The 15 Biggest Remodeling Mistakes

…and how to avoid them


I have provided this booklet to my customers and friends to fill what I see as a need to understand more about how to work productively with remodeling contractors. After thirty years of experience with remodeling jobs, customers and subcontractors, I’ve learned a few things about what makes a customer happy. I could make a list of those things, but that wouldn’t be nearly a memorable as making a list of some of the biggest mistakes that a customer can make. What follows is a rogues’ gallery of mistakes that has been distilled from my mistakes, my customers’ mistakes, and mistakes I have heard of through other contractors.

Sometimes the result of a remodeling mistake is some disappointment or unhappiness. Sometimes the result is a substantial loss of time patience or money. Occasionally the result is so disturbing that the customer never really gets over it. I’ve met a number of these people at parties. When they find out I’m a contractor, they need to explain what happened to them and go over how bad it was. Unfortunately, I can pretty much complete the story that they start because I’ve heard these stories enough times that I see the formula behind the story and can guess the outcome. I usually just nod my head and hear it out. Recounting a tragedy helps to reduce its power over time.

Once in awhile I have a call from a customer who asks me what to watch out for before they start the process. Now that’s a smart customer. I hope this little booklet helps make you a smart customer.

Table of Contents

(Click on mistake to jump to explanation)

#1: Design Exceeds Budget

#2: Incomplete Design Plan

#3: Misunderstanding roles of architect/designer/ contractor

#4: Assuming it's cheaper if you do it yourself

#5: Incomplete research on the contractor

#6: Poor communication with the contractor

#7: Overbuilding for your neighborhood

#8: Remodel design differs greatly from original design

#9: Failure to plan for the unexpected

#10: Comparing apples with oranges

#11: Procrastination in choosing your contractor

#12: Submitting requests for permits too late

#13: Not knowing who is responsible for code violations

#14: Disputes between homeowners

#15: Not knowing who is responsible for mistakes and cost change orders

#16(Bonus): Poor or non-existant documentation

#17(Bonus): Not hiring a contractor like Karma Construction

Mistake #1

Design exceeds budget

If you establish a budget before you have the contractor prepare a proposal it can save a lot of time. Some people think that hiding their budget from the contractor protects them from paying too much, but it can easily have the opposite effect. From what I’ve seen, remodeling usually sells at market value if you spend a little time preparing for the proposal stage. Having a budget or price range makes everything go smoother. Do not make design decisions before you know whether they will fit your budget. This often leads to unnecessary and unhappy surprises. These surprises can be avoided if you have the necessary information and do the proper planning in the beginning stages of the design.

Be honest and open with your designer or contractor. Make sure they know your goals for your remodel, from budgetary goals to lifestyle goals to aesthetic goals. For example, let them know which rooms are the most important to you. If the kitchen is of central importance and you have chosen very expensive countertops, then your contractor may advise you on bathroom cabinetry that is less expensive, so you can stay within your budget.

For large projects, ask you designer/contractor to provide you with two separate budgets: one for the structural work that is fixed, and one for the finishes that may be changed. Then you will have an idea of what effect changes in the finishes will have on the total project.

Karma Construction has developed a system to determine what amount of investment that is reasonable to put into your house based on its value, projected length of stay, your neighborhood, and your goals for your remodel. This kind of information can assist you in making sound decisions based on your goals.

Mistake #2

Incomplete design plan

It pays to develop a whole house plan right away, even if you won’t be doing it all for awhile. Remodeling in stages can be a mistake if you don’t have an overall plan. The plan should include the entire house and not just one area at a time. If you don’t have a whole house plan it’s easy to end up with conflicting styles and designs which leave contractors guessing what you wanted to achieve.

Having the design done by one firm and the building done by another can also lead to problems, because the building contractor may not have the entire picture. Details that have not yet been firmed up are always left off the working prints, so the contractor must make assumptions, which may or may not be correct. The contractor will usually assume missing details are meant to match the existing styles or materials, unless they are told differently.

One way to avoid the problem of contractors having an incomplete picture is to use the same company to design and build. You should also make sure all changes and missing details are written in a change order or amendment to the contract. However, not all missing details will be caught before the project starts. Make sure you have open communication with your contractor in writing, via e-mail or fax, for updates and clarifications.

Mistake #3

Misunderstanding roles of architect/designer/contractor

Your project can quickly become stressful and even impossible if the architect, designer and contractor do not communicate well. It is important that they are not in adversarial roles. It is essential that you understand their respective roles and goals so that you know who is accountable for what.

The architect draws the prints and provides the engineering calculations for the project. The architect may also be responsible for obtaining the necessary permits, if the homeowner requests that he do so. The designer is focused on colors, finishes, furniture and the aesthetic “look” of the project. The contractor translates these plans into reality.

The contractor can only stay on budget if the architect and the designer were accurate in their assumptions and kept your budget in mind. The architect and the designer are paid by the hour and will be paid in full whether or not the project is completed. The contractor, however, only gets paid if the project is done; therefor contractors have a bigger stake in whether your design is feasible and within your budget. For this reason many contractors now provide an all-in-one service in which the contractor is also the architect and designer.

Karma Construction provides both in-house design and architectural services. If we choose to work with outside architects or designers, we can provide budget information as the project is being developed.

Mistake #4

Assuming it’s cheaper if you do it yourself

If you are a handy person with a small project, doing it yourself will save you money on your labor costs. But only on your labor costs and only if your project is small! Here is where doing it yourself will cost you MORE:

  • Material cost- professionals usually can buy their materials cheaper than you can because they buy at contractor rates, a special bulk rate for those who buy in large volume. Contractors are also professional buyers of building materials; they shop for and negotiate the most advantageous prices. Special discounts, warranties and returns privileges are also available for contractors that simply are not given to regular consumers.
  • Costs of tools- professionals have a large investment in the highest quality tools. They also always have the correct tool for the correct job. Don’t underestimate the damage the wrong tool or a cheap tool can do to your project, especially in the hand of an amateur.
  • Code violations cost- do you know the current building codes for your area? Are you capable of remodeling to that code? An inspector may make you do the work over until it meets code. An out of code remodel can actually devalue your home.
  • Cost of time- if you are working on your remodel when you would otherwise be working in your own profession, you are probably losing money. If you are working on your remodel when you would otherwise be relaxing or spending time with your family (i.e. evenings, weekends and holidays), you could be spending more than just dollars you may be spending your health or your relationships. Homeowners almost always underestimate the amount of time it will take them to complete a project.
  • Value of your home- the quality a homeowner will accept if they do it themselves is typically much different than what they would accept if they hire a professional. Because of their experience, a professional will deal with things you have never even thought or heard of. A poor remodel can actually devalue your home. Your house is probably your single largest leveraged asset, growing in value at approximately 4-10% each year, and is a main feature of your retirement plan. Any remodeling decisions you make will directly impact on your home’s resale value. Thus, any large remodel should be looked at in terms of the pleasure it may give you now, and its adding future value to your largest investment.

Saving a few thousand dollars today by doing the work yourself could cost you many more thousands tomorrow. Before you begin a project yourself, get some professional advice and try to consider what the real cost will be to you.

Mistake #5

Incomplete research on the contractor

Remodeling your home is like having guests come to stay for weeks or months. They hang around you and your spouse, your kids, your pets. Would you let just anybody into your home? The more you know about your contractor the better you will feel about having them there. You need to know they are honest, honorable, and competent.

Remodeling can be a stressful time. The stress can be lessened greatly by knowing you can trust your contractor. If you research your contractor you can spend more time being excited about the project, and less time worrying.

On the next page are some questions you should ask you contractor. (We’ve included Karma Construction’s answers for you!)

Company name: Karma Construction

Address: 16805 Cottage Grove Ave.; Wayzata, MN 55391

Telephone: (952) 473-7959

Mobile: (612) 226-2662

Fax: (952) 473-7959


Contact person: Terry Cullen

State License Number: 20011232 (Builder)

Do you carry Workers Compensation? Yes

Do you carry liability insurance? Yes

Will your insurance company send me a copy directly? Yes, on request

Is this business your sole means of support? Yes

How long have you been in business? 33 years

Do you belong to professional organizations? Which ones?

Do you respond to emergencies? Yes for new and previous customers

Will the work be ongoing? Of course

Who do I call for changes and for information on the schedule? Terry

What is your policy on clean up? Daily and extra on weekends

What is your warranty? 5 years

Do you provide a release of liens? On larger jobs or by request.

When are payments made? As it is earned as per AIA form G702 “contractors request for payment”

Are your materials new? Yes

Are you building green and environmentally friendly with waste? As possible or as requested.

Have you done similar projects? Chances are yes

May I have a list of your last 5 projects without prejudice? (Not just “selected” references) Yes

How do you treat changes? Written up with a “Change Order”

Who pays if an inspector requests a change? The client

Do you provide a contract that is clear about what is included and what is not? Yes

How long will my project take? Depends on the type of project.

Mistake #6

Poor communication with the contractor

Some people are afraid to look “dumb” if they ask questions of the contractor, or if they don’t understand something. This is self-defeating; no question is dumb. Free and open communication with your contractor is essential for a good remodel experience. A good contractor will welcome questions and be willing to address your concerns. If you just want to understand how something works, most contractors will be glad to explain. An informed homeowner is a happy homeowner, and the contractor wants you to be happy.

If you see a potential problem, don’t assume the contractor has seen it too. It is possible someone has made a mistake. Let the contractor know so he can address it right away. Having set times for talking to your contractor can help you communicate regularly. Not knowing what is going on with your remodel can be a huge source of stress. If you have done your homework and chosen a good contractor, you should be able to trust them to do their job. But trust does not replace regular communication. You should be communication with your contractor, and this is most important at critical stages.

Karma Construction recommends walk throughs at the following critical stages to insure accuracy and product control over and above our normal day to day walk throughs.

1. Staging and temporary facilities need to be located on day one, and you will need to talk to you contractor about salvage – what do you want to keep and where should it be stored.

2. Framing started.

3. Plumbing rough in started.

4. Electrical rough in started

5. HVAC rough in started.

6. Gas rough in started.

7. Drywall: Before drywall goes up.

There should be a complete walk through on the day of the cover inspection with a look

After drywall is up.

Discuss texture, painting and colors.

After tape and texture.

Look for areas that are potential problems and correct before painting.

During these walk throughs, you and your contractor will check for potential problems and troubleshoot them, and you will have a chance to decide on changes before the walls are covered. This is the time to document any changes or fixes that need to be done. In fact, all communication should be put into written form as soon as possible. If you have discussed changes verbally, have you contractor follow up with you in writing, (i.e. writing it down on a notepad specifically for list of things to complete on job).

Even if everything is perfect and nothing needs to be done, you will feel good knowing that your project is proceeding smoothly and on schedule.

Karma Construction recommends weekly or critical-stage walk throughs on every project. If there is a problem or a misunderstanding, this is usually caught during the walk through. If caught early enough there is often no extra charge. We actively seek to communicate with our clients, and we ask our clients to communicate with us in return.

Mistake #7

Overbuilding for your neighborhood

Your neighborhood has an enormous effect on the value of your home. No matter how large, elaborate or beautiful your remodeled home is there is a maximum house value that your neighborhood will allow. Over-building can mean that you will lose money on the sale of your home. If you are going to live in your home for a long time, then this may not matter so much. However, many people will move at some time, so consideration of your home’s resale value is of primary importance.

Giving thought to this in the planning stages of your remodeling would help avoid the problem of over-building. For example, if you want expensive granite countertops, but your house’s resale value does not warrant the expense, you can get alternatives that look like granite. There is a wide range of quality materials to choose from today, so it is almost always possible to replace an expensive material with another that will still allow you to have a look and feel you want.

Your home’s beauty should be enhanced by its harmony with its surrounding neighbors.

Mistake #8

Remodel design differs greatly from the original design

The styles and materials of the remodel and the original house should match, or harmonize with each other. A remodel that is very different from the rest of your house can come off as “over the top” or inappropriate. Just as the wrong level of exterior remodeling can lose it’s harmony with the neighborhood, an incorrect style or overblown design inside can cause your new remodeling project to make your home less harmonious. Some contractors control the design process to achieve one goal – profit. We use design to help you achieve your goal what ever that may be.

To avoid design mismatch, your remodel plan should call for the same styles and materials as the original design of the house. If you want to have cedar shakes on the roof of the addition, but the rest of the house has asphalt shingles, either re-roof the entire house in cedar or changes the addition to asphalt shingles.

You can be creative in matching existing styles and materials. For example, suppose you have a brick house and want to build an addition. Bricks are expensive and notoriously difficult to match. A good contractor can give you options on other products that are less expensive than brick and will still harmonize with the existing house. They may find a similar brick and age it, or use a veneer and paint to match the existing brick, or even pull down all the brick on one side of the house and reinstall so from the street it looks continuous. Sometimes you can build up planters or plant trees to hide the difference if you can’t match the siding perfectly.

These are only examples. Almost every product and material has a number of options. Using a contractor with design experience will give you a much better value with little or no additional cost. One thing to remember is that a successful remodel doesn’t look like a remodel.

Karma Construction works hard to match existing styles and materials, as much as is possible and practical. This leads to harmony between new and old.

When your home is built with harmony in mind, the people who live there are more likely to live in harmony too.

Frank Lloyd Wright said he could bring people together or drive people apart just by the way he designed a house. We believe this is true. It pays to have someone who knows what they’re doing.

Mistake #9

Failure to plan for the Unexpected

If the unexpected did not happen, there would be no insurance industry. Remodeling is like anything else – something unexpected often happens, usually incurring extra cost. Typical examples of the unexpected are:

  • 1. Perhaps an inspector will require an upgrade that was not in the original contract. If the insulation code changes in July and we got your permit in May, a field inspector may require you to make this change to meet the current code.
  • 2. Perhaps the previous homeowners did a remodel and left abandoned pipes or heat ducts in the walls or ceiling. There is no way the contractor, architect, or inspector would know this until the wall is opened.
  • 3. Perhaps the electrical circuits are hooked together poorly, requiring you to put the kitchen on its own circuit or reorganize the panel. Or if you have added electrical circuits your panel may be full and need to be changed.
  • 4. Perhaps after you start a project the contractor notices a hairline crack in an upstairs wall and discovers that someone had cut a main support beam downstairs to make room for a heating duct. The contractor may have to add beam support and jack up the sagging wall.

It’s hard to avoid some of these surprises, but knowing that they may occur will reduce your stress and save you from unreasonable expectations. Surprises are common enough that you should expect some.

At Karma Construction we feel our approach saves time, money and hassles for both our clients and us. Always check with your contractor to see how he handles unexpected surprises. You have a right to know what it may cost to deal with a surprise after the contractor has discovered it. Sometimes the contractor can’t give you a fixed cost because he doesn’t know the full extent of the surprise yet. In that case you can ask you contractor in advance what his hourly rate is for key workers including overhead and profit.

Mistake #10:

Comparing apples with oranges

If you change your design every time you interview a contractor and ask them to bid, then comparing their bids will be a worthless exercise. Each contractor will be bidding on a different job.

Avoiding this problem is simple: have a clear and detailed plan and give the same plan to each contractor.

However, even if you give ten contractors the same plans, when you receive their bids you must look further than their bottom line price. You should not always go for the low bid and assume you will save money; or the high bid and assume you’ll get the best quality; or the middle bid and assume you get the best of both worlds. Smart comparison means reviewing exactly what you will get for your money.

For example, if one contractor takes responsibility for mistakes and has a built-in 5% allowance for unexpected costs, their bid will naturally be higher.

Or a contractor might be high bid because the other contractors left out portions of the remodel on the bid, relying on charging for change orders to finish the project. This is a common ploy.

Or a contractor might be the lowest bid not because they are basing it on cheaper materials or omitting parts of the project, but because they have an original and unique solution no one else has thought of.

The thing is to be smart when you compare. A good idea is to choose your bidding contractors by reputation and be candid with them about the budget. A good contractor will help you make the correct decisions that will allow you to stay within your budget.

Karma Construction often uses negotiated contracts with our customers. In a negotiated contract the owner is candid with budgets and available funds for the work. Karma Construction is candid about individual cost breakdowns. This allows the owner and the contractor to add and delete as necessary to make the project work. Because remodeling is always a compromise, this method is efficient and fair, and is based on trust. When you interview the contractor, he is also interviewing you. Trust is imperative in a remodeling project and we need to trust you as much as you need to trust us. If you can’t trust the person you’re thinking of doing business with you might want to keep looking.

Mistake #11:

Procrastination in choosing your contractor

Some people take the attitude that it doesn’t matter which contractor you chose. Therefore they wait too long to decide on a contractor, and are stuck with whoever is available, or they have to wait.

It does matter which contractor you choose, and the good ones are always busy! They must make long-range plans and fit their clients into their schedules.

You should be excited about the contractor you choose, and convinced they will give you the best value and the most beautiful remodel. It is to your advantage to contact them as soon as possible.

Mistake #12:

Submitting requests for permits too late

It takes weeks and sometimes even months to get a permit. If you do not allow for sufficient time to get permits it could cost you money if the contractor is delayed from starting on schedule. It could even cost you your contractor, if the delay causes them to reschedule or cancel your project.

The homeowner, the architect or the contractor can be responsible for obtaining the necessary permits from City Hall if your site is within city limits or from the County if you are outside city limits. The permit center will not allow you to submit anything until you provide everything they ask for.

Often homeowners become very frustrated in trying to obtain permits by themselves. The permit center will require architectural plans, and engineering calculations, which are difficult for homeowners to supply. It is most efficient if you hire a company who provides both design and build services to obtain the permits, because this minimizes miscommunications over which permits are necessary, when and if they have been applied for, and where they are in the process.

Here are some things you or your contractor should know or be able to find out for you about permits:

  • How long will it take to get my permit?
  • If there are revisions, how long will that take?
  • What information does the plan review engineer require?
  • What prints do I need?
  • Do I need a certified plot plan?
  • Is a septic plan required?
  • Are there fire alarm requirements?
  • Is my land red-flagged? (Red-flagged means that your property has a special condition such as being listed as wet land, or having problems with landslides, etc. The planners will need to know about all red flags so the plans follow all codes pertaining to your land. I will take longer to go through permit and will likely cost more.
  • How long is the permit good for?
  • What is the approximate fee?
  • What does it cost to renew?
  • How many inspections will I need?

At Karma Construction we are a design/build company, so obtaining and monitoring the progress of permits is part of our service.

Mistake #13:

Not knowing who is responsible for code violations

You may be required to fix existing problems if the previous homeowner or contractor did not follow code. You are the homeowner and it is your responsibility to ensure your home meets code standards – even if you were unaware of the existing problems when you purchased your home.

If you are doing a remodel and the inspector finds code violations existing, the city can make you correct the problems before they final a permit. At Karma Construction we let potential clients know if we see obvious violations before we bid the project. We then factor what we saw into our bid, so that making those corrections can be addressed in the budget.

The bottom line is that you, the homeowner, are responsible for determining whether your house is up to code or not. You should find this out before you buy it. The contract you signed with the Real Estate agent protects them from this liability. Home inspection is one way to know before you buy. Karma Construction offers home inspections with 33 years experience behind every inspection.

Mistake #14

Disputes between homeowners

This mistake arises when homeowners (usually husband and wife) do not have a shared vision of their remodel plans and budget. Arguing over your remodel not only stresses your relationship, it will insure you’ll never love your finished product. Instead of giving you pride and joy in its beauty, convenience or comfort, it will just remind you of your arguments.

A good way to avoid this is to understand that remodeling is always a compromise so you need to decide on the trade-offs before you start. For instance, suppose the remodel includes a new kitchen because that’s what the wife wants, and a workshop because that’s what the husband wants. Agree beforehand that the wife will make the major decisions on the kitchen and the husband on the workshop. Assign each a budget for these two rooms. If one person wants an upgrade, then they will have to sacrifice something in their own room, and not the entire project. This can usually result in no hard feelings.

At Karma Construction we want your remodel to be fun, and it can be as long as there is open communication between all parties.

Mistake #15

Not knowing who is responsible for mistakes and cost change orders

Sometimes your contract may not adequately specify who is responsible for bearing the costs of mistakes or cost change orders. There is a difference between mistakes and cost change orders and the responsibility for the costs will probably vary. The more specific your contract is the better.

Here are some examples of mistakes or cost change orders:

  • If an inspector requires a change or upgrade, the homeowner is responsible for the cost of that change.
  • If the homeowner changes their mind, this is not a mistake. For instance, suppose the homeowner chooses a paint color and then decides they don’t like it. The homeowner is responsible for the cost of repainting.
  • Mistakes do happen, and if the contractor makes a mistake or there is an obvious oversight, then the contractor is responsible for paying for that mistake or oversight.
  • If the homeowner requests an upgrade to the contracted specs, this will benefit the homeowner and most of the time the homeowner will pay for the increased charge.
  • If the assumption made in a set of prints by an outside architect is not accurate, then the contractor usually charges the homeowner.

Each case is unique, but it should be clear from the contract what constitutes a mistake, and what constitutes a change. It should also be clear how the changes will be paid.

Karma Construction addresses these issues in our contracts, and is willing to further define terms and conditions at our clients’ request. All pertinent parties need to understand the terms of any contract. If you have a good contract at the outset, challenges never arise.

Mistake #16 (Bonus)

Poor or non-existent documentation

If you or your contractor do not document each change and request the cost of the change before the change is made, you are asking for misunderstandings. Misunderstandings lead to hard feelings between homeowner and contractor. Hard feelings increase stress.

To avoid misunderstandings, set up a system or systems that are used every time without exception, do this before you begin the project. These systems should be easy to understand and to follow. Include who can make and authorize a change, how a change is requested, who is responsible for the cost, and who is responsible for documentation.

Mistake #17 (Bonus)

Not hiring a contractor like Karma Construction

Which contractor you hire is an important decision!

-You want a contractor with integrity, honesty and a high level of competence and service.

-You want a contractor who provides the best value for your money.

-You want a contractor who listens to you and translates your desires and dreams into reality.

-You want a contractor who will work with you to achieve results within your budget and your timeframe.

-You want a contractor who knows that their reputation rests on each and every project they do, no matter what the size or cost.

-You want a contractor who loves what they do and takes immense pride in their work.

Karma Construction

is this kind of contractor!

If you would like further information or to talk about a proposed remodel, please visit our website or contact us via e-mail or by phone:


Created by Amy Cullen Designs 2008