Talk me through the home buying/remodeling process!
July 16, 2019 12:32 PM   Subscribe

So Mr. Dorinda and I are planning to buy a house in a new city. Yay! Since we're prioritizing being in the neighbourhood we want over having the "perfect" move-in ready house, we are anticipating doing at least some amount of renovation/remodeling. But different houses will obviously need different levels of renovation/remodeling, so we're a little confused on the order-of-operations for this process, especially vis a vis conceptualizing a renovation budget. We know our all-in budget, but we're having a tough time looking at a fixer-upper and imagining what is and is not possible within our budget. Luckily there are professionals who can help us! BUT: What professionals do we contact to help, and at what point in the process do we contact them?

Here's our situation: we are going to move to New City in about a year--possibly a little sooner, potentially a little later if need be, we have a good amount of flexibility in our timeline. We are currently visiting New City for a few weeks, so we can get a feel for different neighbourhoods, and so we can walk through some houses with our Realtor, and both she and us can get a sharper sense of what we're looking for (since we'll be conducting parts of our search remotely). We will likely not actually buy something until later this year, and will likely not move until next spring/summer, but if the stars aligned and the perfect home were to pop up tomorrow, we're in a position to put an offer in immediately. Our all-in budget is (according to our realtor) well within reasonable for what we're looking for in the neighbourhood we like, especially if we're willing to take on some degree of renovation. And, since we've got a lot of flexibility in our timeline/are not under pressure from the calendar, our options are even more open. (This openness, I think, is a big part of our many things are possible!) My husband has owned homes previously (though we currently rent), but this will be my first. Neither of us has done any sort of renovation project or worked extensively with contractors before.

Having been out once with Realtor already, it's pretty clear to us that we are potentially looking at some degree of moderate to major renovation after we buy a home, and we do like the idea of having our home made to our aesthetic, rather than settling for the previous owners' choices that are close-but-not-quite-right. Based on what we've seen so far, the most likely renovations will be at least one and potentially all of the following: kitchen overhaul (potentially just new finishes/cabinets/appliances/floors, but potentially a major remodel with moving walls and such); overhaul of 1-2 bathrooms; flooring changes in 50-75% of the house; exterior paint; paint and trim throughout. (I understand that since we're looking at pre-1950s houses, there will also potentially be many "hidden" renovations that need to happen with electrical/plumbing/etc., too). There's a VERY small chance we would be looking at an addition (including a bathroom) to a house, but honestly this is not really within our comfort zone and we'd only consider it for the absolute perfect (but too small) house.

Since we'll be on the other side of the country for probably the entirety of the project, this renovation will have to be (I assume? But clarity here would be appreciated if you have experience!) managed by some sort of GC/project manager/design-build firm who oversees not only the overall design and sub-contracting for various renovations, but also the day-to-day stuff since we will not be on site basically at all.

But what we're confused about is: how do we know if we can afford a given home+reno before we have a renovation estimate from a GC/designer-builder/professional? Obviously more work=more $$, but I don't even have a sense of ballpark figures here, and the numbers I'm finding on the internet range WILDLY (since project vary wildly). We should get an estimate! BUT! Given where we are in our process (i.e. at the browsing/information gathering stage), can we really bring a designer/architect/whatever on board to give an estimate this early? Do these types of professionals typically do walk-throughs of houses that people are considering buying but do not yet own? We don't actually have a specific house (yet) that we want them to renovate....but we feel like without a pretty good sense of what various renovations might cost in a variety of houses, we can't really be clear on what houses we will be able to afford, and what we will be able to accomplish with them. Like, we know we can spend X number of dollars total. But what does that translate to in various versions of the house+reno equation? And how do we find out? We will be putting many of these questions to our Realtor when we go on a second tour with her on Thursday, but is she the right person to ask, or should we already be talking to designers/architects/GC's? Or someone else??!

So I guess my (many) questions boil down essentially to:
- what is the order-of-operations for this kind of project?
- at what point do we start talking to potential designer-builder-professional folks? (like, will they even waste their time with us before we have a specific project they can give us a quote for? Ballpark figures are not super helpful when the range varies by hundreds of thousands from low-to-high....but specific estimates are not possible without a particular project. CONUNDRUM!)
- What type of professional should we talk to?

Surely this is a common thing? But how does it actually WORK?! Explain it like I'm a home renovation neophyte, please!
posted by Dorinda to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
1) do not commit to renovations until you've lived in the house for about a year, so that you've had time to really consider what changes are necessary. If you leap straight into renovation, odds are you'll end up making choices based on your OLD living arrangements, and you'll probably spend more than you need to.

2) spend your first year thinking about the renovation, prioritizing your proposed changes, tracking down an excellent GC, and learning about how things work in the new city.

3) be aware that, per #2, some changes may mandate other changes. For example, in my area if you renovate the kitchen you are basically required to also renovate your entire electrical system -- a 1959 breaker box will simply not be able to accommodate the number of new circuits required by my jurisdiction (separate high-amp circuits for the range, for the stove, for the refrigerator, etc. etc.), to say nothing of AFCIs etc. So poof, my kitchen reno just went up by 10%. Similarly, when I changed my bathrooms I had to get new sewer lines laid (to comply with slope angle requirements in the main drain due to relocated fixtures), get entirely new supply lines (old ones were galvanized, inspector required me to get all-new copper lines), install upgraded venting, and install occupancy sensors. None of that bothered me, because I was expecting it and priced it in from the outset.

4) I want to re-emphasize #1 above. I almost started renovating within a few months of occupancy, and had paid about $3K to an architect, before having to fire the architect (completely ignored my budget ceiling, repeatedly), thereby wasting my $3K and setting back my timeline by another six months. Fortunately, that delay gave me time to really get my head around what to do with the house, and so when I eventually hired my GC things went much more smoothly.

5) figure out where you're going to be inflexible, and be prepared to take input on everything else. For example, the first day my GC's foreman walked into the house he looked at the plans, looked at the house, and said "wouldn't it be better if we moved this door over there instead?" And holy shit, he was totally right and I am (to this day) so damn happy I took the time to listen to him and think about his suggestions.

6) related to #5 above, pay careful attention to the behavior of your potential GCs. Some are HIGHLY motivated to perform all renovations in more or less exactly the same way, regardless of what you or your house need -- so if they start out like a car salesman, or you start feeling railroaded, bail bail bail bail!
posted by aramaic at 12:50 PM on July 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

Because I am on a different continent, my real long answer will be tomorrow. I'm half a sleep already. But I want to say today that you will probably will need to give us the area you are in, for MeFites to recommend the best people. aramaic has has an unfortunate experience, along with thousands if not millions of others, but it doesn't have to be that way.
IMO, it is almost always a good idea to buy a house that needs renovation. You don't want to pay extra for a kitchen you don't even like, and if you do it right, you will end up with more value for money by fixing up your home to your own taste. And it is also almost always a good idea to get an architect as your primary advisor. But that is where you need local knowledge. To be honest, lots of architects know nothing about costs and other practicalities.
As said, I'll be back with much more detailed information...
posted by mumimor at 2:04 PM on July 16, 2019

Response by poster: mumimor: We'll be moving to Seattle, WA.

And not threadsitting, I promise, but just wanted to clarify re: aramaic's comment that while I definitely appreciate the advice to live in a home for a while before doing renovations, at this time and for this project we won't be doing that. We'll be buying a home, having renovations go on while we're still living elsewhere, and then moving into the renovated home. I recognize that there are disadvantages (and some advantages!) to doing it this way, but that is the reality of our situation at this time, for better and for worse. Thanks very much for your other helpful thoughts, though!!
posted by Dorinda at 2:25 PM on July 16, 2019

Dorinda, is there any chance that you all can move to Seattle and rent and then buy and renovate a place while you are living locally? I'm asking because there are often so many decisions you have to make along the way while you are renovating, and it would be much easier to be nearby rather than across the country. I agree that it's better to have lived in the house before you renovate but I get what you're saying about that not being practical here. Second best would be to live nearby.

If you were local, it also might be easier to hire an architect and then a general contractor. Since you'll be remote, I think a firm that handles all of it might be a better option (though I'm guessing a bit pricier). I'd ask your realtor for recommendations, and start approaching these folks. If you give them a sense of what you want to do, you can ask them straight away about what prices you might expect.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:59 PM on July 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

we'll be on the other side of the country for probably the entirety of the project

We'll be buying a home, having renovations go on while we're still living elsewhere, and then moving into the renovated home.


I'd say if your budget is rounded to the nearest 100k, then sure dial up some architects and design-build firms. If your budget is rounded to the nearest 10k, then top minds would suggest you hold off until you are local.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 3:26 PM on July 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

We bought our house and renovated before we moved in, so I don’t necessarily agree that you need to live in a house first. In our case we were not making any structural changes, though. We did kitchen, bathroom, interior and exterior paint, refinished all floors, all new light fixtures and window treatments.

That said, I cannot imagine trying to manage all of that remotely. Maybe if you are also planning on working with a designer who is going to work with the contractors as well? You need to think about what degree of control over decisions you are comfortable with. So, for example, when our countertops showed up, it turns out that they cut the wrong size hole for the sink, because the tile store lost the sink we bought and just substituted another. If I had not been there to see that we would’ve ended up with a wrong (cheaper, not what we wanted) sink. Because I was around the house I was able to confirm that no, the correct sink had been sent and it was not what they brought back and after much arguing the tile guy finally admitted their fault.

When we got our estimates, the contractors here would not give us free estimates until we had actually closed on the house, so you might have to pay in order to get speculative walk throughs? Maybe you should be auditioning your contractor/architect/whomever now based on somebody who will provide that type of service.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 4:25 PM on July 16, 2019

Best answer: We'll be buying a home, having renovations go on while we're still living elsewhere

In that case, definitely spring for a Design-Build company.

It'll cost more, but you'll get a more integrated construction process. My renovation (South Bay Area, not using a D/B firm) required me to make at least one decision a day, which would be difficult without the single point of contact a D/B firm gives you. Additionally, they'll have their own process that you can simply follow (won't have to worry about permits etc.), and in most cases they'll give you a fixed price (with exclusions for undiscovered nightmare situations).

In case it's useful for ballpark purposes & comparison with your scope of work (different markets, of course, but Seattle is almost equally hot right now so this may still be helpful), my renovation cost (3bdr, single-floor, wood-framed 1959 bldg with attached garage, seismic retrofits already installed) just about $150K, which included:
1) removal of asbestos in floor and ceiling with repair of said ceiling (specialist removal firm)
2) new roof and gutters
3) entirely redoing two bathrooms (moving all fixtures, changing where the doors were, entirely new finishes, new ventilation, relocate closet spaces, etc.)
4) repipe the entire house with copper
5) new 200amp electrical service, including new wiring throughout and new LED recessed lighting throughout
6) new ducts
7) new furnace & AC
8) repair, replace & install new areas of oak flooring throughout (face-nailed), new baseboards throughout
9) install whole-house fan & relocate attic entry point
10) new insulation throughout
11) new kitchen cabinetry (Omega brand), all new appliances (KitchenAid brand), new countertops (quartz composite), new sink + disposal, glass tile backsplash
12) replacement windows throughout
13) new patio door, new entry door, new garage side-entry door, new fire door between garage & house
14) new interior paint including ceilings
15) termite treatment and repair of damaged members (some floor joists & associated subfloor)
posted by aramaic at 5:59 PM on July 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Good morning! I went through this some years ago, when I inherited the family farm, in the other end of the country. I am an architect, but it was too far away for me to go to weekly meetings, and I mainly work in academia. The main house looked good at first glance, but in reality it needed a major renovation, including a new roof, new floors, new bathrooms. It also needed a new kitchen, but I'm sentimental about my gran's kitchen, so I just altered some details and put in new appliances.

A design-build company can be a good idea, but regardless of which advisor/contractor you use, start out by having a very good look at their portfolio of work, and questioning them about the proces and prices. You do not need a great artist, you need someone who has consistently produced good homes through 10+ years. I am hoping for you that some MeFite in Seattle knows someone, but otherwise you can maybe ask your realtor. Unfortunately, I've lost the contact I had in Seattle, I can't even remember the name.

Anyway. IMO, you should find an architect with long experience in house renovation now, and have that person evaluate the houses you like. It should be possible for an experienced person to have a look and give a realistic estimate without designing anything. Obviously, the budget for each house will depend on the current state. Tell the architect your total budget. Reserve 10% for unexpected costs. There will be unexpected costs. When I renovated our family farm, I had checked the foundation in one room and it was good. Then when the renovation work began, we discovered that it had been the only room with a foundation, in all the other rooms, the floor was directly on sand. We had to improvise a solution that was within the budget. Also, the architect went bankrupt and I had to find a new one. Not a big issue for me, but a long delay.
Later, I bought a cottage for rentals, and this time I did manage it myself, because it was small enough that I only had to travel three times. In both cases, we managed to stay within the budget, (with the 10% for unexpecteds included).

What you want is a house where the basics are good: a sound foundation, a good basic layout, no mold or rot in constructions, good healthy windows and doors, healthy stairs if relevant, healthy floors and ceilings, no asbestos anywhere. Don't compromise on any of these things, unless there is an amazing view or garden.

Don't worry about paint, state of the kitchen, state of bathrooms, these are the things you'll want to change anyway. To a degree, you can move walls and doors, but if you need to change everything to make it work, find another house. In both of my renovations I installed new heating/A/C. I think because of the big changes we are going through v. energy and climate, this will probably be a thing for you, as well. I heard at work that a lot of buildings where plumbing were installed during the 60's and 70's need renovation of that now, so that's a thing where you need to look at the house's history.

When you have found the house, your architect needs to make a project. You have to explain your needs, your lifestyle, your dreams, and they make a proposal that you like. During the design proces, you need to determine a level of quality. Lets look at the kitchen to describe this: kitchens come at a very wide price range. From the bottom to a good deal over the middle, the actual, material quality is about the same, the difference is only in the styling. For most people, buying an IKEA kitchen and styling it with nice details is a good deal. If you want something better, you have to pay a lot more. And then you need to look at the resale value. If your location is good, and you are overall really lifting the value of your property, a high-end kitchen is a beautiful high value thing with a long life. It may well be worth the investment. We sold a house some years ago with a 30 year old kitchen that was custom-made by excellent craftsmen. The new owners intended to keep it as it was. So there was true value in that investment.
You need to look at all your choices with those eyes. Bathrooms, cabinets, floor treatments, changes in layout. IMO, resale value is a good measure, even if this is to be your forever home. If you get good quality now, it will still work for you in 20 years, saving you a lot on maintenance.

When you have agreed with the architect on the project, they need to make a technical description and get offers from contractors. If you are working with a design build company who are their own contractors, this phase is still important, because you need a round of re-evaluating the price/value decisions. Go through the description and offer(s) carefully, ask questions when you don't understand stuff.

When all decisions are made, your team needs to plan a schedule. Your architect or the main contractor needs to be the enforcer here, not you. Some contractors will take a small extra fee for the work of scheduling and enforcing, pay up! But also make sure that all contracts have penalties for not delivering on time. This is very hard to do when working on a house scale project, which is one reason you need someone professional to be responsible. Still, there will probably be delays. Don't tell anyone, not even the architect, but count on a month of delays.

Before you move in, after the work is "finished", go through everything with the architects and contractors. Take note of every issue. Write a letter listing all the problems, and get the house finished before you set foot on the ground. It is almost impossible to get repairs done after you have moved in, for legal reasons.

Then enjoy your new home!
posted by mumimor at 11:01 PM on July 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

My suggested series of events:
  1. Find a house or two you like, and sketch out what you'd like to do to the house(s) -- everything from putting in a fence to building a second story
  2. Go to your local City Planning and Development office, and tell them the address of the property. They should be able to tell you recent permit history (I'm not sure how much they'd share to potential buyers, but they'll probably give you a general idea, if nothing else). Then tell them what you'd like to do, and they can tell you if it's feasible, what kinds of permits to expect, and how long permitting and building generally take.
  3. Then pick your house, live in it for a while, and figure out what you really want to do with it, hire your designer*/ architect/ design-build firm
* Depending on what you eventually want to do, you may not need a licensed architect. It's been a few years, and my context is California, but from what I recall, adding a 2nd story required an architect, but more minor structural modifications could be designed by someone who isn't licensed. I worked with folks who had long histories in the area but weren't licensed, and sometimes they'd partner with a licensed architect if they got a job they couldn't fully oversee legally, but they still did a good amount of business in the area, so it's not a shady thing to work with someone other than an architect to help you design and coordinate your remodel job.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:07 AM on July 17, 2019

Having gone through a renovation, they ask so many questions and things look so different in different light and different times of the day - I mean picking finishes requires you to be there in person, layout requires you to walkthrough in person. I hope you are budgeting for something like weekly flights to see the progress. Otherwise, why renovate? You are letting someone else make all these choices for you, so it's easier to find an already mostly renovated home.

I'd agree, if your budget is in the $100k+ for renovations, you are good to do this (no matter how crazy). If not you should rethink this plan.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:51 AM on July 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Just a supporting note for above comments: I've done a couple of expensive renovations with an architect running the day to day and once the reno started we weren't needed for much but actually deciding on the plans and all of the finishes required a lot of in-person time. If you also want someone who will advise on the "interior design" aspects (fixtures, tiles, colors being a big part of that) you are adding yet another person to the mix and a lot of additional expense. So definitely plan for time to be in Seattle at the beginning and end of a project; and if the person you get isn't asking you to make decisions on things like finishes while they're still drafting plans be suspicious, because one of the ways good architects make sure things run on time is removing as much uncertainty as possible early in the process.
posted by ch1x0r at 4:20 PM on July 17, 2019

Extra note of caution for long-distance/absentee client Reno Jobs. Normal delays and generic day to day glitches have a way of rapidly escalating if you're not around. Worst case scenario that I've seen is a client paying for a big mess they didn't like. Not saying never do a distance project, just that if you do one, be very clear and decisive about what you want, and trust your GC.
posted by ovvl at 5:24 AM on July 18, 2019

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