Expert advice for keeping remodeling costs in line when improving your home

This year, U.S. home improvement spending will reach well beyond $300 billion, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Driving this activity are young adults who get into the housing market by buying old, relatively affordable homes that need renovations. In addition, aging baby boomers adapt their homes as they age.

All of this remodeling activity enhances the economy and updates over-the-hill housing stock.

But remodeling can be risky if you aren’t prepared for the work and costs ahead. Remodeling a home is typically fraught with pitfalls that can spiral your budget out of control.

If you start a remodel unprepared, you may get stuck partway through the project, unable to finish. As a result, you could become trapped in a torn-up, unfinished house that is almost impossible to sell.

So what can you do to avoid the financial perils of remodeling?

You must do your homework, and then do more homework. The more planning and exploration you do upfront, the fewer the surprises you’ll have to derail your budget.

saving money when remodeling
Proper planning and strategies can save you considerable money and time on your home remodel. Dreamstime

Following are 8 expert tips to help keep your home improvement budget under control.

Gather information

If you’re buying a house that you intend to remodel, find out exactly what you’re getting before you buy. For more about this, see How to Avoid Buying a Money Pit.

Also, gain insights into hidden issues by getting a thorough home inspection.

Clarify your goals

List your wants and needs, and then prioritize this list. The more detail you can provide, the better.

For example, instead of “remodel kitchen,” jot down “install new stock maple cabinets and granite countertops, replace kitchen floor with hardwood, add low-voltage kitchen lighting, replace dishwasher” and so on.

When doing this, get a rough idea of typical costs. You can pin down average costs for most remodeling tasks by searching phrases like “how much do kitchen cabinets cost” on the Internet.

Your resulting list will be an important tool when you move on to working with a designer or architect.

Of course, you may not be able to do everything you want, so decide which improvements are key—and be prepared to give up the lesser ones.

Work with a designer

A well-designed remodel doesn’t cost more to build than a poorly designed one. In fact, a well-designed project usually costs less because good designers know how to build efficiently.

architectural plans and builder
Architects and designers make sure the work gets done right. ©Don Vandervort, HomeTips

For major construction, you’ll need an architect who knows how to unite the changes with your home’s style, optimize the use of space, deal with structural issues and draw the necessary plans for permits and contractor bids. The architect can also help shepherd the project, guiding it through the permit process and overseeing the contractor’s work.

For interior design, you may choose to work with a pro who knows the many available options in materials and can help you achieve the look and feel you want for your remodel within your budget.

Keep it simple

Talk with your architect or designer about developing a design that is simple and affordable to implement.

bathroom layout plan for controlling remodeling costs
Refine your design to keep construction simple.

For example, you can save on plumbing costs by planning kitchens and bathrooms so they utilize existing drains, vents and supply pipes. If possible, you can usually save by working within your home’s existing footprint to eliminate costly foundation and roof work.

Adding a second story, however, can be both costly and incredibly disruptive.

Avoid “while we’re at it”

During a remodel, it’s very easy to think of additional improvements you would like to make. Though some of these, such as insulating walls or upgrading plumbing, may make sense when the walls are opened up, “while were at it” improvements can devour your budget.

Hire a reliable contractor

This is key to getting your job done right and on budget is to use a contractor who is qualified and reliable. The best way to find a good contractor is through personal recommendations from friends or neighbors who have had similar work done.

keep remodeling costs in line by hiring a qualified contractor
Keep remodeling costs in line by hiring a qualified contractor. Andy Dean Photography /

Alternatively, you can find qualified contractors online through referral sites such as Home Advisor and Angie’s List. Before choosing a contractor, interview and get bids from at least three candidates, ask for references and ask their former clients for the pros and cons of their experience.

Have a solid contract

Be sure you get fixed bids. Do not work on a “time and materials” or “cost plus” basis. Open-ended agreements can destroy your budget.

Your contractor agreement should clearly detail all work to be done, including specifications for appliances and finish materials. By far the most common conflicts between contractors and homeowners arise when the two parties don’t agree on what work or materials fall within the original bid’s scope.

If you request additional work or changes after the fact, the contractor typically writes-up a “change order,” which can be very expensive.

Pay in increments

Break down the project into smaller goals and pay as each goal is reached. Before beginning, detail the schedule with your contractor and tie your payments to the completion of each goal.

Don’t pay your contractor too much in advance. Do, however, expect to pay for a portion of the work and the cost of materials that need to be purchased. If you are working with a contractor you trust, and who trusts you, this shouldn’t be a problem.

At the end of your job, make a list (called a “punch list”) of all tasks that still need completion. Make the final payment only when all work is finished.

Never pay with cash, and be sure to keep receipts and records. You’ll need them for your taxes and, if a dispute ensues, as proof of payment.

When you make the final payment, ask your contractor to sign a “conditional waiver and release upon final payment” form (also called a “release of all liens”), which you can download online. This protects you from subcontractors who might otherwise put a lien on your home’s title if the contractor doesn’t pay them.

At this stage, you’ll be able to breathe a huge sigh of relief and enjoy your newly remodeled home.


This article was originally written by Don Vandervort for US News & World Report. It was first posted at

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About Don Vandervort
Don Vandervort has developed his expertise for more than 30 years as a remodeler and builder, Building Editor for Sunset Books, Senior Editor at Home Magazine, author of more than 30 home improvement books, and writer of countless magazine articles. He appeared for 3 seasons on HGTV’s “The Fix,” and served as MSN’s home expert for several years. Don founded HomeTips in 1996. Read more about Don Vandervort