Estimating renovation costs BEFORE buying a place
May 10, 2021 1:11 PM   Subscribe

Is there a decent online tool that can help me figure out the ballpark costs of various standard renovations before buying a house? Assume I won't have time to bring a general contractor in.

I'm currently house-hunting, first-time homebuyer, in Seattle, WA. As you may know, the market is RIDICULOUS right now, and my best bet seems to be buying a place that is structurally sound but needs some updates. I'd like to have a sense of how much I could expect to pay, so I can take it into account when I decide if I can afford the house, or how much I should offer for it.

I've heard about people bringing in contractors before making an offer to get an estimate, and I can try to do that, but this market is so heated, I can't really count on being able to do that.

Two examples in houses I recently considered putting bids in for:

- Old, stinky carpeting I'd want to rip up and replace with flooring.
- Basic kitchen remodel to replace appliances but also possibly add things that would require water lines (like a dishwasher/fridge with an icemaker). But then I figure, while I'm doing that, I might as well replace or at least repaint the old cabinets, or re-do the layout of the kitchen so it flows better.

Those are just two examples - I've had other scenarios I've tried to figure out, like the cost to add a wall or install a minisplit.

I can price out the purchases (appliances) and materials (new flooring) but I don't really know how to get a sense of what the whole project would cost without bringing in a contractor for an estimate. Of course I can't get an exact number but even knowing things like "is this going to be in the $5,000-10,000 range or the $20-30,000 range?" would be really helpful.

Is there any sort of tool that would help with this? Or a good online community to ask these kinds of questions?
posted by lunasol to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A good realtor should be able to help you answer that or have contacts with contractors who can help you get at least an general range. If your realtor can't answer the questions or guide you to the answer, get a new realtor. (Caveat: No one will be able to give you a good estimate for major projects. A while back we did a substantial addition, and the cost was about 50 percent higher than the architect estimated - and that was an architect who'd done dozens if not hundreds of these types of projects in the immediate neighborhood.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:30 PM on May 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

I've found some different places online that list actual reno jobs and their costs via a general Google search for "how much does it cost to [project]", with comments from the people who had the renos done. But I've also just called around and either talked them through what I wanted to get a ballpark or had them come out and do a free estimate (some of them will!). My realtor has a good general idea, but with the price of lumber going up so quickly and contractors being so busy, I think it's helpful to talk to the people who would actually be doing the work.
posted by ananci at 1:40 PM on May 10, 2021

a realtor or contractor can tell you what similar work cost in the past, but it may have nothing to do with what it costs in the future, especially if there are commodities involved. there are wild fluctuations in some of these supply chains (for instance, apparently lumber recently skyrocketed) that folks cannot necessarily predict. but if it's just a pull-and-replace, like carpeting, that should be easy to estimate.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:42 PM on May 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

I bought a fixer-upper a few years ago and what worked for me was making an offer contingent on a satisfactory inspection. I asked around and found a really, really good inspector who works for buyers - not the realtor's go-to inspector whose job is to keep the sale moving. I went through the house with the inspector and he gave me rough estimates on the big things he found. His report also gave me the proper terms to use when vetting contractors. I had bought and sold several houses before that, and I wish I'd known earlier that I could hire my own independent inspector - unlike everyone else involved in a real estate transaction, the inspector's impact will last as long as you own the home.
posted by headnsouth at 1:54 PM on May 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Just do $10 a sq foot for flooring install plus the cost of the flooring per sq ft. It'll put you in the ballpark.

Just guess $10k for labor any kitchen layout changes. Adding water lines for fridges is not terribly expensive depending on how you want it to look. Could be $500 or less. A dishwasher might be more expensive, since you have to remove a cabinet to fit a dishwasher in.

Cabinets - go to ikea with your basic layout. They are mid-grade cabinets and price them yourself. It'll give you a good idea on how much the cabinets themselves cost.
All you need is a measuring tape and to imagine what kind of cabinets you want.

Also think of what you have to do vs what you want to do in the future, or if you want everything done before you move in.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:04 PM on May 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

We were in the exact same scenario as you last year when house-hunting in Seattle, and really relied on our realtor to be able to provide some very ballpark-y, but still useful, figures for what various kinds of renovations to different houses would cost. It was especially useful to be able to stand in, say, the kitchen of a house and point out various things that we didn't like, and then talk through what a "face-lift" type reno (i.e. replacing appliances, updating countertops and cabinets, etc.) in that particular space might cost, vs. a total remodel (changing layout, adding/removing/moving walls, relocating appliances, changing out flooring and cabinets, etc.). It was a super useful exercise for more accurately figuring out for ourselves what sorts of things we could probably live with for a while, and what sorts of things we cared enough about to be willing to pay to fix.

I will say that in Seattle right now, you may be very hard pressed to find a contractor with the time or the willingness to do this kind of estimating for you, especially on a long-shot prospective job. So, I wouldn't hold your breath on getting an actual contractor estimate, and would rely (as others have said) on your realtor to be able to provide general ballpark figures and ranges for various projects, if not actual close estimates. Contractors in the city are SWAMPED right now. We had to basically beg someone to commit to our bathroom remodel, and even then he wasn't able to slot our project in to his calendar for nearly 6 months. So that's perhaps another factor to keep in mind as you assess what level of renovation you're willing to take on: in this market right now, even if you decide to buy something that you intend to do a lot of work on, you're likely to be living in it in its current state for a not insignificant amount of time before the contractor gets to work, so it probably still needs to be liveable for at least the short-to-medium term.
posted by Dorinda at 2:08 PM on May 10, 2021 [9 favorites]

- Old, stinky carpeting I'd want to rip up and replace with flooring.

Go to/call/email/use the contact form on their website/etc a flooring place that carries what you like, ask them what the installation costs would be for the flooring you want for 3 bedrooms of specific sizes or whatever it is you are thinking.

- Basic kitchen remodel to replace appliances but also possibly add things that would require water lines (like a dishwasher/fridge with an icemaker). But then I figure, while I'm doing that, I might as well replace or at least repaint the old cabinets, or re-do the layout of the kitchen so it flows better.

Call an appliance store, find out what the appliances you want would cost, ask the salesperson how much it costs to have them delivered and installed including water lines.

Go to a cabinet store... I think you get the idea. All of these are very easy to get costs for as there are businesses specializing in selling these things and salespeople who want to sell them to you. When you get your house go back and give one of them your business. Keep track of the names of the salespeople who have been helpful, ask for them when you are ready to buy.

You'll also want to ask about how long it is until they will be able to do the install. Then you tell them thank you and you need to look over your finances before you decide.

The only thing that's actually more complicated to figure out and might need a contractor to visit before they give an estimate is adding a wall. That's going to be difficult right now, as all the contractors would rather be out doing things they will get paid for than giving you an estimate on a house you probably won't end up buying. But adding a wall is often the sort of thing that you might be able to live with how it is now and do some changes later when things are less busy.
posted by yohko at 3:01 PM on May 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Please ensure you use local to you numbers for estimates. The cost of lumber alone in my area (and most) is causing wild variables and the demand for people to do renovation work is high.

Edited to add: I work in a construction/renovation industry outside of your local area.
posted by nathaole at 3:07 PM on May 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

You can get get ballpark prices by contacting subcontractors thru email. Your realtor will have a list of them.
Electrical changes will be the most challenging to get a price on because of the unknowns & variables of the house and your goals.
Interior painting prices should be relatively simple if you know sq ft and number of colors.
Plumbing & carpentry prices also should be pretty straightforward if you give them a list of to dos.
Good luck on the house hunt.
posted by artdrectr at 4:51 PM on May 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

As nathaole alluded to, material prices are insane right now. The 4x8 sheet of OSB that sold for 9 bux last year is now 38. I had a roofer call me today to tell me lead times on some commercial roof components had gotten much greater. I mentioned this in an office meeting today (Architect) and heard about some developer houses that just stopped construction at say 60% complete because they had not budgeted a spike in materials into their project.
So, I don't know that anyone can give you up to date prices other than chasing it down yourself.
posted by rudd135 at 6:14 PM on May 10, 2021

Just guess $10k for labor any kitchen layout changes.

What I've been told by coworkers (many of whom have spent the pandemic remodeling their houses) is that the real limiting factor locally is that contractors are in such high demand. So if your job isn't large, they just aren't interested. $10k might be a reasonable labor charge typically, but it would be hard to hire someone for that currently.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:05 AM on May 11, 2021

What I've been told by coworkers (many of whom have spent the pandemic remodeling their houses) is that the real limiting factor locally is that contractors are in such high demand.

People always say this, but there are many different types of contractors. Some willing to only do big jobs, some only do small jobs, and all in between. Some are half-retired, and for many $10k is a huge job, not because they've never remodeled a kitchen but because they don't charge that much. You really do have to ask and shop around.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:24 AM on May 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

No idea if this is any good, but I bookmarked fixr awhile ago...
posted by Bron at 2:19 PM on May 11, 2021

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