From Spotlight: Homeowner’s Guide for People Who Live in the Real World

7 Simple Home Renovation Strategies for the Easily Overwhelmed

First thing to do: make sure your contractor isn’t stressed out.

Man and daughter in an unrenovated room
Image: Astrakan Images/Offset

Which stresses you out more? The mere thought of adding a bathroom (so many contractors, so many unknowns, and you're too busy already!) or fighting for Monday-morning mirror time for all eternity?

If it feels like a toss-up, you're not alone. Remodeling can be overwhelming. With so much going on in your life already, it just feels easier to deal with a home that's not quite right than to get swamped with one more gargantuan thing, right?

Wrong! A remodel doesn't have to be so all-consuming. With a few stress-sparing strategies, it's totally doable — and totally worth it. Use these tips, and you'll never have to step on your toddler's rubber duckies while showering again.

#1 Start By Making Sure Your Contractor Isn't Overwhelmed

Most homeowners choose summer to do a major remodel because they know freezing temps won't be a problem. But that also means contractors are super swamped and stressed to the max during summer. Not a good combo for a remodel to come in on time and on budget (not to mention what it'll do to your blood pressure).

"Working in the summer is a complete nightmare," says Atlanta-based interior designer Brian Patrick Flynn."It's so hot that sometimes there are only certain times of the day people can work."

Try to schedule your remodel during a less hectic time for contractors. You'd be surprised how much can get done in an off-season. You could also save on costs — a great stress reliever. Woo hoo!

#2 Discover Any Quirks That Will Drive You Nuts

We get it. With all the plates you're currently spinning, skimming online contractor reviews is way more appealing than interviewing references. But this person is going to be inside your house. For days. Maybe weeks! What if his working style is dramatically different than yours? What if the crew drives you nuts? Talk about added stress.

"There might be a thing that's a huge pet peeve of yours that means you're not going to work well with that person," says Flynn.

Ask contractors for references, and chat up the former customers about timeliness, personality, and working style. Does the crew listen to death metal at full volume? Are they all business, or will they pepper you with awkward chitchat? Finding a pro who does great work and is a good fit will take much of the crazy out of your remodel.

#3 Look Beyond the Bottom Line of Bids

Just like reading online reviews, accepting your first decent bid may seem like a savvy shortcut, but there's a reason you've heard about getting at least three. The key is to look beyond the bids' bottom line. A higher estimate can cover solutions to worrisome construction problems like clean up, insurance to cover dented walls, or working at night to fit your schedule. Picking these amenities over a bargain can eliminate some big headaches.

Speaking of headaches, skimping on bid details can cause your temples to throb in another way. Sometimes they don't include everything. Seriously. Flynn says hidden costs like drop cloths or the installation and removal of scaffolding can make projects go up to 20% or 30% over budget. Be sure to ask if you'll be responsible for any costs not documented in your bid.

#4 Opt for the Pampered Approach

Really want to treat yo' self? Or need to, considering your schedule? Get an expert to be the boss instead of you. Overseeing the idiosyncrasies of a renovation can be maddening. Do you have time to educate yourself on the certifications and tests required by projects in rooms with plumbing? When your contractor has a question about a thermostatic valve issue, do you want her calling you for your advice?

"It's smart to spend extra money to have a true professional project manager," says Flynn. "If you just pay someone that extra money every week, you don't have to worry about things you don't understand." (Median hourly wage is $46.)

Flynn recommends seeking out and vetting a project manager with experience in your type of project. A good one will save you guesswork that can hold up construction and make you want to pull your hair out.

#5 Let the Contractor Handle Permits

Keeping tabs on permit deadlines and booking appointments with historical review boards can feel like a second job for even the most organized homeowner. In fact, it is a job; it just doesn't have to be yours.

Chip Wade, a home improvement expert and consultant with Liberty Mutual Insurance, suggests skipping the homeowner self-work affidavit (which puts you, the homeowner, responsible for all the liability on the job) and letting your general contractor handle approvals and permits. The small added cost of your contractor's time will literally take things off of your to-do list.

#6 Stay on Schedule by Setting Benchmark Deadlines

Nothing makes for a low-stress remodel like staying on schedule. Your contractor should be willing to create benchmarks at the beginning of the project. Sticking to them? You're going to want to keep an eye on that.

Typical benchmarks include demolition, framing, electrical, inspections and the like. Share a calendar with your contractor (a digital one like Google calendar is super convenient, but an old-fashioned paper one will work too) and check in as benchmarks creep up.

Why bother? Wade recommends intervening once two of these benchmarks are missed. One missed benchmark still allows contractors to make up time. Two is when the timetable (and budget) could derail — creating that sinking feeling you've worked so hard to avoid.

#7 Control the Money

The more motivated your contractors are, the less harried you will be. Paying in small installments as work is done can discourage a strong finish and result in sloppy work.

The typical recommendation is to pay no more than 10% up front. But Wade recommends a 50/50 split with the contractor, assuming you've done your homework and your contractor is a reputable one — and it's legal to do in your state (California, for example, has a law saying you can't put down more than 10%). Fifty percent is more than a contractor typically gets for a down payment, which is a benefit to him. But have the contract specify that the remaining 50% will be paid upon completion, which is the benefit to you because it motivates him to finish the job to collect the rest of his money.

If that option isn't open to you, another way is to offer bonuses, which is what Flynn's project managers do. On tight schedules, pros who hit benchmarks before their due dates receive a bonus (the amount varies depending on scope and difficulty).

"They see an opportunity to make an extra few bucks, and it always works," says Flynn. This can be the push your pros need when your guest bath needs to be ready before your in-laws arrive for a lengthy Thanksgiving weekend — without you spending your valuable time begging and pleading (and stressing) to make it happen.


Elizabeth Lilly
Elizabeth Lilly

Elizabeth Lilly is the site editor for “This Old House," where she’s written about paint colors, chicken coops, and nearly every home improvement project in between. She uses her New York City apartment as a laboratory for executing her latest DIY ideas.