A Building and Remodeling Checklist

Horror stories abound about remodeling and construction projects gone bad. Such accounts make great "war stories", but they are likely to produce emptier bank accounts and headaches. Good planning is an essential component for a good project and prevents the most common pitfalls.

This Construction Checklist includes the steps associated with most successful remodeling and construction projects. Some may not apply to every project, for example: decks within 18" of ground level may not require a building permit, while building along a wetland or a shoreline will require special permits; a project in a condominium may require approval of the homeowners' association, and so may a project in a subdivision which has covenants.

But the "basics" listed here remain the same in almost all projects. This checklist is designed to explain and help organize the construction process.

The order of any construction process is not "cast in concrete" but there is one very important rule: prior to the start of any of the work there must be a written contract with drawings and detailed specifications.


  • Most construction and remodeling projects start as a result of a household reaching a stage in life that triggers the need to do "something" about housing. Some of these events include: the birth of a child, children going to school, the kids are growing but the house isn't, first time home buyers without children are just entering the world of work and/or home ownership, empty nesting, and retirement. Besides money, life safety, and life cycle concerns; some people just like working on improving and expanding their homes to modernize them or to improve upon or restore the original design.

    The 'Wish List' is one way to clarify and review the reasons for doing the project. This method organizes ideas into categories. For example:

    • The "Must Includes" (a third bedroom, ample closet space, or a storage room);
    • The "Would Be Nice If Possibles" (a roof level deck, a hot tub, special windows, art studio space);
    • The "Under No Circumstances" (changing the style of the house, blocking sunlight from a garden space, or using disliked construction materials);
    • The "Remaining Questions" (a list of the questions "not yet answered" is a great way to make sure that such questions are not forgotten along the way).

    An example of a more detailed planning process can be found on our Kitchen Design topic page. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0671692593/thesoundhomeresoA/">

    But don't forget to dream a little, the ideas you gather might not be too difficult or too expensive to incorporate into your plans. This is the time to gather such ideas.

    I like to cook, and I love construction. One book that has given me some ideas about both subjects is http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0671692593/thesoundhomeresoA/">Monet's Table.

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=067976948X/thesoundhomeresoA/"> Another book on my bookshelf is http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0912020008/thesoundhomeresoA/">Handmade House by Art Boericke and Barry Shapiro. The book is out of print but may be available by special order or in your local used bookstore. This is a great idea book, even though most of us would choose some more conventional designs. Another good idea book is http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=067976948X/thesoundhomeresoA/">Shelter by Lloyd Kahn.

    See also: The Value of Planing and A Field Guide to Bad Construction and Remodeling Projects and Is It Wroth Remodeling

    This is also the time to go to various home shows, open houses and other locations which might stimulate ideas.

  • Keep in mind that:

    • The primary purpose for a construction or remodel should be the owner's use and enjoyment of the house.
    • Most individual construction projects and remodels will not "pay for themselves"; they will not increase the value of the property by an amount equal to that of the project's cost. Speculative construction and remodeling involves a great deal of skill, experience and risk and even professionals in the field loose money on individual projects.
    • As with all real estate considerations, the location of a property is paramount. Before building or remodeling re-evaluate your property in terms of important factors such as: the neighborhood, proximity to work and play, transportation, and even solar exposure.
    • Owners who plan to stay in a home for less than five years are usually better off restricting their work to repairs and simple cosmetic changes.
    • The best return on the cost of remodeling is usually achieved when a "substandard" house is converted into one that meets the norms of the neighborhood. The price of the most luxurious house in any area will usually suffer from the lower value of the neighboring houses.

    Consult construction professionals for additional ideas, but keep in mind that this project is for YOU.

    Continue to review your wish list from time to time to see if the decisions you are making feel comfortable and fit with your original ideas and your budget.

    Keeping a notebook will help you to organize your thoughts: magazine clippings, color samples, reference phone numbers, photos and a record of the project, including receipts.

  • Develop a timetable, or schedule, in the same manner as your budget. Work with your "construction team" (designer or architect, loan officer, interior design specialist, general contractor, specialty materials supplier, etc.) to document your needs. Your timetable must include a realistic completion date, considering time for the design phase, permitting and construction. Identify periods of the year when certain construction projects are particularly appropriate or totally inappropriate (e.g., during a holiday season or roofing during periods of heavy rain/sleet/snow).

    Many projects can and need to be phased into several stages of construction. A common reason for phasing a project is the lack of funds to complete the entire project at one time. While doing the whole job at once is often less expensive and less time consuming, phasing a project can work quite well if:

    • A good plan is developed for the entire project at the very beginning of the process. This can minimize the amount of work that has to be re-worked during a later phase.
    • Each phase is built in a manner that protects the structure. For example: we completed the exterior envelope of our cabin and have left some of the interior surfaces and cabinet work for a future date.
    • All the work by a single trade can be completed in a single phase of the project. For example: all the foundation work is performed at one time.

    But the most important key to a successful project is good planing: detailed drawings and specifications and a good budget.

  • An independent assessment of the proposed project by a home inspector, contractor, real estate professional, loan officer, designer, or architect will help you decide if the project "makes sense". Are there problems with the structure, property, location, or proposed design that should be considered? This assessment should be made by an independent party not involved in any other aspect of the construction.

    As I edit this, I am reminded of the recent "sub-prime" loan fiasco. In my opinion, one of the reasons why so many people bought homes that they cold not afford and took out bad loans that were based upon bad appraisals had to do with "free" advice. The advice they got was not free, it was too often given by people who's income was based upon a commission. No sale, no commission! My advice? pay for information and get the information form qualified experts!

  • Hiring a licensed architect or a designer, involves careful research.

    • Verify their license, reputation, references, previous work experience and compatibility with you - your personality, visual preferences and your approach to problem solving.

  • Ask about fee structures and options.
  • Discuss project budgets and skills.
  • Ask for their rack record of managing the permit process and the design and construction budget.

    Note: even the purchase of a set of stock plans involves careful research.

    Saving money or time on the design process most often results in wasting money and time during and after the construction. A good quality design process that results in quality drawings and specifications is the best predictor for a successful project and a trouble free construction process.

  • The preliminary design and schematics are basic drawings without a lot of construction detail. These plans focus on spatial relationships. They will help you visualize how the project might look and may identify some of the early problems. For example: does the proposed new staircase interfere with other portions of the house? Is there enough head room in the existing attic to convert it into a master suite?

    The preliminary design should be used to review the project with the local building authorities and to further refine the budget and timetable.

    Drawings are 2 dimensional representations of 3 dimensional objects. Not many of us, and that includes some construction professionals, can visualize what a physical space will look like from a drawing or blueprint. Luckily there are some computer software programs on the market which allow for a 3 dimensional view of a project. Some even allow you to 'walk through' the project.

  • You are now ready for the construction drawings and specifications that show the design, dimensions, sizes, structures, locations, shapes and some of the material selections - details and more details. Drawings must be clear and complete, the best drawings are those that conform to well established architectural standards. The specifications provide narrative detail, including material descriptions, model numbers, colors, construction methods, standards and techniques.

    The importance of this step in the process can't overstated.

    It is the key to a good contract and a good job. Failure to have good drawings and specifications is one of the main causes of construction defects and disputes, cost overruns and legal problems. The devil is in the details, and the details must be clear and on paper.

  • The building permits must be obtained in the owner's name. The designer, architect, contractor or permit specialist can apply on the owner's behalf. Projects in some jurisdiction can receive a permit in a few days, others require weeks or months of waiting and review. Contact the local building department early in the project for specific conditions, requirements and permit timetables.

    In most cases, if you start the permit process early then it should be ready for you when the actual construction is ready to begin.

  • The pre-qualification of contractors allows you to decide the type of contractors you will invite to bid on your project. Soliciting a bid from a contractor unknown in the building community, or one whose qualifications you have not established in advance, is a waste of time for you and the contractor. The skill, quality, reputation and the specialty of a contractor must be determined before bids are solicited. Without a thorough pre-qualification process is will be impossible to tell if the prices quoted are meaningful.

    Most states require contractors to be licensed and bonded, and in many states current records about contractors are on line. Checking references (especially recent ones), financial stability, previous and current work and reputation in the community are necessary steps in the pre-qualifications process.

    How many bids should you solicit from pre-qualified contractors? 1-3 should be enough.

  • All bids must be based on one set of plans and specifications. Even then, you should expect to find a price range not to exceed 20 percent between the lowest and highest bidder. A bid outside of that range suggests someone has either made a mistake or does not want the job.

    Select your general contractor based on everything you have learned, including price. If you have pre-qualified the contractor, have good plans and specifications and your contact with the contractor throughout the bidding/decision making process continues to be positive, don't hesitate to take the lowest price.

    But if you are unsure of the contractor's qualifications and reputation, think that the bid price is too low and/or have not done your planing and design homework then don't go any further. The law journals are full of cases involving low bids, unqualified contractors, poor contracts and inadequate plans and specifications.

    Many contractors, including some of the best ones I know, work on a "design built" basis. They get involved with the client in the earliest stages of the process, help with the planing and provide the design services. This can be a very good process. It does require extra attention to the contractor selection process.