The home improvement industry is white-hot right now, as people make the most of their new at-home lifestyles. But before you jump in, be sure you’ve done your homework. Here’s where to start.
The longer we stay at home, the more we’re noticing all of the things that no longer fit our new lifestyle. These days, we’re working, schooling, cooking and relaxing at home much more than we used to. And for many of us, it’s time for a change.
The remodeling and home improvement industries are hot right now, and experts are predicting a blowout year. Maybe you’re considering taking up that long-delayed project, too. Before you do, it’s important to arm yourself with the research and information you’ll need to do it right – because nobody wants to suffer a bad remodel.
Here’s what some of our local experts believe are the most essential things to know before jumping in to a major home improvement.
Time is of the essence. It’s so cliché to say it, but in today’s market it’s totally true.
“From everything I’m seeing – professional groups, industry experts, indices we follow (like housing starts) – the residential industry is poised and already in motion for one of its busiest years,” says Christine Jurs, co-owner of Advance Design Studio, in Gilberts. “That’s why it’s really important to get started.”
Demand is rising, and it’s creating more pressure on manufacturers to keep up pace. In fact, many are producing on-demand, says Jurs, meaning your order is being built just ahead of delivery. It’s not coming from a warehouse, already pre-made.
The problem is more pronounced in the electronics industry, where manufacturers – even those assembling in the U.S. – are struggling to get certain parts from overseas. This is leading to delivery delays and price increases.
“This is why it’s really important to know who you’re working with,” says Jurs. “For companies like us, that have solid vendor relationships, we are working with people who can find solutions and anticipate these possibilities.”
Product shortages and delays can happen in any ordinary project, pandemic or no. So, Jurs and her team rely on what they call Common Sense Remodeling. It’s a special process the team follows to ensure every step of the remodel goes smoothly, from concept and design to final sign-off. While they’ve had to step up their strategies lately to adjust for products that aren’t available or have too long a lead time, the team remains committed to following a step-by-step formula.
The process begins with a consultation, as client and designer flesh out the big ideas. Next, the designer comes back with a concept and a detailed budgetary breakdown that includes options for various budgets. Lately, this step may also include in-person or virtual meetings to go over samples and ideas. Jurs says she’ll also deliver sample packages for those who prefer a virtual appointment over an in-studio visit.
“Before we finalize the budget, our designer and project manager go in the house and bring in every single person on the team who’s going to work there,” says Jurs. “The plumber, the electrician, the drywaller, every subcontractor sees the house and goes over the project.”
Jurs believes that such an in-depth process, which continues through construction and closing, makes a serious difference for clients. It’s not a guesstimate, in part because it’s based on an understanding of that unique project and because the process encourages tighter control over the whole project process.
“People have said to us, ‘We love that you handle 100% of the project,’” says Jurs. “‘You’re so thorough on the front end that, when you give us the numbers, we believe them, and we understand where this came from because your guys were here, in my house.”
The industry is seeing the biggest delays in exterior products like siding, windows, decking and lumber, says Jurs. In interiors, the biggest challenges are with appliances, because many manufacturers were derailed while making ventilators and protective gear last year.
“I would get going sooner than later,” Jurs adds. “If you want a space that’s usable this year, I would be doing design tomorrow because no one in the industry will be able to guarantee they can get materials in a timely manner.”
Get the Facts
“Why did it take them seven days to finish that kitchen on TV?”
Brian Hogan, owner, president and CEO of Hogan Construction & Design in Geneva, hears it enough that he just laughs when the question comes up.
“Those timelines are unrealistic,” he says. “You might see that they can replace the kitchen cabinets for $4,200 but that’s only because the guys who are installing them went to Home Depot and picked them up off the rack, then installed everything themselves. That’s the only way that happens.”
In the real world, teams like Hogan’s need 8 to 10 weeks, depending on the size and scale of the job. There’s a lot happening behind the scenes. High-quality materials take time to produce, and while the factory is building your order, your designer is arranging permits and preparing for work to begin.
On average, a basement project could take 5 to 12 weeks, Hogan says, with amenities like fireplaces, bars and bathrooms adding to the overall timeline. A home addition could take three to six months, while new home construction might run five to seven months.
Hogan’s team is a full design/build specialist, so they can take a project from concept and design through construction. Early on, clients sign a discovery contract that leads to feasibility studies, drawings and a full spec sheet. “We even go so far as to build a schedule,” says Hogan.
Once the work is approved, clients can communicate with the project manager and review daily logs.
It’s easy to rush into a job, and Hogan understands. But it’s still important to take your time.
“I get so excited that I want to start immediately. I can’t wait,” he says. “Rushing can be a big mistake, because inevitably you make mistakes or buy things you don’t want when you rush through the designs.”
Budgets can also get tricky. It’s tough to know exactly what a job will cost in advance. National averages can provide a starting point, but comparing costs between Boston and Chicago – let alone the western suburbs – isn’t always apples to apples. So, Hogan tries to relieve some of the stress with pricing guides on his company’s website, hogandesignandconstruction.com.
“If you’re dealing with somebody who is a full-time professional and is insured, our pricing is pretty accurate to what it should be,” Hogan says.
Which raises another point: Finding the right remodeler requires asking the right questions. Ask if their subcontractors have been vetted and are insured, Hogan says. See if they have an internet presence, or at least a portfolio, even if it’s online at Houzz.com.
“It’s always best to check references,” he adds. “And look at what they’ve done. You’ll get a lot of hints from their website.”
Find a Partner
When you get down to it, interior design is really a personal thing. Sure, you’re hiring a designer to get it right, but the end result is supposed to reflect your own style, isn’t it? A good designer has your interests in mind and will help to make your home a reflection of your own personality, says Jamie Leonard, senior designer at VID Lifestyle, in Elgin.
“Usually, clients start off with one room, and then you have this bright, shiny new room and that sort of tends to make the rest of the house look older,” she says. “So, then you start to filter through the rest of the house over the years. You become partners and friends as you help them to re-dream their whole home.”
An interior designer can help with many tasks, and a designer like Leonard, who has a full-service studio behind her, can bring anything from a single-room redesign to ground-up construction. Their biggest advantage is their ability to coordinate work and filter options.
“They get to show up at the meeting and pick what they like, and we do all of the background work for them, and that does take time,” says Leonard, who’s been in the industry for about 16 years. “Most designers have been doing it for years, so making selections comes quicker to them. They know where to go find products that are in the budget and on style right away, versus making the client do it themselves and spending hours upon hours researching.”
The best thing a client can do, before taking the leap, is some serious research. Look up designers who work in your area and consider whose portfolios speak to your style.
“A good designer designs to what your style is, and their portfolio will reflect that by showing diverse projects,” says Leonard. “But there are firms that definitely have a style and a vibe of their own.”
Crunch some numbers, too, and understand what you’re willing to spend. Then, leave some buffer room in case things go over. An interior designer’s fees can range from $75 an hour to as much as $300, Leonard says, so it’s important to understand what that designer is willing to do, and what they can do for that rate.
Most designers will provide a free consultation, and it’s important to know that this meeting is all about building a relationship. Almost like a blind first date, this is the time to see if there’s a good fit. During that meeting, be sure you understand what the designer will offer and consider what sort of relationship they have with other vendors – providers of furniture, decor and such. There’s a designer for every budget, says Leonard, but it’s still important to have that conversation right away.
“It’s best for everyone if that happens upfront,” she adds. “I know a lot of times clients are hesitant to provide that, because they think the designer is going to max out their budget. What it really cuts down on is the time spent on material selections, because if we know your what budget is we can design to it.”
Ultimately, it’s important to walk away knowing you’ve found the right fit. If it’s not, feel confident in moving on, says Leonard.
“It’s not TV. It takes time, and it’s a process to get results,” she says. “It’s a relationship, and we need to get to know each other. It might not be perfect the first meeting, and we can’t design a full house on the first meeting. It all takes time, so be patient and have fun with it.”
The ‘Reality’ About TV
Admit it, you’ve spent way too many hours watching HGTV as you prepare for the big remodel. That’s fine, if you’re looking for ideas, but beware that “reality” isn’t always what it seems.
“There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that’s happening that you just don’t see on the show,” says Megan Lebar, designer at Blue Ribbon Millwork, in Woodstock. “There’s a lot more than just walking in and seeing the final project.”
Not to mention, quality is often sacrificed to keep things on time and budget. Sponsors may even throw in freebies, like appliances, which can further reduce the bottom line.
So, where do you begin? Do some homework. Start out by considering what you like and don’t like. Check out manufacturers’ websites and consider what colors, styles and designs you like. Save pictures and look at prices. Start an idea board on Pinterest or Houzz.com, so you can share with your eventual designer.
Then, crunch some numbers and understand what you’re willing to spend. Take a look at Remodeling Magazine’s Cost vs. Value report, which breaks down dozens of home improvement projects and their potential return when you sell the house.
Next, it’s time to find a designer you can trust.
“It’s about relationships. The customer has to trust you,” says Dave Wegner, a designer at Blue Ribbon Millwork who’s been in the industry for 45 years. “When we go into a customer’s house, we explain what we’re doing it, and why we’re doing it, and that gives them confidence in what we’re doing.”
It’s OK not to know everything at the first meeting. Designers with experience and knowledge will quickly help you through. As you’re interviewing designers, pay attention to their process.
“I’m asking questions, not telling you this is what I can do,” says Lebar. “We should be asking, ‘How do you work in your kitchen? What do you like about it? What do you want to change about it?’”
A good designer will also have a strong network behind them. If there’s a certain service they don’t offer – like tile or flooring – they can recommend people they trust, and that includes contractors.
“Our favorite installers are ones who say, ‘I’m going to manage this whole project for you. I’ve got in-house people or I’m going to subcontract people I know, I trust and I work with all the time,” says Lebar.
The fun part is picking out samples, and although the process can seem daunting, Lebar likes to start simply. Pick things with the fewest options, like cabinet finishes, and then move up to things like countertops, faucets, flooring and tile, she says.
“The most important thing they can ask me is, ‘Why this brand versus this brand?’” says Lebar. “You can start a conversation about quality and budget by comparing brands. We’ll show you a good, better, best, and although they might look very similar we know the differences.”
Kelsey Bechtel, a fellow designer at Blue Ribbon Millwork, also likes to consider cabinetry and appliances upfront, especially right now as some manufacturers face shortages.
“You’ll see your cabinets and appliances, and then suddenly the backsplash is easier, the hardware and sink faucet are easier,” she says. “And as the client is making those decisions they’re building their confidence in the project, because they’re involved and getting excited.”
“Let me make it fun for you,” adds Lebar. “That’s why we’re here, is because we love doing this.”