Ask William Carter about expanding your home and he's going to be blunt: It will be expensive. It will be messy . And it will take time.
"This is a very taxing process," says Carter, who has renovated homes in California for three decades and is now board chairman of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. "You're probably going to make 1,500 to 2,000 decisions before this project is completed." But, he says, if you plan carefully and trust your instincts, you can "end up with a quality project and everyone will be friends afterwards."
Like all remodeling projects, adding on to your home starts with planning and research. In surveys of Consumer Reports readers who have remodeled their homes , "the thing they wish they had done is spent more time upfront," says Celia Kuperszmid-Lehrman, deputy home editor at the magazine.
Make detailed notes about the basics you want, and a separate list of special things -- maybe skylights or a fireplace -- that you'd love to include but can live without.
"There is almost always a conflict between what you can afford and what you want," says Bill Harbrecht, a retired contractor from Florida who shares his knowledge at Remodeling4Dumbells.com.
Basics such as "foundation, framing, basic electric and heating are built-in costs and there is no way around them. Many are governed by building codes and cannot be changed to make them less expensive," Harbrecht says. But "you do have control over everything else, and everything else encompasses hundreds of choices, each one more or less expensive than the other." Be sure to plan a large enough addition , he says, because scrimping on space may leave you unsatisfied with the finished product.
But also consider how the value and size of your home compares with others in the neighborhood. "You don't want to go crazy beyond what's common in your neighborhood," says Kuperszmid-Lehrman, because building too big can make it harder to recoup the money when you eventually sell.
Do research at local stores to decide what you like -- particular appliances, types of flooring, etc. -- and what it costs. This legwork makes you more informed when interviewing contractors, and helps create a budget. Knowing exactly what you want will help you avoid expensive changes once the job is under way.
Work up a realistic budget, Kuperszmid-Lehrman says, leaving room for cost overruns of 5 percent to 10 percent. When budgeting, consider whether you'll need to live elsewhere while work is being done.
Look into financing in advance, says Mark Donovan, founder of the DIY website HomeAdditionPlus.com. Don't wait until you've signed a contract to confirm how you'll pay for it.
Once you know what you want, ask friends and neighbors to recommend contractors.
You can commission plans from an architect before interviewing contractors or work with "design/build" contractors who create plans for their work. If the addition isn't elaborate, you also can buy software to design your own plans. Software can cost up to several hundred dollars, Donovan says, but "that's what an architect would charge you for one hour."
When interviewing contractors, make sure all decision-makers are present. Come prepared with questions, and ask for clarification of details.
Once you have several bids, be sure you're comparing apples to apples. Low bids may not offer the same services or quality items as higher ones, so ask for specifics.
"If someone offers a much lower bid than others, he's probably not going to be on the job all the time," Carter says. "It's going to start, then languish a while." Carter's proposals are carefully organized, and include numerous documents detailing every aspect of the job. "Look at how the bid was presented," he says, because the effort put into the proposal may give a sense of the effort that will go into the finished job.
Look for someone who is experienced in the specific type of work you're planning, and perhaps is certified in that area. Does the contractor point out potential difficulties up front or promise that the job will be totally smooth sailing? Ask about things like downtime while they wait for supplies.
Get references from former customers, and "don't just say, 'Did you like the guy?'" says Kuperszmid-Lehrman. Ask how the job went and whether there were any surprises. Ideally, visit former customers' homes to see the work.
Most important: Listen to your instincts in choosing the right contractor.
"Find the builder you have the right chemistry with," Carter says, because this person will be in your home for months to come.
EVERYTHING IN WRITING
"A lot of people get bids, and by then they're already so tired of the process" that they just jump in and get started, Carter says. But it's vital to move slowly and carefully when signing contracts.
Don't assume details are implied. Outline everything on paper, from which materials will be used to how clean the worksite will be at the end of each day.
Agree in writing on an estimated time frame and overall estimate of costs. But accept that contractors can't predict the weather, and things like frayed wiring or termites may be discovered when walls are opened.
"Even the best contractor doesn't have X-ray vision," says Kuperszmid-Lehrman, "and the older your home is the more likely it is you're going to find something like that."
Once the project is under way, stay in written communication. Phone messages can cause confusion, says Carter, so he prefers e-mail updates, with everyone copied in. Written communication with a date and time stamp is the best way to prevent "he said, she said" conflict, and preserve a good relationship until the end.