It's a real....fixer-upper....
February 18, 2011 10:15 AM   Subscribe

Where do I begin with home renovations?

My parents' home is in dire need of some renovation. My mom has always wanted to update it, but she's been too busy with work to get going. I thought I'd pitch in and help get the ball rolling, but I have no idea where to begin! This isn't a single room renovation...the whole house needs some help. Here's a short list:

- Window treatments/front door--the windows are ugly (sorry, mom) and the door has warped so that--even when closed--you can see a sliver of the outside.
- popcorn ceiling--house is pre-1980, there's probably asbestos. Would like to add crown molding
- carpet--very old (shudder) and I have completed many a charcoal drawing on its fluffy beige surface. It does not look good.
- Bathroom--tub is scratched up, the sink faucet has a mysterious leak that won't go away, counter is a yellow color reminiscent of something that's been left out in the sun too long, etc etc
- kitchen--stained laminate counters, cabinets need refinishing

Basically, the whole house is old and nothing much has changed since the '80s. I just want to help make it more fresh and home-y. As it is right now, it's difficult to keep up with cleaning because no matter how hard we scrub or polish, things still look grungy. It's takes a real psychological toll when you spend an hour cleaning the restroom and it still doesn't look very nice.

It's not all bad, though. The house is all paid off, so there's no mortgage to worry about. Also, I think the house has a lot of potential, since it has a really nice layout (spacious kitchen, low-ceilings--perfect for some crown molding!)

SO yeah, I'd like to get a move on, but I don't know where to start. I also want to check out the pipes, etc/do a little maintenance on the innards. What kind of contractor do I need to find, when the whole house needs a checkup? Also, any general tips on where to begin or what to do for specific issues (listed above) would be appreciated! I know this is going to be a long process and probably very expensive project, but I want to do it right.

Bonus points if you have any recommendations for contractors in the SoCal (LA county/inland empire-ish) area!
posted by sprezzy to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I would tend to prioritize in terms of what could cause damage down the line or fail catastrophically (as high priority), to cosmetic things (as low priority). Leaky faucet would be relatively high on my list (and should hopefully be relatively easy to fix), as would be the windows and front door (thieves will try to force a window or door that looks like it might give easily and relatively quietly). Carpet and countertops, while fugly, can wait a little while longer.
posted by LN at 10:28 AM on February 18, 2011

Ask around for personal recommendations for a general contractor. MeFi recommendations are great, but with all the crooked contractors around, you can't risk hiring someone based off internet recommendations alone.

IKEA's an excellent resource for home renovations, especially kitchen materials.
posted by litnerd at 10:29 AM on February 18, 2011

Is the idea to improve quality of life and continue to live in the house for many years to come, or to fix it up to get ready to sell it ? And do you have an idea of a budget you want to spend ?

Consumer reports lists the average costs for various types of remodels (kitchen, bathroom, full and partial etc), which will give you an idea of the costs. They also (or used to, at least) say how much of that cost is recouped when you sell the house.

If you want to still live there (ie not prepping to sell), then fix the things that bug you the most, with as LN suggests, an eye towards things that can cause bigger problems later.

(eg: have you looked at the roof ? Been in the basement/crawlspace/attic to check for things ?)

There are home inspectors (usually are hired when buying a house to inspect it) and they'd look at the plumbing/electrical/roof/etc for problems, but don't tend to evaluate cosmetic aspects.
posted by k5.user at 10:47 AM on February 18, 2011

While I definitely agree that you should prioritize your projects according to potential damage or destruction, I cannot stress enough how much of a difference small, cosmetic updates can make for your motivation and mental well-being. If by "ugly windows" you mean curtains, DEFINITELY go shop for some attractive new window treatments to kick off this transformation you're starting.

I'm currently undertaking a similar whole-house renovation on my junky little 50s pillbox ranch house, and something that's helped me is to go into each room and make a long, comprehensive list of every little thing that needs to be done for that room's change to be complete. Obviously, you're going to need contractors to do things that are beyond your scope of ability, but having that list can keep you progressing on the things that you can tackle while the professionals do their part.
posted by scarykarrey at 10:48 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't replace the leaky faucet if you're going to wind up shopping for new sinks/faucets in 3 months.

Are you interested in doing/learning to do some of the work yourself? Because this sounds like there are some great DIY projects in your parents' home, and if you have the time/inclination, those are great skills to learn.
posted by cyndigo at 10:48 AM on February 18, 2011

Is the idea to improve quality of life and continue to live in the house for many years to come

Many years to come! Unfortunately, I don't have an idea of the budget because I have no experience with this and have no idea how properly estimate the reasonable costs of repair.

as would be the windows and front door (thieves will try to force a window or door that looks like it might give easily and relatively quietly).

Oh, windows and doors are definitely a high priority, but more for insulation than any concern about being burgled. I live in a very, very, VERY safe town. I know no place is guaranteed to be 100% safe, but I'm not at all worried about thieves.
posted by sprezzy at 10:51 AM on February 18, 2011

In principle, there's two directions in which to move:
1) structural toward aesthetic, and 2) from high to low.
So you would treat foundations, roof, basic plumbing, electricity, and supporting walls, before you do any fancy bathroom and kitchen stuff, and
you'd to ceilings, wall paper, and floors as opposed to the other way round (for the simple reason that you can drip ceiling paint on the walls, and drop stuff on the floor, but not in reverse.

For an assessment, you'll have to get the most general-type of contractor (see 1) first; ask for several opinions. Refine according to outcome.
posted by Namlit at 10:56 AM on February 18, 2011

Are you interested in doing/learning to do some of the work yourself?

My work and commute only allow for free time in the weekends, but I wouldn't mind spending some of that time learning about home repair. But I kind of don't want to end up spending hours of frustration on an "okay" fix, when I could have saved the time and stress by paying a professional a reasonable fee for a great fix.
posted by sprezzy at 10:57 AM on February 18, 2011

Work from the top down, sort of. Do the work that will cause the most "damage" and dust and dirt so your new pretty paint jobs won't get ruined. Working with your list, and assuming the popcorn ceiling is throughout the house and not confined to a couple rooms, I'd do the ceiling first, the kitchen next, then the bathroom, the windows, and the front door. Then I'd replace whatever flooring hasn't been done already. Wait to paint until last, seriously. I also wouldn't put up pretty new window treatments if you're going to demo ANYTHING. Plaster/drywall dust gets EVERYWHERE and you'll just have to clean them again and again if you put them up first.

I agree that small, cosmetic changes can make you feel really good, but I wouldn't consider doing them if there's going to be drastic demolition anywhere in the house.

Do your parents know what sort of interior style they like? There are tons and tons of books, magazines, and websites to gaze at for hours and hours to find out what they like. We designed (and redesigned over and over) our kitchen for a year before work started, and I wouldn't change one single thing, four years later.
posted by cooker girl at 11:30 AM on February 18, 2011

- Window treatments/front door--the windows are ugly (sorry, mom) and the door has warped so that--even when closed--you can see a sliver of the outside.

You probably should make sure that it's actually the door that's the problem here, instead of the house settling around it and altering the dimensions of the door opening - that would be a much more complex problem to solve.
posted by LionIndex at 11:46 AM on February 18, 2011

Get a home inspection done, and that will help you sort out where to begin. My other thought is that once you've done that, doing an aesthetic fix up in one room can make a nice refuge while other heavier, uglier work is being done elsewhere in the house.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:07 PM on February 18, 2011

Talk to general contractors. For smaller jobs, I've had good luck with handymen from the local want-ads, but be sure to check references. They'll come to the house, listen intently as you and your parents point out all of the things you don't like, and then they'll send you an estimate for different tasks. This is the quickest way for you to learn what's practical, what's feasible, and what's expedient.

I can say that, as a newbie homeowner with a surplus of enthusiasm and a dearth of knowledge about home repair, I have not saved money by trying to do things myself. If you go this route, you will screw things up and have to redo them, or have them professionally redone, or wind up with something you're not satisfied with. But you will learn a lot and gradually improve.

I'd recommend starting with the carpet. This is not something that it makes economic sense to do yourself unless you really know what you're doing, installation cost is very predictable (determined by square footage + type of carpet), and you'll be amazed at how fast the professionals can do it. Go to the local carpet store or big-box hardware store and talk to them.

For windows and doors, be aware that there are tax credits for energy efficient building materials (not labor costs), so they'll be less expensive than you might think. The contractors will know more about this.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 12:48 PM on February 18, 2011

For the second time, I have purchased a house previously owned by someone who believed in DIY. While I'm sure he saved money by doing it himself, let's just say that he has not saved me money.

In any event. I agree with cooker girl about sitting down with a lot of magazines, etc. and settling on what works for your mom/what doesn't. Also, look at real estate ads and go to open houses--many sellers will do at least some work on their house before putting it on the market (new counters, paint, updated windows, whatever), and that will give you some more ideas.

Speaking as someone whose basement flooded on Wednesday, necessitating a new sump pump, I would suggest that you prioritize stuff involving water. From experience, kitchen and bathroom cosmetics (update counters and sinks, installing shower doors, new lighting) can be done pretty inexpensively. New tubs, however, can easily run you a few K (can your mom's be refinished, or is it completely kaput?); I'd recommend avoiding those "we install new tubs cheap right over your old one!", as they are not much cheaper than having an entirely new tub, and they seem to be prone to problems with fit, water being trapped, etc.

Also, if you're going with new carpet, be sure to buy the highest-quality pad, as that will make the carpet last considerably longer.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:05 PM on February 18, 2011

Get a subscription to Fine Homebuilding magazine. Seriously, they are great for seeing how it is done right, and keeping up with the latest technology. Each issue is usually at least 50% renovation work and the rest is applicable to most renovation.

DIY does not mean you will do a worse job than a contractor. Just like cooking, the biggest part of the quality of the work is the quality of the materials. You can't build a good meal from crap at the convienance store and you can't build a good house out of crap from the discount part of the hardware store (or wal mart *shudder*). I have looked at a lot of foreclosed homes in the last year for my sister and my mom, and have managed to find them each a great bargain that has good bones, but the finish work was crap, and quite obviously done when they ran out of money halfway through a project, then tried to get it marketable with absolutely the cheapest materials they could find. Most of these failed flips i told them to walk away from, and they have and really like the homes they are in now.

The best strategy is to start with the rooms you use most and will return the most in value (either actual equity or day to day quality of life value). This is probably the bathroom or kitchen. Both are the most expensive to redo also. make a list of what you want to change in each room and then head to home depot, lowes, wherever to do some window shopping. See which items you like, price them and then total the stuff you want. That is the cost in money if you do all the work yourself. It will be a minimum of at least double that for shoddy work to install it (meaning the cost of materials plus 2x that for labor) and probably 4x that for good work.

WIth a book, patience and willingness to hire a professional for the stuff you can't do (like wiring-really its kinda danegerous and can burn down your house) you can do a good job yourself. The difference between a professional and dedicated amateur for at elast 50% of home renovation work is the time it will take. It will take you at least 10x as long as a skilled professional and occasionally you will have to redo stuff (so 20x as long then). Is this a price you can pay? I do but I like building stuff, and I am getting better at it all the time.

Oh, the other big difference in producing good results is the proper, high qaulity tools. A professional can make an unsuitable tool work and get the proper results, you cannot. The cost of tools are a very real expense to this kind of thing. And a lot of them you may not need for many, many years, and they will probably not get very high prices for on craigslist either (about 50-60% of new). Fine homebuilding is also a great resource for the proper tools as well.

The last area that is tough for an amateur to get right is the very last trim step-like the mudcoat on drywall or door and window moulding or fitting a door. These are really tough to get right and require a very high level of tool skill to get right and look good without trying several times and wasting a lot of material/time.

But anyway there is a whole channel on the tv dedicate to this kind of thing (HGTV and the DIY network) that make it look easy-so watch the renovation realities to get an idea of what you are tackling.
posted by bartonlong at 4:52 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

One very small (!) point: be prepared to open something up and discover that there's way more going on than you expected. (As someone further up noted, warped door may actually be settling foundation, which is a much bigger deal.)
posted by epersonae at 4:58 PM on February 18, 2011

I bought my condo with the same carpet that had been installed when the place had been built in 1963. Yes, the carpet was older than me. I was dirt poor so I ripped the carpet out myself and painted the subfloor. Lived that way until I could afford laminate. Awesome decision.

Also, my kitchen cabinets were in horrid shape and were white with black doors. It looked terrible. I took the doors off and painted the cabinets and the wall a bright green. This is until I can afford to replace the cabinets.

The subfloor and cabinet project were temporary things that made my place more homey on the cheap. I'm sure you can think of a similar project in your home. Otherwise, do things that will increase the safety and longevity of your house first.
posted by Foam Pants at 9:57 PM on February 18, 2011

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