Conventional wisdom used to be that if you could survive hard travel for a month with someone, your chances for a successful marriage were high. But anyone who's gone through a remodel together as a couple would add a new twist: If you can remodel a home with a partner, your relationship should last a good long time. My wife and I survived ours.

For first-timers, remodeling can be more challenging than expected. Everyone says it will cost twice as much and take three times as long as you think. What they don't say is that you'll have to make 10 times as many decisions.

That doesn't mean remodeling can't be fun. Here are 10 tips culled from contractors, designers and experience to make the process of remaking a home flow more smoothly:

1. Plan ahead: As with a wedding, think about what you want, what you can afford and what your priorities are. Know it will cost more than you expect and have some reserve cash. Don't overextend; that makes it more stressful. If it's a major remodel, consider living outside the home when the work is being done. Read books or go online to see different options. And go to friends' homes to see what's worked for them.

2. Budget time, not just money: Remodeling is like taking on a part-time job. You may need five hours a week, you may need 15. Be sure to budget this time, so you don't feel rushed or harried. You'll need to peruse books like Sunset's kitchen design guide, browse the Web, shop for materials and furnishings and meet with your contractor.

3. Consider hiring a designer: "The perfect clients," says Sebastopol contractor Jeremy Allen, "know what they want, specifically, down to the finish on the bathroom faucet." Let's face facts: We're not going to have everything figured out when we start a remodel. (Do you even know what "brushed nickel" is?) Most contractors aren't design experts. Hiring a designer, even for a few hours, can be immensely helpful in developing concepts for the home and making everything work together.

4. Be flexible: Unless you live alone, you'll need to compromise. One person likes the wood-grain kitchen cabinets that came with the house and doesn't care that they're so '80s. The other isn't keen on them. The compromise? Rip out a pair of cabinets, replace them with open shelving, and leave the rest. Know what's really important to you; otherwise, it's not worth making a stand. Learn to let go.

5. Stay open-minded and go shopping: You never know what you might find if you shop with an open mind. While shopping for carpet, we found an eco-solution for our bedroom floor: cork. It's dark, soft, quiet and sustainable, and we never would have found it if we were set on carpet.

6. Don't get paralyzed by choice: Some decisions, like choosing paint colors, are very hard to make. We became bleary sorting through fan-shaped color wheels, feeling like every decision was crucial. Well, guess what, you can change your mind. We picked a color called Sienna Clay for the living room that ended up looking like pumpkin. So that became our primer and we went with Spanish Red. Cost to change our minds: $100 for a couple of cans of paint.

7. Listen to workers, but make your own decisions: Workers often have good advice, but you don't always need to follow it. Jimmy, a flooring specialist from Vietnam, discovered that the hardwood under the carpet we ripped out was a mix of red oak and white oak. "Red, white, red, white," he said, pointing at the floor. "You want dark (stain)." We liked the variation and chose a light cherry stain to preserve it. "OK," he said. "Your house."

8. Know when to show and when to go: It can be helpful to be on site when work is being done. We were able to discuss the kitchen floor as it was being laid so that the Saltillo tiles, which vary in color, were evenly spaced. On the other hand, there were moments during construction when the bathroom looked like a disaster area. We were advised to leave and let the workers finish; it turned out fine.

9. Don't sweat the small stuff: Not everything will turn out perfectly. The subway tile may not meet NASA's specs; the vanity may get nicked. This is frustrating, but ultimately these are first-world problems. Keep things in perspective, touch up what you can, and a week after you're done you likely won't notice.

10. Appreciate the workers: They're bustin' it for you. Why not put out a cooler full of cold sodas or bring back burritos for lunch? It makes the workers feel valued and eager to go the extra mile. Our crew will be invited to our housewarming so we can celebrate the finished product together.


Clear communication and planning are the keys to a successful relationship with a contractor, says Jeremy Allen of Jeremy Allen Construction in Sebastopol. Here's his advice:

Communication: Let your contractor know about any expectations you have. "If you have a dream," he says, "share it."

Understanding: A home remodel can take on a life of its own. "Don't hold your contractor responsible because he found dry rot during your master bathroom remodel."

Planning ahead: "If you need to choose paint colors by Tuesday, don't wait until Monday night to think about it."

Offering feedback: "Most contractors are interested in your opinion," Allen says. "Give it to them."

Awareness: Realize that a lot happens behind the scenes to keep the job running effectively.


Allen points out that contractors should "listen attentively to clients," so they can "offer advice that aligns with (clients') values." Contractors should also avoid making promises they can't keep and return phone calls "within a few hours."

Tina Hittenberger, a Petaluma Realtor, suggests going for "professional partnerships over false thrift. The cheapest way to do something," she says, "is to do something right in the first place."

Joseph Hicks, owner of Birdseye Builders, a green builder in Sebastopol, advises clients to interview prospective contractors, ask for references and choose someone they trust.

Ensure that contractors have sufficient liability insurance, he says, and plan for weekly meetings to keep your project on track. You'll have to pay for this time, but it's money well spent.

"Understand that the timeline doesn't fall completely on the shoulders of the builder," Hicks says. "Be ready to make countless decisions and choices."