Have the Financial Talk with Your Designer

So, you’re ready to remodel, but are you ready to talk about sticker prices, labor and all of those finer points? Take a breath and relax. It’s not as hard as you might think.

So, you’re ready to remodel. It’s finally time to create that dream kitchen, refreshed bathroom, or long-desired basement buildout.

Before you get too far, you’ll want to do your homework. And that doesn’t just mean picking out colors and finishes. Even before you reach that step, it’s important to consider the financial investment you’re about to make – because this project is a serious use of time, energy and money. If done properly, it also stands to boost the value of your home.

Budgeting is one of the most important conversations you’ll have in this process, so it’s important to do things right the first time. Arming yourself with the right knowledge and a trusted partner will create the foundation to a successful result.

“I like to say that we’ve never had a client who doesn’t have a budget,” says Claudia Pop, a designer at Advance Design Studio, in Gilberts. “I’m still waiting for someone to give me a call and say it’s unlimited, so I can do whatever I want. I think it’s very important to remodeling, and it’s why a good designer walks hand-in-hand with their client.”

The Bottom Line on Remodeling

What’s the bottom line? That’s one of the first questions on a person’s mind when they contact their local kitchen and bathroom designer. The truth is, most aren’t aware of the costs, or how the numbers work in their individual situation.

The answer is complicated. Their needs, wants and tastes are some of the biggest differences between an entry-level, mid-range or high-end job.

“People will say, ‘We just want new cabinets.’ But that’s not all they really need,” says Brian Hogan, of Hogan Design & Construction (HDC) in Geneva. “Usually, they’ll want their cabinets removed, and they want their old floor removed. Then usually there’s some reconfiguration of electrical and plumbing, usually an upgrade of those things, and an upgrade of the floor. We install the cabinets and countertops, the backsplash and new lighting. It’s a lot more than new cabinets.”

To help start that conversation, Hogan’s firm publishes pricing guides on its website, hdcbuild.com. These pricing guides break out major projects such as kitchen and bath remodels, basement buildouts, whole-house remodels or single-room additions, providing a starting point based on industry and regional averages.

An entry-level remodel simply replaces worn-out finishes with new materials in roughly the same footprint. A mid-range project will involve more complicated work, such as tearing out walls and updating or moving things like electrical and plumbing. A top-tier job pulls out all the stops, with a broader range of design choices and usually a higher grade of materials.

Many industry professionals also turn to Remodeling Magazine’s annual Cost vs. Value report. That data reflects mid-range and upscale projects reported by remodelers across the Chicago metro area. It not only lists average costs on projects like kitchen and bath remodels, deck additions, window replacements and updated doors, but it also reflects their potential to recoup value when the house sells.

“That is a very good starting point, just to give you an idea of what to expect and what range you might be into,” says Pop, who often shares the report with clients. “Then, you can give us a call. Anybody here is happy to have a conversation and share a little more information, including some of the ranges we see on projects like yours.”

It may be tempting to seek additional insights from television shows or information online, but local designers are skeptical of such sources. TV shows, in particular, have ways of hiding costs, creating unrealistic timelines, and using materials that don’t stand the test of time, say local designers. Additionally, labor costs will vary from city to city.

“I know that reality does not align anywhere close to what they’re saying,” says Pop, who’s been in the industry for over a decade. “I don’t know what part of the country they’re filming in, or what their resources are. But I do know that real-life projects I’ve done over the years are not in the same ballpark.”

A better approach, Pop says, is to ask family and friends who’ve recently remodeled.
“That will help you know what to expect,” she says. “Or, you can have a conversation with a professional and let them guide you along.”

Pay for the Professionals

There’s no shame in picking up the phone or dropping by. In fact, Dave Wegner, a kitchen and bath designer at Blue Ribbon Millwork, in Woodstock, encourages people to make an appointment and visit the showroom. In one visit, he can help people to understand what’s on the market and what sort of budget they might expect.

There’s no obligation to continue the conversation, but if things click in that first meeting, Wegner says it’s likely they’ll come back. After all, a designer’s top attributes are experience and knowledge.

“I’m not afraid to tell you what won’t work. I’ll explain why, but it’s ultimately your choice,” says Wegner, who’s been in the industry for 45 years. “People respect you for that, and they say, ‘We really appreciate that you’re telling me if something’s not going to work. That other place I went to, they never said anything like that.’”

Designers play many roles in the remodeling process. They’re designing a functional space and tying together all of the finishing touches, but they’re also a critical liaison between the client and contractor during the construction process. Finding the right designer is critical.

“This is one of the most important decisions you’ll make,” says Pop. “The client is really trusting that company and designer a lot – with their financial investment and their homes. People will be physically working in their home for several weeks, so we want to make sure they’re comfortable with us, even in that first meeting. If somebody’s not comfortable, that’s a red flag.”

A good designer should also be punctual, responsive and transparent, adds Pop. They should appear professional, well organized and detail-oriented.

“Your scopes should be extraordinarily detailed, laying out what that person is doing versus what you think that person is doing,” adds Hogan. “Someone who’s super-loose and puts in allowances for everything could be showing you only a quarter of what it’ll cost when all is said and done.”

Wegner likes to break the ice right away and show potential clients that he’s ready to help. A designer’s commitment to the customer should be readily apparent, he says.

“When I meet a customer, I joke with them. I say, ‘How can I confuse you today?’ And they chuckle,” he says. “I just broke the ice. You can approach the customer and just ask what they want and how they want it, but I like to show them that I’m human.”

Refining the Numbers

Design-build remodeling firms are uniquely positioned to help clients create a realistic budget. That’s because these kinds of firms help clients to make their selections while hashing out a budget. Because they control the design and construction process, they have a good idea how labor factors in.

At Advance Design Studio, early conversations focus on educating the client and setting a target budget. If everyone is in agreement here, then the conversation continues and the client begins selecting materials like cabinets, flooring, countertops and tile. Pop and her fellow designers list out all of these materials, the labor and additional costs line by line, so the client can see at any point how it all adds up. Along the way, the firm’s designer and construction manager meet with tradesmen at the job site to ensure construction costs are also in line.

“I think it gives clients a lot of control over the investment,” says Pop.

The team at HDC follows a similar process, where designers plan out every part of the project with a client. Hogan believes one of the real benefits of this approach is that it manages expectations and avoids surprises down the road. If a client wants to add an Italian marble, for instance, their designer can quickly identify how it affects the bottom line.

“It’s fun and exciting to design, but we have to keep people aware that the more they add in the design, the more the cost of the project will go up, and the more it will affect your budget for this particular part of the job,” says Hogan. “We’ll tell people on the front end, and they might say, ‘We really don’t want to go over this number.’ We’ll help them make a decision that works.”

Landing on that correct number might mean an alternate choice that’s closer to the client’s budget target. Because cabinets, lighting fixtures, countertops and appliances all come in varying grades, it’s easy to swap out one brand for another or adjust the add-ons in a way that hits the right numbers without sacrificing look and quality.

“With cabinets, you can change door styles from a more detailed style to a similar style that is simplified and at a more comfortable price,” says Kelsey Bechtel, a designer at Blue Ribbon Millwork. “If we’re pricing out a client’s initial selections and it’s more than the original target budget for cabinets, we can guide the client to make selections that reduce price while maintaining a similar look.”

“If you want a distressed look but the distressing package is out of budget, go with knicks, dents and bird pecking,” adds Wegner. “With Bertch cabinets, those are no extra cost. You’ll get distressing without paying extra for it.”

If all else fails, there’s no harm in pushing back certain parts of the project for some time down the road.

“If we’re redoing the first floor and the mudroom, and we initially had cabinetry in the mudroom, that can be easily added at a later time,” says Pop. “So, in order to get everything else into your project, it might make more sense to leave out the cabinets as a phase two type of project. We can revisit this in six months, a year, whatever you’re comfortable with. There are always options.”

Surprises Add Up

Expect the unexpected when it comes to remodeling. Old homes are full of surprises, which is why some firms may add a 5-10% contingency onto your budget. Of course, new homes have surprises behind the walls, too. It can take several weeks to get the design right, and construction timeframes never go according to plan – especially these days, as supply chain problems and lead times remain swollen.

“Be flexible,” says Carmen Haddaway, a designer at Blue Ribbon Millwork. “Things are going to happen, and you need to understand this. We will do the best we can to get everything in as fast as we can. But it depends on a lot of factors.”

Sometimes, the biggest surprises can be self-inflicted. Hogan says it’s not unusual for a client to nix some add-on during the planning stages, only to reconsider it midway through construction. By that point, the add-on still requires design time, extra coordination with crews, a longer timeline and possibly a greater expense.

“If you know you want it, it’s better to do everything at once than to wait, because it doubles the time on the project,” says Hogan. “It’s more contractors at your house, and it’s more time in design. If you know you want it, let’s scope it out. We can figure out a way to make it work for your budget.”

This is also where it pays off to hire the right people. Less-reputable firms may only offer “allowances” for certain budget items, so that once construction gets started the costs suddenly balloon.

In one case, Hogan worked with a client whose previous contractor had a tile allowance of roughly $4 per square foot – a number that struck the client as extremely low for the value of his home.
“They told him, yes, that number is in your contract, and he said, ‘But the stuff I like is not $4 a square foot; it’s $44 a square foot,’” recalls Hogan. “The difference between that builder and us is that we would have already known it would cost $65,000 more and it would not have been a surprise to our client.”

By contrast, design-build firms can reduce those surprises and place control back into the hands of the client.

“The design-build firm is going to do a true and real number,” he says. “This is the real number until we start. It’s the number based on what we designed, what we agreed on, what you signed off on, and what you selected. So, the only thing that makes this number change is if you change something.”

What’s Your Taste?

If you think about it, every automobile consists of a few essentials – wheels, engine, seats, body and add-ons – but there’s a big difference between a Honda Civic and a Maserati. Ask a kitchen and bath designer, and they might tell you remodeling is similar.

“Two kitchens with the exact same design and the same size and the same amount of cabinets could sometimes be $8,000-$10,000 difference, depending on what you pick,” says Bechtel. “You can do glass, decorative ends, paints and glazes, distressed finish and more.”

Trust in the right designer, and they can achieve the dream without breaking the bank.

“A designer is going to give you the best bang for your buck,” Wegner says. “Our experience is everything.”