Get the Most for Your Remodeling Buck

Check out these 13 tips for protecting your kitchen or bath investment.

Kitchen and bathroom remodels often require considerable investments of time and money. Here are some tips for maximizing the return on those investments:

1. Put your goals and objectives for the project in writing. This will benefit both you and any building or design professionals you choose to work with. Be clear about your goals for space utilization, light levels, energy efficiency, indoor air quality or anything else you're concerned about.

2. Set a palatable budget and stick to it. You know what your financial resources are and you know what you're comfortable spending, and that's your budget number. And keep in mind this general rule of thumb: Don't spend more than 15 percent of the market value of your home on a kitchen project or more than 10 percent on a master-bathroom project. By setting a realistic budget, you, your designer or your builder can put together a rational materials list that fits not only your needs but also your budget.

3. Take your time when planning a remodel, and try to have all your materials selected before the first hammer swings. If you're going to gut the entire space, take up to a year for planning and design for a kitchen and up to six months for a master bathroom. This minimizes the need for decision-making under duress, which rarely provides optimal results. Also, if you bought the home recently, live in it for a year before you start planning a remodel project. This allows time to develop a clear idea of what you like and dislike about the space and get a feel for the natural light over the changing seasons. For less extreme projects, you can scale back on the planning time, but given the investment of your hard-earned dollars, more planning usually equates to fewer change orders, less money spent and greater satisfaction with the results.

4. Differentiate your needs from your wants. Do you need a warming drawer or would you simply like to have one? If you have an erratic schedule, with an unpredictable work schedule and kids going in every direction, a warming drawer is a great appliance for keeping the home fires burning. If you're empty-nesters who travel a lot, you probably won't get an adequate return on your investment in this appliance and you'll give up valuable space in your kitchen for it. You want a two-person jet tub? Are you going to upgrade your water heater to supply that tub, and do you regularly have the extra 20 minutes it takes to fill the tub, or would you be better off allocating those funds to a two-person multihead shower?

5. Design for yourself. If you plan to stay in your house for five years or more, design and build for you, not some prospective buyer. If apple-green countertops float your boat, go for it, but also consider whether you want to face them every morning for at least the next 10 years.

6. Keep things congruous. Expensive granite countertops typically shouldn't be combined with inexpensive pressboard stock cabinets. The granite is heavy, and in time the pressboard cabinets may not take the weight and will begin to sag, making it difficult to open and close the cabinet doors. Second, pairing these two items could result in an effect similar to that of putting custom chrome wheel hubs on a Ford Fiesta. Together, they just won't deliver the look you're trying to achieve. Another thing to consider is whether the materials on your wish list match your family's lifestyle and whether you're willing to clean and maintain them. Learn about the durability and maintenance requirements of your selected materials before you buy and install them.

7. Kick the tires. There are many "live appliance showrooms" in major cities across the United States where you can turn on the burners of the cooktop and bake a batch of cookies in the oven. You can bring your own bell pepper and sauté it, or the distributor will provide you with foods to cook. Contact the manufacturer to find out where the closest live showroom is, or consult with a professional kitchen and bath designer. Note that these showrooms typically feature mid-high-end appliances. When looking at wall ovens, open the doors and feel their weight. Do you like the handle, the hinging mechanism, the racking system, the control panel and the interior lighting? As for dishwashers, take your plates into the showroom to make sure they fit properly in the dishwasher's racks.

8. Avoid the temptation to buy materials and appliances well in advance of installation just because they're a "good deal." Try to resist buying that dual fuel range you've had your eye even though your local appliance store is having a sale. One of several thing can happen: The unit may sit in your garage for 12 months or more and your warranty could expire before you even get it out of the box; if it does sit in your garage for an extended period of time and you discover it is damaged upon uncrating, you may have no recourse; if it kicks around your garage for any period of time, it's likely to become damaged. Additionally, avoid buying cooking equipment from rummage sales and Web auctions, because it can be difficult to ensure that there are no recall issues associated with the unit, and the fact that the item won't be shipped in its original protective packaging can make it susceptible to damage.

9. Get real — don't believe those home-remodel reality shows. Well-designed kitchens and baths can't be remodeled in a weekend, especially by a novice. So be honest with yourself — do you really have the skill set and the time to start and complete a remodel yourself? If your answer is no, enlist professionals to help you with your project. Hiring architects, contractors and designers can save you time, money and, just maybe, your marriage. Finding the right professionals can be an arduous process, but keep one simple thing in mind: These people will be part of your life for the duration of the project, and by the time they're done, they'll probably know a lot of intimate things about you and your family. So choose professionals you like and trust, someone you'd feel comfortable leaving your wallet and your toddler with for an entire weekend while you travel out of state. But how to find such people? Ask your friends, family members and neighbors. You can also contact the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the National Home Builders Association, the National Association of the Remodeling Industry and the National Kitchen & Bath Association. These groups maintain high standards for their members in terms of ethical business practices and educational and experience requirements.

10. Assume nothing. To minimize the opportunity for misunderstandings, get everything in writing, whether it's from your appliance retailer or your building or design professional. Purchase orders and service contracts should spell out, in black and white, everything that's going to happen and everything that isn't. For example, agreements should provide an estimated time of completion, the materials that will be needed (with model numbers and colors where applicable), fee and payment schedules, and the like. For every change order you request, put it in writing, and expect the results to be tacked on to your bill or bid. Don't accept scribbles on cocktail napkins from your designer or building professional.

11. Keep track of your payments. Ask for several installments throughout the project and arrange a clearly defined payment schedule. Never pay in full until you've received delivery of all your goods. Companies that ask for full payment ahead of delivery have your money but you don't have your appliances or completed kitchen or bath.

12. Consider your project's impact on the environment. There's a general misconception that environmentally friendly building materials and design practices are more expensive. While it may be true that the upfront cost are higher for an energy-efficient dishwasher or a countertop made of recycled-content material, on the back end you save on operating and maintenance costs, thus often making these products a better buy than their less "green" brethren. Another thing to consider is the plethora of tax credits and rebates available for environmentally friendly products (go to www.energystar.gov).

13. Don't throw away your serviceable cabinets, plumbing fixtures and the like. If you don't need extra storage capacity in your garage or basement, consider donating those kitchen cabinets to a local charity.

Molly Erin McCabe is an associate kitchen and bath designer.

Reprinted with permission from
WestSound Home & Garden magazine (Wet Apple Media Inc.)

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