Home & Garden

It’s Always a Good Time to Remodel

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There’s a lot that goes into remodeling your home, and it’s important to make sure it’s done right the first time. Here are some of the things you can expect during the process and some of the best questions to ask when getting started.

When a room no longer fits a family’s lifestyle, that’s a good time to look into remodeling, says Lynn Havlicek, of Geneva Cabinet Gallery.

So, you think you’re ready to remodel. You’ve had enough of that honey-oak cabinetry. Your oversized bathtub is forsaken. You want a kitchen that fits your growing family.

But are you ready for what’s to come? Are you ready to shop for a remodeler? Are you ready to select new materials and color schemes? Are you prepared to invest several months and a few thousand dollars working through design, demolition and construction on some of the most-used spaces of your home?

OK, take a breath.

There’s a lot to consider before jumping into a remodel, but with the right experts by your side, the job can be managed easily. Remodeling experts around our region have spent decades walking through this process day in and day out. They’ve seen challenges and encountered surprises. And, they’ve left hundreds of happy homeowners raving about their refreshed homes.

Before you jump into a remodeling job, equip yourself with the proper questions and tools to get it done right the first time.

When to Act

There’s one question on Bob McDowell’s mind when he first meets a client: What’s your pain?

“Maybe something has failed, or your family has increased in size,” says McDowell, co-owner of McDowell Remodeling, in St. Charles. “Or maybe there’s an inconvenience.”

Often, that inconvenience has interfered long enough with the family’s lifestyle. McDowell’s family-owned firm is currently updating a bathroom for an older couple.

“It’s too big; it’s almost dangerous for them,” he says. “We’re going to make the shower smaller and add grab bars.”

Bathtubs are a common point of conversation for Dave Wegner and Megan Lebar, designers at Blue Ribbon Millwork, in Woodstock. More and more, they’re hearing from clients who want to rip out that oversized bathtub that was so popular in the ’80s and ’90s.

“One customer told me, ‘It’s our dirty clothes hamper,’” says Wegner.

It’s not unusual for clients to hesitate. As much as it’s exciting, remodeling is scary, too.

“Sometimes, you just have to do it, even if it’s on a lower budget. Otherwise, it’s decades later and you’re just getting around to it,” says Lebar. “Clients often tell me they are finally renovating after raising their kids and putting them through college. I think sometimes, you just have to find the excuse to say, ‘We’re going to enjoy this for decades, so how do we update this space so it works for us?’”

It’s tempting to make an update just before moving, to make a home even more marketable, but Lebar encourages clients to act earlier.

“When you plan to sell the house in five years, it’s a great time to renovate so that you have time to enjoy it,” she says.

For Lynn Havlicek’s clients at Geneva Cabinet Gallery, in Geneva, the biggest source of “pain” is the layout of a kitchen or bathroom. It could be that it’s too small or cramped, or it could be that a peninsula is disrupting the movement of people.

“Changing your kitchen can change the way your daily life works in your house,” she says. “That’s what everybody tells me. And it does.”

Starting Your Homework

Now that you’re ready, it’s time to do some research. Seek out expert advice, ask your friends, and brush up on some home remodeling television. Look for pictures of beautiful kitchens, and save your favorite images. But take everything with a degree of skepticism. Things aren’t always what they appear to be.

“You should be looking for ideas from TV shows and Houzz.com, places like that,” says Havlicek. “Those are more for ideas, not necessarily for advice. Get recommendations for a designer. One of our major resources of new customers is word-of-mouth from past customers.”

Be careful what you see on TV. Plenty of shows tell you the cost of a project, but those numbers are misleading. Not only are materials and labor costs in the Chicago area different from those in Texas or Canada, where many television shows are taped, but there are also hidden costs to know about.

“HGTV tells you the cost, but sponsorships and freebies factor in, so the real cost may be much more than they tell you,” says Stacy Thomas, designer at McDowell Remodeling. “Most of the cost they’re showing you is labor.”

Before you set in, it’s also important to know where your priorities lie. Knowing in advance what’s most urgent will help to make the most of your budget.

“What do you want to see changed in your kitchen or bathroom?” asks Lebar. “Do you want to take out the kitchen peninsula to make room for an island where family and guests can hang out? Do you want to remove a bathroom tub to make space for a shower with a bench seat, and then add linen storage space? If you’re not sure, we can draw out multiple layouts. These conversations are crucial, as they guide the entire direction of the renovation. Ultimately, our goal is that our clients love the function of the kitchen or bathroom remodel as much as the aesthetics of the design.”

Professional design firms understand how to tie elements together, and they can use computer software to help a client visualize it, say Bob and Sue McDowell, of McDowell Remodeling, in St. Charles.

A Solid Investment

When it comes to remodeling, there’s plenty of temptation to do it yourself, or to hire a friend. And given the dominance of online outlets like Amazon, it’s tempting to go your own route.

But ask a professional kitchen and bath designer, and they’ll share many a horror story about clients who’ve called them only after a mess was made. It’s because of their experience, their knowledge and their network that reliable firms provide a key partnership during the remodeling process.

Wegner, of Blue Ribbon Millwork, finds it’s not uncommon for homeowners to solicit input from multiple firms. It helps to provide key background, and it helps a homeowner to prepare an informed budget. Surprisingly, price sometimes is an indicator of quality.

“There are times when you’ll call in a builder, just for an estimate, and he’ll lowball you, just to get his foot in the door,” says Wegner, who’s been in the industry for more than 40 years. “He’ll send people out to get quotes for items like tile or appliances, and then suddenly your $1,000 allowance on an item has become $4,000. Reputable firms will try to be as realistic as possible.”

Sue McDowell, co-owner of McDowell Remodeling, often has a similar conversation with potential clients, when they ask why the price is higher than others.

“I just had this conversation last week. I explained that we have 15 employees, and we pay for their health insurance and offer a retirement plan because we feel that, to make a good living, they deserve benefits just as non-industry companies offer,” says McDowell. “Her response was, ‘Oh, I never thought of that.’ Chances are she’s been talking to a guy who works by himself and doesn’t have a physical location or employees. He may be an excellent carpenter, but his price will be different, and so will the overall value he can offer.”

Adds Bob McDowell, who’s been in the construction industry for nearly 50 years: “The value of a good design and construction team is they can bring really great product at as fair a price as possible, creating a remodel that will potentially last a lifetime.”

Professional firms like McDowell, Blue Ribbon Millwork and Geneva Cabinet Gallery separate themselves from competitors by providing in-house designers, a large network of suppliers and a longevity of trusted service. All three have been in business for 25 to 30 years and maintain a stable of reliable contractors and subcontractors.

“It’s great for clients to lean on the network we’ve built,” says Lebar. “It’s not just the designer who’s putting this together for you. We’ve got lots of people we work with often enough that we speak the same language. This teamwork element can help bring the design vision to reality as smoothly as possible.”

Just as important is personality. You’re going to be working with this firm and your designer for several months.

“You get into a zone talking with a client, and you’re sharing part of yourself,” says Wegner. “They appreciate it, and they’ll do the same, and we become friends. That’s a good thing, because they’ll learn to trust you with decisions. These are very expensive and important decisions.”

Havlicek, who’s been in the industry for nearly 30 years, finds the best relationships “just click.” There’s a lot to be said for a designer who’s willing to listen to a client and reflect the client’s tastes, rather than the designer’s preferences.

Be sure to ask a potential remodeler and their contractors lots of questions, say Dave Wegner and Megan Lebar of Blue Ribbon Millwork, in Woodstock. And, listen to the questions they ask you. A good contractor is paying attention to details.

“It shouldn’t be just about sales, but about the advice they give you,” says Havlicek. “I try to help people save money, when we can. A good designer shouldn’t be trying to upsell you or only sell you. Rather, they should be telling you what is the best thing to do.”

Once you’ve begun to settle on a remodeler, it’s important to check their references, too. Ask your reference when the job happened, who did the work, and whether the job stayed on budget and schedule, says Lebar. If it went over, ask for clarification. Sometimes, things are outside the contractor’s control. Ask your remodeler lots of questions, too. Ask if they’ve done other projects like yours, and ask about their suppliers and subcontractors.

“A red flag could be if the work is 100 percent subcontracted,” says Lebar. “Then you’re never going to see the main contractor or the business owner again. I often work with Jason Strait, of Strait Renovations, who frequently works alongside his crew. When needed, he consistently hires the same subcontractors for plumbing and electrical, so they work well with his team.”

And always ask for a lien waiver, says Bob McDowell. “You are still liable for the contractor’s debt if they don’t pay their subcontractors.” For that matter, ask if the firm is insured and if it takes out municipal building permits. Less-reputable firms cut corners.

Sue McDowell has noticed a rising trend in people buying components online and hiring someone else to install them. In theory, it’s a money-saver, but it’s usually too good to be true.

There often are hidden costs, like the other materials required for installation, she says. When a product says “front door delivery,” nobody’s moving that heavy vanity upstairs for you. Parts may be missing or damaged, or they may look entirely different than they looked online.

“If you went through a reputable local firm, they’ve taken care of all of those issues,” says Thomas. “If it’s the wrong vanity or there’s a missing a part, we can find out right away and handle it ourselves.”

“These questions arise for professionals practically every day, every week,” says Sue McDowell. “And we just deal with it. It’s our business. But for a homeowner, it typically becomes a big pain in the neck.”

The Remodeling Process

Now that you have your remodeler chosen, it’s time to get to work. Because you have an expert helper by your side, you’re not alone in navigating the overwhelming task of selecting cabinets, counters, floors, tiles, appliances and other details.

The team at McDowell Remodeling takes clients shopping for all of the finishing touches, including cabinets, counters and tiles. Working alongside their designer, clients can see upfront how all of the pieces come together. At the same time, the designer can advise how different selections align with the client’s budget.

“The travel time between our office and the vendor gives us the opportunity to get to know each other better,” says Bob McDowell. “You’re a team and you’re working together. We’re learning their likes and dislikes. All of that information helps us to steer them down the right path.”

Because it’s sometimes hard for a client to visualize their future room, kitchen designers like Thomas, Wegner, Lebar and Havlicek also create computer renderings, so clients can “walk through” the finished product.

Firms like Blue Ribbon Millwork and Geneva Cabinet Gallery maintain showroom displays that provide another glimpse into the final product. With samples of woodwork, countertops and other accents also on display, the showroom is a critical step in the process. When something isn’t sold in-house, firms usually connect clients with reputable vendors.

“They came to you because they didn’t know what to do, so it’s an education for them,” says Havlicek. “They need to find out what they can do, how much it will cost and what’s the best use of their space.”

Shortly before construction begins, expect a home visit or two from your contractor and designer. They’ll be interested in final measurements, and reputable ones will ask lots of questions, to clarify the scope of the job, says Wegner. They’ll also want to poke around in attics, crawlspaces, basements and walls.

“We do a lot of investigative work at your home beforehand,” says Havlicek. “I bring a crew, and they look thoroughly through everything they’re going to do. There are times you can’t tell exactly what’s behind the wall, but we can tell someone if it’s this, then we’ll do this, and if it’s that, then we’ll do that. At least they’ll have an expectation of what might happen.”

Remember, the client has ultimate control. If something doesn’t feel right, speak up. This is your home, after all.

“Say your mind as you go,” says Wegner. “Don’t be afraid you’re going to offend us or your contractor. If you have a question, just ask. It’s often more costly to fix something later that you don’t love, rather than asking to make a change during the installation phase.”

Do I Stay or Do I Go?

Many local homeowners are finding themselves in a dilemma. They’re ready to downsize, but most anything they find needs some degree of remodeling. With the money they’d spend on fixing up another home, they’re finding it’s sometimes more economical to build new or invest in their current property.

“If you like your lifestyle where you are, then stay,” says Havlicek. “You’re not going to find a better deal. By the time you fix it up, it’s all the same. You’ll be disappointed at what you can get, compared to what you already own.”
When those clients finally do commit to a remodel, they’re amazed at the results.

“They tell me it completely impacts their lives,” says Havlicek. “Even the act of walking downstairs in the morning. They can’t believe this is their house. It can make somebody pretty happy.”

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