How To Plan A Major DIY Renovation

A couple of months ago, while reflecting on some of our wants and needs, we mentioned that we had plans to make some major changes to our kitchen and dining area in 2015.  But doing a DIY renovation on this scale (while living in the house!) takes some major planning.  Here are the steps we are following when planning our next big project.


1.  Observe Your Life Annoyances

No house is perfect.  But sometimes you don’t know how much the imperfections in your home’s design will affect your everyday life until you live in it and experience these annoyances first hand.  Of course, there are differences in scale.  Focus on the major annoyances for the biggest bang for buck on your happiness ROI, but also keep a list of all the minor annoyances nearby so you can address as many as possible when completing your renovation.

Our major annoyances are going to drive the bulk of the renovation:

  • Ugly, worn, poorly installed tile
  • Aging pressboard cabinets in an inefficient layout
  • Not enough seating area for guests indoors
  • Low ceilings shrink the feel of the space in the kitchen
Ugly tile, inefficient and old cabinetry, very little seating, and low, low kitchen ceilings

The Major Annoyances: Ugly tile, inefficient and old cabinetry, very little seating, and low, low kitchen ceilings

But we’re also going to try and address more minor annoyances at the same time like:

  • Pantry, fridge, and door all open into the same small area creating traffic jam
  • Microwave takes up too much counter space
  • Need a couple extra electrical outlets in specific places to prevent cords spanning walkways in living room

2.  Look For Dependencies

Dependencies are aspects of the project that make the most sense to do at the same time whether for reasons of labor or materials.  It may result in a larger upfront project to take care of all dependencies at once, but over the long haul it will result in lower costs and less work than to complete both parts at separate times.

Our biggest dependencies are the tile and cabinetry.  Since the tile was put in after the cabinetry, any change to the layout of the cabinetry will leave us with gaps in the tile.  And we wouldn’t want to redo the tile without fixing the layout of the cabinetry since we know we’ll want to fix the cabinetry layout issue eventually.

3.  Start Dreaming & Drawing

Once you start to get an idea of the basic goals of your project, now it’s time to start dreaming.  Why only dream after you know the basics?  Well, to keep it focused on what you want to accomplish without the project spinning too out of control.

In this phase you want to talk more about your design priorities, perhaps learn more about the architectural style of your house (the local section of your library might surprise you with some great finds on local architecture!), and talk to friends and acquaintances about the renovations.  Now is the time to peruse sites like Houzz or Pinterest to brainstorm ideas.

For us, we decided pretty quickly that what we wanted most out of the design of this project was for the interior of our house to match the bones of the house.  With some research at the local library, we learned that our house, built in the mid-1980s, is kindof a mix of two local architectural styles: the Florida Cracker dwelling (19th century), and the Florida Beach Cottage (mid 20th century).  And then we talked with some acquaintances that had renovated their own “historic” Florida home (historic in FL is anything over 50 years old…) and restoring the older architectural feel.

Only after talking to these guys did we see that what we really wanted were some major changes to the layout of the kitchen to add more light, airiness, and space to get back to the “roots” of the house.  It was in this step that we started dreaming about moving a wall and raising the ceiling of the kitchen, which was originally a drop ceiling complete with ugly fluorescent lighting.

4. Reality Check On Time & Money

But how realistic are these dreams?  This is where you need to start brining things back out of the dream world and into reality.  Sure, you can tear off an entire chunk of your house and rebuild it with legos, but how realistic is that in terms of your time, money, effort, and making sure that your final project adheres to your local building codes.  =)

Even those who hire contractors and have teams of workers can go nuts from the time and mess involved in a major renovation.  Are you prepared for the (possibly) months of mess and dust that may be involved with this?  With not having that area of your house be capable of “normal” function?  Especially if you are working your renovation around full time employment.

Here’s where we started to estimate costs and a timeline.  We drew up a spreadsheet and started adding up the costs of all the various parts of our plans (our goal is to spend < $20K on this DIY renovation), and also started sketching out a timeline.

For us, ripping out the tile is going to be one of the biggest and messiest parts of our project.  So we wanted to have it happen when work isn’t insane (this leaves out Q4!), but also when the weather is cool enough that we can leave the A/C off to prevent the HVAC system from circulating all that dust throughout the entire house.  So we expect this part of the project to commence in January and are planning the rest of the timeline around that.

5.  “Finalize” Scope of Project

In many ways, steps four and five are really done in concert, where part of your “reality check” is getting more into the nitty gritty of what tasks and subtasks you’ll be including as part of your renovation.  And for this, you’ll be going back to step 1 – all of the annoyances that you observed.

For this, we like to start with the major annoyances that we plan on addressing and consider them the major tasks in our project.  Then under each major task, we list as many of the minor tasks (including minor annoyances!) that we will also be addressing concurrently along with that major task.

This is where you’ll want to determine if there are any subtasks that you need to outsource, trading money for time and expertise.

Here is what some of our scope notes look like (but not inclusive as these go on and aren’t all completed yet):


  • Remove current tile and sheet vinyl that we know to be underneath at least part of it (rental of removal tools, taping off areas to prevent debris tracking)
  • Install additional electrical outlets in floor of living room (need to check FL building code)
  • Smooth subfloor as needed (leveling compound)
  • Install new tile (mortar, tile, grout, sealer)

Cabinetry Design:

  • Microwave off counter?
  • Wide (but not deep) pantry with sliding doors?
  • Separate spice cabinet built into wall
  • Bench seating under window made out of cabinetry for extra seating and storage

You can tell we’re a lot further along on what we’re doing with the floors than we are on the cabinetry.  But we’ll get there, as it’s a process.

6.  Determine Order of Operations

This isn’t a return to second grade math where you need to instill PEMDAS into your psyche.  Rather, this is where all those dependencies you identified in Step 2 come into play.  You want to figure out an efficient way to complete your project that will allow your space to be (at least partially) usable for as long a time as possible, especially if you are living in this space while you renovate.

While it’d probably be the most efficient to rip everything out and rebuild from scratch, the reality is that this is our kitchen.  Doing that means we wouldn’t have anything remotely like a kitchen for months, and neither of us wants to rely on eating Publix subs for that long (no matter how amazing they taste).

So instead, we’re going to attempt to maintain a semblance of sanity amidst the construction and make the periods of complete un-usability as short as possible and for that we need to have a game plan of which steps come before others.

Here’s the current order of our main plan:

  1. Frame out changes necessary in garage adjacent to kitchen.  (Relocate attic access, plumbing, etc)
  2. Frame out changes to ceiling line and wall move
  3. Install new windows/door (get approval from city code enforcement on all of these structural changes), then finish the frame-outs with new drywall, relocating vents, etc.
  4. Remove tile in living room, dining area, and kitchen, attempting to retain as much cabinetry as possible during the process to retain usability.
  5. Install tile, starting in living room working into the kitchen last.  Only remove cabinetry and appliances when ready to tile in the kitchen.  When the cabinetry is removed, smooth and paint walls behind cabinetry.
  6. Simultaneously be working on finishing countertops in garage if possible.  (Long process, lots of waiting.)
  7. Install cabinetry, sink, etc. If wasn’t able to install window over sink earlier, install now and get approval from city code enforcement.
  8. Install countertops, backsplash, smaller touches.
  9. Build table for seating.
  10. Profit!  I mean, enjoy!

And as we get closer to each of these subtasks we’ll create order of operations for each of the smaller tasks.  While that might seem a little OCD, hopefully it prevents us from forgetting steps and then having to spend time undoing and redoing work because we forgot a step.

7.  Be Flexible

Most importantly, remember:  It’s not always going to go to plan, so plan for that.

These steps in planning your major DIY renovation aren’t set in stone.  More than likely, you’ll find yourself needing to repeat a few sometimes completing them out of order or concurrently or even iterating them on different levels (like repeating the order of operations process for individual tasks).  It’s a process, so give yourself plenty of time in the planning stage and hopefully that will help things go much smoother when it comes to executing your DIY renovation. But most importantly, always remember step 7.  =)


Have you done some major DIY renovations while living in your home?  Would you add any steps to this plan?

31 comments to How To Plan A Major DIY Renovation

  • Uh oh, that looks like the tile in our kitchen… I didn’t think it was ugly…
    nicoleandmaggie recently posted..Can’t vs. Won’t: A deliberately controversial postMy Profile

    • I think the ugliest parts of that tile is how poorly it has worn in our house – chips and finishes rubbed off in various traffic areas, and it gets compounded by the poor install job where the grout is now coming out in spots and the grout lines were never even or straight to begin with. Installed well, maybe it looks like a million bucks!

  • That tile looks awfully similar to mine. It’s driving me crazy. Unfortunately, it’s the time and money factor that ‘s holding me back. You can’t work on a kitchen over the course of a month…ya gotta do it all at once!
    Retired by 40 recently posted..July & August GoalsMy Profile

    • This is going to take a lot more than a month to execute for us. But we’ve been waiting for the right time to do this project for 5 years, and I am glad we have been waiting so we only do this once! I want this to be a “forever kitchen”. =)

  • Haha, yeah that’s a typical Florida house. We have one too! Hopefully replacing the 1980s almond tile in our bathroom soon. I love doing DIY projects, but my biggest problem is finding the time :(
    Income Surfer recently posted..Do You Predict Future Profits?My Profile

    • Almond tile, huh? Our bathrooms and bedrooms have tile that Mr PoP has lovingly named “cocaine white” and while we’d love to get rid of that ASAP, we don’t want to bite off more than we can chew so it will likely be a few years while we forget the dust involved with this project first.

  • It sounds like you guys have it all planned out! We’ve done our share of DIY and I hope we don’t have to do it again any time soon!
    Holly@ClubThrifty recently posted..Club Thrifty August Budget BreakdownMy Profile

  • I have so many renovation plans for our house! Comes with buying a fixer upper. Right now we’re saving up in general so the bigger renovations like gutting the bathroom will have to wait a year or two. Can’t wait to see the results!
    SavvyFinancialLatina recently posted..Back from the FunkMy Profile

  • That’s an excellent list! I think #1 is the most important–unless you have endless money and can rip everything out or buy a brand new home, there will always be projects you want to do. I’m so thankful that we lived in our house for 6 months before doing a single renovation. Had we renovated at the outset, we would’ve spent triple what we have spent–but after living in the space, we determined what we could live with and what we truly wanted to change. Sounds like you’ve followed a similar process of careful consideration!

    Sidenote: we also hated how much counter space our microwave consumed, so we moved it to the basement. We don’t use it all that often and we don’t mind running downstairs when we need it. Not a perfect solution, but at least it’s not hulking on our counter menacing all the other small appliances.
    Mrs. Frugalwoods recently posted..Frugal Hound Sniffs: The Barefoot BudgeterMy Profile

    • We didn’t wait 6 months when we first bought and probably made some moves that were short sighted. But I think we’ll finally be getting it right here and I’m glad we waited this long for the big stuff.

      Jealous of your microwave solution, though. We don’t have a basement and our garage is getting pretty packed, so we’ll have to find another way.

      • CincyCat

        We had the same problem with the microwave (it was on a cart!). Our solution was to replace the hood over the stove with a microwave/hood combo. It vents to the outside, so we didn’t lose that functionality.

  • That’s an awesome list. In my head I have been dreaming about what I want to do with our rental property if we get to move back into it (which would require me getting a job back there). Anyway, I know how the place is inefficient, and there are a lot of things to fix, but the first thing I’d tackle is the basement – which is a big overhaul. I’ve also been thinking about having $100/month to just change small bits here and there like “change out the forced air grates to ones that aren’t rusty and chipped”

    …oh dreams. But the lack of money makes it pointless right now, especially since we don’t live there currently :)
    Alicia recently posted..Credit Card 2 is GONE!My Profile

  • You are probably ahead of most people just by knowing what you want and what your budget is and what that budget will accomplish. I’d add in a 10% cushion to whatever your budget is, since you never know what is under the tiles/walls or if you will have to hire someone for some help.
    Even Steven recently posted..The Great Coffee Debate and Little WinsMy Profile

  • Heidi S

    I love the PEMDAS reference :)
    I would say the biggest sanity saver (to me atleast) before tearing up your kitchen is to have a toaster oven (so you can still bake chicken or w/e),a microwave and lots of paper plates so you can eat more than just sandwiches every night!

    • I love it when people get my math jokes. Thank you! =)

      Totally agree with the microwave and toaster oven. For me, having the blender easily accessible is a must, too! Hopefully between those and the grill outside we can manage for the time when everything is COMPLETELY UNUSABLE. (Which we hope to keep as short as possible, but know it might blow up, too!)

  • We did a major kitchen renovation last year. To be honest it is still in progress, relying on others (the Dad’s) to help us along the way has extended the amount of time I wish it would have taken to get the job done. But we are almost done! :o)

    My one piece of advice would be to prepared yourself that anything can happen. For us it was a broken water pipe, the one that brings water into the house, which lead to hiring a contractor, digging up the yard, laying new pipe from the house to the street and rerouting the pipe inside the house. So it is important to roll with the punches, and in some cases remind yourself that “at least no one was electrocuted”. That was my mantra for the month we had no water, and the other five it took to finally get a working sink and dishwasher back in place. :o)
    Tennille recently posted..July Recap And August Financial GoalsMy Profile

    • Oooh, do you have any pictures? I’d love to hear and see more about your recent renovation!

      I may have to get a marker and write on the wall, “at least no one was electrocuted” to keep as a reminder. Especially when we need to relocate a 240V box and a drain that will involve cutting into the slab. =)

  • From the frugality side of things, I’d add to think ahead. We moved into our house and knew that we wanted to: Re-do some hardwoods, add some hardwoods, gut the master bath, remodel the main floor bath, remodel the kitchen, and (of course) paint everything. We then came up with a strategy of what comes first, etc. Because we know what we want to do in the future, we’ve been able to buy some of the supplies for future projects at steep discounts. For example, we found two undermount bathroom sinks on clearance marked down from $110 to $25 (because they had been returned). By thinking ahead, we’re able to keep our eyes open and purchase things when they’re at their cheapest!
    Becky @ RunFunDone recently posted..EuroBikeTrip 2014 Day 1: Politically Incorrect Meat (Switzerland to Germany)My Profile

  • Home depot lost our vinyl, so we’re still waiting on the bathroom flooring… The plumber came so there’s no toilet, but…
    nicoleandmaggie recently loveMy Profile

  • We have some similar hopes for our kitchen cabinets, but we’re moving in the next 3 years or so and will likely leave that job to the next tenants. And I kind of actually dig your kitchen, but that’s not odd — I love everyone’s home. I’m easy like that. If my wife didn’t come along, I’d end up buying the first house the realtor showed us every time.
    Done by Forty recently posted..I Am Miley CyrusMy Profile

  • I think you should do all the changes you are dreaming of, as it will help bring up the value for resale, and make you happier. If you stick to the plan, and find a good contractor (with references) you should have a good renovation timeline. Be ready to eat out more, and have many sandwiches with no kitchen.
    EL @ Moneywatch101 recently posted..The 10 Secrets Millionaires Live ByMy Profile

    • While we’re hiring out a couple small parts of the projects, there won’t be any general contractors and we’ll be doing the vast majority of the work to keep costs down and make sure it’s done like we want it.
      Also, while the value will go up a bit, we have no plans to sell ever, so that’s not really part of the equation, and even if it were, it’s rare that contracted renovations have positive ROIs upon resale.
      The biggest cost savings are about making us happy and wanting to stay in our little house for many years to come, since moving and selling houses is expensive!

  • “Profit! I mean, enjoy!”

    Is there a chance you’ll leave? Say it ain’t so!

    Can’t wait to see the progress! My nail gun is at the ready, especially in January when it’s 10 outside.
    Mr. 1500 recently posted..Ask the Reader: Landlord RulesMy Profile

    • No, I don’t think we’ll ever actually sell this house. Though I can see us renting it out while we travel for a year or two. I just like ending lists with “profit” ala the underpants gnome episode from South Park. =)

  • LOL! I love it when you mention South Park because you’re one of the last people on earth that I think would ever mention that show!
    Mr. 1500 recently posted..1500 Portfolio, Part 1: Rare InsightsMy Profile

  • Amy K

    We (the contractor, that is) moved our refrigerator into the living room during our kitchen remodel. It made for some lounge-y dinners on the couch, eating off the coffee table. It was kind of nice. I don’t miss washing the dishes in the sink though. You have a good coffee setup in the garage, I assume that will be your defacto kitchen in January/February.

    As for add-on expenses: we tore the kitchen down to studs, took down a wall, put in a beam to replace the load bearing wall, and added a window. During an inspection they got a good look at the 2nd floor bathroom plumbing through the open ceiling. Not up to code, had to replace that as part of the kitchen remodel. On the upside, the shower drains much better now.

    Best Wishes on your renovations!