can be less than glamorous. Forget the before and after—it’s the in-between that counts.
Before moving into a midcentury ranch last year with my husband, I thought myself a master of rental renovations: cheap, temporary, and as I like to call it, close enough for government work. I decorated spaces within the confines of my lease, and it worked.
But when we moved into our house last August, we were eager to get started on bigger, more permanent DIY projects. (As a disclaimer, I’m lucky—my partner is an independent contractor who has been fixing things around the house since his youth.)
Still, we ran into our fair share of snags. And as plan A repeatedly turned into plan B, I realized I did not know as much about home renovation as I thought. I spoke to several colleagues, friends, and even strangers about their home reno “wish I knews,” and it was both a validating and eye-opening experience.
1. Come To Terms With Timelines
Because I was so used to making temporary renovations, I had a horrible concept of how long a project should take in our new house. I was frustrating myself with these unrealistic time frames. Once I stopped expecting a project to be done in a matter of days, my stress levels finally went down.
I thought I might be impatient, but it turns out this is a common issue. I spoke to Dallin Hales, a DIY blogger and current owner of a renovated 1880’s pioneer home, who said, “it’s a safe measure to plan three times more time to finish the project than initially expected. If you finish sooner, even better!”
Layla Acharya, online education site owner and DIY-er, had a similarly tough lesson to learn. “I went for renovating myself, and it was a very hectic and time-consuming process. I was unable to focus on my work life because of it. If I would have hired an interior designer, things would have taken less time, and my house would get a completely different feel. I will surely go for that next time.”
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2. Prioritize Function Over Beauty
Jen Stark, founder of Happy DIY Home, said the biggest thing she wishes she knew before starting a DIY renovation project is “that function beats beauty every day. For example, that refrigerator may look fabulous in your kitchen, but what good is it going to do if you can’t open the doors all the way? Think about how you’ll use the space and efficiency. Consider the ins and outs of the space before you commit to anything.”
I encountered similar issues when picking out furniture and light fixtures for our new home. The most visually attractive options seemed to be the least functional—though you wouldn’t think it at first glance. But after double-checking the measurements, wiring configurations, and other product specs, I realized all that glitters in the home decor world is not gold.
It can be tempting to commit to non-functional pieces to stick to a theme. But remember it’s your home, not an art gallery. Take the time to consider how you will feel living in this space daily. If it doesn’t improve the functionality of the area, then it might not be worth the splurge.
3. Don’t Forget About Red Tape
Homeowners are not exempt from bureaucratic red tape—in fact, they usually have to deal with a lot of it. The larger the renovation, the more tape there is. “If the renovation involves adding to the footprint of the house, most towns require drainage mitigation for any addition over 400 square feet,” explained Vincent Colangelo, strategic construction advisor.
“This will require an engineering report. A survey will also be required demonstrating that the new addition meets the setbacks, easements, floor area ratio, height, and green area regulations. If the house is on septic and well, an entire separate set of regulations enters the design considerations.”
There are housing costs to consider, too. As Steve Elliot, a franchise owner of Restoration1, explained, “I am renovating a condo townhouse. In this area, the maximum price for a house of this style is about $300,000. Therefore, while I could spend $30,000 or more renovating, I wouldn’t be able to recoup those costs if I sold the house. Over-renovating will result in a home that costs you $350k that you’ll never be able to get more than $310k for in a sale.”
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4. DIY? Maybe Don’t
If there’s one thing being married to a contractor has taught me, it’s that major DIY jobs rarely go well. I’ve heard countless horror stories of him having to repair botched flooring, plumbing, wiring, and drywall jobs that cost his customers (and him) more time and resources in the long run.
My coworker Allison Weston offered this advice from her hairdresser: “[she] told me, ‘there’s a reason why you pay me to do your hair. It’s because it’s what I’m good at. There’s a reason painters make their living painting—because they’re good at it. Let people that are good at their job do it.” Weston said she hired painters at her new house on this advice, “and it was worth every single penny.”
Generally speaking, it’s important to know your limits with home renovations. “[DIY] is a great way to save money, feel accomplished, and involve the whole family,” said Kerry Sherrin, consumer advocate at Ownerly. “But it can turn disastrous if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“Identify what you can safely do and what you should leave to the pros,” Sherrin continued, “like a potentially load-bearing wall, asbestos, or lead paint. If you’re unsure, find a reliable contractor.”
5. Teamwork Makes The Dream Work
Whether you decide to hire a pro or do it yourself, never underestimate the power of a helping hand. This not only means actual hands on the project—but also consulting videos, books, and other resources as often as you need. The most talented contractors, carpenters, and engineers I know are constantly looking up the latest information, techniques, and trade secrets.
Sherrin offered several helpful online resources, which she said are great for beginner DIY-ers. The DIY Huntress is great for projects like desks, headboards, and even a simple step stool, she said, and “Woodworking 101” at Anika’s DIY Life is great for tool recommendations, tutorials, and tips, she said.
And Toolbox Divas is a “veritable playground of practical and imaginative woodworking projects, like farmhouse shelves, desks, and covered garden beds, to all kinds of wood crafts like a serving tray, multi-tier hanging planter, and an easy-to-make wall clock from scrap wood and colored epoxy.”
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6. Remember The Good, Fast, And Cheap Theory
Home renovations can be a major undertaking, requiring lots of time, money, energy, and know-how. It’s best to prepare for the unexpected, maintain a healthy savings account for non-reno-related emergencies, and be patient. No matter which project you embark on, property owner Doug Greene wraps up his DIY advice succinctly.
“The best advice I can convey is the concept of ‘good, fast, and cheap.’ The theory is that you can always only have two of them. For example, if you want really good results on refinishing your cabinets and you need it done ASAP, then you’re going to have to invest in a top-notch orbital sander. Doing it by hand might be cheaper, but it would take longer.”
“You can see the tradeoffs. If you’re truly taking on a home renovation yourself, then invest the money you are saving into high-quality power tools. It will make all the difference, and you can get scary good results by using the right tools. Be patient, and learn some new skills. You never lose them, and it’s very rewarding when the job is done.”