Ask Katie: Thoughts on renovation priorities

Q: Can you offer any general guidelines for helping the overwhelmed home renovator on a tight budget set priorities? I’m buying another fixer-upper after selling my first one and was wondering how we can be more strategic with renovations this time ‘round. Are there things you always recommend tackling first? Things that I can ignore for awhile? Things you suggest that are almost always a worthwhile investment?

Gerry from Concord, MA

A: It may not be sexy, but deal with the infrastructure first. Address any moisture and/or structural issues as well as inadequate drainage systems. Upgrade outmoded electrical, plumbing, and heating systems so they’re both safe and efficient. Remove hazardous materials, like asbestos insulation or siding. Consider lead abatement if you have young children. Install life-safety devices such as smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. Get rid of any bugs, rodents, or other pests. There’s no point investing in reconfiguring space or adding a family room if the existing house is likely to rot around you, collapse, make you sick, or catch fire.

Once you’ve made the necessary improvements to the infrastructure, determine the minimal additional changes that will make it livable enough to move in. That might mean removing old carpeting, refinishing floors, and adding a fresh coat of interior paint in primary living spaces. Make sure kitchen appliances and plumbing fixtures are fully functional. Clean, and clean some more. Before planning further renovations, live there for awhile, maybe three to six months, to thoroughly understand how the house functions or fails to function.

Then consider devising, with the aid of an architect, a master plan for any desired renovations and/or additions. Be honest with yourself and your architect about your budget and any other relevant constraints. You may end up with a five-year phased plan of what to address when. You’ll need the big-picture in place, so that you don’t make any ill-advised upgrades in the short-term that you would later need to undo to accomplish a larger goal. It’s all about planning ahead. You’ll want every incremental investment to contribute to the overall improvement of your house.

If you’re planning on living in your fixer-upper for years to come, upgrading the kitchen and bathrooms can be very satisfying. Such renovations tend to be the priciest investments, but well worth it in improved performance, appearance, and comfort. You might start slowly by gradually replacing appliances and fixtures, understanding that you may relocate them as part of your master plan. Discreetly opening up the interior is often another worthy modification which can improve: circulation between spaces, access to daylight, and sociability. Of course bundling construction projects together will save you money in the long term, but if cash flow is an issue, a piecemeal approach may be right for you.

No two projects or homeowners are the same, so there isn’t a fixed formula for how to proceed. Trust your common sense and approach your project with patience and persistence. Seek the advice of professionals, friends, and family. Most importantly, have fun with it, otherwise why bother?

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast

Email architect Katie Hutchison ( your general-interest residential design question. Put "Ask Katie" in the subject line and summarize your question in a couple of paragraphs. Include your name, town, and state. Don't include any attachments. Check back with the Ask Katie category to look for Katie's responses to select questions.