How to renovate on a budget

6 ways to spend smartly on your project

You have the itch to update your tired home, but you're on a tight budget.

What to do?

First, if you're handy, you can tackle this renovation on your own to save big bucks. Being your own contractor isn't the only way to renovate on a budget, but it sure helps.

DIY-er or not, without proper preparation, your renovation costs can skyrocket — fast.

Whether you opt for one of our low-cost home improvement projects, or redo multiple rooms, you’ll need to follow certain steps to stay within budget.

This starts with doing your research beforehand, lining up schedules for each task and knowing your limitations. These 6 smart moves will help you make shrewd choices in updating your house while avoiding costly overruns.

Understand the value

It's important to consider value in picking projects and materials. This can help you set a budget, whether or not you're thinking of selling soon.

You don't want to spend more than you should given the value of your home.

For instance, a kitchen generally accounts for 10% to15% of the property value, so spend no more than this on a renovation, according to the National Kitchen and Bath Association.  If your home is worth $200,000, you’ll want to spend $30,000 or less.

Also, keep quality in mind.

"Every new addition to your home will suffer from degradation from age — the moment something is installed, it begins to inch toward the end of its life," says Jeff Wilson, a TV host and author of The Greened House Effect. "So choose upgrades and materials which will last long enough to justify their cost and still be useful when you go to sell your home."

Focus on one project at a time

The master bathroom is a gold-plated 1990s nightmare, and the kitchen appliances have survived three presidential administrations.

You might find many outdated rooms in your home, but take a deep breath and follow this advice: Go slowly and focus on one project at a time.

To narrow the options, create a list of all the projects you’d ideally carry out. Then spend some time online to gather cost estimates for each one.

For your first project, keep it small and simple so you can get a sense of how the process works. Try your hand at a midrange bathroom remodel, for instance, before finishing off an entire basement.

"Having a good idea of what each project might cost may help you prioritize which project to do this year versus holding off on a project for the following year," says John Bodrozic, co-founder of, a site that offers online home management software.

Put in the research

Good news: There are lots of online resources that can help you predict and winnow your costs. You just need to know what to look for.

"This involves identifying all the major items you will need for your renovation, performing shopping research on multiple products and brands for each item, and using that information to help establish your budget," says's John Bodrozic.

As you peruse stores and browse Pinterest for options, factor in the not-so-obvious costs. These can include sales tax, delivery charges, shipping charges and permit fees. offers estimates on various home projects, which can help you come up with a reasonable price for your own. Also, the 2014 Cost vs. Value survey by Remodeling Magazine includes national averages on job costs. offers national and local average costs for projects, as well.

Also, look at the expected length of time for the project. Factor in waiting time for supplies to be delivered and hours needed to get the work done.

Recognize your limitations

You might be able to tackle some renovations on your own. Other tasks, however, are best left to professionals.

As you evaluate your project, note areas that don’t coincide with your strengths. Also consider safety, says TV host and author Jeff Wilson. If your plan includes removing a wall, a professional can tell you whether that wall is weight-bearing.

The same is true for electrical and plumbing work, Wilson says. For these areas, "Only work with a professional to ensure the job is done correctly."

When bringing in professional help for part of the project, be up front. Talk to the contractor about the tasks you want to take on yourself and which ones you don’t want to handle. This will help you settle on both costs and scheduling.

Budget in a cushion

Follow every step correctly and you still may blow your budget.

That's because most renovation projects are bound to cost more than you think. Always pad your estimate.

"If you’re very good at specifying things — and not changing any decisions — 10% can work," says Dean Bennett, president of Dean Bennett Design and Construction Inc. in Castle Rock, Colo. “Otherwise, 25% is reasonable."

When setting a cushion, keep this in mind: "The older the home, the more surprises," Bennett says.

You might find water infiltration issues, electrical systems that aren’t up to code or structural problems.

If it looks like the home’s previous owners did some projects that are in questionable condition, or if there appears to be a lot of uninspected work, make a bigger cushion.

Track costs as you go

To keep the price tag from spiraling, “Write everything down so you can stick to the plan,” says Katie Hubert, business development consultant at MacKenzie Collier Interiors, a design firm based in Phoenix.

Consider putting together a detailed spreadsheet to track the project. In it, list the estimated cost of each item and task. As you make purchases, add the actual price to the spreadsheet. Also note the unexpected items and jobs that come up. Keep a running total of the overall cost to make sure you stay within budget.

Having a spreadsheet can also help you cut costs. "Pay attention to sales," Hubert says. "If you see an opportunity come up for an item on your list, you could save even more."

In addition to helping you monitor costs during the current project, having a spreadsheet will give you something to look back on — and use as a reference — the next time you tackle an area of your home.

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