Managing home improvement projects takes time, prudence

Home improvement projects often start with a great deal of excitement and grand dreams, but without proper planning and oversight, those dreams can quickly turn into a nightmare and a money pit.

So, what are the steps you can take to help your home improvement dreams become a reality? Review your finances and set an upper limit on what is prudent to spend. Pay for your project from your home improvement reserve fund, which you should build up over a period of years. The Gospel of Luke says, “Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish’” (Lk 14:28-30).

Don’t rush into your project. Take time to dream and develop a vision for what you hope to accomplish. There are many resources available on the Internet, including and, where you can see many examples of what others have done and learn about the good, the bad and the ugly via online forums.

Insider’s insights

My wife Chelsey and I are nearing the completion of a 25-year update on our home. I was visiting with our painter, who shared some interesting insights. His wife is an architect. He noted that clients are always upbeat and happy during her phase of the work — the dreaming phase. He then went on to share that since painting is one of the last phases of most projects, his interaction with clients is often much less pleasant. Why? They are tired of the project and out of money! Don’t let that happen to you — plan well.

You’ll need to decide whether to do the project yourself, manage individual contractors or hire a general contractor. Your decision will depend on the size and scope of the project, your skill sets, available trusted contacts and the time you have available.

While doing it yourself or managing individual contractors can stretch your dollars, a good general contractor will take on many of the headaches you will otherwise need to deal with. Count on paying 15-20 percent of the total project cost for a general contractor.

Comparing bids

If you have others do or oversee the construction work, obtain references and receive comparative bids. Bids should be based on similar materials and expectations. This is a very important part of the process — don’t cut it short.

In order for contractors to provide a bid, they will need to understand the project well, including detailed descriptions of materials to be used. This refining of the project plan goes a long way toward eliminating potential surprises. If the bids come in higher than your spending limit, review your priorities and modify the project to bring costs back in line. Also check on the status of your contractor by visiting your state contractor licensing board’s website.

Researching contractors

While having a contract is important, no contract can replace your personal knowledge of a contractor. Hire people who exhibit integrity and professionalism. Your parish should be a great resource.

You don’t need to overdo a contract with legalese, but it should address key issues, including: an overview of the project; your relationship to contractor (independent contractor rather than employee); contractor’s license and taxpayer ID numbers; time frame for project; line by line bid with specific material descriptions; responsibility for obtaining permits; responsibility for theft or damage; dispute resolution (mediation); and payment terms.

Don’t allow payments to get ahead of the work being done, and make sure to receive releases from contractors as they are paid. One way to insure your general contractor pays sub-contractors is to issue joint checks payable to both.

Finally, recognize that once a home improvement project gets started, it takes on a life of its own. Change orders are one of the primary reasons projects go over budget.

By taking time to plan your project up front, you’ll avoid most — but probably not all — change orders. It’s always a good idea to hold 10 percent of your budget in reserve for change orders and surprises. God love you! 

Phil Lenahan is the president of Veritas Financial Ministries ( and the author of “7 Steps to Becoming Financially Free” (OSV, $19.95). Submit questions for columns to