Wednesday, December 23, 2009

remodeling in a down economy: how to save without skimping on design

I have been asked how we are able to do such a large remodel in a down economy. First of all, we have been planning and designing the project for several years. We also purchased the house with the intent of remodeling the basement. As we view this as a long-term investment, it really did not matter when the project took place.

But there were ways that we stretched our dollar that you can too. Below are thirteen pointers that will help you save a bundle on your next project without sacrificing the design.

1. Contain your project to the existing footprint. Additions and large dormers are expensive per square foot, especially in older homes. Adding a floor by raising the roof or building an addition means spending money on an exterior envelope and structure. Instead of building up or out, consider working with what you already have: the basement or attic. In these instances, the shell and foundation are already there, so you can concentrate your dollar on interior spaces and finishes.

It was a no-brainer to finish our full-height basement. By completing the unfinished space, we maximized the use of an under-utilized area of the house, retained the existing landscaping and size of our backyard and economized costs. If we had built out, we would have lost valuable yard space. If we had built up, we would have had to raise the roof, beef up floor and ceiling joists, strap the floors together, add new beams, posts and footings, and increase strength by adding sheathing to the perimeter walls.

2. Plan projects strategically. If you’d eventually like a new kitchen on the main floor, a family room in the basement and want to create a master suite on the second floor by dormer-ing out a new bath, make sure you do the projects in the right order. There’s nothing worse than having to undo some work that you’ve already done. In general, it’s good to work on a house from roof to foundation, and from the outside to inside. In this example, do the dormer and master suite first before working on the kitchen and the family room.

3. Keep existing plumbing fixtures where they are. If possible, maintain the locations of the sinks, tubs and toilets. Moving any of these can add unwanted cost. If the existing layout is undesirable, see if you can place the fixtures back to back or stack them between floors.

In our remodel, we created a wet zone by centralizing all the water in one sector of the house. We placed the new bathroom and laundry right under the existing kitchen and bathroom. By stacking the bathrooms, we were able to tie into the existing soil line, and minimized costs greatly.

4. Visit a store that sells a wide selection of finishes. If you select several products from one store, see if the salesperson can give you a cost reduction. Oftentimes a store can grant a lower price for a larger order. We were able to get a better deal on some of the materials because we got all of our flooring from ecohaus.

5. Ask about discontinued items. When manufacturers change their color palette or style, you can save a bundle on their old stock. The only caution here is to be certain that there is enough material for your project needs. We got our high-end carpet and pad and an incredible price from ecohaus. We also got a great deal on some discontinued lighting from Schoolhouse Electric. Appliances and electronics will have a similar price reduction on last year’s models when the newer lines are released.

6. Look at the ‘seconds’ or ‘scratch and dent’ departments and consider floor models. Rejuvenation offers lighting and hardware in their Seconds and Clearance Department. Schoolhouse Electric has a similar area; ask one of the salespeople to assist you. ecohaus offers some materials like Marmoleum and carpeting in their Seconds and Remnants area. Standard TV and Appliance has a wonderful Scratch and Dent section. Check them out and save!

7. Watch for sales and rebates. Rejuvenation has an annual housecleaning event early in the year and a spring lighting sale. During the course of the project, we took advantage of one of their coupons for our lighting and cabinet hardware, applied a rebate to some hardware and scored a vintage light fixture by using a free shipping offer. We ordered the cork tiles from ecohaus a little on the early side because it was on special. Keep an eye out during holidays as appliances often go on sale then. Some supply stores will also have anniversary sales that are too good to pass up. We waited a few weeks to take advantage of a rebate for our TV. We also took advantage of manufacturer rebates for our window treatments and furnace. Sweet!

8. Don’t forget about those tax credits! The new windows and furnace qualified us for the federal tax credit. These incentives were more than worth it to upgrade to more energy efficient, quiet models. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 includes federal tax credits that encourage homeowners to make energy efficient improvements to their homes. The credit is based on 30% of the cost of qualifying materials (not labor), with a maximum credit of $1500. So, if you spend at least $5000 on qualifying materials between 1/1/09-12/31/10, you should be eligible for the full credit.

See this IRS publication for more information on the 2009 credit.

9. Use some elbow grease. Ask your contractor if you can do some of the labor to reduce costs. If you have the skill and the time, this might be a great way to save a little. Remember to adhere to the contractor’s schedule and level of craftsmanship, and that any work you do will not fall under his warranty. Some past clients have executed demolition, insulated, laid tile, fixed window sashes, installed millwork, painted and cleaned up the jobsite daily. For us, the final cleaning and the denailing of the tongue-and-groove were where we chose to save.

10. Reuse or donate existing materials. Sometimes what is being removed during a remodel is still useable either in your own project or someone else’s. We were able to incorporate some lighting, door hardware and all three existing doors into the basement by keeping the sizes in mind and accommodating them during the design process. We also used the leftover subway tile from an earlier bath project for the backsplash at the wet bar. And because we had saved the base cap and other trim materials, we were able to match the millwork profiles. Although reusing items such as these does not necessarily save any money, it prevents more landfill.

If you are unable to use the materials in your own project, donate or sell them to a company that specializes in the reuse of building materials. Here in Portland, The ReBuilding Center, ReStore by Habitat for Humanity and Rejuvenation are havens for old house parts. The other day, I even walked right past a sink in Rejuvenation that is the exact pedestal in my bathroom. It was weird, but very cool! Although selling items on Craigslist is also an option, first consider donating to a non-profit company, like The ReBuilding Center, as your items are tax-deductible. More often than not, you can claim more on your tax return than what you can sell it second-hand. And you do not have to go through the hassle of posting an ad, arranging a meeting, bargaining and selling the items. So far, we donated lighting and plumbing fixtures, control panels, window sashes, unused tile and some vertical grain Douglas Fir TNG.

11. Talk to your contractor about using salvaged materials. Sometimes contractors and their subs have material leftover from other jobs or from a previous demolition that they are willing to let you use in your project. In these scenarios, you can save tremendously on material costs.

You can also visit those same establishments where you donated your unwanted, deconstructed materials to look for items. If you do reuse old hardware, fixtures and finishes, you will see greater savings if you search for them and buff them into shape yourself. Besides, half the fun is in the hunt. I can spend hours wandering the aisles at The ReBuilding Center looking at all the windows, doors, plumbing fixtures, lights, millwork, hardware and tile. Although you might not save a whole lot by incorporating second-hand items into your project, the more salvaged materials used, the less will go into landfills. And you will be adding to the rich history of your home.

We lucked out by finding the granite slab for the countertops at the wet bar and wine cellar. Normally, the stone itself would cost a bundle, but with our find, we essentially paid only for the labor.

12. Consider phasing your project. If you love the whole design and are unable to afford it all at once, see if you can phase out specific items or portions of the work. It’s always better to save for what you really want rather than settle for second best. After all, remodeling is an extensive use of time, energy, money and resources. It is thus wiser to phase a project into manageable segments than to regret a cost-cutting decision.

We decided to phase some finish millwork, built-in cabinetry, new roofing, some interior painting, gas conversion of the fireplace on the main floor and installation of the AC condenser, and solar water heater. We made sure that everything was pre-plumbed, pre-wired and blocked out for the future installations. By phasing the solar water heater and AC unit, the added bonus for us is that we will be able to take advantage of another round of federal and local rebates when we do the work.

13. Last, and most important, design before you build. If you make your design decisions and finish selections prior to construction, you’ll save a bundle! With a complete set of plans and specifications, there will be minimal change orders and the build-out will go a lot faster and smoother and will be less costly.

Having a clear vision of what you want even before you start designing will also save time and thus money. Write a wish list for the project and prioritize them into three categories: the "must-haves," the maybes and the "if I won the lottery." Assemble images from books and magazines of spaces that you like and—equally as important—dislike. The more ideas you have to share with your architect early on, the less time he will spend developing concepts that may not be to your taste.

We saved on the design fees as I executed the drawings, did the details and selected all the finishes, but you too can hire an architect on a budget by setting some parameters. Establish a budget, specify what kind of design services you would prefer (full or abbreviated), get the contractor involved during design and fully engage in the design process by critiquing the drawings and finish selection. Remember, in the end it is your house and you will have to live with the design, not the architect or contractor. The more feedback you give, the happier everyone will be.

For more information on why you should design before build, please see this previous post.

For information on what to expect during the design process, please see this previous post.

Tune in next time for the last 3%!