How to Get Started Remodeling Your House on Mercer Island

July 7, 2022 | by Sarah Anne Lloyd

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Photo courtesy Suzanne Zahr, taken by Rick Barry

Dreaming of how to fix your house is easy, whether you want to build a functional home office, update your kitchen to match your culinary ambitions, or simply to breathe new life into an old Mercer Island house. The hard part comes in figuring out what it will actually cost, how long it will take, and how to even get started.

“It’s a process,” says Suzanne Zahr, who has been working on spaces on Mercer Island for her eponymous firm, Suzanne Zahr, Inc., for seven years. “It’s one that can be very enjoyable, very exciting, because you’re transforming an aspect of your world,” she says, but she also notes it can be stressful.

Preparation, planning, and a good team can help make the remodeling process easier, and Mercer Island has a number of experts on every aspect of remodeling, which leads to Zahr’s biggest piece of advice for people considering a remodel on their home: “Find a team you can trust, the rest will fall into place.”

Where to Start on a Remodel

Zahr suggests starting with a good sense of the real estate value of your home. “Your home is your greatest asset,” she says, recommending people don’t necessarily let it drive or dictate the process, but make sure there’s a return on investment. Then you can start to look at the changes that will help you figure out how you want to move through your home.

The first thing to consider is the scope of your remodel, says Tom Gallagher, owner of Mercer Island’s Gallagher Co. “Are you adding square footage, moving walls, tearing out everything to the studs, or just doing surface work and keeping the same footprint?”

If you plan to move walls or add any structure, he advises starting by hiring a good architect to draw up plans so that you can then apply for a building permit. Working with a contractor early on will also provide insight about what they can and can’t build, as well as project cost. “Quite often we find architects will draw plans that look amazing in concept, but are costly to execute, or just not wise for our PNW climate or resale value,” he explains. Having the contractor involved early on helps avoid costly design bills and revisions to unwind designs that don’t work with your budget.

Photo courtesy Gallagher Co.

How Much Does It Cost to Remodel?

The average remodel costs are currently around $300 per square foot, which can easily jump to $700 for custom or “smart” features, says Gallagher. He attributes this to demand: Everyone spent a lot more time in their homes during the pandemic, and as a result, aesthetic and functional issues really started to stand out. Low interest rates and high home equity means a flooded construction market, and with supply chain issues, there aren’t a lot of materials to go around – he says to expect a six- to nine-month wait for appliances.

Zahr also advises thinking through any issues with the property or home that you might be able to fold into the remodel efficiently, like maintenance that you may have to do down the road anyway.

Photo courtesy Suzanne Zahr, taken by Rick Barry

Easy Alternatives to a Full Remodel

If those prices are more than you can pay or you want to get started right away, “Paint is always a great first choice for a low-cost refresh,” says Gallagher. Other options include updating lighting fixtures, changing out cabinet and door hardware, and replacing exterior house numbers.

The next step up on budget could involve refinishing hardwood floors, changing countertops, installing new plumbing fixtures, replacing tile, or updating millwork. From the outside, he suggests trimming or removing any overgrown shrubs. “Minimized landscaping can make a mid-century house look current.”

It’s part of his overall recommendations to consider what rooms to focus your money and energy on – like using high-end finishes in the kitchen, powder room, and primary bedrooms — the areas you spend the most time in — and downgrading to more casual options for the basement and kids’ rooms.      

How to Plan for Remodel Permits

One way to make sure you don’t waste time and money is to make sure you have an architect familiar with the Mercer Island specific codes, says Zahr. Stormwater detention and fire codes each have specific thresholds that builders will need to pay attention to, and if your team isn’t familiar with those it could mean having to go back a few steps or incur redesign fees.

For bigger projects, the Mercer Island Office of Community Planning and Development (CPD) encourages a pre-application meeting with your project team and city permit reviewers. This can require a little patience: after you submit your initial plans, expect an eight-to-12-week window for city reviewers to, ideally, approve your design — but if changes have to be made, expect an extra two to four weeks after each revision is submitted.

With smaller projects, a quick call or email to the permit desk to ask basic questions is free. Even if you don’t think you need a permit, Holly Mercier, Permit Services Manager at CPD, says it’s still worth checking in.

“You get into needing-a-permit realm pretty fast,” she says, advising to watch out for project creep. Removing or replacing drywall, even if it’s not load-bearing, requires a permit, something Mercier says surprises people sometimes. While you don’t need a permit for hanging a new door, you do need one if you’re increasing the size of the frame.

On outdoor projects, critical area code issues like watercourses aren’t always obvious, and removals of trees greater than 10-inches in diameter require a quick, cheap permit. The pandemic led to many homeowners building luxurious outdoor spaces that can stand in for living rooms, but if you’re looking to create your own backyard wonderland, keep in mind that decks, patios, and even plug-in hot tubs can trigger land-use requirements or hit building limits. Fancier features get even more complicated (Zahr notes that accessory dwellings have been a big trend throughout the pandemic).

“It can be challenging to permit an outdoor gas grill in a covered space or near combustible materials,” says Mercier, who suggests getting in touch before you start buying equipment. Permit cost is a percentage of your project valuation, so more involved, expensive projects cost more than a quick update.

Current Mercer Island Remodeling Trends

“[For] the past 5 years, it seemed like the white kitchen was all we did, but now we’re seeing lots of dark painted cabinets and wood shelving,” Gallagher says, and blending kitchen appliances in with the cabinetry is common, save for centerpiece stoves with industrial or nostalgic looks. While concrete countertops are on the rise, they can chip more easily than granite, quartz, or marble.

Other rising trends, according to Gallagher, include more colors, brass fixtures, steel windows, and minimal trim, including drywall-wrapped windows. Homeowners are looking for a tidy aesthetic: Cabinets are taking on a more minimalist look, appearing throughout the house for low-profile storage. Tile and stonework both have fewer grout lines than normal, and in flooring, wider planks and dirt-hiding light tones are in demand.

Zahr says she’s seen a lot of requests for flexible space – convertible office and guest rooms or home gyms – and Lutron lighting for the smart home features. But more than anything, her clients have been looking for zen environments. “People want homes to be retreats,” she says, a place for them to take a break from screens and ease into earth tones.

Of course, it’s not all about trends. The biggest remodeling tip of all – other than “measure twice, cut once” – is to stay true to your aesthetic. Create a home you love, and it’ll still feel current for years to come.