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Avoid these top 10 renovation mistakes

Ask the Expert Home Improvement
Renovation-Mistakes-Illo
. Boston Globe; Adobe Stock

There are a lot of renovation war stories out there — just look at the age of the state’s housing stock, and it’s easy to see why — so we asked professionals to name the top 10 reno mistakes homeowners make:

Bruce Irving was a producer for TV’s “This Old House’’ for 17 years. Today, he is a real estate agent with Compass in Cambridge, runs a consulting practice that helps homeowners with their renovation plans, and chairs the Cambridge Historical Commission. His first mistake comes from personal experience. …

1. Renovating a home right after you move in.

“You should inhabit it for at least a few months to understand the ergonomics of the place, where the choke points are, where the sun is, and how it impacts you,’’ Irving said. “There were things my wife and I thought absolutely had to be changed in a home we moved into, and four months later we realized we’d be concentrating on many of the wrong things.’’

2. Not hiring a professional designer.

“The good ones are absolutely worth their cost,’’ Irving said. “They bring value and deliver the best results. A contractor who says they’ll do the design for free is a red flag. Kitchens are detailed, expensive spaces. Renovating them is a game of centimeters. You have to know your cabinetry and hardware. … Whatever you do will cost you more than you imagine and take longer than you thought, so you’d better build the right thing.’’

3. Allowing unlicensed professionals to work on your home.

“Putting aside quality of the work, it’s the accountability that comes with hiring a licensed worker with the proper permits that you want. … There is no more expensive cost-cutter than that one,’’ Irving said.

Note from reporter: I was a licensed home inspector and a licensed builder in Massachusetts for decades, and this point can’t be overstressed. I quickly learned that experience and training count for a lot. It’s tragically easy to install an overhead light or an electrical receptacle in such a way that it will work and also be very dangerous. Most of what your contractors do, you’ll never see. Hire qualified professionals. Cheap work is no bargain.

You can check to see whether your contractor has a construction supervisor (builder’s) license here: mass.gov/how-to/check-a-construction-supervisor-license. Check to ensure they are a registered home improvement contractor here: mass.gov/how-to/check-a-home-improvement-contractor-registration. Check for other trade licenses here: mass.gov/topics/division-of-professional-licensure-boards-of-registration. Don’t forget to look up their reviews on Yelp and their complaint history with the Better Business Bureau, too.

4. Replacing tired but serviceable wooden windows.

“I’m a firm believer in the folly of replacing good, original windows with vinyl replacements,’’ Irving said. “Any original wood window can be restored to a high-functioning, long-lasting state with the nearly equal energy efficiency of modern windows as long as there is a good storm [window].’’

5. ‘Cheaping out’ on materials.

“Spend good money on things you touch every day, like door hardware, doors, faucets, appliances, kitchen cabinets,’’ Irving said. “Higher-quality components last longer, and the tactile experience sends a daily reminder to you and your guests about the solidity and quality of your home.’’

Our next five don’ts come from Asher Nichols of Asher Nichols & Craftsmen in Chestnut Hill. They specialize in renovating and restoring homes built between about 1850 and 1950.

6. Allowing workers to cut through beams.

Nichols said that when he renovates an older home, he often finds where previous contractors cut and significantly weakened structural elements of the house to make room for pipes or ductwork.

“There was a stretch of time when plumbers and other contractors did a ton of damage to homes,’’ Nichols said, recalling where such cuts caused the floors in a Brookline house to sag 3 inches. “The contractor had cut out an entire portion of a carrying beam, and there were huge cost implications for the family.’’

7. Not tending to the exterior first.

“I had a prospective client ask me to build a dormer and not replace the rest of the roof,’’ Nichols said. “The roof was so bad that it really needed to be done. Don’t spend money in the wrong places. Make sure the roof and walls are watertight before you consider any interior renovations.’’

Or as Irving put it: “Water kills houses.’’

“If you’re faced with a choice of working on the outside or the inside, start on the outside,’’ he said. “There’s no point in putting in a new floor if the roof is getting set to leak. Gutters, grading, foundation plantings, flat roofs — make sure the water is going where it should: away from the building.’’

8. Failing to plan for the long term.

“I’m working with clients who want to create a master bedroom suite and a new kitchen,’’ Nichols said. “If the budget doesn’t allow them to do it all at once, they’ll have to phase it. You have to think about phase two while doing phase one. It’s cheaper and you end up with a better result. The second project will greatly impact where you run pipes, ducts, and wires for the first.’’

9. Not waterproofing the basement before you finish it.

“There are homes where the foundation is so porous that if you don’t install a perimeter drain in the basement, you’ll never manage the water that will come through,’’ Nichols said. “That’s why basement finishing is so expensive.’’

Note from reporter: I’ll take this point a little further. Virtually every basement in New England is eventually going to get wet. Many basements leak at some point in their history, and the scientific community tells us storms will intensify and become more frequent. Even if your basement is one of the few that has never leaked, your water heater or your boiler will fail one day. Pipes burst and back up. If water infiltrates an unfinished basement, it’s an annoyance. If it happens in a finished basement, it’s expensive.

10. Ignoring ice dams and insulation issues.

“Now is the perfect time for people to be aware of and think about ice damming,’’ Nichols said. “It’s preventable. We had an ice dam on a project unrelated to the work we were doing. We convinced the clients to do some work in the attic to prevent it from happening again, and they’re going to do some roof edge work. Proper ventilation, ice barriers, and insulation are key, and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.’’

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