How to Keep Home Improvement Projects From Busting Your Budget

There’s a leak in my dining room that my husband and I are afraid to fix. We’re not worried about destroying the old plaster (the water is doing a fine job of that on its own). Nor are we concerned that we can’t handle the necessary work, since we plan to contract it out.

No, we’re wary of this particular home improvement project because we know how little fixes can balloon into major rehabs when you’re not looking.

Here’s how it might go: We’ll have to open a wall to find the source of the leak. Once the wall is open, we’ll need to add insulation, since our 80-year-old house has very little. Then we’ll need to install an attic fan to make the most of the insulation. To make sure the intake for the new attic fan works properly, we’ll need to install soffit vents — which will involve cutting holes in our soffits. Next, we’re going to need to caulk and repaint them to make sure there are no further leaks.

And these are just the potential repairs we can anticipate. Who knows what kinds of problems we’ll uncover once walls are open and repair personnel are hired? This is how fixing a single leak could end up costing tens of thousands of dollars, plus all the hours we’d rather spend watching Netflix.

Engaging in necessary acts of home improvement doesn’t have to bust your budget, or take up all of your time. Here’s what you need to know about keeping your home improvement projects from wrecking your budget. (See also: 10 Things to Know Before You Start a Home Improvement Project)

Beware of scope creep

“Scope creep” is a useful term that comes from the world of project management. It describes the phenomenon where the work required for a project continues to grow after the project has begun.

There are three main reasons why scope creep runs rampant in home improvement projects:

Unanticipated repair needs

This is when you have no idea there’s an issue that you’ll need to take care of until after you get started on a project. For instance, let’s say you’re stripping the paint off of some floor molding to get it to match the hardwood. But as you work, you discover that the previous owners patched and painted the molding to cover termite damage. You can leave the job half-done, repaint what you’ve stripped to try to match the paint you’ve been stripping off, or pay to have all of your molding replaced.

The ‘while-we’re-at-it’ effect

This happens when you feel like you should take the opportunity to make repairs you know you’ll want in the future. The while-we’re-at-it effect is the reason why my husband and I are playing chicken with the leak in our dining room. We know that getting started on the repair will mean opening ourselves to a number of other projects we want to take on, just not right now.

DIY incompetence

Sometimes a project’s scope increases because of your own mistakes, and this is especially common with easy-to-fix problems. Let’s say you’re replacing the washer on a leaky bathroom faucet. This is an easy repair that pretty much any homeowner can handle solo. But you find corrosion once you’ve taken apart the faucet, so you decide to replace the old faucet with a new one. And in the process of removing the corroded faucet, you manage to break the pipe behind the wall.

Suddenly, a quick fix that costs a few bucks and an hour of your time has ballooned into a major home repair headache.

Protecting your budget

So how do you protect yourself, your budget, and your time from unexpected problems? Unfortunately, there’s no way to completely eradicate the issue of scope creep in your home projects. However, there are some rules you can follow to keep the worst excesses of scope creep at bay.

Start with a plan

While no plan survives its first contact with reality, you’re going to have a far easier time sticking to the plan you have than the one you don’t. Before a single hammer is swung, a single paint scraper is wielded, or a single screw is driven, decide exactly what you plan to do with your project. (See also: 10 Simple Household Repairs Every Frugal Person Should Master)

Add 15 to 20 percent to every budget estimate

Planning to spend every single penny that you can afford on your project may be optimistic, but it’s not good budgeting. Assume that any estimate you receive (or create, if you are DIYing) is the best-case scenario, and mentally add 15 to 20 percent to the total to see if the project is still affordable for you.

Know which problems are urgent and which are just ugly

A problem with foundation, structure, plumbing, wiring, heating, the roof, or mold is something you need to take care of right away. These issues can have long-term and serious impacts on your home if they’re left unfixed. Uncovering such a problem will necessarily add to the cost of your project, but it’s money you have to spend to protect yourself and your home. Problems outside those major areas may be unpleasant, but you can wait to fix them while you save up more money. It may not be fun to have a plastic tarp instead of the elegant cabinet doors you wanted in your kitchen, but it won’t hurt you or your home’s resale value to live with it temporarily.

Be willing to hit pause

Once you realize that your project is bigger than you planned, it can be tough to stop and assess what you’ll need for the next part of the project. But pausing in the middle of a project can save you a great deal of heartache. This can give you the chance to research the best way to deal with your project as it currently stands. You can live with a little chaos while you take stock of what you need.

Scope creep doesn’t have to bust your budget

Home projects will always have surprises that can potentially hurt a budget. However, thinking through what you want to accomplish before you start, adding some contingency money to your budget, understanding which problems are urgent and which are not, and a willingness to take your time to fix unexpected issues can all help you keep your project from spiraling out of control.

Which means it’s probably time for us to do something about that leak in the dining room…

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