Renovations: The Top 10 Things I Learned about Renovations (Pt. 3)

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  1. You can be your own contractor – If you are an organized person who can think though a plan and communicate well with workers, you can do this. My girlfriend Denise Dermody, who is an architect and interior designer at Simply Design in Washington, D.C., kept encouraging me that I could run the renovation myself. She gave me the basic timeline in which things needed to be ordered and scheduled. Our timeline did have some setbacks (appliances didn’t show up on time) but by keeping my sub-contractors informed we didn’t have any problems getting the work done when we were ready. (See side bar for order of the work.)
  2. Only go with companies referred by friends or from other workers you trust. Several of our companies were recommended by the Realtor that sold our old house. They used the companies frequently and knew their work well. We also liked that several of the companies we used had been in business for more than 20 years in the area.  (New Mom on the blog recommended the granite company I ended up using.)
  3. Get multiple quotes. I got between three and four quotes for each area of work. I was looking for a low price, not necessarily the lowest. I was also looking for good recommendations and high-quality work. I asked each questions based on what other companies had told to try to figure out who knew what they were talking about.
  4. Price everything and establish a timeline before you even place your first order. You need to know timing and cost for every aspect of your project. You need to create a timeline on paper showing when everything will arrive and who you need to install it when.
  5. The granite company should be willing to measure on-site and show you exactly how the counter will be mapped out. The company I chose answered all my questions, had great follow up and were very patient. They were also happy to give me multiple granite samples, even of the same type, to see in my home.
  6. Definitely choose your own granite slab. The same type of granite can look very different depending on where it’s mined. We completely changed granite based on what we found when we went to choose our slab. The slab people were very good about pointing out patterns that might bother someone on their counters. They noted any concerns and my granite company was happy to cut around it wherever possible or lay it out to the back of the counter where you won’t see it.
  7. None of my companies wanted all, or even close to all, of the money up front. The granite company did want a large portion since they were ordering the granite, but I put that on a credit card in case there were any issues. We had no problems. Be VERY suspicious of any company wanting a large chunk of money up front. When we were moving from our other house a contractor wanted like 75 percent up front. I told him good day and didn’t call him again.
  8. Don’t feel like you have to take the wallpaper down to paint. Tight wallpaper that hasn’t been exposed to steam does not have to be taken down, and it’s a lot less expensive if you don’t take it down. Our painters skimmed the seams and prepped the surface to take the paint and it turned out beautifully. You would never know there was wallpaper underneath. They had a much harder time prepping walls where they did have to take down wallpaper like our master bathroom.
  9. Definitely pay for the paint samples.  I was so irritated every time I paid $4 for a paint sample but there is no way I could have gotten my colors right without the samples. Paint big patches all around the room when you’ve narrowed down your color to see how it looks in different light. You may also need a primer even under the samples to see how it will really look. I didn’t need the primer with the green but did with the coral.
  10. Also pop for the 15-year sealer on your granite. It’s was only like $100 more, and I don’t have to worry about anything staining my granite now. The company will come and clean it if anything does stain it. P.S. The worst stain they can’t get out of granite – grease from pizza boxes! No pizza boxes ever on your granite.

You Can Be Your Own Contractor – The Order of our work

You can be your own contractor. Once you have everything priced out and chosen, make a timetable of when everything will be ordered and is expected to arrive, then think logically about what needs to be done first. Your suppliers can help you figure this out. For example, it was my electrician that told me I needed an electrical outlet under my stove to light my new gas range. I just thought I needed the gas line.

I told all my suppliers I was acting as the general contractor and told them my tentative schedule. They penciled me in, and I told them I would call them if anything changed. My appliances were more than a week late so I called and rescheduled everything for a week and a half later. They were all flexible.  It was good most of my suppliers were close by because they could pop by if something needed to be done before another step could take place.

You want your appliances to come in first. They can sit in the garage or basement until you’re ready for everything else.

This is the order I did my work in:

Lights – I had my recessed lighting done first. I wanted to see if I really needed the under-cabinet lights so I wanted to live with my new lighting for a few weeks before the rest of the stuff was put in. (If you choose to do under-cabinet lights then you have to install them while your backsplash is ripped out so the cords don’t show.) I wanted my recessed lights in a line, which is hard to do because you never know what’s in your ceiling. My electrician would poke a small hole that you couldn’t see from below and then twirl a wire in the ceiling to see if he was going to hit any pipes.  He did not make a single extraneous hole that had to be patched and my lights are completely parallel.  (You will want to be present when they are doing this work. You may have to make decisions about where the lights should go.)

Electrician – The same guy that installed my recessed lights uninstalled my stove top, installed a plug under the stove that I needed for electrical ignition even though I was switching to gas. He tried on that day to install my ovens but even though they were technically the same width they were actually a hair wider. Those couldn’t be installed as planned.

Granite – The next morning the granite company showed up. They took out the countertops and the old backsplash. They put in the undermount sink (for simplicity sake I bought the sink and the drain and the faucet from the granite company. That way I knew it would all fit and be cut right.) The granite company pulled out the stove top and dropped in the new gas range.

Plumber The next day the plumber came in hooked up the sink, the dishwasher and ran the gas line from the basement. The plumber had a very difficult time getting our old dishwasher out of the hole because the former owner had installed hardwood floors. The floor level was raised up so with the granite already in place it wasn’t enough room to remove the dishwasher. They ended up having to cut the legs off of the dishwasher to get it out. We were lucky the new one fit in OK.

This also could have been solved by having the plumber come early and disconnect the dishwasher and then let the granite guys pull it out while the countertop was off before they installed the granite.

The granite company said that with dishwashers with top-mount  buttons they usually cut an indention in the counter so you can see the buttons. Technically, this was a mistake on my part but I actually didn’t want the baby to know the buttons are there. When you’re done loading the dishwasher you set the buttons and close it and then it starts. So it’s not a problem and it hides the buttons. If your kids are older you may want the granite cut back slightly to show the buttons.

The gas line presented its own problems. It needed to be run from the unfinished basement through the finished side of the basement and then up into the cabinet above.

I talked with multiple people about running that gas line and most said they would have to make a giant hole in the finished basement ceiling to run it up into the kitchen. Northlake Plumbing said they thought they could piece it together ahead of time and then run it down avoiding making a big hole. The caveat to this plan was they had to be able to reach each joint enough to test it. Also they had to use a more expensive type of pipe to do this. They were able to reach the joint and avoided making a giant hole in a finished ceiling – which would have cost more to plaster over than buying the slightly more expensive pipe.

The plumbers finished hooking up my stove. So at this point I had a working dishwashwer, working stove and working sink.

On that same day, a friend of my father, who is amazing carpenter, showed up to slice the side of the cabinet so the ovens would fit in. He also had to build up the bottom of the cabinet hole so there wouldn’t be a gap in the cabinet.

(I’m not sure how this problem could have been anticipated.)

Electrician showed back up that day to put in the ovens.

I still had several lights around the house for him to do but we waited until after the painting was done for him to come back.

Tile - The tile guys showed up after a weekend to put in the backsplash. They worked Monday and Tuesday.  Carroll Robinson at Atlanta Tile Supply, Inc. listened to what I was looking for in a backsplash and drew out a couple of ideas. We picked one we liked and he drew it more formally and figured out exactly the amount of materials I would need. He ordered the materials and my tiler picked them up from him. Carroll was very patient and helpful!

We went with a rectangular tile laid out in a subway pattern – meaning the tiles don’t line up on top of each other. The tile was about $3 a square foot – so very inexpensive, extremely durable and easy to care for. We added some glass tiles in for accents along the walls and behind the stove. Those were $27 a square foot, but we ordered only three square feet.  It gave color and a fancy touch without busting the budget or looking too busy.

The tiler ended up adjusting the pattern slightly on the wall. They were very exacting and re-laid the start of the pattern several times until they had it just right.  My only complaint was that he didn’t seal the grout. You have to wait for the grout to completely dry before you seal it, which takes several days. It was actually easy to seal but I just didn’t know that was my responsibility.

Painters – The painting was stressful to me because I had five men working in five rooms almost all at one time. They were very good about protecting our furniture and our carpet but that meant we had plastic and tarp everywhere!  They were very skilled and meticulous! They didn’t take any shortcuts and were fine around the kids. They were in the house for four days!

The electrician came back after the painters were done to install a bathroom light and an over-the-sink light.  He also swapped out all my electrical boxes in my dining rooms, bathrooms and kitchen to match the correct new trim color.

I hope this helps you get a feel for the order that work could be done in and might encourage you to take on your own job. With careful planning and lots of investigating you can do renovations for much less than you think.

Feel free to ask questions about your project. I’ll try to answer or another reader may know the answer too! What tips do you have for other readers about family-friendly and budget-friendly renovations?

33 comments Add your comment


January 27th, 2010
7:14 am

When we remodeled we had a contractor do all the stuff that you did yourself – it felt like the extra 25% in cost was worth it at the time, and after reading what you wrote about your experience as your own “general”, I am sure it was worth the extra money we paid. And, they were very good, too. I am really glad that everything turned out like you wanted and envisioned it…


January 27th, 2010
8:07 am

My head would be swimming, if I had to handle this. I would have to quit my job to do it!
Just reading today’s topic was enough for me and I am the queen of long posts!

Kudos to you Theresa, for getting what you wanted and now you can enjoy it!

We also had a contractor who finished our basement and it worked out great.


January 27th, 2010
8:20 am

Sounds like a good plan. However, if you were really on a tight budget, you could have done the painting yourself – that’s an easy enough job.


January 27th, 2010
8:28 am

Just talking out loud to myself as I get ready to head to the kiddos;

give me 100 Kindergartners for storytelling and I am having a ball

give me 400 teachers for a 6 hour seminar and I am loving it

give me a project like yours above and I will go crazy….this is probably why I am not on the cutting edge of home decor….it is simply not what I do best.

Good thing there are those who love it and can guide the rest of us. My hat is off to you!

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

January 27th, 2010
9:15 am

Jane — We had 6 very large rooms of wallpaper that either needed to pulled down or seemed over — I did one bathroom and it took me more than 2 weeks to get all the layers of wallpaper down and painted. i thought I had done a good job of it and we had a realtor walk through. he said I didn’t do a good enough jobs on the seems and me doing the work wouldn’t help us resell a house later —- If there had been no wallpaper I would have happily painted all those rooms —- Wallpaper is a whole different story. Now anyone could change a color easily with very little money.
Our painters did a great job for a reasonable price – they were very skilled. It took five men four days to do all the room — it would have taken me months and it would have subpar.

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

January 27th, 2010
9:16 am

I was thinking last night about this and it is a very detail oriented thing — you have to stay on top of all the fact, figures, order, number, quotes — I had reams of notes and several notebooks with all my stuff in it.

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

January 27th, 2010
9:18 am

Guys — i have a sex topic popping up around 1 today so be sure to check back for a second topic for today.


January 27th, 2010
10:20 am

I’m with Lakerat…I would MUCH rather pay a contractor than to have to do all of that myself! There are folks though that excel at this type of planning, etc. I am NOT one of them! My BFF in Key West and her hubby are FANTASTIC! If I can ever scrape up enough money to remodel, I will be calling them!

Theresa, everything looks GREAT!


January 27th, 2010
10:34 am

Theresa, this is why I will never have wallpaper again..It’s a royal pain the the behind to take down..Thank goodnss that I have a brother that paints for a living, so this isn’t a big issue for me..As, I have mentioned before, my husband is a great handy man, so hiring people to do all of this work isn’t something that I would need to do..I have 3 nephews that is a plumber, a BIL that is an electrcian, the above mentioned brother, a coworker’s husband that does HVAC, a cousin (and husband) that are roofers..So again, congrat on the remodel and I’m so happy that you are enjoying it..How do the kids like everything?


January 27th, 2010
10:36 am

ok, that was a major typo..”that is”..I have 3 nephews that are plumbers..

Charlie Sheen

January 27th, 2010
11:31 am

Sex topic? I’ll be back!


January 27th, 2010
11:35 am

I am so over granite. I have marble and I love it. Gorgeous white carrara marble and walnut butcherblock counters. But then, my house is 100 years old and I thought granite would look strange in it. Marble and wood fit the era of the home, and the style.

But yours looks great for the type of home you have.

If it’s tile work, I do it myself. My husband and I have the equipment and we do quite a nice job, if I do say so myself. Naturally things like plumbing and electrical I’d have a pro do.

As for painting over wall-paper. I would never advise it. It might be fine now. But in 10-15 years it won’t be. It WILL start seperating from the wall. But I suppose you can deal with it then.

Anyhoo, your reno looks nice and I am sure you’re enjoying your “new” home.

As for being your own contractor…well, I’ve got a day-job that usually takes up 8-10 hours of my day and requires travel. And then there’s family. I’ll pay for a contractor and just stay involved.


January 27th, 2010
11:37 am

Beautiful work–love the kitchen! Do you have a painter recommendation?


January 27th, 2010
11:52 am

I’ve never had any luck painting over wallpaper. However, taking it down… I made a mess of the walls and had to patch like crazy! Wallpaper should have just never been invented, haha! Also, talking about dishwashers with buttons on top… I read that the steam will get in those buttons over time and will short out that electrical panel. Anyone had a problem with this? I avoided buying one because I read this…. but it would have been soooo nice to have hidden buttons! :(


January 27th, 2010
11:58 am

I remodeled our kitchen myself for the most part. The one or two things I felt were beyond my expertise, i hired out, but did all the prep work myself. For example, my wife wanted some fairly intricate tile work on the back splash done. I had the guy come by and he gave me an estimate. I said, “Well what would it cost me, if I demo the old stuff, install new backing boards and have everything laid out?” he then told me it would cost about a third.

So the lesson is, do the stuff you can do yourself.


January 27th, 2010
12:19 pm

my head is spinning from all the renovation topics this week…bring on the sex topic… :)


January 27th, 2010
12:41 pm

@…, I agree, you can do it yourself..When my husband did our new backsplash, we just layed it out on the floor the way that we wanted it to look and went from there..As for the cabinets, took the hardware off and sanded, then painted them..A lot of it is like !Run said, time as well as actually wanting to try it..

Tiger Woods

January 27th, 2010
12:47 pm


Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

January 27th, 2010
12:47 pm

Cheryl — look on part 1 on the renovation for all my recs on our service providers — I was very happy with my painters. They were recommended through our old Realtor — they use him a lot. I had nothing bad to say about him. Reasonable price, showed up when they were supposed to. Did very high quality work, protected my carpet and furniture. I felt like he really listened and put everything in writing and only asked for some paint money up front — nothing else until he was done.

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

January 27th, 2010
12:48 pm

SEx topic will be up at like 1:05 — it’s not a sex one though but I do have a sexy one for Friday I think –


January 27th, 2010
12:54 pm

Correct on the countertop part. However, you can get the price before that point.


January 27th, 2010
1:10 pm

I would still have yanked the paper down not painted over it. That is just me, the extra cost would be worth it. I agree with you though, I can paint rooms and have, but a professional painter is well worth the money.

Needabailout, too!

January 27th, 2010
2:01 pm

Interesting point about painting over wallpaper. I would’ve thought no. Last year I had wallpaper in the full bathroom from the original homeowner that needed to come down due to a hideous clash with tile color. I wasn’t aware of the painting over vs. steam exposure disqualification factor, but by this theory, and due to location, mine was never a paint-over candidate. I’d never tried to take wallpaper down before, but thought it can’t be that hard. Boy, was I wrong. This wallpaper was glued probably twenty years ago, over several different layers of previously applied paint from several decades past, so the adhesion factor was off the charts. I took an entire week of vacation, working 6-8 hours each day, scraping and struggling to remove this wallpaper, with every removal trick employed. It’s given me a new displeasure with anything having to do with wallpaper as a decorating idea.

From watching too many home improvement cable shows, they say to never paint over wallpaper because with the added paint layer acting as an effective sealant, the wallpaper will never come off.

No Way

January 27th, 2010
2:36 pm

We just finished renovating 2 bathrooms, master bedroom, living room and hallway, so i though i will chaim in with my 2 cents:
1. I agree – never paint over the wall paper.
2. Make sure you have all items delivered WAY BEFORE ( like 2 months) the contract is signed or the project starts. Speaking from experience – had 6 custom items ordered and when delivery was made the hell broke loose: 1 item was missing, 3 were broken and jacuzzi was not the one we ordered. I was able to re-order other items on time (just because i had many rooms to redo and i was able to swap tasks), but ended up with jacuzzi that i did not want. It would have taken 6 weeks to reorder it and i just simply could not wait that long.
2. Cost efficiency – do these thing and let contractor handle the rest:
– take wallpaper. It took me 1 day per room. Not as problematic as many people think – just spray hot water and rip. You may need to do multiple times in the same area.
– paint rooms (rate in our area is 800- 1000 per room), so this is big money saving.
– buy tiles online. I was able to save about 80% by ordering tiles online. You can order tiles samples in advance.
– Buy Benjamin paint, not Home depot. Believe me, you can tell the difference when you paint. Better paint goes thicker and you use less of it.
– act as a contractor


January 27th, 2010
2:43 pm

The only way I woud act as my own contractor would be if I didn’t have a job. If your project is any size at all, it is well worth the cost. I just did a kitchen & bath remodel. My contractor was incredible. There is no way I had the patience to deal with all those subcontractors. He worked with them on multiple jobs so they didn’t want to make him mad. If I had been dealing with them myself, I’m doubt they would have been as motivated. My contractor fee was only 15%. Not that it made up all the $$, but he passed all his contractor discounts on to me so I saved some $$ on alot of the materials. It was well worth the cost of having a contractor.


January 27th, 2010
2:45 pm

Wow…is $800 to $1000 per room the going rate in Atlanta? I have no idea, as my husband always paints here…maybe he can do this on the side….LOL! Does this include the paint or is that extra?

We used BEHR paint for most of our projects and have been pleased. Especially when ( long ago) our kids were little and it cleaned up nicely.


January 27th, 2010
3:55 pm

As for # 8, I have to agree with the majority of other posters, painting over wallpaper is a No No.
I have talked to numerous painters about this over the years and the resounding answer has been NO. Right now it may look great, but over the years with addtional coats of paints etc. etc. you’ll be able to tell and then the wallpaper is even a bigger p.i.t.a. to remove. The future homeowners will curse you, lol !!


January 27th, 2010
4:41 pm

@MJG.. yep, this is the going rate for painters..So, yes buy your husband some good paint brushes, white pants and send him on his merry way..The only down side to this is the old saying..You don’t have to paint to be a drunk, but you do have to drink to paint..Just about every painter that I have ever known drank..And drank a lot..

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John Anderson

January 29th, 2010
11:10 am

If wall paper does not have sizing in order to remove it is the only time you would ever paint over wallpaper. If you do have to paint over wallpaper it needs to be sealed down with an alcohol primer or it will bubble up and even then sometimes it does then you have to apply compound to those spots and seal it down good then you can paint it. Ben Moore is definitely the best paint.I disagree about your comments about not giving a contractor a deposit. There are just as many shady homeowners as shady contractors. And by the way how much did every body pay for you to plug them in this article.


January 30th, 2010
11:28 am

What is the brand and name of the color shade you chose for the blue bathroom and entry foyer? Thanks!


February 1st, 2010
12:57 pm

The renovations are beautiful. Kudos to you for being your own sub-contractor! :)

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