Remodeling wisdom from a real expert: a homeowner

Reader Babbette has been kind enough to share some of what she's learned in 20 years of owning, fixing and remodeling homes. Read this post.

This is gold: First, and most important: Think of remodeling as an engineering project. Things will go wrong. Expect them to go wrong. Be ready to be flexible. Have a backup plan and a secret stash of money.

1. Do a radon test. They're cheap and may save your life. Three of the previous owners of my house died of lung cancer. The radon test showed consistently high readings. I now have a radon mitigation system (paid for through my health savings account, interestingly enough. It never hurts to read the fine print.)

2. A good plumber, electrician, and handyman should be on your speed dial. Selecting these people is where friends' recommendations pay off. I went through three plumbers, two electricians, and two handymen before I settled on the ones on speed dial.

3. Trustworthiness in a contractor is worth more than low fees. I've had jobs I never sent out for a bid because I had a contractor I could trust. This is particularly useful in an emergency.

4. Set your exterior locks so you have all but one on one key, then the last lock on another. This odd lock is your maintenance lock that you can give the key for to your contractor, maid or dog sitter. If you decide you no longer trust them, you have to change only one lock.

5. Speaking of locks, the day you move in have a locksmith re-key the house. A friend of mine moved into his house and two weeks later a strange woman knocked on his door and said "Here’s the Smith’s keys they left with me last year." You never know where ALL the keys to your house are. This is particularly true if you are the first owner. Just replace all the locks with something better.

6. If you have a sump pump, have a backup sump pump ready for the day the old one fails. (They ALL fail, usually on a three-day weekend during football season when some important game is playing.) Backup power is good for the sump pump, too. It’s a remodel, why not plan for disaster?

7. Cheap things to make a house really outshine other houses: Custom switch plate covers. You can get them online, but Lowe’s has some nice ones to order. Replace the ceiling lights with new fixtures. (I have one room where I’m on my third fixture.) When you replace a floor remember a big chunk of cost is installation. why not go just a step up in quality? I was dithering about carpets when I realized that wood was only $300 more per room. I put it everywhere, even the kitchen where it’s worked wonderfully.

8. I avoid polished brass like the plague, even in doorknobs.

9. Scream. I once had a contractor hand me a bid for a job. I’ve been remodeling for a while and had a mental estimate of the cost. When he handed me his bid I screamed. It wasn’t deliberate, it was a reflex. I turned him down. Two hours later he called me back with a bid that was only $200 over my mental estimate.

10. Take your time. It took me five years to get my living room just right — almond walls, yellow upholstered Chippendale-style furniture, small black tables at each chair for drinks, modern paintings. It’s dynamite.

3 Comments on Remodeling wisdom from a real expert: a homeowner

  1. Alex Kahaner

    Very solid info.

  2. Shaun

    The handyman you have on speed dial, who is he? I’m having a hard time with “remodeling” contractors who can’t or don’t want to do my remodel.

  3. Bruce Swedal — Denver Real Estate

    All these items are very important points. Thanks for posting them