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Live Better & Renovate: A homeowner’s blueprint to property upgrades

Nov 09, 2015 09:00AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Gary Jobson

It’s quiet in our house. The clock reads 0300, and I am sitting in the middle room of the second floor thinking about how to make the space more efficient and functional for our family. It is an intellectually stimulating exercise to conceive of all kinds of creative ideas to improve an area of the house that sees lots of traffic and, yet, has been under used for years. My options for the area include a sitting room, work space, another bed room, or an open space. As the time passes in the wee hours of the morning I continue my quest to be innovative. As I sit staring at a book case filled with an old encyclopedia and countless issues of National Geographic an idea pops into my head. This room could be used for study with a proper wooden library table in the center of the room. This leads me to consider where to put up book shelves, how to position good lighting, and…perhaps, where to place a table for a large dictionary? My plan is falling into place. Every year since moving into our house in the Murray Hill section of Annapolis in 1981, I have gone through a similar exercise thinking about ways to improve our house. Home renovations are never easy and take courage. But, with good thought, planning, and execution, you will improve your quality of life with a house upgrade.

Many houses in Annapolis are old. Renovations can be complicated, as antiquated plumbing, electricity, or even structures must be improved to conform to modern building codes. Three years ago, I contemplated converting a storage space above my garage into an office. The plan seemed simple, until I started planning the space. After several months of working with a builder and architect, I took the plan to the City of Annapolis Planning and Zoning office to get a preliminary opinion on my concept. It quickly became clear that this was going to be complicated. My first reaction was to make compromises to the drawings to comply with the building codes. However, I received some good advice from the head of the agency. I was told that it is better to submit my desired plan, and go through the full process, including any appeals, to receive permission to completely renovate my storage space. I was told that it would take longer to get the permit, but in the end, I would be happier with the final result. I took the manager’s advice. The whole procedure took one year, but my space ended up being exactly what I wanted.

The way a house is used changes as the years go by. When children arrive you need a nursery, then a play room, and functional bedrooms. Eventually, when the children move on, the “kid’s bedrooms” can be converted into a home office or guest room for adults. The play room in the basement might become a workshop or entertainment center. Houses are constantly evolving with how the occupants use it. Lifestyle amenities and decorations also change with the times. The recent television series, Mad Men, featured a 1960s motif. Having lived during that era I recall how modern our furniture at home seemed at the time. Today, a 1960s look is no longer hip. Recently, some local friends decided to renovate their 1950s-era kitchen. It was a big project that took three months of planning followed by six months of building. The end result was well worth the effort. There are many practical rules to follow when contemplating any renovation.

Based on my experience, I recommend staying engaged in every step of the process to ensure that the end product meets your expectations. Often, I have hired an architect to draw out the space on paper to see if my dreams actually fit the space. Take the time to consider many options. Eventually, decisions will have to be made. This is easier when you have considered all possibilities for the space. It is important to avoid making changes once construction gets underway because they can be time consuming and expensive. Early planning is essential to make sure your project progresses efficiently, and on time.

Creating a working budget is the next step. I recommend including a contingency for unexpected problems. As mentioned, this can happen in an older home. While it might seem that the most prudent step is to select the lowest bidder, I suggest selecting a contractor with an excellent reputation and work on the fees together. This is similar to choosing a doctor of your choice, instead of a doctor who charges the lowest fee. You want to be comfortable with the contractor. You might not be able to afford every idea that you come up with. Spread out your projects. I have had good success making annual improvements. One year, it was the kitchen, and another year it was the bathrooms. A house will stay contemporary when you make an improvement every year. I have also learned that it is better to do fewer projects really well, than cut corners to save money. It is important to avoid having to go back and redo renovations that were not built properly in the first place.

One of the biggest complaints about the building process is contractors, or sub-contractors, disappearing from the project for extended periods. When writing a contract, insist that work will continue at a steady pace. It might be helpful to set up a construction loan, or line of credit in advance of the project so there are no problems with cash flow. I have learned that swift payment of invoices is a good motivator to ensure that work does not stop. There are many stories that contractors will tell you about clients that are persistently slow to pay or worse, argue over mundane items to extract a reduced price. Either of these tactics will result on slower progress, and even bad feelings. The construction business is a small community and bad behavior gets noted, and passed on.

Many homes in Annapolis have tight property lines. Good relations with neighbors are important. Supporting your neighbor’s projects as they come along creates considerable good will over the long term. When I appealed for some variances for my garage, I was grateful for the support of my neighbors.

Home renovations enhance the value of your home. Sometimes the cost might be greater than the eventual appraisal of the house. My suggestion on this issue is to consider whether you are actually living in the house. If you are, then a renovation has special value because your quality of life will improve.

There are endless sources to get ideas on renovations. House tours, magazines, decorator centers, along with engaging professional designers are all excellent resources. Every space is different depending on the ultimate use. Defining the use of space is the first step before making a list, drawing a plan, and creating a budget. Take the time to research modern appliances to understand energy efficiency and longevity. Consumer Reports is a good source for this kind of information. Appliances that use less water or energy also enhance the value of a house.

For some homeowners, there is the allure of doing a renovation themselves. One friend of mine recently retired from a successful career on Wall Street. His ambition was to revamp most of his house. He figured he could learn on the job. After a few false starts, he hired a contractor and worked alongside the builders. In time, he learned the trade and became proficient at building. He hired electricians and plumbers for technical aspects of his renovations. I once hired a painter to completely paint the inside of my house. I worked alongside the painter every day until the job was done. I learned that prep work is crucial if you want the new paint to last. I found the work to be satisfying because you make progress every day. But, I also realized I was better off pursuing my career around the sport of sailing.

While a renovation project sounds glamorous, the fact is there will be considerable inconvenience throughout the project. While planning, be sure to mentally prepare for the inevitable mess, and setbacks. When things go poorly a positive attitude will help you survive the rough moments.

The last stages can also be frustrating. The best contractors will make the final punch list a priority and work hard to conclude the project quickly. The anticipation by the owners is very high during this last period of construction. It reminds me of the frustration at a restaurant, where the waiter has done a great job the entire meal, and then forgets to bring the check for 30 minutes. Many a tip has been reduced by the neglect of presenting a bill. Make the completion of the construction an important part of the contract. Usually, the punch list can be accomplished in a few days.

Once a renovation project is finished I am always amazed how quickly everyone in the household falls into a regular routine when using the updated space. At some point, I inevitably sit in the new room at 0300 and look around with great satisfaction at the finished product. Of course, a few months later, I’ll be in another part of the house contemplating what could be done next.