No one would ever want to be the sloppy contractor whose shoddy work gets exposed during a job site visit by Mike Holmes. Holmes, the no-nonsense Canadian featured on HGTV episodes about renovations gone awry, makes no secret of his disdain for unscrupulous or unprofessional builders. Unfortunately, by the time Holmes sees most of the problems, that contractor has long-since driven off to cash the client’s check and quickly re-offend elsewhere.
That scenario is much less likely when homeowners understand the basics of construction and remodeling work, and Holmes has augmented his television appearances with books designed to provide that help. His latest effort, Make It Right: Kitchens & Bathrooms, takes aim at the two rooms that present the biggest challenges for renovation. No other spaces in a home have to cram as much function and versatility into one package, and when you add requirements for good design and practical features, the challenges get bigger still.
Most homeowners are well-intentioned, Holmes says, but too many get distracted by the “eye candy” of a finished project — fancy tile, dramatic light fixtures, gleaming countertops or appliances. Those elements are great, but ultimately all of these “finish” elements rely on the underlying soundness of the home’s structural and mechanical systems.
“The real part of any renovation is inside the walls,” Holmes insists. Spending thousands of dollars on custom cabinets makes no sense if the walls they mount to lean from sloppy framing, or if poor ventilation or water leaks make the kitchen unlivable. The author is no grumpy old man; he, too, appreciates all those nice touches. But where a homeowner might swoon over glistening granite countertops and forget all else, Holmes will look to make sure the cabinet construction is solid enough to support the weight.
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The difference boils down to training and discipline that almost anyone can practice, and Holmes offers plenty of advice for how to navigate the process:
▪ Set realistic expectations: Good renovations can transform a single space or an entire house, but almost all projects start with some parameters built in. The home’s existing footprint or lot size, code or zoning restrictions, and your project budget are just a few of the factors that will impose limits on the adventure. Define success as extracting the best possible results from what you have to work with.
▪ Don’t get ahead of the process: Patience is an adult virtue, and any significant remodeling project is going to demand plenty of it. Keep in mind that virtually every element you see rests or relies on something you can’t see, and laying the groundwork with all that “invisible” stuff has to come first. If you’re building a house, just getting the excavation, utility connections and foundation done will consume weeks of time and probably 20 percent of your budget, and you’re not even out of the ground yet. Stay focused on the sequence, making sure each step is done right before moving ahead.
▪ Set a realistic budget: Cost is always the wild card when building or remodeling. Most contractors can produce the results exactly as designed, but pinning down an exact budget at the outset hardly ever happens. Start with the factors you can predict with reasonable accuracy: your income, the loan or savings that will fund the work, typical housing values for the neighborhood, how long you expect to stay and so on. Then develop a specific project plan so you can itemize labor and materials expenses and avoid a lot of change orders along the way. Add at least a 10 percent margin for overages.
▪ Trust your “gut” feeling: For most renovation projects, your choices lie within a spectrum of options for how extensive you want the work to be. Basically, you have to decide if a cosmetic makeover will do the trick, or if you want to peel back more layers — maybe all the layers — and redesign/rebuild from there. Holmes happily admits his bias — to gut the room down to its structural framework. That way, you can ensure its soundness, then upgrade the wiring, plumbing, insulation and windows before installing any new finish surfaces, cabinetry or fixtures.
Like Holmes’ earlier titles, the book walks readers through a lot of the specific choices involved in renovation projects, but not the hands-on techniques themselves. He assumes you are hiring this work out, and he aims to equip you with enough knowledge to hire the right people and insist on the right methods and materials. There’s no shortage of “eye candy” books for great kitchen and bath designs, but for those who want something meatier, your dinner is served.
“Make It Right: Kitchens & Bathrooms” by Mike Holmes; Time Home Entertainment; 2013; $21.95; softcover, 248 pages; available through retail and online booksellers