Home ownership is incredibly rewarding, both financially and personally. Building equity in your home puts you on the path towards a sound financial future, while pride of ownership can be immensely gratifying. Now that spring is arriving, a lot of homeowners finally have a chance to begin planning a renovation or tackling a repair that was put on hold during winter’s harsh weather.
Renovations, both minor (new bathroom vanities, for example) and major (complete new kitchen or bathroom, an addition, etc.) are immediately rewarding in that they improve your home’s aesthetics and functionality, and are also a way to increase the value of your home in the event you seek to sell your home down the road. Many improvements, such as solar panels, modern insulation, or drastically more efficient HVAC systems can substantially lower your energy costs while contributing to a cleaner environment.
Take care of the small things on your own
Minor repairs and maintenance around the house can be handled by most homeowners. Since purchasing my first home several years ago, I’ve become far handier than I ever would have imagined. Leaky faucets, toilets that won’t stop running, sticky windows and doors—no problem, I can tackle those pesky repairs with aplomb!
For the new homeowner facing these small projects, I can’t recommend more highly the power of YouTube videos! Plug virtually any question or project into the search box and you will be rewarded with dozens, if not hundreds, of instructional videos posted by either professionals or skilled amateurs. I replaced my three-piece kitchen faucet set in my last house with my laptop on the floor next to me. I’d watch a minute or so of the video, pause, do exactly what my friendly YouTube handyman just did, and then repeat that process until successful completion of the project. It took me all of an hour, from start to finish, and for someone who had zero experience, I must say I was pretty proud of myself! To sum up: for small projects (and even bigger ones—I built a flagstone patio using the same method!) YouTube is a fantastic resource you should definitely tap into!
Bring in a contractor for the bigger projects
Ah, but what about the bigger jobs—the jobs that require true experts, like a major renovation, or a repair that is beyond the abilities of most of us? This is where many homeowners become confused, frustrated, and just plain angry. Everyone has a horror story about a job gone wrong, blown up budgets, no-show contractors, shoddy work, or repairs that fail in a matter of days, leaving you worse off than you were before.
First, let’s look at some guidelines to help you make an informed decision:
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Three steps to finding a good contractor
If you’re looking to hire a contractor to work in your home, you need to make sure that person is trustworthy, reliable, and represents themselves and their prices accurately on their website. You always want to make sure you are getting a fair price for their work.
Here are some basic tips for making sure you choose the right home contractor:
- Read a variety of reviews—Make sure you read the best and the worst reviews of the person you are considering hiring. Sometimes reviews can be biased, so make sure you read a variety, and go back at least a few months to get the full scope of that person’s reputation.
- Compare prices to get a fair one—Even if you’re pretty sure you want to hire someone, make sure you look at other pros offering the same service in your area. It will help you determine if you’re getting a fair price. Generally, it’s smart to get three quotes, and get them in person. This gives you the opportunity to get a sense for their personality, your rapport with them, and whether you feel comfortable around them.
- Perform an additional background check—Make sure you do additional checks outside of their website. Look up the contractor’s professional LinkedIn profile, or even their Facebook page to see what kind of person you’ll be bringing into your home.
Get references from your friends and online
Certainly, the most tried and true resource to help you find the right person for the job is good old word-of-mouth from friends and neighbors. If your neighbor Sally just had her house painted and you’re hunting for a house painter, there is nothing easier than strolling down the block to chat with Sally and inquire how the job went. Neighbors are almost always willing to give an honest opinion.
Unfortunately, many homeowners cannot rely on a friend or neighbor for recommendations—Again, In this case, the internet can be your friend. There are many websites that make it easier for you to make an informed decision about contractors and other specialists by giving you a rundown of the registered professionals in your area, what their skills are, what related previous experience they have, and how much they would charge (roughly) for your home project or the job you have in mind for them.
The best home-service contractor sites include reviews from previous users, so you know what kind of experience you’re likely to have if you hire the contractor, based on people who live in your area who required the same kind of work. They intend to help make the hiring process safe and easy for you so you have trusted, well-reviewed workers entering your home, with pre-negotiated prices.
Bear in mind there are several others worth a look, but these three offer the most comprehensive rosters of tradespeople, are free for you to use, and have longstanding reputations as reliable sources.
Three great referral resources
Angie’s List: Angie’s List is a popular site for finding local businesses and offers a review portal for those who are looking for more information than simple contact details, and/or anonymous reviews on free directory websites. Begun in 1995, Angie’s List is the oldest, most established referral website, and used to charge fees for its services. In 2016, the site began offering a basic “freemium” referral service and in my experience, this is more than adequate in locating a professional for your project. All business reviews on Angie’s List are written by paid website subscribers or verified third parties who have hired those companies before. These reviews also include, among other details, comprehensive ratings across five key service categories about home-service contractors.
Thumbtack: Founded in 2009, Thumbtack is an Angie’s List alternative that works on a more personal level. Basically, you answer a few questions on Thumbtack about what type of work you need done. Then, professionals on Thumbtack who are available to take the job will send you custom quotes with estimated prices, business information, reviews from previous customers, and often a personal message. From there, you can decide which company you think will do the best job and hire them on the spot. I have used Thumbtack to find professionals for several projects, and I particularly like their website’s ease of use.
HomeAdvisor Free to use for both customers and professionals, HomeAdvisor has numerous tools for helping with home renovation. These include a guided process for finding the right contractor, general information and reviews of local home improvement businesses in your neighborhood, a guide to figuring out your budget for the type of home renovation that you need done, and a design aid for helping envision what you want your project to look like by the end. Note that HomeAdvisor is also owned by the same parent company that purchased Angie’s List in 2017. Where do the two services differ? In my experience Angie’s List came back with a slightly larger list of prospective pros for any given project, but HomeAdvisor’s site was a bit more user-friendly, and offered some very nice extras such as the design aid. My wife and I used this design aid to come up with an initial plan for our kitchen renovation and found it very helpful.
The bottom line—budgeting
Budgeting for a renovation or major repair can be approached in different ways. Many homeowners set up a dedicated deposit account with their financial institution and put aside funds at regular intervals. This way, funds are available in the event of an unexpected repair expense, or funds are accumulated until the homeowner is ready to start fixing up their dated kitchen or some other home project.
Another option is to talk to a representative at your credit union or bank about opening a HELOC (home equity line of credit) or arranging a home equity loan.
A HELOC is a form of revolving credit, like a credit card, for which your home serves as collateral. A home equity line of credit can be used to pay for home improvements, and can also be established as a safety net or cushion for unexpected future events. This line of credit should not be used for day-to-day expenses.
You’ll be approved for a specific amount of credit that will be available for you to use over a period of time, whenever you need it. You make monthly payments on your outstanding balance, and as you pay down your line of credit, the funds become available again for use.
A home equity loan is a great option when you need to make a single, large purchase at a certain price. The equity in your home can come in handy when you need to borrow money for home renovations or a needed major repair. A home equity loan is closed-end loan with a fixed interest rate for a specified number of years.
Some financial institutions offer special financing at attractive rates for any project or purchase that improves the energy efficiency of your home or transportation. If you’re considering a solar energy project, weatherization, a heating system upgrade, energy efficiency appliances or a new high-efficiency heat pump, there are loan options that can help you achieve long-term energy savings.
Whether you’re getting out the toolbox and rolling up your sleeves to tackle that leaky faucet, or dreaming of that new wraparound porch, there are many valuable resources to help you fix up your home. There may be hurdles and bumps along the way, just as there are with any big job. But with careful research and smart planning, the result can be a home that is safer, more energy-efficient, warm, and welcoming for you and your family.
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