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Where To Start

This article is the first in a four-part series that consumer advocate, Richard Connolly published in the Boston Sunday Globe in September, 1991. Although that time seems long ago, little has changed, as you will soon discover.

Remodeling? Where to start is key to success.

Richard Connolly

Boston Globe Correspondent

“Where do I start?” For many homeowners who are weighing a remodeling project, this basic question is oftentimes so difficult for them to answer that they frequently give up on their plans, hopes, and dreams.

Even the more venturesome, full speed ahead types may soon find themselves bogged down, running around in circles, and wondering what to do next.

Whether you are a tortoise or a hare, starting – or even knowing where to start – on a construction project may result in considerable frustration, disappointment, and wasted time.

Well, where do you start, and how can you avoid this problem? You can begin by thinking of your project as having two distinct parts, the pre-construction phase and the actual construction itself.

In the pre-construction phase, you want to venture forth by gathering information critical to the construction phase. Start at your kitchen table in a meeting with all the interested parties.

This gathering should be fun and an opportunity to explore a number of points of view and options for the project, with none having more validity than another. Everyone has a say.

Resolve to resolve nothing beyond exploring for ideas and do not fixate on costs. There is, of course, a point when price, along with many other considerations, should be discussed, but now is not the time.

Ask yourselves two fundamental questions: “What do we want to do?” and “Why do we want to do it?” If you know, for example, that family members want more privacy, ask yourself how a new master bedroom suite achieves that goal.

At this point, you should then sketch on graph paper your primary and secondary choices for the project. Measure the house and all the interior partitions. Use graph paper divided into one-quarter inch square blocks with each block representing one lineal foot.

Work up a simple floor plan or two, perhaps showing the location of furniture, and involve everyone in the household. Do not fret about finding the perfect solution or de­sign, simply play with a few good ideas instead.

Joe and Linda Conley took that approach when they added an extensive family room and master bedroom suite to their colonial home in Weymouth.

“We had a general idea of what we wanted and knew we needed to have more room and closet space. We talked it over at length and sketched our own plan. We then made a checklist of our priorities,” Conley said.

Your next stop should be at your local building department. To save yourself and town officials time, write down any questions you may have before scheduling an appointment.

Bring along your sketch, questions, a note pad, and an open mind. At minimum, ask about zoning and the building permit, fire alarm, and inspection requirements.

Armand Lavigne, Building Inspector for the Town of Needham, MA, agrees and says, “If you are contemplating doing anything to your property – before you hire any individual – contact your local building department.

“Every community has different regulations requiring setbacks. You may not be able to put an addition where you want because of this situation. Find out what the zoning re­quirements are for the required setbacks. Find out whether you will be able to get a building permit for what you can do before you actually get started.”

Why? Lavigne points out, “There are so many people who have plans drawn up before they find out whether they can be built. What if they cannot use the plans? I have seen this happen a lot. We are here to help and to keep people out of trouble.”

Be sure to check with the other town departments as well and ferret out any informa­tion that may involve hidden costs. For example, you may find that the master bedroom suite you are planning will require an upgrade to your septic system because your house is not on town sewerage. In that case, you might have to forget about the cozy fireplace or the Jacuzzi.

With this new information in hand, head for the kitchen table and another round of talks.

Once you have established what you can do – rather than what you want to do – consider your financing next. According to Donald Grigley, Vice President of the Provident Institution for Savings, a trip to your banker at this stage would be worthwhile.

“Your loan officer should be able to advise you as to what financing arrangements would be appropriate for you and what you can afford. For example, would a line of credit, equity loan, or re-mortgaging work best for you? Your banker can help you make this decision in your own best interests,” Grigley advises.

One couple who did so are the Orlando’s of Quincy. Tom Orlando and his wife are considering a new kitchen, bathroom, and rooms in the attic of their older, in much need of repair home. Orlando said, “We had some ideas to throw around. We found out what we could afford for the ideas we had. We got a budget formulated and then got down to the basics.”

Getting down to the basics would be easy, if you knew what the project would cost in contrast to what you can afford. At this point, you are probably missing that important information, but there is help in the form of a publication [available online] or at your local library.

The book, The Home Improvement Cost Guide, is published by the R. S. Means Co. of Kingston, MA, and covers a number of well-illustrated projects from a simple, pull down attic stairs to a more complex, second story addition. The publication also has a location multiplier to help you determine the costs of a project from one state to another.

Use this information with an open mind and strictly as the guideline its publishers in­tended because there are many variables in a construction project. Work up a few figures at the kitchen table and weigh them against your budget. Then think about getting down to the basics.

Develop a list of priorities on which to base your decisions. More than likely, one consideration will be the return you can expect for the particular project you have in mind if you sold your house a year down the road.

A good source for this information is the yearly Cost vs. Value Report published by Remodeling Magazine of Washington, D.C. Information from this document is published [online and periodically] in news papers and, like the other publication, may also be available or at your local li­brary. You are in luck, if your library has both.

Again, be careful in the manner in which you use this material. Senior Editor Anne Marie Moriarty cautions that “remodeling figures can vary from block to block in the city.

Where you are located is as important as what you do. For example, is your neighborhood on the upswing or sliding? For any project done before last year’s big June slump, the figures in the report would be optimistic in today’s market. You might even check with a realtor.”

Before Anita McDonough and her husband committed last year to spending over $100,000 for a second story addition to their Raised Ranch in Marshfield, they consulted with a realtor. McDonough said, “We ended up putting in a pool and a hot tub and did not do anything else. We were concerned that the cost of putting on a second story addition would overprice the house for the neighborhood.

“In retrospect, I am glad we did what we did.”

Making a sound decision with no regrets is a goal well worth pursuing. To reach it, you need to complete a few more simple, inexpensive, but vital steps, all aimed at ensuring that your remodeling project is a positive experience for everyone involved.

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