Melanie Pinola and A.A. Newton | Lifehacker.com | 3/15/21
Have a plan
Renovations rarely go exactly to plan, but that doesn’t mean you should wing it. Last-minute changes are both stressful and expensive, so get the non-negotiable details hammered out first. At minimum, this means knowing what results you want and how much money—and time—it will take to achieve them.
Modeling and design tools like Floorplanner are super helpful in the planning phase. Create a couple different versions of the same project, then add a 10-15% buffer to your budget estimates to prepare for inevitable surprises.
Add value when possible
If you’re not sure where to start with home improvements, it can be helpful to prioritize projects that increase your home’s value. Updated kitchens and bathrooms are pretty much always a safe bet, as are any renovations that increase square footage, like finished basements and decks. But buyer preferences vary from market to market, so be sure to focus on what’s popular and valuable where you live—not broad national trends.
Tackle quick, time-sensitive projects first
Some home improvements are more urgent than others. If a project will save you money immediately or prevent devastating damage in the future, bump it to the top of the priority list. That goes double for quick, easy fixes, like sealing drafts and replacing filters.
Find your DIY threshold
Even if you’re an experienced DIY-er with a well-stocked workshop, not all home improvement projects are suitable for amateurs. Before starting a project, gauge your interest level: How much work are you really willing to put in? Is that effort worth the money you’ll save? Be brutally honest.
If you have no idea what you’re getting into, don’t commit until you’ve spent, at minimum, a solid couple of hours watching YouTube tutorials and pricing out materials. Remember: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Bone up on DIY knowledge
Everyone should know a few basic repair skills, and thanks to the internet, learning them has never been easier. If you can, start with a specific question: Is my garbage disposal broken or just clogged? Do I really need to clean my dishwasher filter? How do you refinish a coffee table? You’ll click with some blogs and video personalities more than others; next time, start with them.
If you’re more of a hands-on learner, try volunteering: You’ll learn new skills and help people at the same time. Many hardwares stores offer free clinics on basic home repair and improvement skills, too, so be sure to check the offerings in your area.
Save money by scrimping—and splurging—responsibly
Major renovations are expensive, but going full Scrooge on every single line item only creates more work later. Instead, identify where you can and can’t afford to be a little stingy. A good rule of thumb: Shell out for anything catastrophically expensive and/or difficult to replace, like hot water heaters and electrical work. For easily replaceable items—shower heads, light fixtures, drawer pulls—cheap is fine. You should also consider how much use and enjoyment you’ll get from an item. If you’re an avid cook, skimp on floor tiles so you can splurge on the stove of your dreams.
Understand your financing options
Unfortunately, most home improvements do not pay for themselves. If you can’t afford to finance the project in full with cash, you should know the different ways you can finance your home improvement without putting your home at risk.
Personal loans and credit cards can be useful for small-to-medium projects, depending on the interest rate and terms, while home equity loans (HELs) and lines of credit (HELOCs) can help finance major renovations and repairs. Improvements that increase your home’s value can cut down on private mortgage insurance payments, but keep in mind you’ll have to pay to get your home reassessed on top of everything else.
Get your tools right
You can’t really improve your home with just your bare hands—most projects require at least a multi-tool. Before you start a project of any size, be sure your toolbox actually contains the tools you’ll need. Keep in mind that some project genres need special equipment, particularly if they involve plumbing or electrical systems. When in doubt, Google it.
Find the perfect contractor
Finding a handyman or contractor you trust is a lot like finding the right dentist or therapist: Harder than it sounds, and with incredibly high stakes. It’s important to vet potential contractors carefully using these criteria:
- Word of mouth: Ask friends, family, and neighbors for recommendations—especially if they have industry connections
- Check for complaints: Look up your state’s consumer protection office and your local building inspection office
- Learn which licenses and permits are required in your area for contractors, electricians, plumbers, and painters
- Get proof of insurance: Ask contractors to provide you with their insurance details so you can verify it with the provider
- Ask for references, then actually check them out
- Meet with every potential candidate so you get a feel for their style
- Get quotes—and track them with a spreadsheet or other list
For even more specific questions you should ask, check out the Federal Trade Commission’s guide on hiring a contractor.
Always keep your next project in mind
When one project ends, another begins—such is the nature of home improvement. Planning your next move is a lot harder when you can’t remember the good ideas you had while working on something else. Keep a detailed list of your project goals in a spreadsheet, notebook, or even a good old-fashioned Pinterest board so you’ll always know what’s next.
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