Renovation Survival 101: First Draft Budgeting

Like everything about the renovation my husband and I are doing, our budget has undergone multiple versions, revisions, reworkings, and surprises.

And, like everything about the renovation my husband and I are doing, we started with a solid budget estimate of what we intended to do, and how we were going to make it happen.  And we’ve just rolled with the punches ever since.  It is important to note that we did have several contingency plans, just in case – and a good thing too! We’ve used just about every single one so far.


But how do you start a budget for a project you’ve never done before?  Using your favourite TV show numbers is not a bad place to start – if you are in a similar area.  I remember being shocked at how much it seemed they could do for so little! Or, in other cases, how little they managed to do for SO MUCH MONEY.  So obviously there is more to a budget plan than throwing numbers on a page and expecting it to happen that way.

Start much earlier than your project and get some rough estimates and quotes from craftsmen and tradespeople. Don’t feel like talking it over and asking questions ties you into using them either. You don’t have any obligation until you sign a contract or pay a retainer.

Talk to friends in your neighbourhood who have done a renovation and get over the impulse to not talk about cost. You need to know about what to expect!

The main thing here is Tip #1 – Start early! Give yourself a few months of solid research if you really have no idea what to estimate for the cost of things.  And even if you do – get some quotes and estimates just to double-check things haven’t changed in the market.  In our case, it was to remind us (over and over) that our house is 2-3 times larger than a “normal house”, and more square footage means more expense.

One thing those TV shows can be great at – reminding you of the need for a buffer in your budget. There’s always at least one wall with something in it that isn’t supposed to be there, and an opening you want that is in a load-bearing section. There’s always SOMETHING – even if it’s just that you want a nicer fridge or tub than you budgeted for.  So  here’s Tip #2 – Add 10% to everything.  Price out a reasonable solution, and add 10%.  If you are really good and know exactly what you want up front? Well, add 5%.  BUT ADD SOMETHING.

Tip #3 – Decide what’s more important: the goal list or the budget line.  I know no one wants to compromise on either, and this can be a tricky conversation to reach a consensus on. But sometimes you gotta let go of that new kitchen cabinetry and paint the old ones. And other times you have to realize that if you don’t do the new plumbing now, the nice new tile and fixtures will just have to be ripped back up in a year or two and the problem under the floor will only have gotten worse.

These are the things that take you by surprise and force you to make decisions mid-project. But if you’ve already decided what is more important (the must-haves win over budget, budget wins over luxury items, luxury items never win when you make cuts to a budget. Sorry.)  then deciding what to do when something pops up is not a fight, and it’s not a hard decision. You already knew that you were going to fix whatever was wrong with the electrical no matter what. You already knew that a soaking tub was a luxury item only if there was leftover money in the budget.  So now you can make the tough calls without having to scrap all your dreams and plans or remortgage (we hope).

And this leads up to Tip #4 – Decide the Scope of the Project.  In our case – everything.  The house is over 100 years old. The things that were must-haves weren’t really our decision – they were necessities. However, we did decide to do the entire house in one go. We didn’t have to. We could have done it floor by floor. It would have worked. It would have taken 3 years, but it would have worked.  So decide – how far into the walls are you willing to dig? How many rooms? How much time do you have to devote to this? Then if you find yourself slip-sliding past your predetermined limits you have a reason to say “NO” or “NOT NOW”.

Because the true biggest hit to any budget? Adding things to it. Give yourself some boundaries and stay within them.

What are some budget surprises you’ve had during a renovation?