If you’re a first time home buyer looking to do renovations BEFORE you move in, it’s important that you plan ahead BEFORE you get to the closing table.
The 3 most important aspects of this are planning the time line and planning the budget and selecting good contractors. Among 1st time home buyers, I often see issues with all 3 aspects, much more so than I see with 2nd time buyers (Often, second time home buyers have learned from their earlier mistakes). Because it’s the first time that most new buyers are going through this process, they underestimate how much things cost and underestimate how long it takes to get things done (as well as the ideal sequencing of renovations.
So, here’s some advice to help avoid some of the common pitfalls. (And, at the end of the article, I provided some specific advice and time lines on flooring).
Please note that this article may contain affiliate links. You can read my full disclosure at the bottom of the page.
1. Planning the budget (and job scope):
It’s important to determine the scope of the work and the budget. More often than not, many first time homebuyers want to do way more than they can afford to do right away. You tend to want to make the house perfect, and once you start looking at one aspect, you realize all the other things you would like to do as well. And, more often than not, renovations cost more than people think and more than they have on hand. Sometimes, this is because buyers have unrealistic expectations on costs; other times, it’s because the scope of the job and unforeseen issues are there (things that a contractor realizes will come up, but a homeowner doesn’t know since it’s not their area of expertise.
Remember, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Most people will live in their homes for a long time and there is plenty of time to make renovations as you save up more money. Focus first on what absolutely needs to happen BEFORE you move in. The rest, you can figure out later…whether it’s 3-6 months later, a year later, or do 1 big project a year. Everyone’s budget and timing is different.
So what needs to happen before you move in? Generally, the “must haves” will depend on what should happen before furniture gets moved in and what will impact your everyday situation. Often, this will involve floors (since your furniture goes on the floors), and if you only have 1 working bathroom and need to do work here, do this before you move in. Most other items will depend on budget and timing.
I see many couples with a list of the following: 1) flooring, 2) painting, 3) kitchen, 4) tearing down a wall, 5) bathrooms and 6) a few other items including handyman work. Generally, after getting the prices, weighing their budget and timing, they end up doing some sort of combo of flooring and painting before they move in. See below on the timeline implications.
Be honest with what you can afford. It’s generally better to make sure you have reserves on hand when you move as you may often have some unexpected expenses related to movers, closing costs and/or what you discover your first week or two after living in the house. Sometimes there are storms that result in repair work. I generally think it’s better to not be stressed about the money and not overspend, but that is just my philosophy.
Prioritize! If you go in with the expectation that you will probably need to prioritize it will help your mindset. Really ask yourself what has to happen now vs. what can wait a few months.
2. Finding good contractors:
It’s important to find the right contractor, and often it’s ideal to interview 3 or so contractors (time and access permitting). Here are some good sources to find reputable contractors:
- Ask your real estate agent. Most great agents know the right contractors to use. They care about their clients and they want to help them make their house a home. They’ve met and seen the work of many contractors over the years, some from first hand experience on their own home and/or listings as well as their client’s homes.
- Ask your friends. Who have they been happy with and who would they recommend (and/or who to avoid). Also, asked them what worked well in the process and what could have gone better. What did they learn, so that you don’t make the same mistakes.
- Angie’s List. Angieslist.com is a wonderful place to find and screen contractors. It’s a consumer driven site based on reviews that other consumers provide. You can sort the list based on review ratings, proximity and several other criteria. You can read the reviews that others have left, and you can leave your own reviews. Also, if you do have a dispute with a contractor, Angieslist will help mediate the situation. There is a small modest fee to join, but it is very small and you often worth it just to make sure you have the right contractor. You can join for a year or just a month and it probably ranges from around $15-$45…well worth it when you consider the risk of hiring the wrong contractor.
- Check references and reviews. Always ask for references. Follow up on these. But, we all know that everyone tends to give the glowing references, so see if you can also do some online checking where things may be more objective. You can check places such as Angie’s List, Yelp, The Better business Bureau. But, more often than not, the better search to do is to type “Company XYZ reviews” into a search engine and see what pops up. This way, you’ll find more reviews and shorten your search time.
- Ask other contractors. Other contractors often know other great contractors. They align themselves well and often do work together, so ask other contractors for their opinions, especially complimentary contractors. For example, good painters usually know good flooring contractors and vice versa. Good plumbers know good electricians because often these types of jobs are done together.
- Plan ahead – before closing. The worst thing you can do is pick a contractor solely based on haste and availability. You want to choose who you want to choose based on who is the best/the right price, not just who is available tomorrow. Those available tomorrow, are often not your best choice. So, plan BEFORE you get to the closing table, and then plan ahead to start the work, a day or two after closing. Much more about timing below.
- Don’t shop on price alone. This is usually the surest way to find the worst contractor. And, in the end, this will result in an inferior outcome and/or cost you more in the end (e.g. the job may not last as long or you may need to pay someone else to fix some things. If you get 3 estimates, it should help make sure you’re in the right ballpark and will also tell you if you have other outliers. If the numbers differ substantially, ask why. There is usually a reason (e.g. lower grade materials, less coats poly, lower scope of work, lower skilled labor…or potentially just desperation. I see this issue most often with first time home buyers.
3. Planning the time line:
For first time home buyers, it’s important to plan ahead and manage the time line. Often, time lines get crunched because closings get delayed and/or move out dates on current locations get pushed ahead…and so the new home buyer finds themself in a situation where they need to make choices and sacrifices. These are never fun. But the surest way to minimize these is to PLAN AHEAD. Know your time lines, so that you can properly build plans (and back up plans).
- Meet with contractors BEFORE you close. Most of the time, buyers are allowed/can arrange to have 1-3 visits to the property to have contractors there. This may vary based on state that you live in, relationship with real estate agent, purchase size of home, and how smoothly the transaction goes, but generally most of the time, you can get access if accompanied by your real estate agent (tip: be very nice to your real estate agent as they will be more willing to work with you). The only way you can get real estimates and understand the scope and cost of work is to have the contractor(s) see the area.
- It often helps to have floor plans. But, this does should not replace an actual in home estimate with the contractor. Floor plans do not show the contractor the condition of the home which in turn defines the cost and scope. Floor plans help, but they are not always accurate or complete and don’t have all measurements, nor materials that are used. For some things, the contractor may be able to guestimate, but for many items you really need to see what’s there. Believe me, you will get much better estimates, suggestions and time lines if the contractor actually sees and measures. If you don’t, most likely, you will end up with higher unforeseen costs and longer time lines. So, try to get the contractor in there.
- It helps to have pictures of your home. If the home you are buying is listed online, let the contractor know that they can see it if they google the address. This may help give them a sense as to what’s entailed and needed. This can help your meetings go more smoothly.
- Ask the contractors how long the job will take. Let them explain the process to you – the lead times to get the materials, the lead times to schedule, and how long the job should take. Also, ask them what could cause the job to take longer. (e.g. when it’s humid, it takes longer for materials to dry – paint, polyurethane and even cement).
- Ask the contractors how the jobs should be sequenced. This is a big miss that I often see. New homeowners often unknowingly do things in the wrong order. And, by doing that, their time line will take longer and they will need to pay more for the contractors to come back and touch up work. So share with your contractors the full scope of work being done, and ask them what the proper sequence is. By doing this with each contractor, you will often learn something new. If there is a conflict in what you are hearing, circle back and clarify with the contractors. Here is one of the most common questions I get: Is it better to do the painting or the flooring first. The answer surprises many, so you may want to click on that link before you make some of these common mistakes.
- Based on the timeline, game plan how/when you should move in. Do you need to/can you push back your move date? Is there somewhere you can stay while the work is being done (e.g stay with parents/family members/friends), can you extend where you are staying now? Can you stay in hotel? Can the furniture stay in storage for another week or two? Can the furniture be placed in one area of the house where it’s out of the way? Can you phase the work while living in different portions of the house? Brainstorm. There are often many creative solutions.
- Build in some cushion time as things sometime go wrong. There are many unexpected things that can happen including last minute closing/scheduling changes. Weather can impact how long a project takes. For example if it’s humid, drying time may take longer. We’ve had a few times where hurricanes got in the way – either the actual storm and/or power outages for a week. Snow storms can slow things down too. And, then of course, there are those unexpected items that come up once demo begins. It doesn’t usually happen, but sometimes, yes, there are unexpected and unavoidable delays. And, if one contractor gets delayed, it could result in a bit of a domino effect on the other contractors. If you build in a few extra days, you will alleviate a lot of unneeded stress both for you and your contractors. And, if you finish earlier, it’s bonus time you can spend prepping and cleaning your new home.
Below is some info specifically on flooring, as you are planning your timelines.
- If you are installing new materials such as hardwood or carpet, don’t forget about delivery time. I usually allow 2 weeks. Sometimes it comes sooner; sometimes it takes longer. With unfinished hardwood, we can usually deliver within 2 days, but most other products take at least 1 week and usually 2 is a safe bet.
- If you are installing hardwood or laminate, it needs to be dropped off and acclimate for at least 2 days. Most customers don’t realize this.
- Don’t forget that you have to coordinate schedules with your installers. Most installers are not available tomorrow. We usually need a week or so notice. Sometimes we can fit things in a few days later, but not always.
- It takes time to do the work. Some jobs can be done in a day; some take several days. If you are refinishing hardwood, it can often take 5 days or so, including drying time. And, you need to wait 4 days before moving in furniture. You can’t rush the drying time.
Now, I understand that money is often tight and I also understand that closings often get pushed back and there are many valid reasons for the rush/need to leave where they currently are (e.g. someone else is moving into current home, they are renting and lease is up, pregnancy etc.). I hear this all time, and I get this.
But, IF you are planning on doing renovations to the home, especially those that are better done BEFORE you move in (e.g. refinishing floors, putting in new floors, painting, etc.) it’s best to plan ahead and make a conscious decision about move in dates.
Many jobs are MUCH EASIER and less expensive if done before you move in. Refinishing your hardwood floors is a perfect example. Here’s why.
- Refinishing hardwood floors requires that the floors are cleared – NO FURNITURE on the floors during the entire process (which could last close to a week). So, if you move in, you essentially need to move out again. And, then back in again. If you are going to do this work, it’s an inconvenience; or, if you have the refinishing company do it, it will cost extra.
- If you are refinishing main areas, and/or areas that include bedrooms or block entrance to the bedrooms (e.g. steps), you will need to do this while you are away – either during a planned vacation or else stay with family/friends.
- Refinishing hardwood floors is often messy. Yes, there are “dustless” systems (although nothing is 100% dustless), so it’s better when you can do this before you move in so the dust doesn’t get all over your stuff. If you’re sensitive to dust, it’s best to do before you move in. (And, then hire some to dust/clean which you prob. want to do before you move in, anyway).
- Refinishing hardwood smells. Plain and simple. It’s a much better experience when you are out of the house (and much better for your pets). Trust me.
So, often, refinishing hardwood floors AFTER you move in will be more inconvenient and cost you more money. So, if you plan to do this, consider this and see if there are options to delay your move in dates (e.g. stay in current home longer, extend lease where renting, stay with friends/family, take your vacation before you move in). You get the idea. You may choose to move in early…but make the decision consciously.
Speak to a flooring company, such as The Flooring Girl, so that you understand what is entailed before it’s too late. If possible, see if your real estate agent can let your flooring person into the house to measure and provide an estimate. That way, not only will you be planning, but you have the option to pre-order the materials so they can be delivered right after closing and schedule the work.
So, if you plan ahead, you can make smart decisions.
Other useful flooring articles:
- How long does it take to refinish hardwood floors?
- Which is better for hardwood floors – oil based or water borne polyurethane?
- Is it better to install the hardwood before or after the cabinets?
If you live in Westchester County NY, I offer color consultations to advise customers on paint colors and stain choices. My designer discount at the paint stores usually more than offsets the cost for the hour consultation. Read more here. Due to many requests, I’m now offering phone consultations as well.
Complementary products that will prolong the life of your hardwood floors
3 big pieces of advice for New Home buyers planning to renovate