Busting the budget is everyone’s biggest fear when it comes to renovation. And with good reason. Even if you follow the essential advice we’ve been doling out for years—build in a 20 percent cushion to cover the nasty surprises, get contractor references and check them, banish the words “while you’re at it” from your vocabulary—it’s hard not to end up shelling out more than you want to, even if you want to pen a check for a million bucks.
But why scale back a project or forgo that Viking range? No, what you need to do is get your dream at a price you can afford. And not by cheaping out, either. With some strategic thinking about design, materials, and timing, you can cut costs without cutting corners. On the following pages, we’ll show you the ways, from the big (knock down the house and start over) to something as small as choosing a wall sconce over a recessed light. But another universal truth about renovations is that every little thing adds up. So save a little here, save a little there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.
1. Increase efficiency, not size.
If you can reorganize and equip your kitchen for maximum utility, you may not need to blow out the walls to gain square footage. Start by replacing space–hogging shelves with cabinet–height pullout drawers 8 inches wide, containing racks for canned goods and other items. “You’re getting three or more horizontal planes where you might otherwise get only one,” says Louis Smith Jr., an architect with Meier Group, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. You could easily shell out a few thousand to outfit cabinets with upgrades like dividers, pull–out pot trays, and lazy Susans, but you’ll save many times that amount by skipping the addition you thought you needed.
*Cost to expand kitchen by 200 square feet: $48,000 to $95,000
Cost of super–efficient, custom–designed cabinets: $35,000
SAVED: Up to $60,000
2. Bring in natural light without adding windows.
Before cutting a big hole in the side of your house and rearranging the framing, consider less invasive—and less expensive—ways of capturing light. To brighten up a windowless bath or hallway, for instance, you can install a “light tube,” which slips between roof rafters and funnels sunshine down into the living space.
Cost to add a double–pane insulated window: $1,500
Cost for a light tube: $500
3. Hit the recycling center.
Do–it–yourselfers can reap big savings with recycled or lightly used fixtures and building materials. Habitat for Humanity operates about 400 ReStores nationwide, which offer salvaged materials at half off home–center prices. One caveat: Many contractors won’t work with salvaged items, or homeowner–supplied materials in general, because they don’t want to assume the liability if something goes wrong. That said, if you’re doing your own work, you can find anything from prehung doors to acrylic skylights to partial bundles of insulation. (To find a ReStore near you, visit .)
Price of 4–by5–foot insulated window in a home center: $600
Price at ReStore: $300
4. Donate your trash.
Before you begin a remodeling job, invite the local Habitat for Humanity chapter to remove materials and fixtures for later resale. “About 85 percent of a house is reusable,” says B.J. Perkins, Habitat’s ReUse program manager, in Austin, Texas. “We can do a total takedown, or do a cherry-pick job and take the cabinets, the tub, the sink, and so on.” You save space in the landfill, collect a charitable tax credit for the donation, and help a good cause. Visit Habitat’s website (see Way to Save #3) to find an affiliate near you.
Cost to trash a suite of bathroom fixtures: $50 to $75
Cost to donate: Nothing, plus you get a tax deduction
SAVED: Space in the landfill (and a little bit of your soul)
5. Do your own demo.
Knocking down may not be as costly as rebuilding, but you can still shave dollars by doing some of the demolition yourself—as long as you proceed with care. “If a homeowner wants to demo a deck, well, I am sure they can handle that,” says Michael Winn, owner of Winn Design, in Virginia. “But when it comes to interior spaces, I would dissuade them from doing it unless they have done it before.” The reason: A reckless wrecker might unwittingly take out a load–bearing wall or, worse still, plunge a reciprocating saw into live wiring or pressurized plumbing. (For tips on how to do demo right, see our October 2005 feature, “Before You Construct, You Have to Destruct.”)
Cost to demo a 200–square–foot deck yourself: $450 (Dumpster rental and parking permit)
Cost for a pro: $1,000
6. Consider long–term costs, not just short–term gains.
If your addition calls for clapboard siding, for instance, you can save more in the long run by ponying up now for the preprimed and prepainted variety. It costs an extra 10 to 20 cents per foot, but “you’ll wind up paying for half as many paint jobs down the road,” says Paul Eldrenkamp, owner of Byggmeister, a design–build remodeling firm in Newton, Massachusetts. The reason? Factory finishes are applied on dry wood under controlled conditions—no rain, no harsh sun. “I used prefinished claps on my house about ten years ago and the only flaw in the finish is the occasional mildew spot, easily washed off,” Eldrenkamp says. “The paint looks as if it’ll be good for another ten years, easily.” Cost of unfinished siding for a 10–by–40–foot addition, plus two paint jobs: $5,000
Cost for prefinished claps and one coat of paint at installation: $3,750 SAVED: $1,250
7. Tap your contractor’s sources.
When it comes to things like flooring, ask your subcontractor if he has odds–and–ends stock left over from other jobs. While renovating a Civil War–era bed-and-breakfast in New Jersey some years back, contractor Bill Asdal needed wood flooring. He made a few phone calls and came up with hundreds of square feet of hardwood, in various lengths and widths, that otherwise would have gone into the trash on other job sites. Just by planing it to uniform thickness, then sanding and refinishing it, he saved his client almost $9,000 in materials costs.
Cost of new flooring: $19,200
Cost to use someone else’s discards: $10,500
8. Limit recessed light fixtures.
“The more recessed lights you put in, the more it’s going to cost,” says Tom Silva, This Old House’s general contractor. In addition to the fixtures, there’s the labor to cut all the holes and insulate them properly. A wall– or ceiling–mounted light can also deliver more wattage, which means you may be able to get away with fewer fixtures.
Cost to install six can lights: $900
Cost to install one surface–mounted fixture of equal wattage: $300