1. Don't rush into the project
Hearing some horror stories through the years we waited a long time before we were comfortable remodeling our 1950 era ranch house.
2. Learn from neighbors
It wasn't until I observed a project in the neighborhood, seeing that there was nearly daily activity that I suspected that this contractor was on top of his game. When the project was completed I then asked the owner to see the resulting interior. Its contemporary layout was really what we sought. From that I then learned of her designer and contractor. If one contractor / designer is completing several houses in our neighborhood that's a good sign.
3. We started with a designer and then went to the contractor with solid specs ? in that sequence
I hear of one approach of first engaging a contractor and getting a proposal that includes 'allowances' for items like appliances and cabinets. This probably leads to surprises. Starting with a designer we (actually Susan) were able to see a range of finishes and concepts for the remodel. We went to an appliance store and picked what we wanted. The designer (and cabinetmaker) then had the exact specs with which to complete the design and bids. The designer selected and spec'd items like the particular sinks and spigots. The designer knew of and had access to materials that we would have never considered.
Designer costs were time and materials, and front-loaded the project expenses. (This was a dose of my own medicine since I bill similarly). The more time you spend dithering, the more this phase costs.
The project plans prepared by the designer were in a state to give to contractors for bids. In our case we knew we wanted a particular contractor. We gave him our budget, and received a proposal that complied. We were not necessarily interested in low-bidders. Rather, we were interested in a successful, no-hassle outcome. The contractor who works with our designer frequently was a good indicator of the likelihood of that happening.
Our contractor engaged an architect to prepare structural details and code conformance documents. We paid the architect separately.
4. We lived in the house during construction
Our stuff was stashed boxes, labelled, and stored in the living room. This was fine the first two months, but by the 4th month we were ready to have our house back to ourselves.
5. Not included?
Not included in the bid were hardware items like doorknobs, cabinet pulls and lighting. These were selected towards the end of the project, and some items we ordered ourselves. Some items were ordered by the designer for which we were billed. There's a benefit to this. If the wrong items show arrive - it's the designer's problem and time to resolve, not yours.
6. Management by pizza
About every 2-3 weeks during the course of a 5-month project I provided a pizza lunch for all workers on a Friday ? and joined in myself. If you want to see people looking out for your interests and happy to help out ? just do this.
7. Let your contractor pull permits (and workperson's comp)
As the result of an event towards the end of the project I learned a detail about city permits and workperson's comp insurance. Your contractor should provide this, and a certificate should come along with a proposal. When a contractor goes down to 'pull permit's' at City Hall the city checks the insurance of the contractor. If, however, your contractor invites you to go down to city hall and pull permits yourself, it's an indication that they may not have insurance.
8. The city adds its 2 cents?
Our plans called for pushing out the master bath 1.5ft into the side setback. This triggered the city's interest in earthquake upgrades along that entire side of the house. This required removing all exterior stucco to the studs. Well, so be it. As long as we were doing this we may as well double pane the windows on that side, and remove a useless exterior door. This was extra and unanticipated, but worth it.
9. Be a project manager
Visit the project frequently and watch what's going on. Admittedly this was easy for us to do. You will learn a lot.
Our project was completed in the original 4-month estimate. We did have a fifth month to do some extra items, like new roof, some new skylights, some safety modifications, removing vintage carpeting to scrape and staining underlying wood.
We now enjoy the results. We have an essentially new house for a fraction of what it would cost to buy another and move.
In summary: plan, look for successful projects in your area, check references, permits, pizza, enjoy.