Budgets and Buzzkills: Our Remodel Emotional Roller Coaster

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When we started planning our home remodel, we gathered our team to discuss design options and costs. This early collaboration is important even for smaller remodels, because you need to know what you can afford. It is also somewhat rare.

From what we've seen, the general order of operations is: 1) hire an architect or designer and draft your plan, 2) submit those plans to your city or county for approval and permits, 3) choose two or three contractors to bid on your project, and 4) select your contractor and begin construction.

The problem with this scenario is that bids are often higher than your expectations and budget. And by the time you realize this, you are hopelessly in love with the vaulted ceiling and skylights your designer has drawn. At that point, change is emotionally hard.

Here are our suggestions for being able to afford your remodel:

Hold a planning meeting with your designer and a potential contractor. You might pay a fee for this service, but we think it is better to invest $500-$1,000 up front to avoid expensive surprises at bid time. A good contractor will have ideas about cost-saving strategies and materials that might save money and time. And you will know upfront what those splurge items will cost, so you can pick and choose.

Pick your splurges. Not everything needs to be top-of-the line, but a house should have a few big moments. Prioritize your lists of needs and wants to make your must-haves clear. We chose a dramatic vaulted ceiling in our kitchen/living/dining space and a large glass slider into the backyard. Luckily we let go of a few things early, before we ever saw them in drawings and pictures. By then, we would have been tempted to raid the 401(k) for the midcentury chandelier that we just had to have. This process of prioritizing saved us from ourselves.

Prepare to compromise. Some of our compromises were shortening the planned kitchen island, buying a counter-depth fridge instead of a paneled built-in one, and adjusting our floor plan to take advantage of an existing structural wall.

Find creative solutions. We used less expensive slider doors for our master bedroom and kitchen. Because you will never see them up against our expensive backyard slider, we decided to mix and match manufacturers. That switch alone saved us over $5,000. We also decided to keep and skim coat over an existing patio instead of demolishing it and starting from scratch.


Protect no sacred cows. We were determined to design our house around our dining room table, which reflects our style and holds many happy memories. In our planned open-concept living room/dining room/kitchen it just didn't fit. It was too big, too rectangular, and it blocked the open feel no matter where you put it. That meant considering costly work-arounds to try to accommodate it. Once we realized that was crazy, we had a brief mourning period and then we moved on. You really can't design a house around one piece of furniture. You have to approach the process with an open mindset and let function and your overall goals lead the way.

Reuse creatively. That same table, with a few modifications, is going to make a perfect his-and-hers desk in our new office. Hooray! We are also working with existing door and window openings where possible to save money on demolition and framing.

Start with traditional, proven technologies. Because our goal is zero net energy, we evaluated all kinds of expensive technologies like ductless mini splits, heat recovery systems, and spray foam insulation. What we found by modeling these options is that, with our climate, we can achieve our goal with a conventional furnace, traditional insulation, and a smart approach to what we call home systems integration. There is no need to over-engineer if you take a systematic approach to planning.

Size your heating and air conditioning correctly. Our house is less than 2,000 square feet. With new insulation and windows we will need a 2.5 ton furnace. The existing furnace: seven tons! More isn't always better and it is certainly more expensive.


When you are on a budget, there will always be buzzkills during the remodel process. We really wanted a decadent bathtub and a larger back patio. But will we miss them when we are staring at our vaulted ceiling or enjoying the view through our large sliding door? I doubt it.

Update: See the finished project here.

Holland & Nick Brown are on a quest for a Net Zero Nest: remodeling a house (on a mainstream budget) into a home that makes efficient use of energy and water.
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