New York (CNN/Money) -
In the 1986 movie, "The Money Pit," a cash-strapped Walter Fielding (Tom Hanks) and his new wife (Shelley Long) buy a ramshackle mansion that begins falling down around them, nearly dragging their new marriage with it.
To make matters worse, the Fieldings hire the Shirk brothers to do the much-needed repairs. And as their name suggests, these contractors are anything but dependable. Then again, "the legitimate people" wanted four times as much for the job.
If you're considering taking on a "pit" of your own or just want to update your circa 1970 kitchen, be warned that remodeling is often a stressful, costly and time-consuming affair.
Contractors frequently take the blame for hellish renovations, and sometimes rightfully so. But homeowners often bring on a lot of the heartache, say experts, because they don't make planning or communication enough of a priority.
"Too many homeowners launch into a project without doing any homework," said Mike Weiss, chairman of the National Association of Homebuilders Remodelors Council. "You need to know what you want, what you can afford and how to talk to the people you're hiring."
Avoiding these common mistakes won't guarantee that the project will be completely stress free, but will certainly help you steer clear of the Shirk brothers.
Mistake: Not planning or prioritizing
The most successful remodeling projects, say experts, begin with homeowners who have a definitive, yet realistic, idea of what they want done. "Sometimes it's good to live in a house a while before you renovate," said Michael Litchfield, author of "Renovation" and "House Check: Finding and Fixing Common House Problems."
By not rushing into a remodeling project, you'll get a better sense of what you'd liked changed, as well as what needs to be changed. In fact, before you plan on painting walls or replacing tile you should make sure you've taken care of the less glamorous projects, such as fixing faulty pipes or a leaky roof. "The roof and the foundation are where you should spend your money first," added Litchfield.
It's never too early to start thinking about each and every detail, including such things as windows, wood, kitchen cabinets, fixtures and appliances. Delaying decisions about these items is an easy way to break your budget and hold up the remodeling process.
Mistake: Going with the lowest bid
The old rule of getting three estimates and going with the lowest price is not the best route for choosing a contractor, according to Sal Alfano, editor-in-chief of Remodeling magazine. While, you'll still want estimates, don't let them dictate your choice, as Fielding discovered.
Unless you see that every last nail is accounted for in each estimate, you really can't be sure you're comparing the apples with apples or that the estimates are accurate. What's more, an estimate won't tell you much about what you really need to know: that your contractor is experienced, trustworthy and easy to get along with.
"The contractor's most important role is often as a hand-holder and part-time psychologist," said Alfano. "When something goes wrong -- and it always does -- you'll appreciate working with someone you feel comfortable with."
To find such a person, begin with word-of-mouth recommendations. Your local builders association is also a good resource for finding contractors who are certified in their areas of expertise, according to Weiss, who recommends going with a firm with at least five years in the business.
Once you have a list of recommended, qualified contractors you'll want to meet with them to discuss your project. You may even consider hiring a prospective contractor to spend a few hours consulting with you on the project.
"You'll not only get some guidance in your planning, you'll be able to see if you like the person and feel comfortable with him or her," said Litchfield.
Rapport counts for a lot. But you still need to get as much information as you can in writing throughout the process.
Ideally, you'll have an explanation of what will be done, how it will be done, how much it will cost and how long it will take. Doing so will not only create a paper trail for your contractor's responsibilities, it will help you understand the process and keep your expectations in check.
Mistake: Not understanding the process
Even if you plan to hire a general contractor to manage the project, first give yourself a crash course in construction, beginning with learning the lingo.
"If you can speak the language you'll not only be able to communicate more effectively, you'll be taken more seriously," said Litchfield. You'll want to be somewhat familiar with common terms, such as "change orders" or "cost-plus estimates."
Be sure to that you have a copy of the work schedule and actually understand what it's telling you. Scheduling a major remodeling project is no small task. For example, doors and windows need to be ordered months in advance (again why you should make decisions early in the game).
Also, do your best to visualize what the project will look like when it's complete. If you're not comfortable reading a blueprint, ask for a detailed explanation. In some cases it may be worth the extra money to have a three-dimensional model, a computer-generated image or a mock-up made.
"Whenever you make changes it costs extra money," said Alfano. "To avoid this you want to make sure you understand what the project is going to look like before construction begins."
As a final step for keeping your sanity (and your marriage), Litchfield strongly recommends creating a "safe room" free of any trace of construction.
"You need to have a place to retreat to, to seal off from all of the mess and stress," he said. "You may even want to take a vacation if the project is a large one."