Planning Your Project: First Steps Toward Creating a Successful Home Remodeling Project

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Planning Your Project: First Steps Toward Creating a Successful Home Remodeling Project

Congratulations on Your Decision to Remodel Your Home

You are about to undertake an exciting and highly rewarding process. I thank you for considering me to assist you in attaining your goals. I pledge to deliver to you a beautiful design and help you protect you investment and control the construction process to minimize to stress and assure you get what you pay for.

I hope you find this information helpful in creating a truly custom designed home that matches your unique lifestyle.

And I look forward to working with you to get the home you know you deserve.

Setting Reasonable Goals & Expectations

Your job as the homeowner is to set the expectations for the project: the scope of the work, the budget, and the schedule for completing the work. Each of these can affect the other two dramatically.

It helps to put some serious thought into the project before your contractor puts a shovel in the ground, and before the architect puts pencil to paper.

In the early stages of your project, it helps to think more about what you want to accomplish by doing your project, what you do and how you want to feel in the finished spaces rather than focus on the size and number of rooms. There will be time for that later.

Thinking about your project this way will help you to be more aspirational rather than focusing on details before your ready to make those decisions.

That will happen as the design materializes and evolves through discussions we have as part of an iterative design process.

Prioritize Your Goals

It helps to prioritize the elements of your design in case you have to adjust the scope of the project, adjust the budget, or defer some portion of the work to a later date.

• First, ask yourself what this project absolutely has to accomplish for you.

• Then decide what would be great to do, if your budget allows.

• Finally, list those things that would be nice to have, but are not deal breakers, if you exceed your budget.

Keep a Scrapbook

Many of my clients have found it useful to keep a scrap book of ideas they found interesting, including details, finishes, and colors they like and want to incorporate into their projects.

I’m all for that. I think it’s a great way to communicate your goals when you find it difficult to put into words what you are looking for.

Set a Realistic Budget

You may not know what the actual cost of construction will be until you have finished drawings and have selected a contractor. Your opinion about what a project to cost may not align with the opinion of the contractor who is going to do the work. Your opinion of the cost is not a budget, but you probably don’t have an endless supply of money to let your contractor have carte blanche to do (and charge) whatever they want. Fortunately, there are ways to develop a probable cost of construction early in the design.

Square foot estimates are one way to start, however, they can be highly inaccurate. So much depends on what is included in the project, the complexity of the design, the quality of finishes and fixtures, and a whole host of other things.

For instance, a 10-foot by 10-foot room with carpet, a single light in the middle of the room, and two windows will cost less than the same size room with hardwood flooring, several recessed lights in the ceiling, and 4 windows.  The key is to get what you pay for, without compromising the design.

Getting preliminary estimates based on the quality and quantities of key components at several points during the development of the design is another.

Have a Contingency in Your Budget

Include a contingency in your budget for the unexpected, especially when adding on to or remodeling an existing home. Nobody can reasonably see everything that’s happening behind your walls.

With a contingency in your budget for the unexpected, you are able to keep the contractor building, rather than stopping the construction while you seek financing options or consider reducing the scope of your project. And at some point, you get to decide what “nice to have” elements you can spend the unspent contingency on once the true costs of the project are known.

The unknown factors in remodeling and the need to document the existing home that your addition will be attached to may increase the cost per square foot of your project compared to designing and constructing a new building, but will typically save some money in the long run by re-using existing major elements. Often the best design solutions come from developing a creative solutions to difficult existing conditions.

Arrange Financing

It’s never to early to start thinking about how much your project will cost, how much you can afford, what the market will bear in your neighborhood, or how you are going to pay for your project.

There are many options to financing your construction project. You may even decide to use a combination of financing methods, depending on your circumstances. You should consider the tax consequences and loan fees involved in each when you make the decision that’s right for you.

Financing Options

Here’s a very brief description of options to financing your project. You should work with your accountant and tax advisor to help you make the right decision for you.

Home Equity Loan

A home equity loan is a second mortgage, typically limited to 85% of the value of your home. 

Construction Loan

You get to shop for a mortgage lender while construction is being completed. With this two- time-close loan, you will pay closing costs a second time when you take out a mortgage.

Renovation Loan

Like a new construction loan, except, you borrow against the expected value of the renovated home.

Hybrid Loan (Construction-to-Permanent)

When construction is complete, your loan will be converted into a traditional mortgage. With a construction-to-permanent loan, you’ll pay closing costs once and get to lock in your mortgage interest rate.

Personal Loan

An unsecured loan, not guaranteed by your home. Typically, between $1,000 and $50,000, over 5 to 30 years.

End Loan

The builder takes on the costs of constructing your new home. When it’s complete, you buy the finished home from the builder with a mortgage.


No interest, fees of charges. Depletes your reserves. If you can afford it, this is the best way to go.

Credit Cards

A tricky way to finance home renovations, and one that requires attention and maintenance. But may be useful if yo need to make funds available quickly (and temporarily).

Check Out the Comps

Your budget should consider the value of your house before the work is done and the value it will have after the work is completed compared to comparable homes in your neighborhood.

A local realtor can help you value your future home by comparing it to other similar houses in your area. Chances are a bank will consider “comps” in determining how much they are willing to lend to you. Online services like are another option.

Consider other factors when looking at comps, such as how long you plan to stay in the house and the effect of construction costs have on your mortgage payments and increased property taxes.

Also consider how much value your type of project (kitchen, family room, bedroom, etc.) immediately adds to the value of your home or alternately, how much less your house is worth if you didn’t do that work before it comes time to sell. 

Set a Schedule with a Deadline

Of the three factors to consider in doing any type of construction project – scope, budget, and schedule – schedule is often the least considered in residential projects. But ask anyone doing commercial projects if they don’t think that time equals money.

But more importantly for the beginning stages of a project, your project won’t become real until you set a start and completion date for them. Having an actual anticipated completion date helps you see the light at the end of the tunnel and keeps you focused on the results.

When you sign a contract for construction, the contractor is required by law to include a start date and an estimated completion date in their contract (along with some other important information I’ll talk about in another blog). You should set those dates for yourself based on your expectations. For instance, you might have to have the project completed by an important family event.

During construction, your architect can help keep the contractor accountable to the agreed upon budget and the schedule, while making sure their work is done in an acceptable, workmanlike manner, that is, meeting your expectations.

Check the Zoning Requirements

Every municipality sets their own limits on how much of your property can be covered by buildings or hard paved surfaces. And this can vary from zone to zone within a town.

Even if you are building an addition straight up, you should check to see if your existing home complies with the local zoning regulations. Some towns will let you build straight up, even though your existing home doesn’t comply with the current zoning requirements, without having to get a zoning approval. Others will require that the second floor comply with the current setback requirements.  

You should note that your property boundary lines are rarely ever at the curb, or at a fence or wall. So, a recent copy of your property survey is essential to determine the “buildable area” on your lot. Check to see if you have an original survey attached to your closing documents from when you purchased your home.  Some towns will let you use older surveys, as long as nothing significant has been added.

Consider How a Zoning Variance Would Improve the Project

While I’ve never had a project fail to receive a variance, I prefer to design projects that don’t need any zoning approvals, if that’s possible. But it is not always possible. And it may be worth applying for a zoning variance if the design will solve a specific site issue and make your project better overall in the long run and more responsive to your individual needs and goals.

We help you decide if a good case can be made for why strict compliance with the zoning regulations is not technically feasible, and why the project would not adversely affect your neighbors’ peaceful enjoyment of their own property.

Typically, a Zoning variance request is made after the Preliminary Design is set, and way before the Construction Documents are completed. It’s a good idea to determine whether you will need one before getting too far into a project, and before the design has too much information unrelated to zoning. “A confused mind doesn’t buy (or approve your application).”

Arrange for a Survey

If your current survey is more than a few years old, some towns may require a new survey before you submit plans for permits and approvals. Other towns are more lenient, as long as the property hasn’t changed too much since your last survey.

Most towns will require the property to be surveyed again once the new foundation is built to assure the finished home will comply with the zoning requirements before the framing of the project begins. This second survey is typically not necessary if your addition is vertical and within the “footprint” of your existing home. But if it’s not, you should consider including this second “as built” survey when negotiating a fee with your surveyor.  We can help you find a surveyor if you need one.

If you are on a sloping site, on or near a coastline, or have easements on your land, you may need more than a simple “metes and bounds” (property lines) survey.

Consider Special Environmental Factors

Find out if your property is in a flood zone, a high velocity tidal area, located on a steep slope, or in a specially designated land use zone, like the Highlands, the Pine Barrens, or along the Jersey Shore. You may have to get additional State and County approvals in addition to town approvals. And you will probably need to hire a site or civil engineer for help on these types projects. We help you all along the process of finding the right engineer for your project.

Plan to Minimize Stress

Construction projects can be stressful. We help you deal with that stress, but there are some things you can do for yourself to maintain your sanity during construction. Take control of your project and stress will be kept to a minimum.

Set up clear lines of communication.

Set “office hours” for phone calls with the contractor so you can deal with things on your schedule, not theirs.

Tell the contractor how you’d like to control or restrict access to your house and set hours of operation that work within your schedule and comfort zone. 

We help you outline these requirements as part of our design drawings and construction administration process.

Plan on Moving Out When Things Get Hairy

If your house will become uninhabitable during any part of the construction, plan on moving out, at least during the messiest, most hectic portion of the construction. And include the costs associated with moving out and the scheduling of getting kids to school, commuting, eating out, doing laundry, etc. in your calculations.

Many clients have had good luck in finding temporary housing through private rentals or extended stay hotels.

Some have a second house, a family retreat, or plan on going away on vacation during those times when staying in a house without running water and electricity becomes unbearable. 

Consider Offering a Bonus for Finishing Early

Most contractors doing residential construction won’t agree to a penalty clause for not finishing on time (despite their obligation to include an estimated completion date in their contracts), but most would probably agree to a bonus for finishing early. Make sure you consider the alternative costs we talked about in the last section.

Reliable contractors know how to schedule a project, and will be more inclined to estimate the schedule accurately and will keep to their schedule. They know you want the project done, and they want to move on to the next project after helping you get across the finish line successfully. A bonus could be a great way to incentivize them to finish early.

Consider Phasing Your Project

Another strategy to controlling construction costs is to phase the project.

Phasing may allow you to stay you in the home as long as possible, moving into the new portions of the house while the contractor remodels the existing parts.

Phasing may also allow you to defer portions of your project until your financial situation changes.

Phasing could help you better understand what work may have to be done to “remodel your remodel” at some future date.

Phasing a project may ultimately cost more in dollars and cents, but may make the most sense in helping you live a more stress-free life. And, believe me, that is worth a lot!

Have Some Places to Go

Make sure you have plenty of places to go and things to do to get away from the stress. Plan on eating out a little more often. Visit a museum. Take a class at the local college or art school. Whatever you like to do can be your way to escape from living inside a construction job site, even if just for a little while.

Call Me If You Have Any Questions

I hope you have found these tips helpful in clarifying how to begin the process. Remember, I’m here to help you along the way from setting to achieving your goals.

Set goals. Set a budget. Set a schedule. Check your zoning. Arrange financing. Plan to keep stress to a minimum. Consider phasing.

If you’re ready to begin the process or if you just have a few questions, please go to my public calendar ( and set up a time so we can talk. Or call me at 908-272-6000. I look forward to assisting you to realize your “Forever Home.”

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