One aspect of any renovation project that's absolutely the key to a decent (or at least not horrendous) experience is organization. The more planning you do, the less likely you are to be surprised--and if you've ever been through a project before, you'll know that surprises on the job are rarely pleasant.
The route to a happy outcome starts even before you first call a contractor to look at a job. Write down what it is you want done--every single thing, even if it's as simple and obvious as putting wall outlets back in the same places. This is called writing a specification, and it's the basis for all of your future understandings with the contractor. So it needs to be precise.
Don't worry about technical language, just be as clear as you can.
If you saw something in a magazine you like--an interesting wall angle or a particular faucet--cut out the picture and include it with your "spec." If you can draw, or have a computer program that draws for you, by all means include a sketch.
Think everything through. If you're having plumbing or wiring done, workers may have to make holes in walls or floors. Make sure you know who will repair them. (Typically, this is up to the contractor, but you need to spell it out so he--and you--can budget the time and materials to do the work.)
Once you have your spec in order, copy it and give a copy to each contractor who is bidding the job. This way you can be sure every contractor is bidding on exactly the same work. You can't rely on your memory to make precisely the same presentation to each bidder, and giving them identical specifications is the only way you can accurately compare the bids.
They will probably all suggest changes. Make sure to write down who said what, and keep it with your files.
Remember that the more information you provide, the better the bids will be. A contractor's estimate may actually be lower if he knows exactly what he's expected to do. If a contractor is not sure about something, he may factor in the most expensive option, just to be on the safe side.
Once the project has begun, you can help it run smoothly by making sure work is scheduled in an organized way.
Here's an example: Randy's current project is turning a previously empty basement into a living suite for the homeowner's 21-year-old son. The specs call for a bedroom, living room, bath and two closets.
He used a computer program called "3D Home Architect" from Broderbund Software Inc. to draw a simple sketch of the basement. The program was able to draw furniture in the new rooms so the customer could visualize how, for instance, a queen-size bed would fit in the bedroom. Once the customer had accepted the layout, the plan became a page of the contract.
Randy scheduled the electricians for the Monday morning after he finished the framing. When the electricians arrived at 9 a.m., the basement had been swept and organized. This particular electrical crew is a three-generation, family-owned business with a senior citizen who keeps the truck and materials organized, two middle-age brothers and a son, all of whom work well together.
Randy handed them a plan with all of the outlets detailed, so they could get right to work, without having to come back and ask questions. Randy went upstairs to do some other work.
By lunchtime, they had finished running all the wires and had several lights working, so the basement was a much brighter place to work. That's amazingly fast for wiring three rooms and a hallway. And when they left, the electricians took their copy of the plan to make up the bill for the completed work.
What made the difference was the plan: Everybody was able to work faster and smarter because the project was spelled out clearly from the beginning.
Having said that, we should probably also say that a certain amount of chaos slips into any project.
While planning and organization can make things run more smoothly, flexibility is what will keep you sane. But that's another story.