The Trick to Keeping Home Renovations on a Budget

Some DIY home renovation shows have gotten downright absurd with how they handle a couple’s budget. You’ve probably seen something like this:

Husband: I’m a stay-at-home astronaut.

Wife: And I’m a goat yoga instructor.

Husband: And our budget is 1.5 million dollars, but we’d be ok spending 1.6 million if it meant we got exactly what we wanted.

The Trick to Keeping Home Renovations on a Budget

(Pixabay / StockSnap)

It’s only three minutes into the show, and your jaw has already hit the floor with the kinds of outrageous budgeting that goes on for these television shows. The truth is, these shows do not represent the reality for most homeowners who are looking to do a renovation. While a hundred dollars over budget may not be catastrophic to a person’s finances, five hundred or a thousand dollars over could halt a project in its tracks.

Whether you’re just starting to plan for a renovation or you’re halfway through and noticing some financial warning signs, follow these tips for staying on top of your budget.

Remember the Reason for Budgeting

The reason for making a budget is so that you can proactively plan for as many things as possible. A budget is not a punishment or something to be afraid of, but if you don’t do it well from the beginning, it can certainly feel that way. Some reports show that only 20% of renovators come in at or below their initial budget, which tells you that most people aren’t approaching their budget with the right mindset.

As you set your budget, be realistic about what kind of quality you expect. One general contractor (GC) may be substantially less than another, but that should be a red flag – your best bet is to go with a GC that is somewhere in the middle of your quotes.

As you gather prices for fixtures, cabinetry, etc., look for items that are in the middle to upper price range so that you can plan for that kind of expense. If you end up choosing a product that is cheaper than you had budgeted for, that’s money back in your pocket! On the flip side, if you budgeted for the cheap stuff and bought the pricey stuff, you are in for a hard time.

Also, don’t anticipate that DIY will always be cheaper. GCs cost more because they have the experience to be faster, safer, and more thorough. They also often offer warranties on their product or service that can save you money down the line. If you’re not experienced in the construction field, you might take on some DIY projects (painting, limited demo, wall patching, etc.), but vowing to do all the work yourself is bound to get you into trouble – especially since home renovations tend to uncover some unpleasant and unexpected surprises.

Do Your Research

As you’re working on your budget, take the time to do your research. Get at least three quotes from different GCs and then do a background check and call the references on the GC that you’re considering. This can save you a lot of time and headache in the future.

Also, during the demolition phase, you might consider calling Habitat for Humanity to see what they can remove for you. This saves you valuable dumpster space and doesn’t cost you any money to remove.

The More Specific, the Better

Have you seen that Cary Grant movie “Mr. Blanding Builds His Dream House?” There is a hilarious scene where the wife is describing the paint colors on the wall:

Muriel: I want the living room to be a soft green. Not quite as bluish as a robin’s egg, but yet not as yellow as daffodil buds… In the dining room I’d like yellow. Not just yellow, a very gay yellow. Something bright and sunshiny…if you’ll send one of your workmen to the A&P for a pound of their butter and match it exactly, you can’t go wrong… In the foyer…it’s these dots I want you to match. Not the little greenish dots near the hollyhock leaf, but the little bluish dot between the rosebud and the delphinium blossom… The kitchen’s to be white. Not a cold, antiseptic hospital white- a little warmer but not to suggest any other color but white… Now for the powder room, I want you to match this thread. You can see it’s practically an apple red. Somewhere between a healthy Winesap and an unripened Jonathan.

Contractor 1: Got it, Charlie?

Contractor 2: Green, yellow, blue, white, red.

Contractor 1: Check.

While the example is laughable, it hints at the human tendency to be too vague at times. You should be as specific as possible when you approach your contractor with your ideas. If you are vague on your selections, the chances are good that they’ll substitute in a higher-than-standard price just so that they know they’re covering their bases. Think through all of your paint colors, fixtures, textures, tiles, and appliances, and have them preselected before you meet with a GC.

Think Efficiency from the Beginning

It is a hundred times easier to plan for a customized aspect from the beginning of a project than to add it in during or after the fact. One good example of this is one of my relative’s homes that was built in the 1950s. The closets are completely cedar (cabinets, drawers, paneling, etc.), but the coolest part is that the light turns on automatically when you open the door. That was some pretty sophisticated planning, but it was easy and inexpensive to do because they planned for it before they even began the project. To do it retroactively would have been very costly.

Do your own demo whenever your skill level allows it, and try not to move the plumbing in the bathroom or kitchen. The seemingly simple act of moving a sink just a few feet to the right can blow a huge hole in your budget. Wherever possible, refinish your cabinets and hardwood flooring instead of replacing it. Going the refinishing route can save you thousands of dollars while still giving you a fresh, new look.

Stay True

“While you’re at it…” – this phrase can turn things dicey.

Stay true to your plan, and you’ll stay true to your budget. Sure, you should tack on about 20% more cost to your budget than you think you need to help cushion you against the unexpected, but unnecessary or whimsical change orders can be any home renovator’s downfall.

What most home renovators don’t realize is that even seemingly easy projects tacked onto a GC’s to-do list may end up costing a fortune. Why? Because change orders are inconvenient, they throw a wrench in production schedules, and they should’ve been brought up at the beginning. Nothing is as simple as just “moving it six inches to the left,” so make sure that when you ask for it, you’re willing to pay for it. Most sub-contractors will charge a 10-15% overhead for change orders, and then the GC will tack on another 15-20% on top of that. To save yourself some serious dough, make your plan and stick to it.


Timing is everything, and, for whatever reason, homeowners often feel like they need to get their renovations started and finished by the end of the year. In actuality, this time of year is extremely busy for more general and sub-contractors, and they’re scrambling to meet all of their deadlines. Interestingly, the first few months of the New Year often have significantly fewer jobs, so this is the prime time to start your renovation. Some contractors will even offer a discount if you start and finish your job after the first of the year.

Lastly, this seems like a funny tip, but if you want to save yourself a little bit of money, be conscious about how you fill your dumpsters. Pack your trash in carefully with large pieces stacked in a single area and fixtures like sinks and toilets with their bowls upright so they can be filled with trash. This little tidbit can mean the difference between ordering one or two dumpsters.

Home renovations are stressful enough as it is without worrying about staying on budget. While you can’t anticipate everything you may encounter, by planning for most of it, you have a far better chance of staying within your budget.