The 7 biggest remodeling mistakes

Wooden toolbox filled with tools

Remodeling can be perilous, fraught with lousy contractors, unexpected costs and unforeseen problems that can leave your home in shambles for weeks -- maybe months.

There's no way to guarantee a hassle-free project. But make one of these 7 mistakes and you'll almost certainly add to the cost and aggravation.

Mistake 1. Start with an unrealistic budget. Or no budget at all.

Begin by writing down exactly what you want to do. Be as specific as you can about the type and quality of materials and fixtures you want to use. Obtain bids from at least three contractors based on your specifications. Use the questions and suggestions you obtain from each contractor to hone your plans and get the best possible idea of how much your project will cost.

Mistake 2. Try to do everything yourself.

Homeowners who are surprised by the estimates they get from contractors often decide the best way to cut costs is by doing some -- or all -- of the work themselves.

That's OK if you're a skilled and experienced do-it-yourselfer. But less accomplished homeowners usually run into problems they never expected.

"People figure out about halfway through that they can't do it themselves and then call in a professional -- and it ends up costing even more than if had they just called the contractor in the first place," says Pat Vredevoogd Combs, former president of the National Association of Realtors, who sells homes in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Mistake 3. Hire the contractor who gives you the lowest bid.

Cost is important, but it's not the only factor in hiring a contractor. Be patient and listen to your instincts. You should hire someone you have confidence in and feel comfortable with.

The best choice is a contractor who's licensed and insured and who has worked in your community for a number of years without a bunch of angry customers filing complaints with the Better Business Bureau.

It's especially important to avoid "travelers" -- contractors who move from town to town, peddling everything from new siding and roofs to replacement windows and paint jobs.

They'll offer you a great deal, but their work is often shoddy and their warranties are worthless.

Mistake 4. Disregarding the effect on your property values.

On average, every dollar you spend remodeling a bathroom, replacing windows or finishing a basement will add about 60 cents to your home's resale value.

But some projects add more value than others.

That doesn't mean you should automatically reject improvements that don't yield a big return on your investment. If granite countertops or a swimming pool add to the beauty and enjoyment of your home, go for it.

Just do so with a full understanding of how those changes will influence your home's resale value. You don't want to be disappointed, even if you're planning to live in your home for many years to come. Things change, and you might have to move sooner than you anticipated.

If you're not sure how a project might influence your property value, ask a real estate agent.

Mistake 5. Over-personalizing.

You want your home to reflect your individual taste, but when remodeling, be aware that some changes are more permanent than others.

"You may love seashells and candy canes, but putting them on your bathroom tile is bound to be a decision you'll regret," says Kirsten Kemp Becker, real estate expert.

If you want a few bold colors and distinctive patterns, use towels and throw pillows to make a statement. Neutral colors and patterns are a better choice for walls and fixtures -- they'll go the distance, and you'll be less likely to get tired of them.

Mistake 6. Making changes that contrast with your home's style.

Incongruent alterations, such as building a modern addition to a classic farmhouse, will only detract from your home's beauty.

Changes that are out of sync with other homes in the neighborhood also can create a bad impression when you want to sell.

"It's better to rehab the old than put in something new that doesn't mesh with your home's character," Kemp Becker says. "It's the idea of restoration versus renovation."

Mistake 7. Not finishing.

Leaving a project half-done is worse than never starting it. It hurts the beauty and value of your home and makes it less enjoyable to live there.

The problem is almost always money. Watch out for the four major reasons homeowners run out of cash:

"There's nothing deadlier than an incomplete project," Kemp Becker says. "Quality, money, time -- a really good home improvement project balances all three."

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