Realistic Budget Fulfills a Dream

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When the bids for Lisa and Patrick Higgins’ West Los Angeles remodel came in, they suffered a common remodeler’s complaint: sticker shock. They were prepared to spend $200,000 for the 2,000-square-foot project. The bids came in at $325,000. But the Higginses didn’t give up the project. Instead, they gave up some luxuries and some space.

Today, they’ve got the house of their dreams, and it cost them only about $30,000 more than they planned. This is a good example of the right way to handle higher-than-expected remodeling bids, experts say. The bottom line is to cut costs without losing the character of your project.

“The whole lesson in all of this is that you are not going to get everything you want,” says Lisa Higgins. “But maybe you can get something that will be close or just as good.”


Notably, many architects urge their clients to get early rough estimates of construction costs, usually from preliminary floor plans, in an effort to keep the plans in line with the budget. However, even when they do, consumers often find their formal bids are substantially higher.

That’s mainly because there are few details on your floor plans, so contractors estimate costs by using fairly standard quality materials or a standard price per square foot. (In California, it’s common for early estimates to come in between $100 and $125 per added square foot.)

By the time you have detailed blueprints, you’ve filled in most of the specifics, ranging from the type of windows you will use to the brand of stove. Those with caviar tastes--or a penchant for built-in cabinets, like the Higginses--will find that their costs vastly exceed early estimates. Your choices then boil down to giving up, coming up with more money or finding a way to cut costs.

Luckily, there are often many ways to cut costs, ranging from trimming the square footage to dropping the extras and finish work, such as crown moldings and closet organizers.


In the Higginses’ case, the suggestions were myriad. They sliced 300 square feet off the back of the house, deleted built-in cabinets in the hallway and the study, voted to reuse the kitchen cabinets in the laundry room and found a way to patch, rather than replace, the hardwood flooring. Their contractor also found bargains on the tile and the carpets.

But they also kept some luxuries that were important to them, including granite counter tops, the Jacuzzi tub and the Viking stove.


“It helps for the homeowner to have a prioritized list of what’s really important to them,” says Paul Deffenbaugh, editor of Remodeling Magazine in Washington, D.C. “There are a lot of ways that a consumer could save money, but if that turns this into a project you don’t like, it’s no longer wise.”

However, there are some standard suggestions. First and foremost is to cut back on the amount of square footage you touch.

The Higginses, for example, had initially planned to replace some windows in a part of their house that was otherwise not being remodeled. The window replacement went by the wayside, saving them thousands of dollars in replacement and patching expenses.

Any time you can leave a room alone completely, you can save, experts note. But don’t think that saving a single wall is going to save much money.

“If I were going to throw a rule out, I would say to ignore walls completely. Think rooms,” says Glen Pickren, president of Barron Financial Services in Irvine. “If you can save a wall that keeps a room intact--walls, ceilings, the whole thing--do it. But if you think you’re saving money by just saving a wall, you’re not. A drywall installer will charge as much to do a patch as they will do to a whole room.”

By the same token, if you know you can’t afford the designer tile you want today, consider putting in inexpensive vinyl flooring that you can tile over later, suggests Bruce Wentworth, architect and vice president of Wentworth-Levine Architect/Builder Inc. in Washington, D.C.


“If you get a good design and space that’s functional and aesthetic, you can dress it up or dress it down based on your budget,” he adds.

It also makes sense to shop extensively, says Lisa Higgins, who notes that she had decided on just a handful of designer “accent” tiles. Projected cost: $3,500. Her contractor talked her into shopping at a discount tile warehouse, which had similar tiles that cost substantially less. She ended up paying $500--a $3,000 savings--for the same number of accent tiles.

Though that appears almost too dramatic to believe, contractors note that designer tiles from high-end retailers can run $20 or more per piece. It’s not uncommon to find similar tiles without the name brand selling for between $2 and $5.

However, there are also a few areas where it simply doesn’t pay to economize. For instance, if you’re convinced that you’ll eventually want a Jacuzzi tub, do it now rather than later, contractors advise. This type of tub requires more space and framing than an ordinary tub. Consequently, if you try to put it in later, you’re likely to end up ripping out half of your bathroom.


Similarly, if you’re going for an industrial stove, it can dictate the design of the kitchen. And, though you can put in inexpensive counter-top material and replace it later, be careful what you choose. What you don’t want is a material that’s so difficult to rip out that your cabinets are damaged when you’re fixing the counters.

Meanwhile, it never makes sense to put less power behind your walls than you’re going to eventually need. That means you ought to plan your plumbing and electrical wiring not just for today’s needs but for tomorrow’s. After all, wire costs a few pennies a foot and it’s not a big deal to put in a few extra phone jacks or cable lines while the walls are open. If you do it later, you may end up having to rip out, patch and replace drywall to add $2 worth of wire.


Next week: Construction financing.

For the entire Remodeling 101 series so far--Part 1: Preliminary Digging; Part 2: Preparing a Plan; Part 3: Reviewing the Plans; Part 4: Defining the Details; Part 5: Interviewing and Hiring the Contractor; Part 6: Getting It in Writing--visit