This article is the archived version of a report that appeared in August 2009 Consumer Reports magazine.
We asked 6,000 readers to reveal what went wrong when they remodeled their kitchens and baths and how much those mistakes added to the cost of their projects. Here's how to avoid their mistakes and save some money.
Changing plans is the costliest, and most common, remodeling gaffe. It added $1,500 to the cost of readers' kitchen projects and $650 to bath remodels. Leave time for research and create a comprehensive project plan (or written contract if you hire a professional) listing every product, down to the choice of finish.
There's a lot going on behind the walls in a kitchen and bathroom—not just plumbing and electrical and gas lines, but also insects lured by food and moisture. Unexpected water damage was an issue with 17 percent of bathroom projects, while structural problems cropped up in 10 percent of kitchens. A good contractor will be able to anticipate potential concerns, allowing you to budget accordingly.
The tight market is forcing contractors to lower their profit margins. But at a certain point, they'll have to make up the difference in other ways, or worse yet, walk away from a project midflight. That makes getting several estimates especially important now, so that you know the new "normal" cost for your project. Readers who went with the low-ball bid ended up spending more for labor, a median of $1,500 extra on their kitchen remodels and $1,000 on their bathrooms. Once you make your pick, don't sign a contract with a lot of open-ended amounts for products and materials (called "allowances" in contractor speak).
Have the contractor attach copies of his up-to-date license and insurance and workers' compensation policies to your written contract. He should also get permits and give you a lien waiver when the job is done. The latter will keep suppliers from knocking on your door for unpaid bills.
Specifying the ventilation, lighting, and placement of the trash cans isn't as much fun as choosing counters, but those details are important. Exhaust fans are often critical for preventing mildew in baths and venting odors in kitchens. Undercabinet lighting in a kitchen provides much-needed task light on the countertops.