By Chet Yarbrough

Making it Home

April 2, 2012

Depending on audience interest, this may be the first and last of a series of “how to” articles on the mechanics of what it takes to renovate a house.  This first article will address planning and whether or not to use a qualified General Contractor to manage renovation work that is to be done.  Subsequent articles will address the process of renovating a house; in that process, pictures will be shown of decisions made in re-modeling a 1980s house.

To quote a Bob Dylan lyric: “Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”  That is what every home owner is compelled to do when thinking about what has happened to home values in the last five years.

If you have purchased a foreclosed house, if you have lived in your current home for ten years or more, it may be time to assess its condition and what you can do to make it better.  No one can say that we have hit the bottom of the market in housing; i.e., maybe prices are going to continue to fall, but is that relevant?  A house is not just a financial investment.  If you have decided home is where you want to live, it is time to begin re-building pride and value in home ownership.

Renovation is a maddening complicated process that has both pitfalls and rewards.  Should I or shouldn’t I?  Can I do it or do I need to hire someone?  How can I fit this additional responsibility into my daily life?

The first step is to identify a scope of work.  If you are going to renovate the entire house; i.e., move some walls, change the bathroom layout, add a room, etc., then you need an original set of plans that show the dimensions of the house.  Most often, that set of plans is not available.  With any extensive renovation, it is important to hire a draftsman or designer; in some cases, an architect.  They will draw a house layout showing existing room dimensions and wall locations.  You will use that set of drawings (called “as builts”) to formulate ideas about what you want to do in the renovation.  The designer or architect will use that “as built” to re-draw the plans to illustrate the changes that will be made to the house.   Before hiring a designer or architect, formulate clear ideas of what you would like to do because time is money and a designer or architect will want to clearly understand what you want.  This is the least expensive and most important stage of your renovation project.  Revisions drawn on an “as built” give you the basic document you will need to bid work for a budget and receive the required permits before you begin renovation.

The following picture is of a house built over 25 years ago:

Exterior Elevation Before Renovation

If the scope of work is cosmetic and non-structural; i.e., replacing carpet, flooring, windows, landscaping, paint, trim, and appliances, no drawings and no permits will be required.  However, it remains important to identify the scope of work to know your costs and manage your time.

The following renovation is more than cosmetic.  The front entry structure was removed because it overwhelmed the house.  The entry structure is replaced with curved landscaping walls.  Two new windows (only 1 shows; the other is unseen to the right of the double door) are installed at the entry, and an 8 foot glass & wood double door replaces 6′ 8″ solid wood double doors.


After the scope of work is determined, and revisions to the “as-built” drawing are done, you are at a fundamental decision point.  Do you become your own “General Contractor” or do you hire a General Contractor?  A General Contractor is not a “doer of things”; a General Contractor is a manager of people.  If you already do that in your job, a renovation will become an extension of your work time commitment; if you are not a manager of people, you should hire a qualified and licensed General Contractor that will manage the people to do the work that you are either not qualified or too busy to do.  Hiring a General Contractor will require less of your time than being your own “General Contractor”.

A reliable licensed General Contractor that has been in the market for five or more years develops a group of subcontractors that have done a good job in the past; a customer benefits from that experience.  That benefit translates to better quality; however, using a General Contractor costs more, from 3% to 10% of job cost.  That wide range is largely based on the size of the job.  There are significant benefits in using a General Contractor.  You will only have to interview, check references, and investigate the workmanship of one discipline. You only have to manage one person during the renovation process.  However, even though only one General Contractor will be hired, a minimum of 3 General Contractors should be interviewed before you enter into a contract.

The biggest disadvantage of using a General Contractor is diminution of control.  A good General Contractor is driven to complete a job to a customer’s satisfaction but every change a customer makes always increases cost and delays completion of the renovation.  The consequence is that customers become reluctant to make changes once the General Contractor has begun work.  That reluctance is well founded when a customer only has so much money to spend.  It is important to make as many design decisions as you can before the General Contractor begins because a budget can easily double when changes are made after work is started.

If not bored by the idea of renovating, follow up articles will explain the permit process and show pictures of this house’s renovation; reflecting unexpected problems, choices, compromises, and results.

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11 thoughts on “MAKING IT HOME”

  1. this is perfect, i am looking to do something similar very soon and this article makes perfect sense.

  2. Howdy, I am new to blogging and internet sites in general and was wondering how you got the “www” included in your web address name? I see your web address, “” has the www and my domain looks like, “”. Do you know the best way I can change this? I’m using WordPress platform. Appreciate it

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