The Urge to Remodel

Do you yearn for a new kitchen or a spruced-up master suite? Experts advise doing your homework before remodeling and keeping your cool until the construction dust settles.

Of all the joys and troubles that come with owning a home, can anything be more thrilling — or terrifying — than the prospect of remodeling?

It may be a matter of personality, tempered by experience, that determines how you view that claustrophobic kitchen with the Harvest Gold fridge and pitted linoleum. Is it a taunting affront to your sense of style and order, to be conquered and transformed? Or does your fear of unforeseen cost and hassle cause you to see it as far more tolerable than the unknown, to be masked as much as possible with well-placed throw rugs and new curtains?

You shouldn't be surprised to learn that experts and professionals in the $200 billion home-improvement industry are standing by to ease your fears and help make your daydreams concrete — or Corian or marble or vinyl or cedar, as the case may be.

As Americans spend ever more money sprucing up their homes, more and more Web sites, TV shows and consumer groups spring up to offer advice and make the process a bit less intimidating. But there's no substitute for doing your homework before you sign on with a remodeler who will satisfy your craving for that sunlit Florida room or the master suite the size of Rhode Island.

Happily, there are some shortcuts, such as the Better Business Bureau, to steer you away from the worst remodelers, and consumer associations such as Angie's List to point you toward some of the best.

Angie Hicks started her contractor-referral business in 1995 in Columbus, after learning of a similar operation in Indianapolis.

The idea is simple: Businesses can't apply or pay to be on Angie's List; they only get there via its consumer-members, who pay a yearly fee to participate. Members rate companies they've used from A to F based on quality, punctuality, professionalism and value.

Because consumers pay the bills, the information is more likely to benefit them. Hicks bought out her Indianapolis competitor and now has more than 100,000 members in 15 cities, including Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Akron and Canton.

Hicks says that homeowners considering a remodeling project should, "first and foremost, realize it's a big job. You're making a large investment."

That may sound only slightly more obvious than "check up on your contractor before you hire," but the importance can't be overstressed (see "How to Choose a Remodeler," page 119).

The National Association of the Remodeling Industry publishes a list of questions that homeowners should ask prospective contractors, but usually don't.

• How long have you been in business?

• Who will be the project supervisor?

• Will you use employees or subcontractors?

• How many projects like this have you done in the past year?

• What percentage of your business is repeat or from referrals?

For a major remodeling project, even the best interview isn't enough on its own.

"Always talk to more than one potential supplier, and then check them out with a third party," Hicks says.

Often, the most reassuring recommendation comes from a friend or neighbor, who can tell you exactly how their job went and show you the results.

Lori and Bob Campana from Lorain had two very different remodeling experiences. The first, which took place eight years ago, could have been enough to sour them on the endeavor altogether. While the contractor ultimately achieved their goal — adding on a den — they got an unpleasant extra something in the deal: dust, lots and lots of dust. "I remember I had it everywhere," Lori says. She adds that she wasn't thrilled with the quality of the workmanship she got.

This fall, the Campanas bravely undertook a kitchen makeover. This time, their No. 1 priority was finding a reputable, quality contractor. They finally selected Shaun Brady of Brady Homes Inc. in Avon, a custom home builder and remodeler.

They were told the job would take eight weeks.

Because workers essentially live with you for the duration of the project, Lori was especially pleased by the demeanor and appearance of Brady's crew. "They weren't seedy looking," she says. "I felt comfortable with them."

What's more, the workers completely sealed off the kitchen, eliminating her top remodeling complaint from last time. "These guys controlled the dust," she notes.

Of course, remodeling is never easy. Most nights, Lori cooked dinner for her husband and three kids on the grill, even using it to heat up spaghetti sauce. Their old fridge was moved into the dining room.

But in the end, the Campanas gained a sleek new maple kitchen with granite counters, new appliances and even a new floor. And it took exactly eight weeks.

"It's so important to get someone who has a good reputation," Lori affirms.

Hiring one contractor to take on an entire project, however, may not be the best approach for everyone, especially if you're the kind of person who doesn't mind handling some of the details yourself.

Arlene Maksin knew she wanted a change in her 19-year-old Strongsville home's kitchen. But she also knew there was plenty about it she liked. And there was some work she was willing to do on her own.

The biggest part of the project was adding a sunroom. Maksin interviewed several companies, then settled on American Patio. The room was done on time and on budget. It's since become the hub of the house.

"That was the best thing I ever did," she says.

Next, Maksin hired someone to install a laminated wood floor in the kitchen. While the floor looks great now, there were mishaps along the way. "The yo-yo started sanding," she says, "and he didn't have his bag on the sander. I had sand all over the house."

Then, as the floor settled, it shrank and pulled away from the base of the cabinets, leaving a gap. Maksin called the contractor and he returned to put in a wider baseboard to solve the problem.

For her new laminate counters, Maksin ultimately chose Home Depot. The new black, tan and brown counters resemble granite, but without the cost.

Lastly, Maksin and a friend applied tung oil to her cabinets, which were still in good condition. The oil took a few hours to put on and perked up the appearance of her cabinetry for very little money. "My cabinets stay nice and shiny," she says.

Spreading the projects over a few years, Maksin ended up with a new sunroom, new floors and counters and revamped cabinets. By coordinating the work herself, she estimates that she saved a fair amount of money. "I think I'm done now," she says with a laugh.

Whether you're a do-it-yourselfer or plan to hire a contractor, some advance planning can help you save money and end up with a better overall project.

Define your project. Think about what you want your space to look like, how you want to use it and what changes are essential to achieve this.

Be thorough. Try to include all the details you'll want, such as new light fixtures and specific product choices, to get the most accurate estimate possible. Make sure your contract is carefully written to describe exactly what you want and how much it will cost.

Be flexible. The products you choose — appliances, carpets, windows and the like — can be the biggest factor driving the price up or down. Consider alternate products that might give you the same look for less money. Keep quality and value in mind, however, and don't focus exclusively on price.

Be creative. Often, you can achieve your goal with something less than a budget-busting remodel. Flawed walls, for example, can be covered with heavy or textured wallpapers instead of replacing them. If you need more space, you might find it by reconfiguring interior walls — stealing from another room — rather than by adding square footage, which can require excavation, a new foundation and possibly even a new roof. Do you really need an extra bathroom, or would a new double sink solve your problem?

Choose your contractors. Once again, remember the importance of asking the right questions, getting at least three estimates and checking references thoroughly. NARI suggests these "warning signs" that a contractor may not be trustworthy:

• You can't verify the name, address, telephone number or other credentials; he gives no references.

• The salesperson tries to pressure you into signing a contract, offering a special price "if you sign today."

• Some information you receive is out of date.

• You are asked to pay for the whole job up front or in cash.

• The company isn't listed with the Better Business Bureau or any trade association.

• The contractor does not inform you of your legal right to change your mind and rescind the contract within three days.

• Answers to your questions are vague or reluctant.

Live through your remodeling. Once you've made your choices and dust has begun to fly, there are some things you can do to make an inherently stressful time easier.

• Prep the house and yourself. Make room for equipment and materials by clearing out the work area as much as possible; this will help preserve everyone's sanity. Take time to carefully cover furniture and carpeting that could be affected by the dust and traffic of the job.

• Information is power. Learn as much as you can about the construction process, so that you'll know which delays are an understandable part of a complex project and which aren't. Keep tabs on the products delivered and materials used, so you know you're getting what you ordered.

• Be nice. Staying calm, flexible and friendly won't cost you anything and will likely win the cooperation, goodwill and best effort of the workers.

• Enjoy your new space. Once you've joined the millions of Americans who've added value to their homes and enjoyment to their lives, this last step is unquestionably the easiest.

Colleen Mytnick contributed to this story.

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