Remodel Your Home — and Stay Within Budget!

I’m always looking for new ways to save money – mainly because there are so many things I like to spend it on. So when my husband and I decided to renovate our house, we also decided to pay for designer services. Sound contrary? Surprisingly, it’s not: Investing a few hundred dollars on a one-time consultation allowed us to save thousands down the road.

A few years ago, we bought our dream house, complete with an outdated kitchen and unfinished basement. We knew renovations could be a nightmare, so we decided to meet with a designer to make sure we weren’t making any expensive or timely mistakes.

Yes, interior design services are a luxury. Having someone fully run your project is an expensive proposition. But many firms offer multiple ways to tap into their resources and ideas for a set fee that can easily be factored into your budget. This can save you a lot in the long run.

Enter Natalie Hodgins of Sarah Richardson Design, a local design agency in Toronto. Armed with pictures and magazine clippings, paint chips and fabric samples (yep, some work is involved on your end, too), I set off to the beautiful, downtown Toronto offices of Sarah Richardson Design to brainstorm and plan for more than two hours. Natalie quickly pointed out that unless we changed the kitchen layout, I’d have to choose between being able to open my oven or my dishwasher. (Generally I’m happy to avoid both, but not because of a construction error.) This oversight on my part was fixed just ten minutes into the meeting. So for the cost of a few paint cans (um … okay, and an inexpensive IKEA ottoman or two), our mini-consultation with Natalie was worth every penny. Recently I sat down with her again, joined this time by designer Kate Stuart of the same design firm, to chat about ways to use the words “house renos” and “economical” in the same sentence with a straight face. Here’s what they had to say:

  • Have a quickie

    If full-service design services aren’t in the budget (and for many people, they’re simply not), consider meeting a designer for a partial consultation along the way. There are different levels of consultations to consider, so determine your needs first, then be sure to budget for it. If you are doing a living room re-decoration, you probably just need one consultation. However, if it’s a complete house build or re-build, you may want to budget for four consultations throughout the process, starting with a visit with the architect, one to discuss hard surfaces (like windows, doors, and floors), another for soft surfaces (this includes drapery, carpeting, fabrics, etc) and maybe the last one for finishing touches. Keep your expectations realistic. A designer cannot makeover your entire home in a two-hour meeting. Once you’ve set up a time to meet, consider bringing a video camera to your consultation so you can refer back to it.

  • Do your homework

    Interview designers before deciding to consult with one. Get clear guidelines on what you will be billed for, how long the session will last, and whether they offer discounts on goods they sell you. Some designers don’t bill hourly but instead will sell you goods – which you may be required to purchase from them – at an increased cost. Others bill hourly, but also pass on their designer discounts to you. In the end, figure out which option suits you best based on the amount of goods you may need to purchase, coupled with whether you have moderate or high-end tastes.

  • Think of the big picture

    Liken your home design plan to an outfit: You’re not going to randomly put a red dress and green tights and a purple purse together and expect that they will all go together. You need to slow down, reflect, and devise a cohesive whole. And don’t get discouraged if you can’t distinguish between modern chairs and traditional chairs. It helps to do your research through magazines, TV shows, blogs, and websites six months before your project is set to start. And as you do, you’ll see patterns emerging. This is an especially great exercise for people who don’t think they know what their style is: As you clip and bookmark images, your taste will emerge. It’s innate; you sometimes just need to find a way to bring it out. This style montage will also be helpful to refer back to throughout your project to ensure that your original vision is maintained.

  • Invite your real estate agent over

    Real estate agents are a great resource. They can tell you what projects are worth the investment in your house, and where your funds would be best allocated if you’re renovating now with plans to sell later. They know what types of kitchens and bathrooms are popular in your neighborhood. Don’t worry about imposing – most realtors will be happy to do this, as it helps build a relationship with homeowners. Plus, this service is free!

  • Budget, really budget

    Figure out how much money you have to spend. Before you can decide where to splurge and where to save, you need to educate yourself on what everything costs. Sit down and make a budget, right down to your $10 knobs. If you need 50 knobs, that’s $500 dollars! So make a list of what you want to do along with a list of items you’ll need. Also, consider unexpected factors: Was your house built before 1950, or is it considered a new build? Expenses may vary based on the age of your house – these could include, but are certainly not limited to, major upgrades to windows, roofs, plumbing, electrical, and even occasional foundational shifts. The next step? Accepting that nothing comes in on- or under-budget. Generally, the rule is to budget for 10% over-budget, but even that’s a conservative amount.

  • Splurge on paint

    As the saying goes, buy the best, and you only cry once! Parents, your renovations are not for naught: There are washable paints out there. If you have three kids, two dogs and a busy household, go for the pricier, washable paint for obvious reasons. That way when you get the inevitable nicks and marks over the years, you can just wash it off. Additionally, if you are going for a richer color, the coverage with pricier paints is superior and you may only need two coats rather than three. Talk to employees at your local paint store – let them know what room it’s for and how much use it will get. Never spend a lot on ceiling paint: It’s generally a light color anyway (white, green, blue) and is left undisturbed once up. Consider splurging on the trim. You may decide to change your wall colors later on, but you generally won’t have to change the trim color, too.

  • Don’t scrimp on the kitchen counter

    When it comes to kitchen renovations, the counter is more important than your appliances. Yes, you read that correctly. Absolutely splurge on this one. Given the choice, allocate your funds for the perfect counter to fit your needs – quartz, for example, is a high-quality, durable option. Consider dipping into your appliance budget if need be. After all, your counters will outlast any appliance. When purchasing a stone counter, keep in mind that there are no deals out there. There are a few tricks to keep price down like selecting a simple edge profile, or doing a 3/4-inch edge. You can also consider a partial stone combined with a butcher block.

    Using a designer is not just for the wealthy. There are approachable designers mindful of all types of budgets. Sometimes you need to see what you are good at and relinquish control of the rest. If you’re passionate and well-informed about materials or color groupings, for example, your input will be invaluable. However, the more you listen to your designer, the smoother the project should run, resulting in lower overall costs – and a (relatively) stress-free renovation process.

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