Consider This: Tips for Home Improvement Projects

As the area's resident expert in most things, my counsel was recently sought by a neighbor looking for advice for their home improvement project.*  I've been stewing on this subject the past few days and have settled on the following ten tips and tricks, in no particular order: 

  • Budget smartly and accurately.  Research materials (e.g., tiles) and their actual costs at local stores and get an accurate quote for your budget.  Furthermore, build in a cushion for unanticipated costs.  Figure out where you want to splurge and where you can cut costs, if necessary.  It's very easy to rationalize going over budget on your project, so tread carefully.
  • Purchase resold gift cards.  Online merchants (e.g., resell "used" gift cards at a discount.  For instance, you can buy Lowes or Home Depot gift cards for 8% off, so a gift card from either store with a $126.05 balance is selling for $115.97.  By buying a resold gift card with a 2% back credit card and coupling your purchase with a 10% off coupon (found via a USPS mover packets or eBay), you can shave about 20% off your Home Depot or Lowes purchases.** which I've successfully used in the past, sends your gift card via free shipping and guarantees that the card will work up to 45 days after purchasing.  You have to plan ahead though as shipping, in my experience, takes about a week.
  • Use cash back portals.  Factor in the cash back from portals like Mr. Rebates and Big Crumbs when comparing prices and be sure to use them whenever possible.  If you're doing a big project like a kitchen, the savings can really add up.
  • Treat construction staff well.  This probably goes without saying, but treat the crew well.  For example, when it's hot, make some cold drinks available.  Little niceties are certainly appreciated.
  • Maximize use of reward credit cards.  If you will not be carrying a credit card balance, use a high-value reward credit card as much as possible.  By the end of the project, you'll probably have earned yourself a free flight or two.  If your contractor will be making big purchases, see if he'll use your credit card and take the amount off your balance.
  • Explore Bluebird by American Express.  This is a graduate school-level tip that I don't want to spend a lot of time on, but it goes hand-in-hand with the above recommendation to maximize use of reward credit cards.  Essentially, once you get a Bluebird account, you load your Bluebird card with prepaid Vanilla Reload cards, which you can buy with a credit card at stores like CVS and Walgreens.  These cards cost $3.95 each and can be each loaded with up to $500.  Each calendar month, you can add $5,000 worth of Vanilla Reload cards (10) to your Bluebird account.  Once your money is in your Bluebird account, you can use free bill pay to pay credit card bills or send checks to people like your contractor.  Besides the $3.95 Vanilla Reload costs, there are no fees with Bluebird.
So what's the benefit, you ask?  Well, you're essentially buying credit card points/miles for less than they're worth.  If you use a 2% cash back card to purchase $5,000 worth of Vanilla Reloads in a month, you earn $100 at a cost of $39.50.  This means, you make $60.50 of free money in a month.  Likewise, you could use Bluebird to reach annual spend bonuses on certain credit cards.  For instance, you can use this method to charge $25,000 to your Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Visa to earn the 10,000 bonus miles for reaching that spend amount.  If you solely used Vanilla Reload cards to reach that $25,000 amount, you would have earned 35,000 miles for a total cost of $197.50 or about a half cent per mile.  Whether or not either option is worth it is up to you.
  • Shop at Wayfair and Amazon.  As I wrote previously, I'm a big fan of Wayfair.  They carry all sorts of furnishings and fixtures, their prices are good, they offer 3% cash back via Mr. Rebates, and their Wayfair Rewards allows you to earn another 3% back for use on future purchases.  Ditto for Amazon.  Shipping via Amazon Prime is fast and painless and I'm always surprised at their prices.  I recently bought a dimmer for my new LED bulbs at Amazon for $25.72.  Home Depot is charging $29.97 plus tax for the same item.  
  • Stay at a local Residence Inn.  If you have to leave your house at any point during construction and don't have a family member or friend's house to crash at, check out a local Residence Inn.  Benefits include a kitchen, separate living space, free breakfast and some dinners, and new construction and good locations in the area.  Sometimes, they'll even offer a "neighborhood rate" for nearby residents.  And they're pet friendly, if that matters.   
  • Know your handyman limitations.  One thing I've learned as a homeowner is that there is no such thing as a simple project.  Whether it's installing a ceiling fan or painting a room, there's always a complication and it takes at least twice as long as initially planned.  For that reason, don't think that you'll finish up certain aspects of the job yourself.  If you've budgeted for and want a tile backsplash, just have the contractor take care of it rather than attempt to do it yourself later.  

On the other hand, there are jobs you can do yourself to save money. For instance, if you want to run wired ethernet cords for TVs or computers, buy yourself a spool of some Cat5 or Cat6 cable (I bought 500ft of this Cat5) and run it with a friend before they install walls. Just think it through (e.g., consider where your router will be) and do the required research (choose the right gauge wire).

  • Say no to Hampton Bay fan remotes.  Last but not least, avoid using the remote controls that are packaged with most Hampton Bay ceiling fans.  Spend an extra $25 or so on wall switches.  I absolutely hate the remote.   They're an ugly off-white/yellow (why aren't they colored white?!?!) and are a pain to figure out.  In retrospect, this is probably my best tip on this page...
If you disagree with any of the above or have a tip or trick of your own, feel free to leave it as a comment!

* It may also be because they're a former victim of my unsolicited advice.  
** I believe Home Depot gift cards can only be used in-store, not online.  I don't know about Lowes.

1 comment:

  1. Good Day Mr. Tips and Tricks Wizard.

    Am a huge fan of your site!

    A couple of additional comments:

    Most homeowner conducted projects will usually take 50% longer than your initial estimate.

    There are forums dedicated to do-it-yourself projects. These may also have competent professionals who duck in an out, and can aid you. However, as always let common sense be your guide. This is a forum that was valuable to me for several plumbing projects: