``Don't go in over your head,'' warns Bob Vila, host of public television's ``This Old House.'' Whether you're buying a home with renovation in mind, or planning to fix up your present home, get expert advice on what improvements you can afford to make and whether you can recoup the full value of them if you have to sell your home quickly. ``The biggest mistake people can make is to buy something too big, or too far gone, or in the wrong neighborhood where they feel out of place,'' Mr. Vila says.
You can save money by doing some work yourself. ``On the show, we're always encouraging this whole concept which we call sweat equity,'' Vila says.
He estimates a family can save 15 percent on the total cost of a job by being their own general contractor - making many phone calls, interviewing subcontractors and checking references, coordinating tasks, arranging financing and check-writing, running contracts by lawyers. Another 5 to 7 percent can be saved by doing some chores like picking up and delivering, simple demolition, and cleaning up around the job site.
With guidance, homeowners can even pitch in on more skilled tasks like framing, electrical rough wiring, rough plumbing, and painting. But if you plan to get that deeply involved, be sure to shop around for a sympathetic contractor.
``I've talked to remodelers who say, `I have two price scales - one if I do the work myself, and a higher price if the homeowner helps,''' warns Ann Marie Moriarty, feature editor of Remodeling magazine.
Be prepared for cost and time overruns. ``A rule of thumb in remodeling is, it always takes longer,'' says Ms. Moriarty.
She recommends holding a 10 percent contingency in reserve beyond the estimate, and expecting to use it. ``There are always surprises in remodeling, because you don't know what's going to be behind the wall, or what the condition of the framing is going to be when you get there. The plaster may look good when you first start taking the wallpaper off of it, but you may find it crumbled.''
Vila finds overruns so common, he recommends setting aside 15 percent.
If the project is extensive, it's a good idea to wall off a couple of areas with polyethylene shading and duct tape. You need ``sane spots where you can enjoy your family that are not totally cluttered or totally overrun by plaster dust,'' Vila says. ``The quality of life will really take on disastrous tones if you don't.''
``The problem with remodeling is, it takes longer than you expect and it makes a bigger mess than you expect, and you have to live with a big mess for months and months and months,'' explains real estate agent Elaine Golden-Gealer, who recently renovated her own home in Santa Monica, Calif.