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This Old House
A step-by-step guide to tackling a whole-house remodel


May 2017

From kitchens and bathrooms to master suites and basements, many people are choosing to remodel their entire home instead of moving to a new one. But converting an existing house into a dream home can easily turn into a contracted nightmare that drains your savings and drags on for months. Before you rent the dumpster, you better have a plan. We asked local industry professionals for their step-by-step guide to tackling a whole-house remodel.

Meet the Pros:

Michael Wade (MW) — owner, Wade Design & Construction Inc.

Ron Klassen (RK) — principal and lead designer, Wallner Builders

Mike Slawnikowski (MS) — owner, M Design Build

Diane Wellhouse (DW) — executive director, Milwaukee NARI

Deron Butler (DB) — founder and principal architect, Joseph Douglas Homes

Matt Retzak (MR) — project designer and coordinator, Bartelt. The Remodeling Resource

First thing’s first. Who is a whole-home remodel best suited for?

MW: People who tackle a whole-home remodel generally fall into two categories. First, there is the owner who has been in the house for a while and loves the location, schools, neighbors, mature trees, and all of the things that made them fall in love with their house to begin with. All that is left to complete the dream is the house. A whole-house remodel gives them that. The other group consists of new owners of a house that has seen better days but is in a great setting. Work can be done before the move-in to re-create the house to offer the feel and amenities of a new house.

Step 1: List and prioritize.

RK: Make a list of what you want to do and why. Prioritize the list in case the budget isn’t enough to cover the whole scope. Get everyone who’s involved to agree to the list. Consider and list any issue that is causing difficulty — tight spaces, too little lighting, insufficient natural lighting, too hot or too cold in the space, etc. Get it all on the table. Then put it in front of a design professional. We’re always happy to give someone a ballpark on the investment and some thoughts on what they should consider. We’d rather help someone “get real” early on than see him or her get into a jam later.

Step 2: Set a budget. 

MS: Develop a rough budget. Think about the amount of money you want to spend on your remodeling project. While you can’t be expected to know what a remodel will actually cost, once you identify your budget it will help you be more realistic about what you want versus what your investment will get you. It’s best to take the approach of successive approximation. We like to have an initial meeting with the client to discuss goals, their wish list and their budget. We then have a second meeting to discuss an estimated cost range based on our previous discussion and their dream project. The third step is to hire an architect, make selections and conduct a project walk-through. From the information gathered from the walk-through, subcontractor input and client selections, a contract price is developed. Clients should also figure in 10 to 20 percent for unforeseen issues that may arise or “as long as you’re here” allowances. And don’t forget to budget for alternate living arrangements during the project.

Step 3: Find a contractor.

DW: Find two or three contractors whose work you like and read the statements on their websites. Set up a meeting and interview them and loosely discuss the project. A good fit for you is someone you like and trust and who will advocate for you.

Note that good contractors are also interviewing homeowners. The relationship is a two-way street. If the contractor doesn’t feel the homeowner is a good fit for their business, work style and process, they may politely decline the project.

Things to look for are if they are members of industry-specific organizations like the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), how long have they been in business, do they have a website (and confirm the project pictures shown on their website are their work and not that of a manufacturer or supplier partner). Check if they have industry-specific education or certifications, required licenses, insurance and samples of work they have done on projects similar to yours. And make sure they have a process they can describe, with contacts and contracts for each stage.

Step 4: Break ground, practice patience and consider alternative living arrangements.

Where is the best place to begin the work?

DB: Begin with the most visible areas and the areas that will most disrupt normal living in the house. Start with the kitchen, dinette and family room. Then move on to the master suite improvements, and finally, things like secondary baths and other living areas like basements.

How long will the project take?

MW: The duration of a whole-home project really depends on several things — like the age of the home, construction type, scope of the project, whether the owner is living in the house at the time, etc. Most of our projects are completed to the point of being livable in six to 10 months, meaning the kitchen and bathrooms are operable, the floors are finished, finish carpentry is complete, and most of the painting is completed. Sometimes there are a few minor elements outstanding and are being completed as quickly as possible. A project may take more or less time, as there are many variables.

What advice do you have for surviving the construction phase?

MW: It is a better situation for all involved if the owner lives elsewhere during construction. However, if the owner is going to live in the house, a small living space can be maintained throughout the duration of the project. Set up temporary kitchens, so cooking can still be done during construction. Dust control and cleanliness are probably most important. Zipper doors, HEPA air cleaners and frequent cleaning can all make a difference.

MR: Living in the home during a whole-home remodel can add time and money to a project. For example, a plumber may need to come back several times to accommodate the living needs of the homeowners rather than being able to rip everything out at once.

DB: We always suggest that owners vacate the home during construction, but this rarely happens. Those who leave homes have a much better remodeling experience. Those who decide to stay are inconvenienced for months, which tends to wear on even the most gentle of souls and puts unnecessary and unproductive pressure on the general contractor as well.

What will the project cost?

MR: Generally $200 per square foot is a great average. If you’re looking to touch the entire house, you can expect the remodel to cost around the same as a new home.

RK: In our world, we develop specs and a budget around the client’s wishes and look for multiple ways to solve their issues. Seriously, there are so many variables — which rooms are included, size of those rooms, scope of work, finish levels. It’s probably wise to assume it’s going to start at $100,000 and go up from there. There’s almost no limit to the possibilities.

Remodeling with an eye to resale? Here’s a list of do’s and don’ts from Instyle Homes’ Director Hannah Boyd.

1. Overall, go for a timeless look in both fixtures and finishes and make any work match the character of the original house.

2. Paint colors: Look at the light in your room and work with colors that set a perfect backdrop. A warm gray or beige works every time.

3. Flooring: Hardwood is the best choice. If you have a large space, use wider boards. Use custom stain, but not too orange, too dark or too shiny. Stay in a chocolate palette with a dark tint patina. White oak is also a solid choice.

4. Fixtures and hardware: Although gold is having a small comeback, stay away from shiny gold or silver. For a timeless look go with rubbed bronze or another dark metal.

5. Kitchen: Painted shaker-style cabinets with a wide border are timeless. They have been the choice of English farmhouses for centuries and never look dated. Granite or quartz countertops add value to a kitchen, but keep in the light coloring palette with minimal veining and movement. Nothing too busy.

6. Bathrooms: Always go with glass doors instead of shower curtains and add a double sink whenever possible. Don’t go wild with decorative accent tiles. Keep them simple and neutral. For added visual interest, you can lay out the tile in a way that adds character, such as in a herringbone pattern.

Common Mistakes

We also asked our interviewees to weigh in on the biggest mistakes people make when entering a whole-house remodel.

MW: The biggest mistake you can make is underestimating the cost. Hand in hand with that is “scope creep.” The five most expensive words in remodeling are: “While we are at it ...” My best advice is to make a great plan (including the financial plan) and stick to it. That being said, be sure to allow for contingencies, because they will arise. There are many hidden conditions in houses that may come to light after demo. You will need funds to deal with them. The items may include structural concerns created by a previous remodel that do not satisfy current code, or electrical or mechanical work exposed during demo that no longer meets code.

RK: Misjudgment of reality is probably the greatest pitfall. TV shows depict projects happening virtually overnight, and some give ridiculously low values for the investment needed. Sometimes that leads to unrealistic expectations of the project in terms of time and money. It hurts to burst someone’s bubble — yet reality can be a real shock, unfortunately.

DB: Updating for resale. The best remodeling projects only recuperate 50 cents on the dollar. Remodeling is best justified if the buyer is staying the in home for several years, in which they can enjoy (the improvements) while modestly increasing resale value.


This story ran in the May 2017 issue of: