Budgeting for home improvement - MoneySense

How to budget for home improvement like a pro

Get at least 3 quotes from contractors to get a sense of cost

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TORONTO — Ali Bisram has less-than-fond memories of her basement bathroom renovation project.

“It was supposed to be around $2,500 to $3,000. We just wanted to replace the toilet and the vanity and put in a smaller shower, a little corner unit,” says Bisram, a 35-year-old government administrative co-ordinator in Brampton, Ont.

“But when you open up the walls inside a 120-year-old home you don’t know what you’ll find.”

Problems included a toilet with unconnected “Frankenstein plumbing” flushing directly into the ground, not to mention the uninsulated speaker cables masquerading as house wiring discovered beneath the demoed shower wall.

Two years and about $20,000 later the renovation was completed, during which Bisram and her wife had the work done in instalments to keep up with the escalating costs.

Bisram says she learned a key lesson about budgeting for any future home renos: Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

For Adam Mernick, a general contractor and owner of Inglewood Restorations Ltd. in Toronto, any project he tackles must include contingency costs of 30 to 50 per cent to cover issues that crop up.

“I always go into it assuming there will be structural, plumbing and electrical problems,” he says. “If you’re hiring a contractor you need someone who is going to be honest and upfront and not try to promise you the moon during the first meeting. If a price sounds to good to be true it probably is.”

Mernick’s advice is to get at least three quotes from different insured contractors to get a sense of what a project should cost— accounting for everything from materials and labour to licensing and permits, as well as potential problems.

Often home owners don’t have realistic expectations when it comes to the actual cost of a project, adds Toronto-based interior designer Lisa Canning.

“I do a lot of two-hour consultations with people who want to start a kitchen renovation. My first question always is what’s your budget? The response I get is big, glassy eyes. The hadn’t even thought about it,” she says.

Canning says it’s only after a reasonable budget has been established that you can actually starting planning.

“Even if your kitchen budget is small, we can get creative so you can afford a beautiful countertop like stone or marble,” she says, noting that savings could be made by opting for less expensive cabinets instead of custom made.

Doing rudimentary demolition on your own, such as taking down drywall or removing old cabinets with a sledgehammer, is another way to trim a budget, she adds.

But if you still find your dream reno is out of reach after exhausting all your options, both Canning and Mernick advise putting it on hold while you save more money.

“If you’re making your home safe that’s a priority, but if you’re renovating just because you want to there’s no urgency,” Canning says.

Rushing a project may also see you choose cheaper materials and finishes that you’ll later regret and be unsatisfied with, Mernick points out.

“When it comes to making a bathroom pretty, if you’ve got to have Italian marble you’ve got to have it,” he says. “But if you’re patient and do some leg work, you may later find a warehouse that’s selling off what you’re looking for.”

One budgetary area, however, that you should never skimp on is a reputable contractor who can assemble a team of experienced tradespeople.

“Trades are where a project succeeds or fails. You can have the most expensive counters and tiles, but if they’re installed incorrectly they’re going to look bad,” Canning says.


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