How to Plan Your Renovation and Find the Best General Contractor

by Carol Wang

Don’t know where to start on your renovation? The essentials in six steps

starting a renovation

The renovation process has many layers, but understanding your goals and how to prepare for them is the first step. Having a clear scope and budget when you’re ready to find the right contractor is a good position to be in. To help guide you on this path, Sweeten, a free service matching renovating homeowners with vetted general contractors, demystifies the process and brings you one step closer to your dream space.

1. Choose your renovation “must-haves” and “nice-to-haves”

Homeowners renovate for many reasons—you just bought a new space that needs a refresh (or a gut!), your family is growing or you’d like to downsize, a repair is needed and a long-awaited renovation makes sense now, or maybe what you have just isn’t working for you. Whatever the reason driving the decision, the first step for any major renovation is crucial: identify the “must-have” elements for your home. Have an idea of what’s definitively required and you will be better equipped to have an informed conversation when the time comes to meet with general contractors and architects.

Equally important is making a wishlist of “nice-to-haves.” This includes all of the changes you’d like to see, but would be willing to forgo due to budget limitations. In tandem with determining the “must-haves” and the “nice-to-haves,” decide the exact space(s) you are renovating, and what kind of updates (cosmetic, gut, layout changes, etc.), you plan to make. While a cosmetic update would not involve any layout changes or moving of plumbing and/or electrical, a gut renovation means demolishing the existing space down to the studs, and rebuilding the entire interior floor-to-ceiling.

2. Determine who to hire for your renovation

Once you have your list of “must-haves,” you’ll have a better sense of what type of expert you’ll need for your renovation. Depending on what you’re planning to do, you’ll want to meet with different types of experts as explained below.

Meet with general contractors if you are:

  • removing or replacing finishes but generally keeping things in the same place
  • comfortable selecting fixtures and finishes yourself
  • ready to start construction

Meet with an architect and a general contractor, or a design-build firm, if you are:

  • making major layout or structural changes
  • moving plumbing or gas lines
  • renovating a landmark property
  • looking for professional design help

While many general contractors can provide general guidance when it comes to selecting fixtures and finishes, you may also want to hire an interior designer if you want more extensive help creating your ideal space. If it looks like you’ll need an architect for your renovation, you may be able to hire a design-build firm to help as a one-stop shop. As the name suggests, this type of firm takes care of the design as well as the construction phase of a project. Some lean more design-forward while others are construction-forward. Interview a few to see what you feel comfortable with.

The best part? When you post your renovation on Sweeten, they’ll match you with general contractors, design-build firms, and/or architects best suited to your project.

3. Research the cost of your renovation

This is always the tough part—figuring out how much money you’ll need for the renovation. How much should you spend? How much do you have to spend? As a starting point, the average cost to renovate an entire home is typically $100 to $200 per square foot, though the price can vary from room to room, as kitchens and bathrooms tend to be more expensive and bedrooms and living rooms cost less.

Let’s break it down: you’ll need to consider the cost of labor, materials, and finishes, plus associated fees like city permits, board approvals, and/or design fees. If you plan to hire a designer and/or an architect, account for the fact that both charge a percentage (ranging from 5 to 20 percent of project costs) for their fee.

Materials and finishes

Understandably, many people focus on the visible aspects of the renovation—the materials and finishes—which, depending on whether you choose low-, mid-, or high-end products, will account typically for 50 percent or less of the full cost of the renovation. The good news is that this is the first step to understanding what kind of renovation you’ll be able to afford; take a look at various retailers and websites to see how much that Moroccan tile costs per square foot. An efficient way to do this is to list the materials you’d like to include, and price out all the materials in a spreadsheet.


Next, you’ll want to account for the cost of labor. As each firm is different, the best way to do this is to meet with general contractors to get a sense of how much their labor costs will run. There are many variables; in the busy summer season, for example, labor tends to be more expensive than during the winter months. They will also assess your specific job site. If you live in a co-op building with difficult street parking, plus strict rules governing the renovation itself in terms of allowable work hours and protection of the common areas, labor will be costlier than in a standalone house where the contractor has more freedom to park in the driveway and work around the clock.

Take into consideration wet areas like kitchens or bathrooms cost more to renovate than dry spaces (for example, dining rooms and bedrooms) due to materials and labor that may be more complex. The type of finishes you choose will also affect costs. Mosaic tilework and woodworking will require labor with specialized skills compared to basic installations such as subway tile.

If you live in a condo or co-op, knowing the specific rules governing your building before setting up a site visit allows your contractor to provide a more accurate bid.

bedroom renovation (AboveSweeten homeowners Tina and Andrew remodeled their home, including their master bedroom

Extra fees

The associated fees that come with renovating are often overlooked. Most city or town permits come with a price tag, and if you live in a co-op or condo, review your building’s alteration agreement/documentation to determine if there are extra costs, such as an engineer mandated by the building to approve your plans.


Lastly, leave a 10% cushion for unexpected costs. Even the best-laid plans sometimes go awry or need tweaking, and that safety net will ensure that you’re not venturing into uncomfortable territory if your renovation costs exceed your budget.

4. Find the best general contractor or architect for your renovation

Experts are not necessarily hard to find; the tricky part is finding the right one for your renovation and communication style. Asking friends or searching through directories can yield many suggestions, but those general contractors may not be the right fit for your specific budget, your location, or your type of project.

That’s where Sweeten’s free service comes in. Launched in 2011 by Jean Brownhill, a trained architect who hired the wrong contractor for her renovation, Sweeten helps you find the best general contractor for your project, then monitors the project until completion. By posting your project on Sweeten, you’ll be matched with general contractors who are:

  • licensed, insured, and vetted
  • have experience with renovations like yours
  • do work in your city, town, or neighborhood
  • are already interested in your project based on its budget and scope
  • guarantee their work

5. Get multiple estimates

As with most things in life, you should shop around a little. As a general rule, it’s smart to have at least three bids, (also known as estimates) from different general contractors for your renovation. Not only will this allow you to find the best contractor for your budget, but you’ll be able to find the “right fit” in terms of working style and personality.

Bids often come in different formats from different contractors. When you post a project on Sweeten, take advantage of our SmartEstimate, which is an easy way to see costs “apples-to-apples.” The platform will guide you in comparing costs and help secure milestone payments.

Contractor estimates(Above) Sweeten’s SmartEstimate bid-levels your contractors’ bids line-by-line, “apples-to-apples.”

Have more questions? If you post your project and have two or more estimates in your hands, including at least one from Sweeten, Sweeten can schedule a phone call to help analyze them with you (for free) as well as offer insight on Sweeten contractors and their communication style. Click here for more on bid-leveling.

6. Choose the best general contractor for you and start renovating

Once you have met with all of the candidates, reviewed bids, discussed them over dinner with your friends/neighbors/mother and maybe Sweeten, and decided on the best option, it’s time to sign the contract! At this point, you will typically pay a percentage (25 to 50 percent, depending on the length and overall budget of the project) upfront. The contract will also set up regular intervals and milestones at which future payments are due.

If you do select a Sweeten contractor, you’ll receive regular check-ins until the project is complete, plus an open invitation to call with any questions that arise.

Finally, it’s time for the fun to begin! (Which reminds us: make certain to notify your neighbors.) Start with this basic list and when you’re ready, post your project onto to create your “home, sweet home.”

Add square footage and value to your home by converting your basement into livable space. Read more here.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, and scope, helping until project completion. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.

Explore other stories