Remember the '80s, that Decade of Economic Excess when upwardly mobile homeowners found it easier to dispense with a less-than-perfect residence than work to make it better? So-called "move up" luxury homes were all the rage, despite the inevitable mortgage load. Few truly dedicated fast-trackers were inclined to grapple with anything so mundane as, say, installing a kitchen skylight, much less regrouting the bathroom tile.
Welcome to the '90s, the Decade of Economic Reality, of soft real estate markets coast to coast, and of a much renewed interest in that age-old virtue -- thrift. Savvy homeowners are now learning it can pay to make the best of what they have, even when it's a three-bedroom suburban box.
"Renovation is definitely taking over," says interior designer Janet Richardson, a partner in Baltimore's RHA Limited and vice president of the Maryland chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. "People are staying put, but they are still intent on doing something different with their personal space."
Customizing, updating, refitting and expanding have become buzzwords not only among interior design professionals but also with architects and building contractors throughout the region who report unprecedented demand for renovation services. That in itself can pose problems, insiders say. "With the sluggish economy, banks aren't loaning money to developers and subcontractors are being laid off right and left," says Mark Cantor of Jendell Construction of Rockville. "What we're going to see is plenty of low-ball, fly-by-night renovation work with a lot of people getting ripped off whether it's intentional or not." While most laid-off construction workers are excellent craftsmen, Mr. Cantor says, that doesn't guarantee they know much about the business end of contracting.
"Low-balling," says Mr. Cantor, "is what people need to watch out for. On a $20,000 job, we're hearing about bids of $12,000, and we don't know how they [low bidders] are doing it. ... People should realize that in the long run, consumers get what they pay for."
Assuming the changes you envision for your residence are fairly ambitious, chances are you, too, will need professional help and will expect to get what you pay for. Your options center on an architect, a contractor or an interior designer -- maybe all three. Yet locating the right ones can be intimidating, mostly because you are the amateur while they are the professionals, but also because at stake is your dream house and your money.
Be assured, professionals will tell you, that dreams can turn to nightmares when off-base thinking is employed: Do you really need some fancy-schmancy architect for the straightforward nanny's room and bath you have in mind? Maybe you could just rough out a plan on the back of a grocery sack and let the contractor handle it. Naturally you'll pick the builder with the lowest bid. Or did you decide to scratch the bidding process altogether and just let Ralph (your neighbor's brother-in-law who was laid off from that big construction job downtown) take over?
As for choosing tile, curtains, light fixtures, a few pieces of furniture and maybe some wallpaper, just how tricky can such a task be? Mabel from down the street (the one you met at the Tupperware party who just finished a correspondence course in home decorating) says she can save you a bundle and won't charge much either.
If such a scenario makes you cringe, it's time to get serious about your renovation plans. First, bone up on the basics of just what an architect, a builder or an interior designer can do for you. Then look at how these professionals can work together to transform your residential dream into reality, on time and within budget. And while you're at it, take a good look at some typical home renovation pitfalls.
STEP 1: DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Before you ponder what professional help is required, decide how you want to transform your home and why. Determine what problems you want renovation to eliminate. Not enough closet space? A kitchen that's too dark and cramped to allow family kibitzing? A hallway that serves no useful purpose? Suspect wiring throughout the house, a roof that never stops leaking and a powder room toilet that overflows the moment your doorbell rings?
Now is also the time to decide what style or look you're after. Are you eager to give a traditional home a contemporary face lift? Are you inclined to dump "improvements" made during a circa '60s remodeling effort and focus more on restoration of your home's original '30s style?
Above all else, now is the time to determine how much you can spend. Experienced renovators will tell you the worst horror story of all can be the final tab for a project handled willy-nilly without thought to the bottom line. If you approach an architect or builder with a plan in mind sans a firm dollar figure to anchor it, you may end up with a set of fabulous blueprints you'll never financially be able to execute.