Case Study: Home Remodel & Lessons Learned

A friend of mine recently completed a home remodel in upstate New York.  I was fascinated to hear about the adventure that led to the beautiful transformation of her home!  I couldn’t help but think to myself that her experience was so much like those of our customers at Jim Hicks Home Improvements here in Virginia.  I’m sure a potential client in Yorktown who is thinking about remodeling their home, or someone in Virginia Beach who would like a new bathroom, or maybe a homeowner I recently met with in Newport News who is dreaming of a new kitchen remodel, would love to read about her “lessons learned”. 

So, I asked her to take the time to share her experience with us.   Here is what she wrote:

When we had been in our house for 10 years, we started talking about either moving or putting in a new kitchen.  We got a realtor and started looking at houses.  Everything we looked at needed upgrades.  In the end, it was more economical to refinance the house using the equity we had and only add 2 years to our mortgage, than starting over with higher taxes and a 30 year mortgage.

The first contractor I spoke with told me what I wanted to do couldn’t be done.  He then proceeded to try to convince me of how I should remodel the house in his opinion.  Needless to say, we didn’t get along very well and I started asking around town for a good contractor.  The same name kept popping up over and over, but apparently he is a smaller operation and there is usually a long wait time for him.  Forever the optimist, I decided, let’s meet him and the wait will give us more time to save up for the remodel anyway.

We met with Bill Dwyer of Dwyer Inc and liked him right away.  He was easy to talk to and he listened to everything we had to say.  Then he gave us some ideas to choose from on the guest bedroom configuration that we just couldn’t envision ourselves.  We looked at some of the houses he had done kitchen remodels in as well as a new build he had done.  Everyone who had worked with him gave high praise and glowing recommendations.  They all said “once he starts your job, he gives you 100% of his time and effort, you see him everyday”.   We knew this is who we wanted to work with for this major project.

My sister-in-law had done some remodeling over the years and always paid quite a bit ($3000-$5000) for an architect to do up the plans, then work with the contractor.  One of the great things about working with Bill, was that he subcontracts an engineer for a fraction of the cost of an architect ($1800).  And it turned out that what I envisioned of opening up the house actually could be done!

Our plan was to push out onto the deck and pour a foundation for the new kitchen.  The house is contemporary, so I wanted to open up the floor plan and take out the L wall that currently divided the kitchen, living room and dining room.  Most of the cost of the remodel was in the support beams that had to go in on both ends of the newly opened space. 


That is all the background, now comes all the ‘experience’ and ‘advice’ if you are planning any kind of house project.

You really have to talk it out together first and know your weaknesses.  I am a neat, clean house nut, so I had to put myself in the mindset that the house would be a mess for a long time, and to make it livable on the weekends when the construction wasn’t going on but to let it go during the week.

My husband wanted to keep costs down by doing as much of the demolition as possible and all the painting.  At the same time, we were already stretched pretty thin with kids’ sports schedules, his coaching and our jobs.  So it was important to be realistic about what we could and could not do.  The kids and I did a ton of demo and furniture moving/rearranging as the weeks went on.  Everyday I would race home to meet with Bill after school and get my ‘homework’ assignment for the next day of what absolutely had to be done – pick out lighting fixtures, paint colors, cabinets, siding, roofing shingles, countertops, windows, whatever was needed to keep the momentum going.

It is really important to know what you absolutely want and do not want and where you are willing to compromise.  I knew I wanted quartz/silestone countertops, so I was willing to downgrade from the top line cabinets to the middle line.  I had originally thought I wanted everything in natural cherry, but then realized it would be way too monocromatic.  I had an excellent kitchen guy to work with and he had great ideas, but always listened to mine and what I wanted first.  Because of 20 years of winters in upstate NY, I knew I wanted lots of LIGHT and windows in the kitchen over a lot of upper cabinets.  I also knew I didn’t want anything in my island.  I wanted a huge island for entertaining without a sink or cooktop or different levels in it.  And that was just the kitchen.

Almost every room in the house ended up changing… walls moved all over the place.  We took the tiny guest bedroom next to the master and turned it into a walkin closet, we moved the laundry room upstairs and redid the master bathroom.  We added 4 feet of the old kitchen to my son’s bedroom and gave him a closet.  My daughter got new construction bedroom and bathroom suite over the old kitchen/dining room. 

Looking back, there is very little I would change.  It turned out more amazing than I ever imagined.

There are a few little things I learned afterwards that I will share.
• For example, I am short (5’2), all the guys involved were over 6 feet. I can hardly put heavy things in the top of the double ovens, I have to from the side, and I always need someone to take it out when it is done. They were set too high.
• Also, at the time, we were not ready to replace our refridgerator, it was on its last leg, but we were hoping to push it through for a year. The plans took into account that new fridges are wider than they were 15 years ago, yet we still didn’t have a big enough space for the new fridge (by 2 inches of the countertop lip that had to be sanded down on the side).
• Doug, the kitchen guy, recommended going with black or white appliances, he says the stainless steel look is a fad/trend that will probably pass, but black or white is timeless. Besides, I can’t stand the fingerprints on stainless steel, lol!
• Really plan out how you plan to use your kitchen and and the flow of people through it.
• I am left handed, which side of the sink do you want the dishwasher on, the garbage cans?
• Do you want a separate lower counter area for a baking station?
• Where do you want the pantry in relation to the fridge, your main workspace, etc?
• Usually you should envision all your workspaces in triangles – fridge to sink to stovetop to ovens to pantry to workspace.
• How do you want your corner cabinets? I did not like traditional lazy susans, or the newer elbow ones. With the top corner cabinet, I just wanted all the storage space for china and crystal. On the bottom I did decide on the full cabinet but with spinarounds on the shelves, so they weren’t flimsy.
• Again, being a short person, I wanted a shallow pantry that was wide. I had originally had a very deep pantry that had food in it that had expired 10 years ago because I could never see or hardly reach whatever was in the back back.
• Simple things like light switches and outlets really need consideration.
• Outlets in the island are great!
• I thought I wanted double hung windows in the kitchen, good thing Doug told me to stand back 2 feet (cabinet space) and try to open one! No can do! Then I wanted sliders, still couldn’t do it, the crank windows were the answer.
• What can you resuse? We kept our original sliding glass door and reused it.
• I did not like the bamboo hardwood floors that my husband insisted on. The knots showed to me as little bowties all over, I hated it. Then someone told me to look at the vertical cut over the horizontal cut, the difference I could live with!
• Don’t be afraid to mix woods… the floor is blond bamboo, the cabinets are natural birch and the island is natural cherry – the accent piece of the kitchen.
• I also did complimentary countertops, the island is dark with light flecks and the back along the wall countertops are the opposite, light with the dark flecks.
• Definitely do not have a seam in your island countertop if at all possible, I cut costs elsewhere in order to have a seamless one for the island.

The key was constant communication with the contractor and the foreman. Ask questions. Realize you will change your mind dozens of times, and that’s ok (as long as it doesn’t involve too many change orders). Know that no matter what, you will end up going over your budget, be ready for it, and keep yourself in check.
It was mass chaos for almost 6 months: the dog was on tranquilizers, I cooked on a camp stove on top of the old bathroom door on 2 saw horses for months, I washed dishes in a tiny bar sink in the basement, but in the end, it was all completely worth it!

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