Lessons From a Major Renovation: Part 1

Renovation TipsImage credit: udra11/shutterstock.com


In 2003, my husband and I bought a small townhouse as our “starter home” intending to stay there for 5 years. In year 12 of our 5-year plan, we were still um-ing and uh-ing about whether to stay where we were or move. We looked at over 50 houses over the years but none quite fit the bill or would have been outrageously expensive to make it so. Then we found a house that would be perfect for us after a few adjustments. We spent a weekend and a bit gutting it and then 6 months making it ours and learnt a few lessons along the way:


Think Big Picture

1 – Plan out your entire renovation before you start

In your plan, include:

  • Each room which needs to be worked on
  • Each task that needs to be done in that room
  • The order in which each task should be done
  • How long it will take to do each task
  • What it will cost to complete each task
  • Who will be doing each task
  • What will be needed to accomplish each task
  • Potential vendors with contact information and quotes as well as other notes (like first impressions, if there are pros and cons to selecting them e.g. availability, pricing, range of services). Keep the list of potentials in the event that you need to change the vendor you had initially selected.
  • Selected Vendors with contact information and quotes as well as best method of contact. We worked with a lot of vendors and each had a preferred means of communication e.g. some were terrible at returning phone calls but really good at answering texts, others would not return any e-mails or calls and we had to present ourselves in person in order to get the answers we needed.


2 – Map out a timeline of events

This will help to schedule projects most efficiently and ensure that the order you do things in makes sense.


I found tracking everything in Excel to be easiest so that I could drag and drop and sort things easily and have everything in one file, separated into categories by using different tabs.

Renovation Worksheet Snapshot.PNG


Renovation Worksheet for Kitchen Snapshot

3 – Be flexible

It may not (I should say it will most likely not) work out exactly the way you planned but having a plan helps you switch gears and move projects around quickly as needed, saving you time, money, and from having to make rash decisions. We had originally intended to refinish the wood floors in the house but issues with the vendor and the cost of the final quote resulted in a change in plans to replace the floors instead and several weeks delay on the flooring. Because everything had been planned out before and we knew what we wanted to do, we could move forward with other projects without delay while we waited for the new floors and ripped out the old ones. Having everything planned out also helps with budget too. If you need to cut something out or delay something for a few years due to costs, it won’t be a guessing game. You’ll also be able to make the most informed decision that will have the least impact on the current renovation.


4 – Think of your home as whole

Have a clear design vision before you start so that it is cohesive and so that your choices fit together and flow well – think of the rooms and how they relate to each other.


5 – Have a time and financial buffer

Expect things to take longer and cost more than you anticipate and build buffers into your plan. Even with the most meticulous planning, you will not be able to control  and account for everything.


6 – Have a plan in place if you need to live in the home during the renovation

Design your plan with the impact it will have on your everyday life in mind, e.g. will you need to move out for any of the projects, do you need to set up a temporary kitchen – where and how will you do this.


Know What You Want, What You Don’t Want, and Why

There is no shortage of options, which on the one hand is great and on the other hand can make it challenging to make decisions. Having a clear vision of what you want and why will be really helpful in selecting the best choices for you.


1 – Plan for the way you actually live, not how you wished you lived

Plan your renovation and your design choices for you and those you live with and be honest and realistic about your habits, routines, and way of life. For example, if you are not into maintenance, it’s very unlikely you will wake up and be a person who suddenly loves maintaining things. Post renovation you will still be you, but most likely tired and even less inclined to do the things you did not like doing pre-renovation.


2 – Know your motivations

Vendors and people in general will have a lot of suggestions and opinions so keep yourself on track by knowing what you want, what you don’t want, and why. For the most part, people want to be helpful and will make recommendations because they genuinely think that their idea is an improvement on yours or because they wouldn’t want something that you have included in the plan. When we were designing our kitchen, the vendors all consistently brought up 2 points in the design layout that they would change, the pantry cupboard and the placement of the sink. I wanted the pantry cupboard to be divided into two sections: 3 draws on the bottom and a cupboard with shelves on the top and I wanted the shelves to only be 14” deep (there was enough space for it to be 26” deep). Most people who I talked to about it thought it was a big waste and that I would regret it but I had used a deep pantry for the previous 12 years and had installed rolling shelves and still found it to be very impractical for me. I love my 14” deep pantry – I can see exactly what’s in it at all times and I would make the same choice again. For the sink, most people suggested that it would be better, and less costly, beneath the window (the placement pre-renovation) but I wanted it on the island because:

  • I like long runs of countertop
  • I had designated the corner to the left of the window as the home for my stand mixer because it would be out of the way when not in use and I wanted to have enough space to lay out the baking supplies when it is in use. I did not want to have to move it around the kitchen – I can be clumsy and it is heavy.
  • I like to prep meals next to sink. Because the daylight tends to be short for a good part of the year where I live and because I tend to meal prep and clean up after the kids are in bed, it’s often dark outside when I am at the sink  so I would rather face the living room and watch TV or chat to those in the living room.
  • In addition, the fridge is right across from the counter so it makes for a smooth work flow for me.

It’s really good to listen to what vendors and other people have to say because they may bring up valuable points that you may not have considered but at the end of they day, only you know how you really live and what your preferences are.


3 – Have a visual touchstone

Have a physical representation of what you want. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate or fancy, just something that is detailed enough to keep you on track and to be able to clearly communicate what you want to potential vendors e.g. inspiration pictures, checklists, layout plans. For our kitchen and laundry room, I used a Word document and basic shapes to represent the layout and approximate measurements. This is also a good way to judge if it’s worth meeting with a particular vendor. We crossed several off our list right away based on quotes returned after e-mailing them the plans.

Kitchen Floor Plan 1

Laundry Floor Plan


1 – Follow up in writing

It’s good to chat and discuss things in person and on the phone with your vendors and your contractor but remember that you are not the only job and client they are working with and they are on often on the go while you have these discussions so it’s good practice to follow up with an e-mail to confirm what was discussed. It will also serve as a good reference for you as you will also be juggling multiple tasks and projects and may not always remember exactly what has been discussed and decided upon.


2 – Have a written checklist available so anyone working on the renovation can refer to it

We were very lucky to have a lot of help from friends and family on demolition day. Everyone worked so hard and got everything done so quickly. To help everyone know what needed to be demolished and to avoid people having to find someone to ask, we put a list of what needed to be removed in each room.

Demo Checklist

After demolition day, we posted checklists in a central location in the house and used diagrams to clarify where necessary (for example, we designed our own door headers so provided a diagram to illustrate the dimensions). It’s also helpful to put in dates if certain tasks need to be accomplished before a certain time. There was a pen available and check boxes to indicate completed tasks. We were also able to write questions to each other and to note on it if a task was not done because supplies were missing or other reasons. Our contractor found this really helpful and so did we as there were some projects where we tag teamed and it helped to keep everyone up to date on what had been done and what still needed to be done. Update the list regularly.

Remo Checklist.PNG

To be continued…


Part 2 of Lessons from A Major Renovation Wednesday will be published on Wednesday and will include printable templates of the tools and checklists. If you’d like to be notified by e-mail when it’s available, click to subscribe to the newsletter.


  1. This post is beyond helpful! We’ve just spent 6 months renovating our coach house however it was all a bit unplanned. We had hoped to move in, give the place a lick of paint and then plan the renovations for a year before finally getting started… However, the house had other ideas! We had to do so many major jobs right up front that it just made sense to go the full hog! We’ve made so many mistakes and had to compromise a LOT due to the lack of proper planning though…

  2. I am so glad it was helpful. We did a lot of planning upfront but once the renovation got started, there were still times when it felt a bit out of control.

    I checked out your blog. It’s great and your bathroom is looking fantastic. Looking forward to reading and seeing more and to making those Apple Strudel Energy Balls :).

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