Managing home improvement projects – lessons learned

Managing a major home improvement project – lessons learned from real projects

Many of us get involved at least once in a major home improvement project.   Some turn out fine but sadly too many go very badly wrong, sometimes disastrously. The majority that go wrong do so for common reasons. If you follow all of the following you will minimise the chance of major issues on your project and ensure that any issues you have are manageable within your overall budget and timescale. Also, it should ensure that you get what you want and expect.

Real example – our own property

A while ago we bought a ‘fixer-upper’ house that needed a serious amount of work.  It needed: major structural changes; new windows; new kitchen; new bathrooms; flooring; rewiring; and heating.  It was a big job on a very tight timescale.  We lived in the house while the work was going on so I had to keep the timescale short and work out how to maintain basic services while all this was happening – and produce something we were happy with. We needed: builders, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, plasterers, tilers, decorators and others.  Later I will describe the most important lesson when we carried out our own home improvement project.

The First major decision – who manages the work?

One of the most important decisions is who you decide to put in charge of your project, i.e. who takes on the role of a project manager.  You could appoint someone to find all the required trades and manage the work for you, or you can possibly find and manage all the trades yourself.  Depending on the scale of the project, if you have no experience in managing projects or the work being done, it can be very optimistic to take on the role of the PM yourself.  It may seem like a cost-saving to do so, but it could cost even more in the long run.

Here is major lesson #1

Many builders and even Architects claim to be able to act as ‘project managers’ while they carry out their own work. In reality very few really do. Architects have a key role at the beginning and can certainly give you advice in the early stages but will rarely be actively involved in the build phase. The build phase is where all your risks and challenges will be so this is where you really need a good PM. Being a Project Manager requires hands-on involvement in the whole job (in both the planning and site phases) and too many so-called ‘project managers’ simply assume things are all OK until issues have already occurred. Sorting out issues after they have happened is not being a real project manager at all.

Plans, Specifications and Building Regulations etc.

The first thing you must do is to allow enough time in the setting up of your project.  This includes preparing specifications, securing any permissions and consents you require, investigating standards and regulations you must comply with and choosing the right contractors and putting agreements with them in place.

Whoever you decide to manage the work, there are a number of things you must and must never do.

  1. In the UK, if you require planning permission you must always have plans for your project drawn up by qualified relevant professionals (e.g. Architects and Structural Engineers). They will know the regulations etc. that your project will have to comply with and they must produce a design that is compliant with those regulations.  They will also understand the construction activities that are involved and should be able to assist and advise you about these.
    • note of caution re: budget planning – Architects may provide you rough estimates of costs of proposed schemes and designs but firm quotes can only be given to you by builders and associated trades, once you have final drawings together with a schedule (of work) for the builder(s) together with detailed specifications. Actual quotes may differ substantially from figures given to you by Architects as they use crude averages for construction work based on physical area/size, not actual work to be done. Other factors like market conditions can also affect quotes substantially.
  2. If you do require planning permission, it is always best to employ local people who have established contacts in your local planning office and who also should be aware of the specific needs of your local planning office relative to your property, and how they interpret planning regulations in your local area.
  3. When getting quotes, make sure that you specify clearly and in detail what you consider ‘finished’ in relation to all works (e.g. restoration of the site after completion, removal of temporary access ways, etc.) when you ask for estimates from potential suppliers.
  4. Ensure that if old materials etc. are to be removed and they are valuable (e.g. copper) that you make it clear that the builder does not benefit from these and you receive market rates if they dispose of them on your behalf.
  5. Specify all internal fixtures, fittings, equipment and furniture (e.g. bathrooms) etc. to be used if these are being supplied by your builder.
  6. Where possible use photos etc (and full written specifications) to convey the specifics of your expectations regarding the required finish etc. which all quotes are to comply with.
  7. Keep two copies of all key documents – one for you and give one to your builder as the basis of all works and state on these that they form part of the commercial agreement with them.
  8. Make sure you understand all the building and planning regulations that apply to your project. Some of these will involve time delays (e.g. waiting for inspections) and cost.  Assuming you employ an Architect/planning consultant they should be able to advise you on this.

Estimating and prices

  1. Get fixed prices from all contractors and suppliers based on drawings and detailed written specifications. If you do a good job of specifying what you want, a good builder will be able to price most if not all of the work. Agree (in writing) on the major assumptions that prices are based on (e.g. internal walls/floors are sound etc.). If they won’t give you a fixed price, find another contractor who will.
  2. Discuss potential ‘extras’ with them – agree on items that would be outside of quoted prices. If they won’t discuss potential extras at all at the pricing stage, they should not be charging you extras after work begins. If they won’t even discuss the topic, it could be a severe red flag regarding using them as a supplier.
  3. Make completion standards and expectations totally clear and make clear who pays for or does any site clearing and cleaning following works. Even more important, make sure contractors specify in their quotes what is included in their price, even if you have to ask a few times to get them to do this.

Extras and contingencies

  1. Especially if you are dealing with an older property, ask the builder what unforeseen issues you may find once you start work and get some sort of ‘order of magnitude’ estimate of what it would cost to resolve them. These ($) values should help you to budget for a realistic contingency that reflects your property and specifically what you are doing, should some of these issues occur.  If the problems could be major, the size of your contingency should match the scale of potential issues (never just use a straight % as your contingency).  Before you start the main works, it could be hugely beneficial to carry out investigations with the relevant professionals to test if there are any issues.  It is far better to spend a small amount understanding the full scale (and cost) of the job, before you commit to the whole project, rather than starting off with a budget that is too small and then running into major additional expenses later on, without an adequate budget.
  2. There will always be some things that get overlooked in the pricing of any job. You must always allow for some unforeseen (but hopefully minor) additional items to be paid for.

Choosing your supplier(s)/ contractors

  1. Unless you personally know them well check multiple references. If they will not do this, pass them by.  Talk to some past customers (don’t just look at written references) and preferably more than one. Make sure they are recent customers.  Ask them “If you were doing this again, what would you do differently”.
  2. If you can, visit some of their previous work and see it for yourself – even just from the outside.
  3. Apart from those that are required for safety reasons (e.g. Gas), be wary of many supplier ‘accreditation’ schemes. Many signify little more than a supplier paying an annual fee to an ‘accreditation’ body to be able to display their badge.  Few have stringent standards for membership or sanctions against members who become involved in disputes with past customers.

Payment and payment milestones

  1. Most important of all never pay any money in advance.
  2. It is perfectly reasonable for your builder to ask for some stage payments, especially on larger projects, however, never make payments to anyone other than for work completed, to your satisfaction and to any required standards (e.g. building regulations etc.).
  3. Stage payments must never be based on time (i.e. 6 weeks after start of works) but must always be based on completion of real work (e.g. foundations approved by building inspector, structural works completed and inspected, building water-tight, services installed and tested, fixtures and fittings installed and tested, rooms ready for decorating).
  4. Never pay more than 70% of the total price in stage payments leaving at least 30% for the final payment. It has to be an amount a builder is very unlikely to simply walk away from. Never make the final payment until all issues are fully resolved.


  1. Develop an overall schedule (by week) and make clear the work for each trade each week. A list of dates will do, but don’t just list completion dates – list start and completion dates for each main item of work.
  2. Involve each trade in the development of the overall schedule. Get their commitment to the schedule for the work they are responsible for.
  3. Ensure all materials are available well in advance of when they are required, to ensure this does not cause delay. Make sure they are as secure as possible before they are used.

Buying materials

  1. Don’t pay others to buy expensive equipment on your behalf up front. All bona fide contractors have credit lines with their trade suppliers so there should be no reason for you to finance things up-front.  On top of that, they will add a costly markup.
  2. Also, it can be much better for you to buy certain items in your own name. With the buying power that the internet provides to individuals today, this can usually save you money over ‘trade’ prices and best of all you will own the items and can manage their delivery to meet your schedule.

Managing the work

  1. If you can’t do this yourself, you should consider getting some help from somewhere and maybe even allowing for this in your budget.
  2. On my project, I employed a specialist to oversee the work of all the trades. I was involved heavily myself but have no direct experience with most of the work.  What this did, was to have someone coordinate all work before it started, helping to avoid issues, via daily communications with the relevant trades. He also reviewed work as items were completed before follow-on trades started work. I remained the project manager but this individual advised and helped me all the way.
  3. Whoever is acting as the ‘PM’ must talk to contractors on-site or due on-site every day.  If there are issues or delays, you need to know about them ASAP and you should be part of the decision-making process. Most important of all, the PM should know about issues as early as possible and should be working to reduce the timescale impact to as close to zero as possible.

Testing, acceptance and final payment(s)

  1. Ensure you test (multiple times if possible) every one of the newly installed items and services as soon as they are installed (never assume the installation engineer has done this – most don’t do it) and always before any further work progresses – check for functions, performance or especially leaks. You don’t want to find bad news far later on when the fix will be much more time-consuming and could cause unwanted delays, re-work and maybe even additional costs.
  2. For all works that need to be weatherproof, inspect them as early as possible following bad weather and especially if you get the chance before making your final payment.
  3. On some projects, it is common to have a retainer for a certain period, until you can be completely sure that all work is finished and satisfactory.
  4. If you have any issues that you are not satisfied with, you must list them and explain why and what you expect in terms of repairs or remedial work. Under no circumstances make your final payment until your snagging list is fully resolved to your satisfaction.  Never agree to pay part of the final payment leaving a small amount until snagging is finished.  This could become a real issue if you do.

And the biggest lessons of all?

  1. As part of selecting the people to work with us on our home improvement project, I invited them all to the property together and provided pizza and beer.  Once they were all there, I talked everyone through the plans and especially some of the sequencing around the services.  This generated a lot of useful discussion between each of the trades along the lines of “I didn’t realise that – in that case, what I could do is …….”. The session was supposed to last an hour and went on for three.  It turned out to be extremely useful and it allowed each of the trades to dovetail their efforts and avoid what would otherwise have been delays and issues.  It also meant everyone knew the overall impact if delays did occur. We had a 6-week schedule, recognised by all as very tight.  We finished all the work in less than 6 weeks and the original budget.  Without this session and similar ones that followed, we would never have met the schedule. And here’s the thing. Some of the original contractors we wanted to involve refused to take part in this session, saying they did not see the point.  We thanked them for their interest and replaced them with someone else who did.
  2. Meeting the schedule and budget was only achieved by thorough planning well before work started, together with very close attention to progress and issues throughout the whole site phase.

Good luck with your project; if you follow the above hopefully you will get exactly what you want for the cost you expect to pay.




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