We liked everything about our neighborhood—the schools, the ability to walk to town, the dozens of nearby playdates. But the house, a 1902 Victorian, was another matter. While brimming with old-world charm, it was impractical for our family of four. We were doing more laundry than ever in the musty, unfinished basement. Our secondfloor bathroom was sorely dated. The kitchen and dining room were cramped. We thought about moving, but with real-estate prices creeping up, renovating made more sense financially and would allow us to stay on our beloved street. Still, we knew that renovations require carefull planning to handle the process safely—and with your sanity intact.
When done correctly, renovating a house can be a wise investment. On average, you can expect to get back around 62 percent of what you put into a home-improvement project. But some projects tend to see a higher return than others. For example, you might recover more than three-quarters of your investment for a minor kitchen remodel or for building an attic bedroom, according to the industry magazine Remodeling.
However, renovating your family home isn’t just about money—it also gives you the chance to create a space that suits your family’s needs both now and into the future (such as creating a play area that converts into a teen hangout space). That’s helpful considering the average owner spends 13 years in one place.
While contractors can help make a variety of decisions, it’s important to come to the table armed with information. At the very least, you should have a general idea of the budget and of what you are looking to gain from the remodel before reaching out to a contractor. When deciding what projects are best for your home consider what you love about your current space, what it’s lacking, and what your family needs long-term.
Once you have an idea of what you want, it’s time to start searching for a local contractor. For major renovations and additions you’ll need a trusted expert to advise you on items like whether adding square footage is a possibility or if you must work within your existing footprint (as we did).
When you find a contractor that appears to be a good fit for your project and your family, you can go to contractors-license.org to see if the candidate is licensed in your state, and check the Better Business Bureau for complaints. Don’t be afraid to ask potential contractors for references, to call them, and to schedule a preemptive meeting. Inquire about the contractor’s average project timelines, their communication process, and examples of their previous work.
Beyond having building skills, remodeling with a family means that the person you hire must also be sympathetic to the challenges of remodeling a home while kids are living in it. You shouldn’t hesitate to question a prospective contractor about their safety practices.
While working in your home contractors should be willing to remove all tools at the end of each day. At the least, equipment should be stacked out of the way (and out of the reach of young kids), explains Art Donnelly, former chairman of the board of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. You can even request that your contractor set up temporary walls to shield your kids from the work site and reduce the amount of dust filtering into your living quarters.
If your house was built prior to 1978, check that your contractor is certified to work around lead-based paint and will use a HEPA vacuum to clean the site. Finally, request that he or she use paint and primers that are low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and pose fewer health risks to your family.
Throughout the process, you can also take extra safety measures, including reminding your kids regularly which areas are off-limits. "One of our rules was to always wear closed-toe footwear in the house," says Stephen Shoup, who lived in his house in San Rafael, California, with his wife and then 4-year-old daughter during a six-month, whole-house renovation. That's sound thinking: Even if your contractor sweeps up carefully every day, they could easily miss a stray nail or a glass shard.
Once you’ve settled on a contractor, the real fun can begin! At this stage, you may also be working with a designer or an architect to finalize the remodeling plan. Make sure to weigh your budget during this time and discuss cost versus value trade-offs, such as whether it’s better to have extra cabinet space or more windows. Since adding square footage is expensive, you’ll also want to consider the importance of making changes to the footprint of your home during this time.
It’s often best to make as many decisions as possible during the early remodeling stages and to stick with them. “Late-stage changes can kill your budget and sap the energy of your work crew,” says Michael Litchfield, author of Renovation 4th Edition.
When it comes to finalizing the budget, it’s best to get an accurate estimate as soon as possible. During a site visit, local contractors can work to provide a rough estimate on what various projects run in your area. Meet with your top three contractors and have each submit a proposal and estimate. Then compare them line by line. In general, you can expect to spend $20,000 to $30,000 on a mid-range kitchen renovation and $5,000 to $13,000 for a bathroom remodel.
But remember, while cost is definitely a factor it’s not the only element to consider. "When we scrutinized the bids, we found that the higher one covered more of the detailed work we wanted done, and we wound up picking it," says New York City mom Lesley Alderman, who recently had her kitchen renovated.
Ultimately, you’ll receive a contract that details the scope of work and the cost, including an “allowance” for materials you haven’t selected yet (such as bathroom tiles or kitchen cabinets), line items for permits and insurance, a payment schedule, and a warranty, ideally covering three to five years from completion. Read the agreement carefully, and don’t be afraid to request any changes.
To reduce the stress of an unnecessarily long renovation, every remodel, no matter how small, should have a timetable. A solid timeline can also take you down a quicker path to completion. For families, that’s critical. There’s no underestimating how hard it is dealing with prolonged work in a house with children.
Of course you should also be prepared for factors such as bad weather or an unexpected surprise behind the walls that can cause delays and expand costs. But if these situations occur, a contractor can give you an updated schedule so that you can prepare accordingly.
Once you receive the timeline, it’s time to weigh your options. If your project is large in scope, you might want to consider moving in with relatives (if it’s an option). "A job that takes 20 weeks could be finished in 16 if you move out," says Donnelly. Taking a vacation during the renovation is also a smart idea, provided you've planned accordingly and made every decision ahead of time.
But even if you opt to stay put—as most families do—a renovation can go remarkably smooth. Just ask Glenn and Ligia Rodriguez, parents of a 4-year-old, who had their kitchen and two bathrooms renovated in only three weeks. "We started choosing the fixtures and selecting the tiles and grout and appliances months in advance, so that when the contractor arrived we were ready to go," says Glenn, of Greenwich, Connecticut.
Provided you've done your homework, watching your vision come to life can be an exciting experience. And once the temporary state of chaos recedes, you'll have a more comfortable, personalized space that makes the weeks (if not months) of dirty floors and microwaved meals worth it.