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Monday, April 6, 2015

First-Time Renovation? What to Expect and Some Things to Avoid

Inspired by this floor I saw on Houzz, I made it a focal point in my bathroom renovation.
Preparing for a renovation project and wondering what to expect? Projects vary, depending on the room you are renovating and the scope of changes. But the process, from inspiration through execution, remains pretty much the same. Most renovation projects follow these phases in this order.

Phase 1: Inspiration

Like many people, I enjoy the inspiration phase. For me it involves hours of poring over beautiful rooms on Houzz and Pinterest. Both sites allow you to easily peruse and collect photos of rooms you love and categorize them. Start small with just one ideabook or board, I called my first Houzz collection Bathroom Ideas. Very soon you will find yourself breaking out subcategories, such as Black & White Bath, Marble Bath, Subway Tile Bath, Retro Bath, Clawfoots, etc. It's a fun way to collect ideas and get in touch with what you like. 

This bathroom on Houzz has too many focal points
What do you take away from these inspiration boards? A lot of good design ideas and one or two show-stoppers. It can be tempting to make every single finishing choice something "special", but don't fall into that trap. It's a good way to blow your budget and end up creating a room that is not harmonious. Everything in a room can't be a focal point - the eye will not know where to settle. In the bathroom above, I feel the marble walls and floor are too much. I'd keep the sink and marble tub surround and give the walls and floor a simpler treatment.

In a kitchen you might choose a professional range and a colorful backsplash as your focal point or a copper farmhouse sink and a patterned cement floor. Then go plain to neutral on your other choices. It's the neutrals, such as subway tile, that create the backdrop against which your focal points stand out.

Our bathroom layout is your standard mid-century New York City apartment bath. The only thing it has going for it is a standalone shower stall. This meant that I could have a deep soaking tub without an enclosure as my main focal point and I wanted it to have a marble deck and apron. I fell in love with a floor tile from Heath Ceramics Dwell Collection that I knew was going to make a strong statement. After settling on these two, my other choices needed to be plain - white porcelain sink and white field tile for the walls and a contrasting gray subway tile in the shower. It was tempting while ordering the sink to consider a marble top or while standing in the tile studio to consider adding some flashy glass boarder tiles to the shower. I resisted, and I'm glad I did.

You will be looking at a lot of fixtures in isolation that will later be combined and they will need to tie in harmoniously together. During a renovation you are spending so much money that it is natural at each decision point to want to choose the most special, but every single choice can't be a show-stopper or they won't work together.

Phase 2: Planning

Once you have a good idea about what you like, depending on the size of your project it might be time to meet with an architect, especially if you intend to change the floor plan of your house by, say, bumping out a wall or adding an addition. 

I didn't require an architect on our home renovation. But I did have to do a lot of planning, some of it pretty technical. I read up on and learned a lot about what goes on behind the walls of a bathroom, spent hours on the phone with the Kohler reps to understand what kinds of plumbing valves I needed to order, and drafted this shower configuration to have ready to show my contractor:



My shower configuration was fairly simple. It can get complicated. If you are dreaming about multiple wall sprayers, you need to know the size of the pipes in your wall. The standard behind most walls, especially in older homes, is 1/2". If your shower configuration calls for multiple body sprayers, that likely requires 3/4" pipes - certainly in the supply lines. And then you have to learn if your water heater is up to the task of supplying enough hot water. Do you want the shower heads and sprayers running at the same time? Or do you want each controlled separately? This decides the number and types of valves you need to order. The fixture style can also impact your valve choices behind the walls. You need to discuss all of this with your contractor so that you know what to order. My bathroom order contained about 20 products.

If it's a kitchen you are renovating there will be double or even triple that amount of products to order. Now might be the time to consider hiring a kitchen planner who will help you with this. All of the big box stores have kitchen planners on site to help. And if you are taking advantage of a seasonal sale, this can be a good way to go. 

Or perhaps you are planning to use Ikea cabinetry. Go in first to look at styles and colors, then mess around a bit with their online planning tool before meeting with one of their kitchen designers. If you like Ikea's prices and love their organization tools but worry about your kitchen looking too "cookie cutter", consider buying just the cabinet boxes and having the doors custom made. Companies like SemiHandmade and Dunsmuir, make doors in all kinds of beautiful, even exotic, woods to exactly fit Ikea cabinets. You simply buy only the boxes without doors, then send the company a copy of your final Ikea purchase order. They will make doors to your wood finish and/or paint color specifications at a very reasonable cost. 

The SemiHandmade doors made this kitchen of Sarah and Rupert Samuel at Smitten Studio something rather special.

Smitten Studio
If planning is just not your thing and you know it, congratulate yourself for being a realist. There is no reason to do it yourself if you don't like this kind of thing. There are independent kitchen designers out there who have years of experience who can help you think through how you live and what you need. You will find references and reviews on sites like Yelp, Angie's List, and Sweeten - or even better, ask friends who have had renovations done that you admire to recommend someone. Just note that some kitchen designers are affiliated with certain product lines and they will only show you products from those lines. You could miss knowing something else even exists. That might be okay with you but it's good to ask upfront if this is the case before you hire.

Phase 3: Hiring Your General Contractor

Much has been written about hiring contractors, and I've read a lot of it. The horror stories about bad general contractors are enough to keep a person from even embarking on a renovation project. I'm not here to tell you any scary stories.  I've been hiring contractors for more than a dozen years and I've had only good experiences so far. How do I account for this good contractor karma?

I do what the experts say to do:
  • Get recommendations
  • View past projects
  • Get everything in writing
  • And pay in thirds (first third on contract signing, second halfway through the job, third upon completion)
When I am interviewing, I look at the person's past jobs. Remember, you are not judging the taste of the homeowner, but looking at the workmanship of the contractor - is everything symmetrical and finished looking? If not, ask for explanations. Was the job a similar complexity to yours? Are you comparing gut reno bath to gut reno bath? Full scale kitchen reno to full scale kitchen reno? If you can get in to see one of his current job sites, do it. Is the job site neat and tidy? That's a very important flag to me. 

My go-to contractor, Henry Almeida of Almeida Renovations in Kew Gardens
Above all, I look for a contractor who will collaborate. No project is ever perfect. There are going to be problems, so just expect that upfront. You will invariably have to troubleshoot together with your contractor, sometimes in stressful, time-strapped situations. I look for a contractor with a collaborative spirit. Not a supervisor, not an employee, not an advisor, but a partner. For your own part, expect to be a good collaborator also. You will at some point have to compromise on something you wanted or have to quickly change a product order. These things happen.

Subcontractors installing marble tub aprons and deck
Meet perspective contractors at your job site. Walk them through the project, showing sketches, layouts, designs if you have them. Ask them to get back to you by a specific date with a detailed breakout of the work they will be doing, material they will be supplying, and a price quote. Get price quotes from three contractors, and ask all three for the same breakouts: demolition, electrical/plumbing, carpentry & framing, plaster or wall board, appliance and fixture assembly, painting and finishing.

Phase 4: Ordering 

Once you've decided on a general contractor, you are well on your way. He will hire subcontractors and oversee them and the work that has to be done.

But did you know that ordering everything is on you? Not just the choosing, but the actual ordering. Unless otherwise specified your contractor will likely be supplying only framing supplies and perhaps some finishing wood like baseboards if stipulated in your agreement. Some contractors will be happy to order your tile or other products for you if agreed upon and they sometimes can get a contractor's discount for you. Make sure that anything that you expect him to order is detailed in your contract with him.

It is a big responsibility to place these orders and have everything come in on time. Delays in product orders is the number-one thing likely to kill your timeline and reap cost overages and change orders on your project.

Ordering is stressful. The moment you start putting down your credit card against all your dream finishes brings a jolt of reality. First, it's a lot of money. But more than this, it forces you to come to a decision and rule things out. You may think you made up your mind about something, only to realize that you are still vacillating. Get real with yourself quickly; your timeline depends upon it.

It's especially important that you order custom materials immediately - like before demo even begins. Custom tile can take 10 -12 weeks to arrive. Special order bath fixtures can take 6-8 weeks. And they may arrive damaged and have to be sent back with an additional 12 weeks for a replacement. It happens all the time. It happened to me - my Kohler tub arrived damaged, twice! If you are hoping to have your renovation completed in six weeks - as they seem to do on so many home shows - you will have had to order these things a good six weeks before demo even started.

Our bathtub arrived damaged and had to be replaced
Sit down with your contractor and walk through your plans before purchasing. Have him take accurate measurements of your rooms so that you can place your tile or flooring orders. Make sure that the products you want are supported by the electrical and plumbing systems behind your walls.

Purchases that will need your contractor's input include:
  • Square footage for every type of tile you are using
  • Flooring square footage
  • Paint amounts/types
  • Size and weight of bathtub
  • Toilet rough-in specs 
  • Shower valves that will go behind the wall
  • Size and dimensions of appliances
  • Electrical specs for kitchen appliances and jetted tubs (some will require a dedicated line)
  • Light fixtures - if pendants, for example, how low can they hang?
  • Placement of outlets and switches
Know that he may not have all the answers yet. Things like shower valves and weight of the tub may need to be confirmed after demolition, depending on your project. If this is the case, ask him how he is going to work around the product, given you can't order until he tells you this information.

Phase 5: Demolition

Home shows make demo look like fun, as homeowners take a sledge hammer to old fixtures they dislike. In reality, for a person who values cleanliness and order, it is dreary and depressing.


Make sure you have stipulated in your contract that your contractor bag and remove all debris promptly, especially if you are trying to live in your home while it's being renovated - which I do not recommend. I have a line in my agreements that the job site will be swept up at the end of every day. I learned this from one of my contractors who always includes it in his proposals.


Your contractor will lay down stiff boards and paper to protect floors that are already finished. And he can also close off finished rooms by hanging plastic. But for the next 4-6 weeks you will be looking at something like this. And it can get very tiresome very quickly. 

If you are renovating a bathroom in a home that only has one bath, forget about trying to live-in during demolition. The toilet could be out for days, depending on your order timelines and certainly the shower and bath will be out for weeks. If you are renovating a kitchen-only, you might be able to get by if you set up a table in your bathroom with washing up supplies and a morning coffee station. But it's not pleasant. Avoid it if you can.

Phase 6: Framing

Framing is an exciting and usually quick phase. By now debris is mostly disposed of and the job site swept clean. As framing goes up, you can start to envision how your new rooms are going to look.

Sink plumbing and electric boxes are in and wallboard is up

Phase 7: Electrical & Plumbing

This phase is exciting but can also become protracted and tedious, as your contractors and subcontractors rough-in electrical, plumbing and HVAC behind the walls. Make time to visit the job site regularly during this phase, even if it means taking some time off work. Be on hand to answer things like how high do you want this medicine cabinet and how far to each side the sconces? Now’s the time to note everywhere you want an outlet or switch and what kind of faceplates they should have. In this phase, you will be making decisions and dealing with issues such as product delivery delays. And you will be hemorrhaging money. It is stressful. But try to remain calm and above all be quickly responsive to your contractor's texts, so that you don't hold up the job or lose subcontractors' windows of availability and incur costs.

Phase 8: Plaster & Wallboard

Once the rough-ins are completed - and if required in your area, inspections - insulation, drywall, and plaster can commence. 



Phase 9: Finish Work

This is the phase where cabinets and countertops, moldings, floor refinishing, and painting happen. I personally love this phase, because the debris is disposed of and visually things are starting to come together. 



But this stage is where the rubber hits the road for the home owner. If you did a good job planning and ordering, your products are coming in. Some are fitting as expected, some are not. You will find yourself running to stores or making online orders with expensive next-day or two-day delivery to make up for mistakes. 

On our current home reno project, in the 11th hour we realized we needed different finishing tiles for the beveled field tile in the bathroom. I had to find them, special order them, and pay an exorbitant overnight delivery fee to get them in on time. Even so, I counted myself lucky that the whites actually matched - if you have ever tried to color-match white tiles from two different product lines you will know how very many shades of white there are and what a miracle it was that I found a match. On a previous project, the supplier sent the wrong shower body and it was installed in the wall and tiled over before anyone realized the mistake. I had to run out of work on my lunch hour to buy a different type of spout with a diverter that would be needed the next day. Sadly, it meant that I couldn't have the Purist spout that matched my handles that I had my heart set on. Though initially I felt crushed, I located a spout from another product line that looked okay with the Purist cross handles. These things happen. You have to roll with it.

In the end, it all worked out, and we are happy with our bathroom.

Our finished bathroom

Things I would have done differently?

  • I wish I had spent more $ on full scale floor restoration throughout our home. The price of full restoration of the pet-damaged hardwood floors was eyebrow-raising. We compromised and fixed only the worst and most visible areas of damage. I wish now that we'd spent a few thousand more to completely restore the floors. They turned out so beautifully that the few places where I still see damage rankle me. And we will never have the opportunity of an empty house again.
  • I wish I had taken the day off to be on hand for the bathtub delivery to ensure it was thoroughly inspected before accepting. It had a crack that was not discovered for a few weeks when the guys fully uncrated it. In the end, Kohler came through with a replacement for us, but it was touch and go there for a while. Note: The second tub also arrived damaged, but in an area that would be hidden by the apron. The clock was ticking, so we accepted it. Just be aware that damage to tubs is very common, and the way they are crated and tied up makes them difficult to thoroughly inspect as they come off the truck. Don't worry about irritating the driver. Take your time and thoroughly inspect your product. Don't sign for it or accept it if it's damaged. It goes back on the truck.
  • I wish that I had pressed my contractor early on about the finishing tiles that I was gut-certain we needed for the beveled tile "positive corners". It turns out I was right, and trying to match whites from two different product lines so late in the game was risky and could have been disastrous.
  • I wish that I had given more thought to my outlets and dimmers. I have two light fixtures that should have been on dimmers. Sure, I can still do this myself, but I could have had my contractor do it at no extra cost.
  • I wish that I had removed all the doors and cleaned up the original brass hardware. After the renovation was complete I removed all the doorknobs and boiled them on the stove to slough off years of paint. Then I shined them up with Brasso. They are original to the house and the mid-century brass just gleams. The hinges however are still all painted over, sadly. It's a project that I will get around to in the future, and I'll be wishing I had my contractor's guys around to do the heavy lifting.
  • I wish that I had let my contractor do my kitchen tile cuts. I was in DIY mode in the kitchen, and itching to try out the top of the line tile cutter he loaned me. I should have taken him up on his offer to simply do my cuts, no charge. As it happened, I cut my top tiles unevenly; what a mess. It doesn't show because it's under sight line of the cabinets. But I know it's there.