Home Improvement Tips for the Novice

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A family discussing home improvement.My husband and I purchased a home last year and took on a significant renovation project that was overwhelming. It was our first single-family home purchase. We were condo owners who, although we lived in houses growing up, knew nothing about owning and renovating a home ourselves. 

Our project involved getting bids from multiple contractors and architects, filing for permits with the local town, and gutting a large portion of the house to open it up to discover long-lasting drainage problems that had to be fixed. While we made a ton of mistakes along the way, here are some tips that I hope will be helpful to those undertaking something like this who do not know where to begin.

  1. Create a must-have list and a want list. Prioritize what needs to be done now and what can be done later.
  2. Create a budget. I cannot stress how important doing this is. Things add up so easily, so creating a budget will help you stay on target as much as possible and not lose sleep at night.
  3. Research architects and general contractors that know your town and the filing/permit process. Speak with neighbors and friends who have had work done on their homes by the contenders you are considering. Post on your local neighbor groups. Get at least three bids for general contractors and speak with their references. If you can, ask to see, prior work done. A happy prior customer may be willing to open their homes if satisfied with the outcome. Understand what is included and not included in the contract and when payments are due. Ask questions during this process. Most of the time, change orders will happen and are usually paid up front.
  4. Get a timeline for the project and expect that it might take longer than initially discussed. Often this is because of extra issues that might be discovered (especially in older homes) that need to be handled. In our house, we found unsupported walls which needed beams, floors without a subfloor, mold and rotten wood, and drainage issues. In the current climate, extra time could also be due to supply issues.  
  5. Do everything you can to stay on top of your budget. For any extra changes from the initial contract, be sure you get the price in writing before saying okay, even if it is something you think you must take care of now. Ask if it is something that must be taken care of or can be fixed down the road. If you are handy and have the time, see if some projects can be done yourself.
  6. Be prepared that once demolition is happening, often new problems will be discovered that will likely have to be taken care of immediately. This is especially true in older homes usually found in Westchester.
  7. If renovating a kitchen, research and order appliances well before you need them. You never know how long deliveries will take.
  8. Assume you will go over budget by at least 30% in this current environment. Set aside a cushion that you can dip into if you must.

For a list of excellent home improvement and maintenance providers (and our favorite sponsors!), check out our guide here

Home renovations are incredibly stressful. I hope these tips help the next person in my shoes who does not know where to start. Good luck, and I hope you love your new home!

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Bena is a a wife and mom to a little girl born in July 2017 and another little girl born in April 2021. Her and her husband, both born and raised in Long Island, randomly ended up living in New Rochelle, Westchester when they fell in love with the downtown area, which had the best of two worlds, walking distance to parks, coffee shops, great restaurants and a short drive away from great hikes and nature. Since then they have moved a hop, skip and away to Pelham, which is an adorable little town. Mostly, Bena is just trying to figure out how to do this mom thing, while also working a full-time job. After a few years of the juggling act, she feels a little more confident, but everyday there are new challenges, especially when #2 arrived. When she is not momming, she is usually lawyering, working out, cooking, running errands or somewhere out exploring nature and the world.

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