10 Lessons Learned in my 203k Renovation

After all of my projects I like to evaluate how it went and put it down on paper. That way the next time I do something similar, I can remind myself of what to do or what not to do. I’ve compiled a few lessons learned – the hard way – through this renovation process, in hopes that I can save myself and you all from making the same mistakes.

In the end, this was my first time ever doing this and I assume if you are reading this, it is also your first time doing this. If you plan carefully and follow some of my tips then your renovation should go smoothly!

1. Check all your contractor references

If you’ve never worked with the contractor before it is especially important to follow up with people that HAVE worked with them. Ask for at least three references and get a hold of them all. Better yet, start with a referral from a friend or trusted advisor.

Develop a series of questions and ask each reference the same questions. For example, “Did they complete the work in time?”; “Was the quoted price the same as the final price?”; etc. You can adjust these questions to fit your project.

My contractor provided three references, but one of them had a wrong number. Instead of following up to ask for the correct number, I disregarded it and based my judgement off the other two references. Eventually, I learned through a mutual acquaintance of both the reference and the contractor that the contractor had switched two digits in the provided number. When I reached the reference it turns out they would have given them a bad review and warned me of a few pitfalls of working with the contractor, but it was too late for me.

When making my final decision I was in between two contractors and that one final review would have made my decision so much easier.

2. Be very detailed with your scope of work

I work in the architecture field, so I had access to autoCAD programs to help me make detailed plans. I made plans, elevations, picked out finishes, made spreadsheets – everything! At least I thought everything. During construction I found some minor details that I had not figured out and was pretty bummed when they didn’t make it into the project.

The biggest thing I missed? A shower niche! It was too costly for my contractor to frame and then tile a shower niche, so lucky for him he didn’t have to do it.

3. Figure out your scope of work early and deliver that to multiple contractors – compare apples to apples

When you are shopping around for contractors it helps to make sure everyone is giving you the same price for the same level of work. I had asked 5-6 contractors to come out and give me a price. The first two I had a printed out word doc listing maybe 20 improvements I wanted done. I quickly found that was not detailed enough. They started asking questions, I started answering.. but then I was giving some contractors more information than others! And by the time I could follow up I had already gotten a price.

Figuring out exactly what you want early on means there will be less variables between contractors’ pricing. With the 203k, the contractor is required to separate items between labor and materials, but they won’t do that during the bid phase. So when you are giving them the proposal, if all the contractors are pricing the same materials then you know the price difference is most likely in the labor costs.

You are then more informed to make a decision based on their quality of work, references (see number 1), and bid.

4. Take advantage of being able to bundle mortgage payments into the loan

With this loan you can bundle in 6 months of mortgage payments!! I bundled 3 months since that’s how long my contractor said it would take, and the project took 8 months so I ended up paying mortgage AND rent for 5 months!! It was painful to pay for two houses and I wish I had just tacked it onto the mortgage from the get go.

Have an honest conversation with your contractor. Check his work load and make sure they will be available to commit what they say into your project. In a perfect situation, my contractor could have completed this in 3 months but since they prioritized other larger projects, mine fell on the back burner.

5. Spend the extra money for the contractor to finish your project right

I know, most people are using this loan to purchase and renovate things at a lower cost, and wonder how much money they can save. I did that too. I questioned how much I could DIY with my family’s help and how much the contractor really *needed* to do. Initially, my strategy was to put as much sweat equity into the project as possible, thus lowering the contractor scope of work and the cost of my project. Older, wiser me realizes that unless you yourself are a contractor or have ample experience, along with access to a lot of tools, some aspects are better left to the professionals.

I love the way my house turned out after the renovation but I spent a lot of time doing cost benefit analyses of all the things I thought I could save money by doing myself. With this particular loan, there are requirements for what has to get done. My house required so much work that it was basically building a new house. The contractor had to make the house “livable” again, which meant finishing the floors, drywall, tiling, plumbing, mechanicals ect. You get the picture.

I lived in my house for over two years with the original door and screen door. I thought I’d save some money and eventually just do it myself. Let me paint you a picture of why this was more of a headache than it was worth. The new hardwood floors added about 1″ of flooring on top of the existing floors, so when the old door opened the door sweep now scraped against the flooring. Not good. We weren’t able to have a rug at the door because the door would just push it up against the wall. So we took the sweep off. There lied another problem. The door sweep made an air tight seal between the floor and the door, so when it was removed we had a gap leaking air outside the house.

A new door was easily something I could have gotten the contractors to provide during the renovation and since they replaced the windows, it may have been bundled into the window quote at a less expensive rate.

6. Think about the long term plan

When I bought this house I knew it was going to be an investment property. It was a 1,300 square foot house with 4 bedrooms and 2.5 baths. When I was looking at what other properties were selling in the neighborhood, most of them were 2 or 3 bedrooms houses. I knew I had an extra bedroom, so I turned it into a master bathroom. I also thought about making sure we kept a bathtub in case a family wants to move in, and adding closets to all the rooms in case a family needed all rooms as bedrooms.

I made most of the finish selections based on what appeals to most home buyers and tried not to let any of my personal preferences creep in. All the rooms are painted Repose Gray and all the trim is painted white. These are pretty neutral and standard colors that anyone can look at and imagine themselves living in.

A year or so later I considered refinancing, so I got an appraisal done of the home. The house appraised for $100,000 higher than I was all in at! That’s 100k of equity built in. That proved to me it was worth it to think about long term gains.

7. Stress less

If I could redo one thing it was to just take a breath and stress less. I would get worked up over some things that I had no control over (like that I never got my shower niche).

I thoroughly enjoyed the process of selecting the layout, materials, and finishes but spent a lot of time stressing about where the heck the contractor was and what was going on with the project schedule. At one point I decided to purchase all new windows with the contingency reserve so we had to wait another month until those windows arrived to finish the job.

This is the first home construction I’ve ever worked on and not knowing some of these things definitely set me back in both time and money. It was a steep learning curve and while I learned a lot it, I had to pay for that education in the end. At the end of the day it was a process that I had never done before and shouldn’t have expected to be an expert on it day one. I beat myself up a lot and if I thought a little more long term, then I think it would have been more enjoyable.

8. Put in the darn hood vent

Some features I consider luxuries are pot fillers over the stove or ceiling fans and at the time, I also felt a hood vent was a luxury, too. Now I know that a hood vent should be considered a necessity. I put a microwave over my range, you know for cost, and I didn’t vent it to the outside.

Now whenever I cook certain things, looking at you fish, the microwave cant handle venting it out into the room. More often it happens when we’re using the oven. The room gets warm, sometimes hazey and then the smoke alarms go off. Maybe this is just my smoke alarms, but in any case if there was a hood vent or at the very least microwave vent to the exterior, a lot of cooking frustrations would be resolved. Additionally, there wouldn’t be nearly as much oil in the air which can make cabinets dirty and discolor window treatments.

9. Vanities are not cheap

You might be saying “duh”, but I really overlooked this one. In my original budget drawn up by my contractor he had written $200. That is all the information I had to go off of when picking out a vanity. I’m pretty sure it was just a typo that got overlooked because there are THREE vanities in the house and you can’t even get one for $200.

This led me on a search to look for the nicest looking, most inexpensive vanity I could find. I shopped Wayfair, Target, Overstock, Lowes, Home Depot, local stores and couldn’t find anything even remotely close to that. The last place I looked was IKEA, which has beautiful vanities for affordable prices. The issue I had originally with IKEA was that they are not preassembled but at that point it was my contractor’s problem.

10. Lean into your HUD consultant

If you think you are alone in this, you are wrong! Sometimes its the heat of the moment, decisions need to get made and you are knee deep in a full renovations. Things can get overwhelming quickly, but you DO have someone to help! That person is the HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) consultant. Their job is to be the mediator between you and the contractor. They are intended to provide an unbiased opinion and will be there to escalate and dispute challenges you’re facing with the 203k renovation. In my case, it was often whether items were included in the scope of work.

My HUD consultant was at one point a contractor, then a home inspector and finally a HUD consultant. He had YEARS of experience beyond what I could learn in the months of my renovation and had seen many of the issues I was facing many times before.

Take advantage of having that person. They are hired to help you! Let them.

I hope you learned a few tips from me and if I missed anything you were hoping to learn more about please leave a comment! I am happy to help answer any questions you have! Learn from my mistakes and good luck!

4 responses to “10 Lessons Learned in my 203k Renovation”

  1. This is great! The precise renovations needed isn’t something that I would have thought seriously enough about. Thanks.


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Hi! I’m Kristy Pedersen. I’m renovating houses in Philadelphia and sharing the process one step at a time.

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