By David Wulff, AIA


I have been doing this for over 40 years and, with the exception of a few projects, they almost always go over budget. Residential projects are the worst. The commercial projects are the ones that tend to stay in budget (or at least close to it). The reasons residential projects go over budget are many, but for the most part it’s human interference. By that I mean, homeowners are personally involved (sometimes too much) and as the projects starts to go up, they offer “advice”, which causes changes and the cost goes up.


Unforeseen things

So, you have a set of plans from a designer and the contractor has given you a price. Sounds simple, but then there are those things that were not visible so the contractor has no way of knowing about them. Things like:

  • Soil conditions – The ground may not be suitable for the footings, so you need to have a geotechnical engineer make recommendations. Or perhaps there is rock under the surface that needs to be blasted.
  • Hidden behind walls or ceilings- This happens all too often in remodeling projects. There’s just no way to know everything that is behind the walls or in the ceilings. Maybe electrical or plumbing pipes are there and need to be relocated. Or perhaps there’s a heating/cooling duct there.
  • Structural support –Well, you wanted that wall removed but discover that it’s holding up the floor above. Gulp! Now we need a support beam that was not planned.
  • Damage – We just opened up the wall and find that there is rotten wood or perhaps termite damage.


Owner Changes

  • As the walls start going up, the homeowner says “let’s move that over here and make the room bigger”. Simple enough, but that little change has cost implications. Maybe plumbing needs to be relocated. Maybe electrical lights need to change. Maybe the windows are now in the wrong location. One little change snowballs and so does the $.
  • Cabinetry changes – Most contractors figure cabinets on a lineal foot basis and give an allowance. But the homeowner wants better quality cabinets. So up goes the cost!
  • Fixture changes – Bath fixtures, light fixtures – unless you have selected the exact fixture you wish, the contractor will figure a “builders grade” fixture. So, you will pay for the upgrade.
  • Hardware, doors, window changes — Same as with the fixtures, you will get a “builders grade” unless you pick something in advance.
  • Paint – Seems simple enough, but what if you want every room a different color? Do you want stain trim or painted? You should choose these and let your contractor know in advance.
  • Flooring – There are a thousand different types of floors and choices. Just to say you want tile in the bath and wood throughout will not cover all the different costs of the flooring. The contractor will give you a sq. ft. allowance and you pay the extra.



  • OK, so you have selected some of the items listed above and given the choices to the contractor, but did you give them to him in time to order? You can’t wait until the day before installing that tile to pick the tile. If it is a special order, it delays the job and the cost increases.


My recommendation for escaping without the headache: budget wisely. After you get the price from the contractor, add 15% for unforeseen contingencies and another 5-10% for allowances. Then when the project is finished, you and the contractor can still shake hands and be friends. You will also be one of the very few that declare that your project was within budget.


DAVID H. WULFF, ARCHITECT welcomes the design challenges presented by new projects and is dedicated to developing innovative design solution. David H. Wulff, AIA, 167 Trails End, Lake Lure, NC 828-625-5537,