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Staying on Budget : The Experts Tell How to Remodel Without Going Bankrupt

July 08, 1990

Whether considering cosmetic changes or a major renovation, homeowners must match lofty desires--French doors, fancy bath fixtures, imported tiles--with their financial bottom line. Horror stories of a $10,000 kitchen redo becoming a $45,000 nightmare are legion. Here, experts tell how to keep renovation budgets from spinning out of control.

BRET PARSONS

Executive director, Los Angeles Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers

Double the time and double the budget, and that will give you a close indication of what you're in for . . . but it doesn't have to be that way. One of the most important ways you can keep costs down is to ask yourself why you want what you want. Many people are caught up with status symbols such as marble kitchen counters and professional stoves. The only utilitarian purpose for marble in a kitchen is as a pastry slab. Rarely do people realize that they may have to hire a structural engineer to shore up the floor because professional stoves can weigh over 1,000 pounds. A good designer will know there are alternatives--Jenn-Air or KitchenAid--which are more than just "stoves as appliances" but not necessarily restaurant-level.

SALLY SIRKIN LEWIS

Interior designer, Los Angeles

Whether it's $50,000 or $5 million, everyone has a budget. The first things you need are accurate plans and specifications. Once everything is determined, do not deviate. What happens is that people make changes, and that's when contractors' fees kill you. Also, a lot of people remodel as they go along. That's the worst thing you can do.

WILLIAM TAYLOR

General contractor, Santa Monica

Don't trust anyone; don't even trust me. Get everything down in writing. If you are specific and it's in black and white, there's no room for error. Contractors make additional money on what's called "extras," which are added on later. Also, when a contractor bids on a job, he will very often spec in the cheapest item--the cheapest window, door and tile--to come in with a low bid. If you're specific and call out a double-hung Anderson window, he's not going to put in a price for a much cheaper aluminum one. Budget your money on materials because labor costs are the same no matter what you use. It takes the same amount of work to put in a $60 Price Pfister faucet as a $500 one from Dornbracht.

JARRETT HEDBORG

Interior designer, Sherman Oaks

Watch "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House," the 1948 film (remade in 1986 as "The Money Pit") featuring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, who discover their "dream house" in Connecticut. Loy gives a wonderful soliloquy that explains how budgets go over when she requests her contractor install a few pieces of slate on her flower-cutting-room floor. He ends up having to lower the foundation, and his big bill follows. One of my clients went over budget by falling in love with a pretty but costly--it was $35 a square foot--bathroom tile. She let me do whatever I wanted in her son's bathroom, however, so I used American Olean in a creative way for $3 a square foot, and she ended up preferring her son's bathroom. Sometimes a good designer has a better chance of staying within the budget with less help from clients. Style is a look, not a price.

RAYMOND L. GAIO, AIA

President, Los Angeles Chapter of the American Institute of Architects

Hiring a design professional for five hours at $100-plus an hour or even 10 hours for $1,000 is a lot better than paying 50% over budget later. But I don't believe this routine of always going over budget. If you have a base and set of priorities--a must list and a want list--you should not be 50% over budget. The base list is things you must do--all the wiring, plumbing, roofing. The second list is for wants: Be sure to prioritize them. If you install an expensive wood floor and wind up laying carpet, it's a waste of money. Good design isn't just aesthetics. If you design properly, that saves money, too.

VAN-MARTIN ROWE

Architectural and interior designer, Pasadena

Trust your designer to get the most for your budget and ask to see work of a similar scope. Trouble begins when clients go shopping with their designer. I once had a client who fell hard for a $2,000 tub spout when he had budgeted $500. To avoid this sort of thing, couples should delegate authority so that one partner has responsibility for one area, say the kitchen, and the other has another area. When there are too many bosses, it's difficult to get decisions made. Delayed decisions cost money.

JIM GIBSON

Restoration consultant, Chula Vista

Consider spending a certain amount of money to do exploratory surgery--taking out portions of walls and flooring. Contractors, especially in restoration work, will bid high to cover themselves for the "unknowns." But if you have done your homework, you can be specific when you request a bid--"replace three studs in the bathroom suffering from dry rot"--and this accurate bid won't mushroom later.

JOAN MOSELEY, ASID

Interior designer, Pasadena

There's a certain amount of consciousness-raising on the part of designers to tell clients how much things really cost. People invest heavily--financially and emotionally--in their homes. If someone wants a high-quality job but has an unrealistic budget, I advise them to have a good overall plan to let them know exactly where they're going, and then to do part of it now (the right way) and wait until they have the wherewithal to do the rest.

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