Budgeting Home Improvement Projects


kitchen remodel planning

At the top of the year, ambitions about home improvements and home building are high. But, can we pay for it all? It’s all about being flexible. Home builder and writer Nan Fischer explains.


When I designed my first house to build, I brought the plans to an architect friend of mine for praise and advice. I was expecting him to be so proud of my work, the way it was passive solar with a well-laid out floor plan that would be easy to heat and cool. I had taken into account the views, trees, river, and existing infrastructure. I was waiting for ‘Great job!’

But, no! He looked the design over with no expression on his face, and after a minute he asked, ‘Is it within your budget?’

He popped my balloon. I was instantly deflated. Thankfully that was a life lesson I learned early on in my building career. Before I tackle anything now, I ask myself if I can pay for it.


I had a hands-on experience about remodeling expenses with the very first thing I did to the very first house I bought. This was before I built the house mentioned above.

The purchase went through in early October. Winter was not far behind, and there were many things to accomplish. I had borrowed a little extra money to bury the water line deeper, add wall insulation, and install the woodstove. When a builder friend came to look the job over, he noticed there was no drip edge on the roof.

Now, this was not a big place. It was an 8’x22’ travel trailer with a large living room added on. The roof was plywood decking covered with roll roofing, and it covered the whole structure, lean-to style. I needed maybe 30’ of drip edge. We estimated materials plus labor to peel back the roofing and tack on the drip edge to be about $50. This seemed like an easy place to start and a small thing to do to protect the roof from our heavy snows. I also wanted to feel like I’d gotten a start with the fixer-upper aspect!

Things are not always as they seem

While we strategized the larger jobs, we figured we’d take a half-day to install the drip edge. As soon as we pulled back the roofing, though, we noticed the plywood was already rotting from not having this tiny but vital piece of metal in place over the years.

Plan B was to replace the three pieces of plywood along the edge. As we exposed the decking to remove it, we noticed the second run was also rotting. We pulled the roofing back farther, and were forced to move to Plan C. I needed all new decking!

My $50 home improvement ended up costing $500! That was a large chunk of money taken away from other winterizing projects, let alone the extra time it took to put on a new roof. Winter was going to be bearing down on us soon. There was no price to put on the stress this caused!

Remodeling nightmares #2 and #3

Remodels are hard to budget, though, because just as in the scenario above, you never know what you will unearth. Or not.

When I bought my current home, I installed a few new windows. As soon as we cut the openings, we noticed the insulation was old, compacted and sagging in the wall cavities. That makes it ineffective!

We used the small pieces that had been in the window openings to double up the insulation we could easily get to (think: bandaid!). I didn’t have the money to remove all the sheetrock and put in new insulation. Plan B turned out to be beefing up the attic insulation a few years later.

When I redid the bathroom/laundry room and added solar hot water, the plumber discovered a drainage line that was not connected to the septic tank. It seemed to run in the other direction. The grey water from the second bathroom was apparently going out to the back yard many feet underground. Maybe to a buried gravel pit? I don’t know. There was no sign of it in the yard at all.

Instead of simply hooking up the new fixtures to the existing plumbing lines, we had to install all new lines. Cha-ching! That added to the bill!

It’s a crap shoot

Remodeling is creative and adventurous, but it’s risky. I would normally suggest adding 10% to projected costs, but as you can see by my own experiences, 10% would not have covered Plans B or C. The best advice I can give is to be flexible. You may need a Plan Z! Or no plans at all.

Expect a small project to be much bigger and more expensive than planned. Have extra money available for problems, or adjust the project to stay within the budget. Flexibility and sensibility rule.

The risk is worth it in the end, though. I find a finished bathroom or new windows so gratifying that I forget I once said ‘No more building!’

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