Q&A: Author Sarah Susanka Talks Budget-Smart Remodeling

HouseLogic sat down with author and architect Sarah Susanka to talk about remodeling that builds value and saves money.

Sarah Susanka, author of the Not So Big House books, encourages people to rethink the way they use the space in their homes. Image: Cheryl Muhr

For Sarah Susanka, architect and author of the Not So Big House series of books, remodeling is an opportunity—not just for realizing your improvement and decor dreams, but for making your home comfortable, right-sized, and energy efficient.

In this Q&A, Susanka helps homeowners make smart decisions about that next big project.

HouseLogic: What are your top three pieces of advice for homeowners considering a remodel?

Sarah Susanka:1. While you’re remodeling, take the opportunity to upgrade the energy systems in your house. It will make the house more comfortable and more valuable in the long haul. Today’s buyers will ask to see utility bills, and may not consider homes that aren’t energy efficient.

2. You can remodel without having to add on. We tend to assume we have to add space. But many spaces in a home are underused. Consider how to repurpose that space to do double duty.

3. The way we live in our homes today is different than before the 1970s. Formal dining rooms may not get a lot of use, for instance. Open a view from the kitchen to the dining or living room. People will start using those rooms and the house will feel a lot bigger, which is also a sales point.

HL: Where do you get the biggest return for your remodeling investment?

SS: Kitchens and bathrooms. But often people spend more money on their kitchen than they think they will, which can affect the return. Work within the existing footprint of the kitchen to stay reasonably priced.

People often assume that if they buy more expensive materials, that equates to higher value. But it’s the quality of design that sells and equates to more value.

HL: How can the budget-minded homeowner conserve funds?

SS:Consider materials. Opt for a plastic laminate countertop with bullnose (fully rounded edges in which the laminate wraps under the countertop) rather than a granite countertop. It’s a great look, but less expensive than granite. You can’t tell that it isn’t a solid material. 

For tile backsplashes, make an impact by spending a little more to add some drama tile above the cook top.  But spend less on surrounding tiles. That can save one-sixth of the price than doing the whole backsplash in expensive material.

HL: Where should you splurge?

SS:On the kitchen island. It’s a focal point. Here you could invest in granite, since the island requires a rectangular chunk of material without a lot of cutouts, which is where the labor and expense come in. And then you can say, “I have granite.”

Flooring is another place to invest. Get a designer to help you select a product that gives the room a sense of permanence and solidity. Also, people often pick too light a color, which makes it look cheap.

HL: What about green materials—do they have to be expensive?

SS:People are scared about green materials being expensive. But they don’t need to be. Many IKEA products, for instance, are green certified. More products, like cost-effective bamboo, will begin appearing at home improvement stores, too.

HL: Why is retrofitting an existing home more cost efficient than building new?

SS: For each $5,000 in energy improvements you spend on a new house, you only get small, incremental gains in energy efficiency. A California energy consulting company study found that retrofitting existing homes with energy-efficient features is four to eight times more carbon and cost efficient than adding energy-efficient features to new housing.

HL: You believe beauty is sustainable. Why?

SS:Beauty is one of the greenest things you can do. If a home is beautiful, it will be looked after by the current homeowner and all those who follow. It’s good to create beauty and energy efficiency as you go. If your home is beautiful and comfortable, you’ll save money and enjoy it. If it’s not beautiful—even if it’s energy efficient—someone will tear it down, and that’s not green.