Remodeling. The very mention of it strikes fear in the hearts of even the bravest of homeowners. But in this economy, even though there are lots of home bargains out there, money and credit are tight, and for many, a new home is not in the picture. So, if you want to update, that leaves - shudder the thought - the remodel.

But it doesn't have to be the nightmare many think it is.

Getting started is a bit like choosing a car. You try to find a dealer you can trust. You know what style of car you want, and how big, but it's the options that can kill you. The toughest part is staying on budget.

Planning ahead is key. Do some research. Look in magazines, online, visit trade shows and home shows, get a fix on what you want. Choose everything from appliances to light fixtures in advance if possible.

Be aware that some features like laying tiles is labor-intensive and therefore expensive. Look for alternatives to expensive work. Be creative - sometimes paint can work wonders. A simple change of color or some faux finish can really remake a room.

To save money, look for fixtures and appliances that can give you the same look for less money, but don't exchange value for price. All of these things will help you define your budget and help avoid change orders. However, most likely there will be changes and additions, so add 10 percent to 20 percent more to your budget to cover such contingencies.

There are three approaches you can adopt: Do it yourself, be your own contractor and hire subs yourself, or hire a remodeling contractor who can do it all.

Do it yourself

It would seem on the surface that unless you have a lot of experience, this could be a disaster waiting to happen. Not necessarily. It really depends on the person and the job. If, for instance, you want to replace kitchen cabinets, lay some flooring or sheetrock and paint a wall, it only takes a modicum of experience and some research online or with how-to books to get prepped for the job, and you can save considerable money. Many local building suppliers have remodeling classes and experts who can give you some tips and advice. So, if you're handy and have the basic tools, it's doable.

If you're considering a bathroom or full kitchen remodel, or finishing a basement, that's a different story. You are probably going to encounter some electrical, plumbing and finishing work that will require some real skills. You might consider doing what you can do and hiring out those portions beyond your skills. For instance, if you feel comfortable doing the sheet rocking and painting, laying floors and setting cabinets in a kitchen, you could hire an electrician, plumber and tile or finish carpenter to complete the job. Note, however, that many skilled tradespeople are not eager to work with less skilled homeowners.

Remodeling can save a lot of money when executed properly, but it can turn sour fast if you get in over your head and wind up calling in an expert to undo your work and begin anew.

Finally, and most importantly, check with your local city or county building department to find out local codes and what permits are required. Many folks try to sneak by without permits. I don't advise it. Even if you don't get caught working without a permit, noncode work may create unsafe conditions or could be a problem when you try to sell your home. Don't risk it. Check out codes and get the required permits.

Be your own contractor

This route can save you some money, and it's a tempting idea to save that portion of the budget that would go to a contractor, but it's full of pitfalls that can easily trap a homeowner who is in over his or her head. If the job is small, say pouring a concrete patio or doing some re-siding, then you only have to contract those subs. But if you are contemplating a kitchen remodel or something of that scale where a lot of scheduling is required, it is vital that you have considerable experience with remodeling and subcontractors. My wife and I acted as our own contractor on two previous homes, but we had built two homes and done a major remodel on another prior to that. In two cases, I worked alongside the builders, so we had gained enough experience to tackle the job. Even so, there were plenty of headaches, despite attention to detail. It's what you must be willing to expect.

If, however, you are determined, at least talk to friends who have done some remodeling and find out the problems they faced. Go online - there are many remodeling sites with lots of information. Contact your local building supply store with your plans; staff there can be a big help in determining the proper lumber and materials you'll need. Your appliance, plumbing and electrical suppliers can also provide a lot of assistance and direction. Do your due diligence ... you'll need it.

Hire a remodeling contractor

If you hire a contractor, look for one with lots of remodeling experience. Remodeling jobs are rife with little surprises in the walls and elsewhere, and someone who has been down that road has a good fix on how to handle them and what it will take to solve them.

Make sure the contractor is familiar with local codes. Remodelers should be bonded. Ask for references you can contact and, if at all possible, see some of the remodeler's work. Get at least three bids and don't necessarily go for the lowest. Once you've made your selection, have a well-written contract which clearly states what is to be done. Be sure to include all your product and material selections in the contract to avoid confusion and unnecessary change orders. Include the model, size, color, and other specifications. Be specific. Discuss the choices in advance with your chosen contractor. They can often help refine your selections, saving you money. And finally, be sure to establish a completion date.

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