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REAL ESTATE

6 Sneaky Tips for Saving Money When You Remodel

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kid contractor (Andrew Rich)

There's something romantic, rewarding, and even downright inspiring about bringing an outdated house into the 21st century -- but ask anyone who's been there and done it, and they'll tell you the remodel process will test your patience, your budget, perhaps even your sanity.

"It's a journey into the land of unknowns," warns Mike McGrew, treasurer for the National Association of Realtors and CEO of McGrew Real Estate in Lawrence, KS. "You just don't know what's inside that wall and how much more it might cost to remove, say, that sewer line until you get in there."

That's not to say that renovating a home can't pay off big-time, especially in the long run. And luckily, there are ways to cut costs during the process. Let's check some of them out.

1. Be armed with info about competing contractors

Selecting a trustworthy contractor can make a world of difference in the timeline of a home remodel, which will ultimately save you money. Of course, you'll want to ask friends and acquaintances for recommendations, and follow up with references. But you might still be concerned that your budget isn't quite as generous as the one deployed by your next-door frenemies, the Bickles. (Darn you, Bickles!) Do you have enough cash to make your dream renovation happen?

Here's a little-known secret: Name-drop competitors and the prices they've quoted. More than likely, the contractor you're meeting with will be willing to strike a deal to win your business. One resource worth tapping into is the contractor's fair price and service guarantees for qualified members.

Once you narrow down your options, you should get at least three written estimates to compare costs and timelines, and verify applicable trade license, bonding, and insurance status. Another helpful tip: Insist on a payment schedule tied to project progress and keep at least 10% back until the job is completed to your satisfaction.

"Include the payment schedule in your written contract and a termination clause that allows you to walk away easily if terms aren't met," says Cheryl Reed, a spokeswoman for Angie's List.

Now, if you have some basic DIY knowledge (or a kind friend willing to pitch in), you can save by skipping the contractor. But make sure you know what you're getting into -- there are some home improvement projects you simply shouldn't DIY.

2. Know where to cut corners

As popular opinion has it, kitchens and bathrooms are the most desirable areas in the home to renovate, both yielding a return on investment around 85%, Reed says. But a major renovation for a kitchen or bathroom could cost around $20,000 -- and there's no actual guarantee on that ROI estimate.

If that's a scary number for you, don't despair. There are some simple ways to spruce up these areas without spending too much.

In the bathroom: A fresh coat of paint here (or just about anywhere, for that matter) and new countertops can "really dress up the place," McGrew says.

In the kitchen: You can easily make your kitchen look more expensive with a few simple fixes, says Deidre Hyland, Realtor for BHHS Fox & Roach Real Estate Agents & Associates in Medford, NJ. For example, you can replace cabinet and drawer knobs with more modern hardware or update appliances (when there's a sale at one of the big-box stores).

3. Time your remodel just right

Homeowners frequently wait for warm weather of spring -- along with that lovely spring tax refund -- to start their home remodeling projects. But kicking off a renovation between January through early March -- when there's significantly less demand for contractors and materials -- could allow you to land some good deals. Just be aware that weather conditions could make the project take longer.

Frozen ground and dry air are actually great conditions to dig foundations and pour concrete footers, and with some planning, you might be able to, say, complete a foundation or frame a room addition before the rainy season is in full force -- and well ahead of when prices start to creep higher.

You should also know the best times of year to shop for any appliances you might need. (Hint: It's not just the major holidays.)

4. Shop floor models

When it comes time to shop for a new refrigerator or oven, don't forget that sometimes the best deals are in plain sight. In fact, floor models often are marked down by as much as 20%.

Just beware, McGrew warns: If a product on display is plugged in or is otherwise being used, you should check the warranty to see if the deal makes sense.

Many stores also have a small inventory of "scratch and dent" items that are marked down. And when they're not, customers can point out the flaws and see how low a sales associate is willing to mark it down -- sometimes, the price can be reduced by up to 20%.

Other times, you can luck out with other people's discards.

"You can find discounted appliances that were purchased and returned just because they didn't fit," says Todd Ricci, owner of C. Ricci & Sons Painting Contractors in North Haven, CT. "They are still brand-new." (This is where we offer a friendly reminder to measure your space before starting any remodel! You're welcome.)

5. Opt for ready-to-assemble cabinetry

New cabinets can easily become one of the most expensive parts of a kitchen remodel, accounting for as much as 40% of your renovation budget. But going for ready-to-assemble or semicustom cabinets can cut the cost of cabinets by nearly half.

Prices typically start from as low as $70 per foot for budget to midlevel cabinets. Compare this to the cost of custom cabinets -- which range from $500 to $1,200 per linear foot -- and you'll quickly realize this simple workaround could land a pretty sweet deal. (The range in prices depends on factors such as style, material, and cost of installation.)

6. Reuse materials

Ask your contractor if he has any materials left over from a previous job that you could snag at a fraction of the cost. Of course, this means you'll need to be flexible about your materials and have some wiggle room when it comes to a specific paint color or shade of countertop.

Maybe that gray granite is just a tad lighter than you originally had in mind, but it still looks good -- and, of course, will put a lighter load on your project's bottom line.

We're not saying you won't drop a chunk of change on upgrading your home. You will! But that doesn't mean you can't be smart about it and save some cash along the way.

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Watch: 3 Home Improvement Projects That Pay Off Big-Time