6 Ways to Cut Remodeling Costs Without Sacrificing Quality

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Building an addition, finishing a basement, or updating a tired kitchen can add functionality and value to your home, along with making it more fun to live there. But these projects cost big bucks. The average cost of a modest family-room addition in 2014? $80,756. A basement remodel? $62,834. Even a minor kitchen remodel runs an average of $18,856. Read on to cut those costs.

1. Set a Budget and Make a List

This may sound obvious, but many homeowners start with what they want to get, not what they can afford. It's very easy to lose perspective once a contractor starts making suggestions: Wouldn't you like a skylight there or a larger window over here? How about a bigger fridge or an exotic hardwood? Well, yes, you very well might, but if you start out with a firm sense of what you want to spend, it will be easier to say no to budget-busting upgrades.

Determine what you can afford to spend before you start meeting with contractors, and let them know up front what you have to work with, along with your top two or three must-have improvements. A good contractor will work with you to fit the project to your budget.

2. Get Multiple Bids from Vetted Contractors

I start looking for service providers close to home, by sending a request to my neighborhood email list for recommendations. I have found excellent contractors this way (and been warned about those to avoid).

If those leads seem promising, follow up with a few more specific questions to the recommender. I like to ask about three key areas: how close the final cost was to the estimate, whether the work site was kept clean, and how pleasant the crew was to have around (especially important for indoor and long-term projects!).

I then compare those names to reviews on Angie's List (ANGI) (requires a paid subscription). Make sure to read the reviews carefully to understand why they got the grade they did. I also like to take a look through the cost and descriptions of the projects being reviewed to get a sense of whether the service provider has done jobs similar to mine.

Once you have at least three promising names, call and request an estimate, carefully specifying your budget and a brief description of the job.

3. Look Beyond the Bottom Line

When the contractor comes to provide the estimate, let him know you are on a strict budget and ask for advice on where and how to trim costs.

To make it easy to compare estimates, have each contractor price out the same specs (type and grade of materials, square footage, etc.). You may find that the contractor has his own suggestions -- a different floor plan, say, or an alternative installation method. These can be great ideas and in some cases, even save money. In that case, ask him to price out both his idea and your original plan to compare.

Once you get the estimates, don't be surprised if they vary widely. The recent set of estimates I got for a screen porch addition were more than $10,000 apart, and quotes to replace the carpet throughout my house with hardwood flooring differed by as much as $5,000.

Sometimes there are good reasons for the difference. Make sure you understand where and why the estimates don't compare. In the flooring job, the higher cost was for a glue-down installation instead of a floating floor. After researching which option was best for my concrete slab, I opted to pay up for the more expensive option. For the porch, I ended up choosing the lower-priced company.

4. Go Off-Season

After you've chosen the contractor you want to go with, ask him when his off-season falls. I saved 5 percent off both my recent projects by having them done in the winter, when the contractors didn't have as much work.

I have found that the period between New Year's and early April is the best time for most projects. Why? Most of the country is hunkering down for winter and recovering from the expensive holiday season. By April, people start receiving tax refunds, the weather warms up, and the building business revs up as well.

5. Ask for a Discount

This one is simple -- just ask if the contractor can offer a better price. If he needs the work, chances are he will. This has worked for me about half the time, for an average savings of 5 percent to 10 percent off the total project cost, so it's worth a try.

6. Consider a Little DIY

Doing some parts of the job yourself can also cut costs. Even the least handy among us can probably handle a little demo or cleanup work or some painting. For example, I could have saved $600 by tearing out my old carpet and another $400 by painting the baseboards after the new hardwoods were installed. I opted to have the crew do those tasks this time, but for previous jobs, I have saved a bundle by changing out light fixtures, installing a dishwasher and stripping wallpaper myself.

You can also save in some cases by providing your own materials, but make sure to compare costs with your contractor. I was able to save about $2,500 by sourcing and ordering hardwood flooring myself, but my contractor saved me about $300 on stock trim pieces because he orders them in bulk for all his jobs.

When the job is complete, if all has gone well, be sure to offer to serve as a reference for your contractor and leave a positive review on Angie's List if you found him there or on a similar review site. It can pay off in future savings -- I have recommended my painter so many times that I now get a "friends and family" discount.

Motley Fool Robyn Gearey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Need an addition to your portfolio? Check out The Motley Fool's free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

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