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First time home buyers? How to approach your renovations


Where to get started

The prospects of home renovations can be daunting, especially if you don’t have any experience with them. You can hear horror stories from friends, family or even by turning on your TV, so here is some advice from Don James, president and owner of Jameswood Homes, an award winning home renovation company in Calgary.

Figure out your needs

Really think about what you want out of your home. There is a big difference in terms of renovating a house in order to flip it or planning on living in it for many years.

If you are planning on living in it for the long term, it might be helpful to consider making it accessible for your future, more elderly self. There is always potential for change, but especially consider the prospect of children, pets or making it wheelchair accessible. He says don’t necessarily base your needs on what is trendy because it is important to consider the practical realities of living in a home.

“Contrary to popular belief, a designer is really helpful in terms of helping you out with this,” Don says.

Don’t assume you know everything

Just because you watch reality TV shows about renovations, doesn’t make you an expert.

“These shows tend to give false impressions about how long renovations take and how much they cost and can set up totally unrealistic expectations,” he says. “Some of the stuff they do on TV could actually end up bankrupting clients.” 

The solution, he says, is to ask questions and do your homework. Ask friends, family and neighbours who have gone through renovations for advice. Go down to city hall to ask questions about what you want to do. Consider consulting architects or designers as well. He highly recommends consulting resources from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Cooperation (CMHC).

Understand the scope and cost

While you should define an ideal budget, he recommends setting aside around 10-15 per cent more, just in case.

“You’ll probably end up going over,” Don says. “You don’t know exactly what you’ll find in the home, in the walls, there are often surprises in store, especially with older houses.”

The less changes you make as you go, the more money you will save, so that is another reason to have your plans well-defined.

Choosing your contractor

While there is always the temptation to pay someone in cash to help you, there are major risks involved in that. Homeowners should always understand the legal consequences of going under the table.

Don recommends that you get referrals from friends or trusted online sources. He also says that it is often a good idea to go through local builder’s associations to find someone.

He suggests that it tends to be better to choose companies with more experience as people who understand the history of construction in the area are less likely to make big mistakes due to ignorance.

He recommends comparing two or three contractors, no more, and judging them on price and compatibility. He said the prices shouldn’t vary by too much, maybe 10-15 per cent.

“Home renovations are long processes and it’s better if you wind up working with someone who you like and is a good communicator rather than growing to hate them,” he says.

Finally, it is really important to understand the legalities of everything. If you understand the scope of insurance, including liability and workers compensation, it could end up saving you from a potentially devastating situation.

Understand the contract

The last step before getting on with transforming your house is signing the contract. However, just because you may be a little tired of so much homework, should not mean you should hastily agree with what is in it.

Look it over closely, is every detail in there? Is there a sink, but no faucet? Everything costs money and now is the time to negotiate and try to avoid unwanted surprises in the future as best you can.

Again, talk it over with someone who has experience in renovations that you know. A pair of fresh eyes is always good, but if you want to be completely sure, a lawyer could help.

By Alyssa McMurtry 

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