How to Let Your Contractor Guide Your Renovation

Cottage living room under renovation with spiral staircase.

Photo: Ashley Chalmers / Illustration: The Spruce

If you ever have or are currently tackling a home renovation project, then you know that there’s one person on the team who truly brings it all together: the contractor.

When it came to assembling our home renovation team for our English countryside cottage, my husband and I were starting from zero. Because we don't currently live in or near our village, we didn't know anyone local, so personal recommendations were off the table. This meant a lot of googling, cold calls, and blind faith, but it ultimately led us to our contractor: a local man named Paul.

From our very first walk-through with Paul, we realized why it’s key to find a great contractor as early on in the process as is humanly possible. Here is what we learned about letting your contractor guide your renovation.

Find Out What's Possible

Our first walk-through with Paul wasn’t the first time we were in the cottage, but it was the first time our vision for it was confirmed. Paul was integral in telling us what was possible—and, according to Paul, almost everything we wanted to do is physically possible.

In that initial meeting, we discussed adding underfloor heating, replacing one staircase with custom stone steps, adding two other spiral staircases, and swapping the downstairs pantry space for a powder room. According to Paul, this was all fine. 

We left glowing, thinking of how perfect this tiny cottage would be someday.

Interior of old English cottage.

Courtesy of Ashley Chalmers

Don’t Panic Upon Seeing the Price Quote

About a week later, Paul sent through the price quote—and it was about a third of the cost of the house itself. We expected this, or at least, some version of this. Paul assured us the best starting point would be from our dream scenario because then, once you know what everything costs, it’s easier to scale back and decide what’s a need versus what’s a want. 

For us, that meant an easy goodbye to underfloor heating and a slightly harder goodbye to the stone staircase. The two other spiral staircases and the powder room are all fairly necessary, so those will all take priority.

Interior of old English cottage bedroom.

Courtesy of Ashley Chalmers

Include Your Contractor in Any Structural Conversations

Since our initial walkthrough with Paul, we’ve added a kitchen designer and an interior designer, as well as an architect who helped us prepare our submission for the Heritage Committee. That last addition was a major requirement because, as a reminder, our cottage is a 400-year-old Grade II listed home. This means we need express approval before we make any major changes.

With each new member of our team, more tweaks were made to our final vision. Our kitchen designer suggested raising a beam to better accommodate our range cooker, and turning the only upstairs wardrobe into a laundry closet. We fired these updates off to Paul, who took note. Later, we walked through with our interior designer, who sent us her thoughts on how to design the bathrooms and add wardrobes. Paul was on board.

Most recently, we submitted our official plans to the Heritage Committee, but not before our architect told us there’s no way they’ll approve raising the beam in the kitchen. According to him, it's about four hundred years old and covered in historic etchings possibly linked to witchcraft. Paul was notified that we’ll be leaving that in place for multiple reasons, and our cooker will happily go elsewhere. 

If we didn’t find our contractor before all of these conversations, I’m positive that this project would feel more like a giant headache than a fun puzzle. But with our contractor guiding the way, it all feels like the pieces will eventually—and seamlessly—fit together.