Advice from Renovators

When a group of professional renovators were asked what design and planning advice they most often give to their customers regarding renovations, here is what they said.

  • Know why you want to renovate. What problems are you trying to solve? Most renovations begin with practical issues. For instance, your bathroom may be cramped, you need more storage space in the kitchen, or there is nowhere for the children to play or do homework under your supervision.
  • Evaluate the structure, systems and general condition of your house. With your renovator, list the repairs and replacements likely to be required over the next two, five and 10 years. If necessary, be prepared to make trade-offs between lifestyle improvements and work needed to keep your home in good shape.
  • Work with the strengths of your home. And save money at the same time. Check under existing carpeting and sheet flooring for old hardwood flooring. Refinish old trim and molding rather than replace it. Resurface cabinets rather than installing new ones. Turn a large landing into a child’s play area, a quiet reading area or a small home office.
  • Keep it simple. A complex design can result in complicated and expensive construction. Whether you want to build on to your home, change roof lines or reconfigure interior space, consult with a professional renovator on the impact of design on construction and budget. Less complex designs will often let you achieve the same goals.
  • Don’t just focus on the upfront cost. Renovation is a further investment in your home. Consider the time, energy and cost required on ongoing maintenance and possible replacement down the road. A well-planned renovation can reduce these future costs.
  • Don’t cut corners to save a few dollars, or you may not get the results you want. There may be ways to stretch a limited budget or you may be able to scale down your project or alternatively, do it in phases over time. But don’t compromise on quality-it’s always better to do less and do it well.
  • Check local bylaws. Before you get too involved in a particular design for adding to or substantially altering your home, you or your renovator need to know the local regulations-for instance, lot-line setbacks or septic tank requirements.
  • Look at your neighbourhood. Exterior changes or additions that blend with the existing streetscape will probably add the most value to your home, and they will usually be appreciated the most by your neighbours. If you do want a design with a difference, think about ways of complementing neighbouring homes.
  • Don’t worry about trends. Design trends come and go. First and foremost, plan for comfort, ease of living and personal satisfaction. Enjoy exploring options and possibilities-then design the renovation that is uniquely right for you and your family.


The Importance of Having a Plan

With home renovation, the secret of success lies in careful planning based on a solid understanding of what you want to achieve. This includes having a clear focus on what must be included in your project, as well as any other features you would like to include, if your budget allows.

In many cases, the final design and specifications for the project will be worked out with the help of a renovation contractor, designer or architect. However, the more information you can give them, the better they are able to provide you with good advice and accurate cost estimates.

What does this information consist of? Here’s the list that most renovation contractors recommend:

  • A clear description of what you want to change in your home and why-in order words, what’s the purpose of your renovation?
  • Specific goals for your renovation project.
  • A list of future changes you anticipate in your life that could affect what you need in your home.
  • A definition of priorities – which renovation items are must-haves, and which ones would be nice to have, but are not essential?

Once you have completed this pre-planning, you’ll be in a much better position to ask a professional renovator, designer or architect to develop specific plans for your project. The time and energy you invest in this renovation homework can make a real difference in terms of the success of your project and your ability to keep within your budget. Remember that most renovation problems are a direct result of poor planning.

Deciding on Changes

The decision to renovate can be triggered by a number of things. You may need to repair or replace something, such as roofing, siding or windows. It may be time to “freshen up” a tired-looking kitchen. Changes in your household, such as the arrival of a new child or the need for a home office may require changes to your home. Often, homeowners simply want to update their home so that it better suits their lifestyle.

  • Take inventory. Make a list of everything in your home that you need to or would like to change. This includes “must-do” repairs and replacements to maintain your home in good shape, as well as things that don’t work well and things you would like to change. Finally, also note down what you really like about your home and wouldn’t want to change; this can help you, and later your renovator, to focus on the assets of your home that you want to preserve.
  • Describe each item on your list briefly in terms of your day-to-day living experience. Here are a few examples of how homeowners describe some of the more common problems that lead to renovation:”We only have one bathroom and with two teenagers and two working parents, getting everyone out the door in the morning is a real headache. I feel like I’ve been in a traffic jam before I even leave the house.””We never really use our living room. It’s too formal for the way we live, and with the smaller windows in these older homes, it’s too dark and feels closed-in.”
  • Make sure that everyone in your home participates. Professional renovators find that people often overlook things that are inconvenient in their homes simply because they are used to them. So take some time doing this inventory and get input from all members of the household.
  • Think about seasonal conditions. If you are planning your renovation in the summer, think back to last winter. Did you have enough closet space for coats and boots? Are there areas of your home that are drafty or hard to heat? Conversely, if your planning is taking place during the colder months, think about your lifestyle during the summer.

Setting Your Goals

Your home renovation should provide you with improved function, comfort and convenience. The next step in the process is to set some general goals for your project – goals that address both the things you want to change in your home and the new features you want to add.

Consider the day-to-day experience of living in your home. Then try to describe the vision you have for your renovation. Don’t worry about the nuts and bolts involved in doing the actual work, concentrate on defining the end result. For instance, if your existing kitchen is a problem, describe how your dream kitchen would work. Perhaps it would read something like this:

“I’ll be able to cook a complete dinner without having to stop and clean up all the time. There’s plenty of working space right near the stove and there’s also a big area for setting out dishes and serving plates. Everything I need is close at hand, but not on the counter top-there are lots of drawers and cupboards for everything. And there is enough space so that someone else can sit at the kitchen table, and we can carry on a conversation without bumping into each other.”

By describing your personal renovation goals this way, you focus on the real point of your renovation-how it will impact your lifestyle, not how the actual work will be done. That comes later.

In setting down your renovation goals, there are three important aspects you should pay particular attention to:

  • Use of Space. How you use a room determines the amount of space required and the extent to which the space needs to be open or closed to surrounding areas of your home. What activities will take place in the room? What existing or future furnishings must fit into it? Will noise from this room be disruptive to others?
  • Light and Brightness. What are the lighting requirements of the activities planned for each room? Do existing windows provide adequate sunlight and a feeling of spaciousness? Will you use this room more during the day or in the evening? If artificial light is needed, would general lighting or task lighting be more suitable?
  • Movement of People. What are the traffic patterns through each area of your home? Does a room provide access to other frequently used parts of your home like the kitchen or bathroom and does this conflict with the activities you plan for this room?

With clear goals, you avoid becoming overwhelmed by choices, not an uncommon problem when planning a renovation.

Anticipating Future Needs

As your family changes, so do your needs and priorities in relation to your home. When you plan a renovation project, make sure your plan will suit both your present and future needs.

  • Is your family situation is likely to change? For instance, will you need to make specific changes to your home to accommodate the arrival of a new child or an aging parent? Will stairs pose a problem? Do you need to include security features for someone with reduced mobility? Do you anticipate changing the use of any room in the future, for instance converting a bedroom to a home office? Do you have children who will require more space and privacy down the road?
  • How long will you stay in your home? You should consider how long you plan to live in your home, as well as your long-term financial goals. While most renovations will increase the market value of your home, some projects will have a more positive impact than others.

If you plan on living in your home for many years, the financial return on your renovation investment may be of less concern to you. On the other hand, if you expect to be selling your home within a few years, consider whether your renovation will enhance the buyer appeal and selling price of your home. Real estate appraisers can give you advice on how your renovation is likely to affect the market value of your home.

Developing Your Wish List and Priorities

Now that you have set goals for your project, it’s time to look for ways to accomplish what you want. This next part of renovation planning can be the most fun and exciting.

Developing a “Wish List” involves listing the specific features you would like to include in your renovation. You should also give some thought to the importance of each item. Is it something you absolutely need? Or is it something you would like to have, but not essential if your budget can’t accommodate it?

This stage of planning is all about exploring design and product ideas and learning as much as you can about what is available. Get out and see what others have done, what new products are available and what type of “look” is right for your family and home. Here are some ideas:

  • Visit family, friends or neighbours and find out what they really like about their home, particularly if they have renovated recently.
  • Look for design and home improvement magazines at your local newsstand or library. Collect pictures of homes, rooms and products that appeal to you.
  • Visit new home builders’ showhomes to see the latest in design, construction and finishing of homes.
  • Visit kitchen, bathroom and other retail showrooms. Talk with salespeople and pick up manufacturers’ literature on the types and brands of products you like.
  • In many communities, home shows are held during the year. Renovators, designers and product manufacturers take part in these shows. This provides an excellent opportunity to see what’s new. Check with your Local Home Builders’ Association for information about home shows.
  • In some communities, local renovators will organize renovation open house tours to showcase recent renovation projects. Again, check with your Local Home Builders’ Association for details.
  • Some community colleges and night school programs include renovation planning courses for homeowners.
  • And, of course, the Internet is a great source for home renovation information. Visit the websites of Canadian product manufacturers and suppliers, governments and financial institutions.

Keep the information you collect in a file or box for later reference. This material will be very useful in discussions with renovators and will give them a good idea of what you like and want.

The Design Process

A successful home renovation begins with good design. Whether you are remodelling the entire house, turning your basement into living space or updating your kitchen, the design of your renovation ultimately determines how satisfied you will be with the finished job.

Getting expert assistance in the early planning stages is a definite advantage. Experienced renovators will work with you to explore designs that fit your home, lifestyle and budget. They will also advise you on the level of design assistance you might need, before you can get a firm cost estimate and the work can get underway.

  • For a simple renovation project, you and the renovator may be able to work out the design details in the course of your conversations about the project. If your renovation is large or complex, the renovator may suggest that design be dealt with as a first and separate step of your project.
  • A growing number of renovation companies have a designer on staff – part of a growing trend towards one-stop shopping. Alternatively, renovators may recommend a designer or architect from their network of professional associates Either way, having a renovator involved at the design stage helps to ensure that your design is practical and feasible from a construction standpoint.
  • Typically, the design process begins with a discussion of your ideas and a look at photos, drawings or product literature that you may have collected. The renovator or designer will also ask you to describe what you are trying to accomplish and what do you really need and want.
  • Based on this information, “concept sketches” are developed, usually more than one to give you a range of options. Often additional fine-tuning is needed to complete the design of your choice.
  • At the end of the design phase, you will have a set of drawings or plans that are the basis for getting cost estimates. The drawings should show clearly what the final project will look like, including close-up details, and be accompanied by a specification list of the products and materials to be used.
  • When your renovation entails structural changes or other work that requires a construction permit, working drawings or blueprints are required for approval by your municipality. Professional renovators can take care of all the details, including dealing with building officials.


Courtesy of the CHBA