Coping Skills: What are your priorities?

Kathy Burke in her new living area. When Harriet Burke and her daughter Kathy Scheidemen decided to expand Burke’s 1961 tract house into a “green,” energy-efficient home for the two of them, they agreed they would spend $200,000 and “not a penny more,” Scheidemen recalls.

The two women made a list of their desires, including two separate living areas, vaulted wood ceilings, a solar-electric system, solar heated water, a rainwater reclamation cistern, and all new drought-tolerant landscaping, among other items.

When the contractor’s bid came in double the budget, at $400,000, Burke said: “Oh my goodness. What are we going to do?”

The pair, who live in Santa Barbara, California, did what most homeowners have to do at some point: they prioritized their desires.

At the top of the priority list were adding the extra space, turning existing flat ceilings into vaulted ceilings and adding the solar panels that would power the whole house.

But at the bottom of the priority list — and thus dropped — were the rainwater reclamation cistern and antique wood on the ceilings, among other things. The wood on the ceiling was just too expensive, Scheidemen explained. And the cistern would require a complicated permitting process. And besides, California is in a drought and doesn’t get much rain, so the benefits of the cistern would be negligible.


All homeowners have to prioritize says Berkeley, California, architect Robert Nebolon, and helping clients figure out their priorities is a big part of his job. No matter how big or small the budget, or how simple or complicated the project, all require “some degree of prioritizing,” he said.

According to Nebolon, these are the questions to consider in setting priorities:

How long will you live in the house? If Nebolon learns that a client will be in the house less than five years, he typically recommends they do a minimal amount of improvements, and that what they do will help sell the house in the future. However, for homeowners planning to stay five years or longer, the advice is to do at least one phase exactly how the homeowners want.

Is there something obvious in the house that needs to be fixed or replaced? This question is especially pertinent for homeowners planning on staying less than five years. If an improvement will need to be made before the house is sold, something like a cracked sink or broken fixture, including that in the project makes sense. You not only get it done and out of the way, but you get to enjoy the improvement for the next few years.

How difficult is each proposed improvement? To understand the level of complexity of each project, a conversation with a general contractor may be in order. While two projects — such as adding space to a master bedroom vs. remodeling the kitchen — may seem equal in value, adding the extra space could actually much more complicated, and thus more expensive. In this case, the priority may come down to getting the most benefit for the least hassle.

What do you value most: quantity or quality? Until a decade ago, when British-born architect Sarah Susanka launched her “Not So Big House” series of books, quantity vs. quality was an issue less discussed than it is today. Of course, nearly everybody wants more space. But as Susanka points out in her books, new big houses are hard to furnish, expensive to heat and cool, and often lack warmth and charm. It would certainly be valid to ask: What is the priority: adding a 500-square-foot family room with few flourishes, or a 300-square-foot family room with all the “bells and whistles” — crown molding, thick baseboard moldings, recessed lighting, built-in bookcases, bay window, etc. It’s possible the budget can handle either the bigger space, or the better space.

According Nebolon, there is another option: to add the larger space with less expensive interior finishes that can be upgraded in the future. “A good example,” he says, “would be to buy laminate countertops first and then upgrade to granite ones later on.”

A good strategy for setting priorities is to write down wants, needs and desires in order of importance, and then slice off the items on the bottom as the budget and time frame require.

(Note: This article originally ran in a Better Homes & Gardens magazine called Remodel)