Small or large scale, it’s all the same. A project begins with an idea and moves through a range of steps before reaching completion. So whether you’re making a rustic wood sign or renovating the kitchen, every project has some common order of operations.
Don’t let the process be overwhelming. Instead, work through these steps to create a plant that will keep the project on schedule and on budget.
Step 1 - Brainstorm Ideas
This step can last minutes or take years. We all have those projects that we’ve dreamed about long-term, scouring magazines and scrolling through Pinterest for visuals and fresh perspectives.
It’s a natural part of project planning. After all, you have to have an idea of the end goal before getting started.
Even if you want the project to take on a life of its own, such as when creating a mosaic or contouring a flower bed, you’ll need to have a general idea and a starting point.
Go old school with a brainstorming list, whether that takes form of a sketch pad of garden layout drawings, an album of kitchen remodel ideas from magazine clippings, a Google doc, or using a notes app on your phone. Perhaps you’ll have some of each.
Step 2 - Do Some Window Shopping
In addition to browsing the internet, hit up the local home improvement stores for both ideas and pricing. See what products are available that you may not know about.
Visit floor covering and lighting stores, hit up siding and paint stores, stop by the lumber yard, and pop into the second-hand shops.
Come in with measurements, if applicable. Ask questions about availability, timelines, installation, and costs.
Check out samples and take them home to see how they look in your space. Move paint chips to different parts of the room, and put the flooring planks next to furniture, walls, and built-ins.
Use some of those online visual tools to see how it would look in your room, if applicable.
Equipped with an abundance of information, you’ll be able to take a step closer to formulating your overall plan.
Step 3 - Locate and Price Materials
All that window shopping will also net you a list of some options for locally-sourced materials. However, you may not be able, or decide not to, source all materials in your neighborhood.
Collect information about your favorite brands and styles. Then shop around. Do price comparisons that include materials, delivery, installation, and all other factors.
Check reliable online sellers, box stores, and wholesalers. Look at the second-hand market too. You may find just the items you need on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, or another community.
Each material on your list will come in a range of options. You won't have to make decisions at this stage--it’s more about collecting information.
Let’s say you’re choosing flooring for your home. You’ve narrowed down the options and decided on engineered hardwood.
Even with that decision made, you’ll find a vast array of options that fall into a range of price levels. You could pay $2 a square foot or over $10 per square foot.
Selecting the top-priced materials means paying five times as much. Choosing the lowest price material means it may not be the highest quality and won’t live up to your expectations.
The process will likely help you choose something in the middle of the range.
Even more than locating and pricing out materials, you’ll want to delve into the features and characteristics of them. All of these details play an important role as you move forward.
Step 4 - Create a Detailed Budget
The time has come to figure out what this project is actually going to cost you. Let’s say you’re planning to build a deck. You’ve chosen your materials and taken your measurements. Now it’s time to create a line item budget.
Start with the lumber since it’s the big-ticket item. Then factor in sand or dirt for leveling, excavation costs, supports, hardware, railing materials, permit fees, stain, and tools.
For a larger project, such as building a guest house, a pole barn, or a swimming pool, you may need to figure out financing.
Make sure your budget is balanced, realistic, and comprehensive. If you’re over budget on paper, you’ll almost certainly go over budget as the project progresses. Make concessions now, reducing the size of the room or deck, going with a budget-friendly fixture, or doing more of the work yourself rather than hiring out.
It’s a good idea to leave yourself a generous cushion in the budget so you can address the predictably unpredictable expenses that notoriously arise during most home improvement projects.
If you’re the pen and paper kind of planner, keep your paperwork somewhere accessible. For a more modern approach, create a digital spreadsheet for expenses and payments.
Either way, make sure to record every expense and payment as the project progresses, so you always know where you’re at.
An accurate and well-monitored budget is the best tool you have to avoid overspending. This is true whether your initial budget is $20 or $200,000.
As you progress through the next steps, revisit and update your budget on a regular basis.
Step 5 - Talk to the Professionals
Even for small projects, talking to an expert in the field can provide you with a flood of information, helpful hints, and tips.
For larger projects, talk with engineers, architects, surveyors, contractors, plumbers, HVAC specialists, and electricians. Get bids. Ask about timelines.
If you’re hiring contractors or subcontractors, now is the time to verify their business licenses and insurance. Ask for samples of their previous work. Read reviews and testimonials.
Paying professional rates will be an expensive part of your project, so make sure your investment is protected with a solid contract. That includes everyone from the general contractor to a drywall installer.
For other projects, the professional you need might be a friend or a member of the family. Someone you know has likely done tile work, built a deck, or painted a house and can offer invaluable advice based on their experiences.
After completing these consultations, make a final decision about what parts of the project you’ll hire for and what you’ll approach DIY style.
Step 6 - Stop by the Planning Department and HOA
Depending on the scope of your project, a visit with the planning department might be inevitable, so it’s much better to get it out of the way early in the process.
Although few people enjoy this part of the process, trying to skirt the planning department typically leads to big headaches later on. Any reputable contractor knows this and will help you keep track of permitting issues.
Many types of projects require inspections from the planning department in addition to basic permit fees. It depends on the scope of the project, but failing to schedule inspections can lead to huge delays, so you or your contractor need to remain on top of the situation.
Even a relatively small task, like swapping out a window or adding a level to your deck, can involve permitting.
Step 7 - Develop a Timeline
Things are starting to come together at this point. You know what you want to do, you have an idea of costs, you’ve found the materials, and you figured out where you’ll need additional help. Now it’s time to get everything on the schedule.
While it might seem like all you have to do is to get started and figure things out as you go, skipping this step can leave you in a predicament. You may find yourself without needed materials, workers, or permits.
Get the spreadsheet warmed up again and put date estimates next to each material and task on the list. Talk with contractors and suppliers to nail down timelines.
One delay can send your entire project off kilter. For example, the drywall can’t be completed if the plumbing and electrical work isn’t done. One skewed timeline pushes every other timeline back.
The same goes for required inspections that can halt progress. Don’t wait until the last minute to schedule inspectors, or you might find yourself waiting a few weeks until his or her calendar clears.
When putting together your work timeline, make sure to prioritize tasks that need to be completed in order. For example, the bathtub might just be in the way if it arrives weeks before the framing is done, so make sure the framing materials are onsite when the project begins.
Similarly, your deck won’t receive top boards until the foundation is set, so focus your initial efforts there.
Step 8 - Pack up and Prep
Unless you’re working on an uninhabited house, most home improvement projects are going to cause some disruption in your daily activities.
Give yourself plenty of room to work by clearing out the space and prepping it for battle. If you’re undergoing a bathroom remodel, pack up everything you plan to keep, from wall art to linens. Move essential items to another location where you’ll be using them in the short term.
For an outdoor project such as painting the house, clear everything away from the home, take down hanging items, and pressure wash the surface.
Even for a smaller project at your workbench, you’ll need to organize tools and supplies and clear off the workspace.
Step 9 - Break Ground
Let’s get this project started. It’s finally time to break ground on whatever you’ve got going on. This is the point where you’ll start clearing land for the shed, demolishing the old kitchen, or measuring and cutting lumber for a build.
Step 10 - Monitor Progress
Hopefully the extensive planning will ensure everything goes off without issues, but if you have any experience with home improvement, you know that’s rarely the case. There will always be some hiccups to deal with.
If you have a general contractor guiding the project, check in with him or her frequently. Ask to be notified if there are delays.
On the other hand, if you’re directly monitoring the work, you’ll need to be in contact with a variety of people. Follow up to make sure everyone knows their expected timeline and ensure they can follow through.
If and when something causes the schedule to shift, try to be flexible. See if you can complete another aspect of the project while you wait for the delayed work to be completed.
For projects you’re tackling 100% DIY style, it’ll be easier to keep track of your timelines, but may be much more difficult than you anticipate to keep aligned with them.
Delays are ubiquitous in home improvement, and there are countless reasons they occur. It might be a supply chain issue, illness of workers, or unexpected surprises on the job site.
Whatever you encounter, you’ll need to address issues one at a time. Whether it’s a detailed flooring board cut that takes an extra hour or weather delays that set your build back a few months, know the project will come to a conclusion at some point.
Step 11 - Project Completion
Most homeowners will tell you it might take until the house is on the market before the finishing touches actually get put on the project. You know, cutting the last tile hidden in the corner, putting up the final piece of trim behind the door, adding a railing to the few steps off the deck, and fixing the door that doesn’t quite close correctly.
For a project to really be checked off this list, take the time to make sure it’s completely finished. You’ll be glad you did. Make that final run to the store for the $5 piece you need, grab the paintbrush and complete the touch ups, and head back out to the shed to place the last final roofing materials.
Project planning starts with an idea and ends with a completed project. Whether you realize it or not, as you monitor the project’s progress, you’re continuously planning for the next steps, so the planning isn’t done until the project is done.
While you’re doing your research, check out this information about the Best Lumber for Outdoor Projects. If you’re planning to tackle some carpentry work, check out our detailed article on Planning for Carpentry Projects too.