Find out the 5 most common mistakes homeowners make when planning a major remodeling project, and learn how to avoid them. Get tips on hiring the right general contractor, having a detailed plan before you get bids, sticking to your budget and your plan, and addressing structural problems that emerge during the project rather than covering them back up.
LESLIE: Well, if you’re getting ready for your first major remodel, I’m sure you want everything to go perfectly. Unfortunately, home improvement and perfect are two words that you don’t often hear in the same sentence.
TOM: Definitely. Hidden surprises are par for the course but you can’t control everything. And planning definitely gets you as close to perfect as possible.
KEVIN: Hi, guys. Great to be here.
TOM: Now, you actually have some advice on the top five remodeling mistakes that you can avoid. What, in your mind, tops that list?
KEVIN: Well, without a question, I think don’t hire the wrong general contractor. I mean we’re lucky enough that we’ve got Tom Silva on our side and a lot of people would love to have him. But the lesson there is if you hire the right pro, well, those guys are going to be able to help you handle the details and provide you expertise that’s going to make your project go smoothly.
TOM: Now, that’s a great point. And I think that folks sometimes get confused on what the role is of the general contractor. But that really is the job-site manager, right?
KEVIN: Well, it’s the job-site manager but they’re also going to help you with things like inspections and permits . And that’s the fastest place for a homeowner to really get lost in the weeds. Those guys have done it day in and day out with the local municipality. They know what they’re doing, so that’s a big help.
And I would say that one of the mistakes that you don’t want to make is hiring a general contractor  that you’re not completely comfortable with, because it is a relationship.
KEVIN: And so even if they’ve got great recommendations and you think their work is impeccable, you’re going to spend a lot of time with them. And so you want to make sure that you feel like you can trust them and you’ve made a connection with the general contractor. If you don’t feel that, keep on looking.
TOM: Now, another tip that you have is getting bids without specs. I think this is so important because so many people invite the contractor into their home and say, you know, “How much to redo my kitchen?” Well, there’s a lot of ways to redo a kitchen . And if you don’t have the details nailed down, you’re never going to be able to compare apples to apples.
KEVIN: A friend of ours sent me her budget for a bathroom remodel  just the other day. Tom Silva and I had her on speaker phone and he just laid into it. He said, “Wait a second. What is he – got allowances for? He says tile but what kind of tile?” And as you know, you can pay 4 bucks a square foot or 40 bucks a square foot.
Get those decisions. Figure out those details, outlined before you start. Know what you’re paying for and you’re going to have a lot less anxiety later.
TOM: And in fact, you can do a lot of that work on your own before the contractor comes in, to make sure that you’ve established kind of what tile you do want and what bathroom faucet you want and that sort of thing so that when the contractor comes in, you have that much more information to make the process go more smoothly.
KEVIN: Put it down on paper. It’s going to help both of you.
TOM: Now, what about budget? How important is that to stay on track? It seems that’s a place that – the job can go south quite quickly.
KEVIN: Well, we’ve got an expression on the show: “While you’re at it …”
KEVIN: People are always saying, “Oh, well …”
TOM: Four most expensive words, right?
KEVIN: Exactly. And so how many times have you gone down to the home center to get one thing and you’ve come back with 10 or 12 things? Don’t do that when you’re actually in the middle of a project. Try to stay on track. Try to make sure that you’re doing exactly what you set out to do. Don’t wander off. And that’s going to end up saving you a lot of money. Don’t get into the trap of “while I’m at it …”
TOM: Yeah. And there’s the saying that goes something like: “Plan your work and work the plan.” That’s all great until somebody sees something they don’t like. Those changes that happen mid-project can be very expensive.
KEVIN: Sometimes, they’re unavoidable and you have to make them. But the fewer of them you have to make, the better off you’re going to be.
And keep in mind you’ve got to be fair to your general contractor. If you start making changes, those things are going to add up and you’re going to have to pay for those. So when he hands you a bill that’s bigger than you expected, just be aware that every time you changed your mind, there are implications to him and his work.
TOM: Yeah. And the way to control that is with a change order, right? A written agreement that might say what the reduction of cost is or the additional costs are as a result of that change.
KEVIN: Again, it’s that whole idea of working it out beforehand. Let him know what you want to do, hear his feedback, decide that you’re going to do it for what price and you’re going to save a lot of anxiety.
TOM: Now, any other mistakes that we want to be careful not to make?
KEVIN: So, there’s always these things that you can’t see, right? Beauty is only skin deep. But when you start going into a remodeling project, things are going to come up, especially in old houses . And I would say don’t avoid those fixes. Bite the bullet and make them while you can.
If you find out that there’s a structural problem to your house when you’ve gone into a kitchen renovation or whatever, you’re just going to have to address it. The building is opened up, it’s exposed. That’s the time to do it. I would say spend the extra money, fix it while you can. Certainly, do not cover up over those old blemishes.
TOM: Some people recommend even coming up with a budget contingency. You may not tell your contractor you’ve got the extra money but maybe if you sock away an extra 10 percent, you can cover those surprises without really putting yourself in the poorhouse.
KEVIN: I’ve heard 10 percent thrown around a lot on the job sites. I think it’s a pretty good number.
TOM: Good point. So there you have it. The top five remodeling mistakes to avoid: hiring the wrong general contractor, getting bids without specs, staying on track and on budget, don’t change the plan and finally, don’t ignore those things hidden from view. Great advice from our friend, Kevin O’Connor, the host of TV’s This Old House.
Thanks for stopping by The Money Pit, Kevin.
KEVIN: Always my pleasure to be here.
LESLIE: You can catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and step-by-step videos of many common home improvement projects, visit ThisOldHouse.com.
TOM: And This Old House is brought to you by State Farm. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.