Riverbend Home Renovation Interview Series: Experiences, Advice and Tips from Everyday People Volume 1

Read some helpful advice for DIY renovation from real home owners.

Read some helpful advice for DIY renovation from real home owners.

We make it a point to listen to the stories and experiences of people who are or have been active in renovating their homes. We have found their stories encouraging, helpful and informative and wanted to share some of them with our readers. We hope you draw inspiration from each as you go forth on your own renovation adventure.

Profile: DIY Renovator & Dad - Northern California, 35-45

What factors led up to your renovations?

I would say 50% of our renovations were based on desire and a good paycheck fortuitously lining up. The other 50% were motivated by something breaking or not working in the home. For example, the tub in the boy's bathroom cracked 2-3 years into owning our home. While it was lower on our renovation priority list, it was thrown to the top just out of need.

How did you start planning and preparing for your renovation?

We have a renovation priority list that we keep as a Google doc. When we think of something, we jot it down and order the list based on desire or need.

The first five years of home ownership focused on core functionality improvements. We added a new washer and dryer, dishwasher, and gas stovetop. We then focused on making the space warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer by adding a fireplace and a whole-house fan. We then added a new hot water heater with a reciprocator. When we could, we threw in desire-based upgrades like wall color, light fixtures, curtains, floors, and furnishings.

We used Pinterest to collect ideas and suggestions. It helped us narrow down colors, styles, and materials and provided proof of concept. Seeing photos of finished rooms inspired us and helped us know the final result wouldn't disappoint.

Did you hire a contractor or did you renovate yourself?

A bit of both.

Where I felt competent, I did it myself to reduce the overall contractor cost. For example, I demoed the boy's bathroom, and bought all the tile, fixtures and supplies necessary for the project. I then hired contractors to do the plumbing, tile work, and tub install. I've done enough projects to know what I can and can't manage, and I've found that this hybrid approach makes the project more affordable.

In some cases, Pinterest provided some know-how. I built our three living room toy boxes, our master bedroom headboard, and repainted our mirror frames by using blueprints and project plans off Pinterest. I would also watch how-to videos on YouTube for any skills I needed to learn or brush up on.

I found contractors for the particular skill set I needed through Yelp. I looked for well-reviewed vendors and focused on businesses that not only had good quality reviews, but also had a significant quantity of reviews as well.

What was the biggest unforeseen renovation obstacle?

The biggest unforeseen, was what I didn't know. For example, the fireplace install should have been a no-brainer except that we wanted to tie it to our smart thermostat. I did a considerable amount of research and knew it was possible, but this small functionality ultimately led to repeatedly calling our fireplace and electrician vendors until we could get it right. Had we known it would have been as difficult as it was, we wouldn't have done it.

By what percentage did you go over your intended renovation budget?

We've been pretty good. Most of our projects were right on target. The fireplace sticks out as one that surprised us because it was not something I could tweak and solve, but I typically budget in a 10% project buffer for the "what I don't know" factor. Outside of any big snags, like the fireplace, I have found that it is enough.

However, the cost is rarely the issue. What's most difficult is drawing the line on the scope of the project. During the planning stage or even after you've gotten started, it is easy to think of other things you'd like to do or add that may not be part of the original plan. When we replaced the boy's tub, we replaced the tub tile, re-did the plumbing, but did not replace the vanity, toilet, or tile floor because we knew we could do those at a later time. Deciding whether to spend more to get it all conveniently done at once, or wait on some things to stay on budget is the real challenge.

If you could go back and give your pre-renovation self some advice, what would it be?

Cheap is rarely a good investment. Whether it's materials or vendors, cheap means you will run into more problems along the way or be disappointed with the results.

Rather than go for cheap, get quality, well-rated vendors and products and subsidize costs by being willing to do some of the manual labor. As a bonus, you'll appreciate both the final product and the skilled laborers even more by getting your hands dirty.

Any other helpful tips for renovators?

Take time to know what you want. Renovating impulsively will likely produce poor results. Use the abundance of online tools to help visualize your renovation, then use that vision to break down the project and materials in manageable, affordable chunks.