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You've decided to go for it: You're going to redo that kitchen. Or gut that bathroom. Or finally finish the basement. Congratulations!

But also: Good luck. Renovations can strike fear into the hearts of even practiced professionals, and if you're reading this story we're guessing that's … not you.

"[First-timers] are nervous, they don't know what to expect," says David Jordan, owner and president of Jordan Design-Build Group in Virginia. "They're anxious about price; they're anxious about time frame; they're anxious to know how their life is going to be disrupted and if so, how much."

Among the questions Jordan commonly fields: "Where do I start? How long is it going to take? … Can I stay in my house? What do I do if I don't have a kitchen for three months?"

If you can relate, we're here to help. Here's a list of some basic things to know before you get started with your project, compiled from conversations with general contractors, architects and interior designers who've guided hundreds of people through renovations.

Understand the scope of your project

There's a difference between a simple "swap out" bathroom project (replacing the tub, toilet and vanity with new, prettier versions) and a total reconfiguration of the bathroom that requires knocking down walls and moving around plumbing. That may sound obvious, but getting clear about exactly how much you'll be changing affects many other choices you'll need to make, including what kind of contractor to hire, whether you want a designer to help and how much you could decide to DIY. Generally, the more complex your project, the more likely it is you'll want to hire help for everything, including design, planning and labor.

It's often easiest to know exactly what you want to change if you've lived in the space for a while, says DC interior designer Iantha Carley, of Iantha Carley Interiors. "When I meet people who just purchased a house and they want to redo the kitchen, I recommend them waiting," she says. "I've had lots of instances where people have not thought it out [and] don't know a simple thing like do you want a pot filler? Do you want the microwave in the base cabinets or do you want it overhead?"

The costs are more complicated than just materials and labor

If you hire a general contractor or design-build company, Jordan says, they'll usually charge a fixed fee or lump sum for the entirety of your project. That amount will include more than simply materials and labor. Jordan, for instance, breaks down his projects into six cost categories: design (including an architect and/or an interior designer); project management; construction management, or supervision of the day-to-day work; general conditions (setting up the home for work, including putting up protective tarps, organizing trash removal and more); and finally, materials and labor.

"You have to think about all six of those when you're thinking about the budget," Jordan says, even if you're doing some of them yourself — after all, your time is valuable, too.

Smaller "handyman" companies, as Jordan calls them, may charge hourly, but if you're able, he suggests negotiating a fixed fee at the start so you know you're going to fall within your budget.

Hire the right level of help

The traditional process for a complex remodel is "design, bid, build": You work with an architect to create the design, then you bid that out to several contractors and hire one of them to do the work, along with subcontractors for certain parts like plumbing and electric.

There are also "design-build" companies that house architects, designers, engineers, project managers and laborers all under one metaphorical roof. They tend to cost more in one lump sum than smaller companies or general contractors, but you get the benefit of having the same team on board for the whole process, which can prevent miscommunication and help keep the project on budget.

Of course, for relatively simple projects, you may choose to hire only a general contractor, or even only an electrician, plumber or carpenter if you're going to DIY chunks of the work. This is the least expensive option, but will likely require you to manage the project and choose materials and finishes.

No matter what type of company you go with, make sure all contractors are licensed and insured. Many jurisdictions have portals where you can look up this information. Speaking of …

Vet your contractors in multiple ways

You should interview multiple companies and do your homework about each of them, says Ali Sadaat, owner of Nextt Home Builders. Ask the contractor for a minimum of five references.

"Call those references yourself and find out what went wrong on those jobs," Sadaat says. "Every construction job is going to have some kind of issue pop up, and there's going to be some kind of assessment of that [by the customers]."

Jordan agrees, and says the first thing he does when speaking with a new client is to offer them references to call.

Sadaat also suggests asking a company whether they offer incentives for customers who provide a referral. If they do, it's a good sign they care about customer experiences and depend, to some extent, on word of mouth to get work.

Another way to assess your contractor is by their level of organization, and how upfront they are about cost and timeline, says Jordan. Ideally they can offer you a written timeline with realistic dates for every element of the project, including planning/design, demolition and permitting, all the way through to final inspections. If it's too early in the process for them to provide you with a full schedule, Jordan says, ask them for a sample schedule they created for another client.

Don't be overly suspicious, but do be aware that not everybody who comes into your home has the best intentions. Sadaat says he's working with a client whose previous contractor ruined important work in their home; later, they found out he'd been using another person's license.

Another thing to note: Most states have laws that limit the amount a contractor can charge as a down payment for their work. Make sure you're not paying more than you should before the work even begins.

Pay (very) close attention

Even with professionals involved, things happen. A change in design may not get communicated to a contractor or subcontractor. Someone may decide that a different tile is close enough to the one you actually wanted that's back-ordered for weeks. In other words, it behooves you to know what's going on in your home.

"You need to be educated on your own project first," Sadaat says. "Know everything that is going to go into it, and the order that things are going to happen. Is there going to be demolition involved? And once the demo is done, what happens after that?"

Be respectful of your contractor, but don't be afraid to speak up if something seems amiss.

Reserve 10 to 20% of your budget for emergencies

The exact amount you reserve will depend on the size of your project and your personal risk tolerance, but the point is to expect the unexpected. You never know what you or a contractor will find behind your walls or in the basement or up on the roof. Your budget should be able to absorb a few shocks.

"If we're doing improvement in the bathroom and we take out the tiles, and behind the tiles the drywall is wet and it has mold growing from it … that's going to increase the cost," Sadaat says.

When you're budgeting, don't forget to factor in incidental costs like eating out more often if your kitchen is out of commission. And pay attention to the estimates in your contract: Sometimes, contractors will budget for faucets, doorknobs and other fixtures at an unrealistically low price, says Carley, the interior designer.

"Recently, I specified some door hardware for interior doors, and the contractor had allowed $75 a piece," says Carley. "They were $200 a piece." To confirm the allowances for materials in your contract, she recommends going online to see whether those prices match the items you like.

Look at materials in person

Lots of things look beautiful in catalogues or online. But you'll want to check out paint colors, tile samples and other finishes in your own home. Evaluate these samples over a few days, in different lighting to get a sense of whether you truly like them.

"Nothing beats touching and feeling the materials yourself," says JP Ward, an architect at Anthony Wilder Design-Build in Maryland. "Or talk to a designer you really trust who has experience with how things look and feel. But for a homeowner to [choose materials] blindly is really just gambling."

Be judicious about DIY

There are lots of reasons to want to do at least some parts of a project yourself, including a desire to save money. But if you mess up, you might have to hire someone anyway, who will first have to fix your errors before they can do the work correctly. That's likely going to end up costing more than it would have in the first place.

Certain types of DIY can also be genuinely dangerous, for instance tasks that involve electrical work or demolition that could expose you to toxic substances. And you should be honest with yourself about how much time you're really willing to put in. Sometimes, Sadaat says, homeowners "think they're going to do it after work or on weekends. It's a lot more in-depth than that."