Custom results, common sense

Special to The Times

Remodeling contractors can be infuriating, especially when they stand in your house and respond to your ideas by saying things such as: “That’s really going to cost you.” Or: “There’s going to be maintenance issues with that.”

You might reply with a simple: “Thanks for stopping by,” but what you’re really screaming inside is more on the lines of: “You’re supposed to help me realize my dreams, not kill them!”

But after reading “Affordable Remodel,” a new Taunton book by general contractor and Fine Homebuilding magazine contributor Fernando Pages Ruiz, it seems clearer to me that many contractors have, as a result of their years in the field, a unique intelligence about what makes economical sense in a remodel and what doesn’t.

For instance, adding 6 feet of kitchen space onto the end of the house is monumentally, ridiculously expensive when you consider the grading, foundation, walls and roof that are required. So many tradesmen, so much coordination, so little benefit.


The far more economical way to get a larger kitchen, he explains, is to borrow existing interior square footage from an adjacent space, such as a laundry room or an infrequently used dining room.

Or perhaps you can add a charming bay window, which will give the impression of more space by cantilevering the bay out past the existing foundation.

You can also create the feeling of more space by punching the ceiling up into the attic, which is mostly wasted space here in Southern California.

One idea I really like is capturing the 3 1/2 -inch-deep space between wall studs for use as nooks for books, artworks and photos. By installing a wood ledge that extends another 2 inches past the wall, you’ve got a nice little shelf.


All of these ideas are illustrated with either beautiful photos or the line drawings that Taunton’s graphic artists are so good at creating. The large-format book feels big and robust and delivers what readers want: a visual treasure on every page.

In some ways, Ruiz is showing us how to create a house of quality, rather than one of quantity, which is also the goal of his fellow Taunton author Sarah Susanka of the “Not So Big House” series of books. But although architect Susanka does not delve much into the nuts and bolts of building the ideas she envisions, contractor Ruiz does exactly that.

Many of the book’s suggestions are not just about space and construction but about design. One idea, pictured on the back cover, shows a fireplace faced with slate tile from the hearth to the mantle and then faux painted in similar hues from the mantle to the ceiling. You get the vibe of the stone all the way up to the ceiling, without the all-stone cost.

If the book does fall short at all, it’s where nearly every other book like this fails, and that is by ignoring the consumer’s need to know how much things cost.


Especially in a book with the word “affordable” in the title, readers expect more discussion of dollars.

This book taught me a lot. In my years of interviewing contractors, I’ve asked many of them the very question this book answers: What remodeling features end up costing homeowners more money than they’re worth?

None of the contractors I asked had very much to say about this, mainly because they were on the way to see a client, on the phone with another client and had a third client on hold. And that’s to say: They’re awfully busy.

So readers are fortunate that Ruiz put down on paper so much of the wisdom contractors have but are too busy to explain.


Next time a contractor tells me that this or that idea of mine will be expensive to execute, I’ll be more likely to understand that there is experience behind that statement. And maybe I’ll be more receptive to the cost-effective alternative that will surely be offered.