What You Should Know Before Your Next Renovation

Homeowners are always looking for creative ideas for improving their property values with minimal cost… getting more bang for the buck as it were. There’s lots of help and advice out there, much of it wrong in my opinion. Let’s look at some of the most common misconceptions about your home and the right way to make the most of the dollars you spend on your next renovation.

I’ve been told by many realtors that spending money on your home will increase the value, regardless. I disagree! The price of your home depends on what a potential buyer will pay. That’s hard to predict, particularly if you don’t plan to sell for several years. Spending lots of money on things you personally love — i.e. purple tile or custom wall coverings will not always be the selling factor for the next buyer. An investment such as a swimming pool may seem useless and a burden to a future potential buyer. Over the years, I’ve seen many homeowners spend thousands of dollars fixing up their homes and still not raise the value. Ouch! That must hurt.

More ambitious improvements could backfire if not done correctly. You may love your new orange wall-to-wall carpeting but a prospective buyer could hate it from the moment they walk in the door. I would. In that case, it’s smarter just to make sure the property/house looks attractive and well maintained. I go for the casual luxury approach. Installing new appliances, adding new carpeting in a neutral tone and removing old window treatments to allow the light to shine through, can increase your home’s marketability. I recommend creating inviting vignettes that welcome people to sit and relax. This allows their imagination to wonder and see themselves living in the space. I feel strongly that anything you can do to bring outdoor elements inside will help the look of any home. By simply allowing Mother Nature to shine in unobstructed, your space will feel uncluttered and show off the endless possibilities that the home has to offer. Less is more is my day-to-day mantra!

Nevertheless, if you plan to stay in your house for a long time, forget about the financial justifications for remodeling. Instead, think about enjoying your space and making it comfortable for your needs. Think of the improvements as expenditures aimed at enhancing your own enjoyment of the house. Make the renovations that suite you, your personality and your lifestyle, not those of a potential buyer.

If you’re considering selling your home, avoid big improvements altogether. Your goal should be to make the property presentable, clean and neat. Fix broken plumbing and apply a fresh coat of paint that is neutral, not trendy. Have your friends help you choose the right colors if you feel you can’t be trusted. Have a tag sale and remove anything in the basement, garage or attic that hasn’t seen the light of day for years. Decorate don’t renovate! Many realtors partner with decorators that focus on “staging homes to sell”. If your bold enough, do what my friend Susan did, ask a friend (that would be me) that you trust to be perfectly honest and tell you what they think and not to hold anything back. Come to think of it, it’s been months since we spoke. I hope it wasn’t something I said! All kidding aside, she finally did call to say “thank you, I sold my house”.

The best time to renovate your home is in the dead of winter. Most contractors are free and looking for work. This is the best time to negotiate price and the job is less likely to be delayed as there are typically less projects competing with yours.

That said, one should always keep in mind that the main objective is to keep it simple, clean, clutter free and smelling fresh. It sometimes takes a well-trusted person that you respect to tell you the absolute truth. And when they do, call them a few days later so they know you’re still their friend!

I have always believed in leaving my own personal “mark” on the homes that I have owned. One simple way I’ve done this is by “literally” doing just that, by taking a thin black marker and writing on a 2×4 beam in the attic or basement. Perhaps you may find yourself replacing a sub floor in a kitchen or updating a bathroom. This would be a good time to leave your mark. I would encourage you to write a special note somewhere conspicuously. In my Garden Studio when I added a new window, I took this opportunity to write on the inside of the window jam. Something like “designed by Mar Jennings 2002”. If you happen to have an open wall during a renovation, create a time capsule with the family marking the date and including information about each person who lives in the house. I’ve created two time capsules that tell the story of “Rosebrook Gardens”, what I now call my home. One day when I’m long gone perhaps someone will discover and read about the love affair I had with my home. Over the years, I have encouraged my friends to do the same. I feel strongly that we never really own our homes, we merely take care of them. Yes, we make mortgage payments and they provide us with shelter, warmth, and a place to enjoy, but we eventually will say goodbye. This is why I recommend leaving your personal mark behind giving the reader the story of the homeowner and the people who once lived there. Each home should tell its own story, always respecting the past while adding to its future. What a wonderful gift for the next generation to discover.

So, after years of planning and talking about my second floor renovation, I was ready to finalize my design plans and begin searching for the lucky contractor. The timing could not have been more perfect. I was working at home and available to supervise the project. Who would have expected that I would experience a violation that would remain with me for along time. Looking back now, I realize that I should have known better and listened to my gut feeling.

At the time, I felt I had found the perfect contactor for my renovation project. The project included opening a staircase wall, installing new lighting, crown molding in four rooms, and installation and staining of hardwood floors. This job was too big for the guru, me, but not quite big job enough for a Westport contactor. Needless to say I did find someone. I provided him the complete design with all the specific details. I felt I had made myself perfectly clear and feeling confident, I hired him.

Disappointment would soon be knocking at my door in the way of subcontractors hired by my contractor to stain the floor. For this part of the project, I had to leave the house. This was when the nightmare began. These two thugs rifled through my personal belongings in the master bedroom and removed a watch that was very dear to me, irreplaceable in fact.

When I addressed this matter with the contractor he never admitted fault. He did, however, confirm that this was the fist time he was using these subcontractors for any of his clients. How lucky was I to be the first?

I knew from the moment they entered my home that it didn’t feel right. I had that keen gut sense that this was trouble awaiting me and it had just entered my home. I dismissed it all as overreacting and passing judgment on two not so polished looking workers. Liking and trusting my contactor, I dismissed the uneasy feelings in my gut. As Julia Roberts said in Pretty Woman, “Big mistake. Huge!”

I would later learn that other personal items were taken while I provided them free run of the house. I guess I was lucky as bank statements and credit cards were not of interest to them.


Contact your local building department or consumer protection agency to find out about licensing requirements in your area. Ask to see the contractor’s license and make sure it’s current. Also, request evidence of current insurance coverage for liability, workers’ compensation, and property damage. If any subcontractor is to be used, ask if they are also properly licensed and insured.

If you have a bad feeling about someone coming to do work in your home, listen to yourself. You’re more likely right about the situation. This was clear to me when I let the subcontractors in my home. I felt it and should have honored my feelings.

Keep valuable items in a safe or a locked and secure place at all times. Checkbooks, account numbers, statements and jewelry should be secure. Even if you think you have the perfect hiding place, take care. I thought I did! If someone wants to steel from you they will. I recommend a home safe that is fire and water resistant. I now keep all my personal papers, extra credit cards and watches that I’m not wearing in a hidden, fire-proof safe.

Never let anyone into your home without an appointment. This also goes for anyone that works for you. My much adored housekeeper is instructed not to let anyone in unless I have told her specifically who is coming and why. This is for her safety as well.

Get the names of three clients for whom the contractor has recently completed projects similar to yours. Arrange to visit them if possible. They can confirm that the project was done on time, and whether there were any unexpected charges.

Contact the consumer protection agency to inquire about any complaints that may be pending against the contractor.

Get it in writing! Have a comprehensive contract that outlines the complete renovation, stating price and completion date. Every detail should be listed.

A number of steps can be taken to get the most out of a renovation. These include performing mini renovations such as replacing doorknobs, hardware and my all time favorite, painting. No matter if you do your home renovation yourself, if done correctly and in good taste, the project can pay you back handsomely.

Renovation or not, remember your home is not only about money and a return on your investment, but about you and the people who loved and enjoyed the house while they were there. Let a story be told about your house and that your home has a heart. It was you who took care of it and made it your own. So if your dream is to install a chicken coop with crown molding and bead board–do it, enjoy it and share it. Just don’t expect a potential buyer to pay top dollar for it.

And there you have it.