WATCH ANY HGTV home improvement show and you quickly realize the cost of remodeling in Marin County isn’t exactly commensurate with prices in the rest of the country. In fact, a luxury kitchen can cost as much as a turnkey home in other parts of the U.S. “For projects in Marin, you’re looking at renovation costs of around $400 to $600 per square foot,” says Michael McCutcheon, owner of the Berkeley-based McCutcheon Construction. But that’s only a rough estimate, he adds. “We’ve done jobs that cost the owner as little as $250 per square foot to as much as $2,000 per square foot. It depends on an owner’s expectations.”
While costs are admittedly steep, there’s a silver lining to living in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the nation: “Every dollar you spend on a kitchen or bath remodel returns up to $4 per square foot in resale value,” says Thomas Dreyer, president of the San Rafael–based Marin Realtors Association. There’s also value in simpler projects like creating a user-friendly entryway, updating flooring, redoing lighting, landscaping or just painting, assuming you don’t over-improve for the neighborhood. “The metrics are obviously different for a modest home in Terra Linda and a luxury estate in Belvedere,” Dreyer says.
Exact costs depend on a range of factors, including scope, finishes and just how much hand-holding you need. The all-in price for a DIY project, for example, will relieve you of considerably less cash than one that engages architects, engineers, contractors and interior designers.
Price aside, noise, mess and general interruption into your daily life during a full remodel is just too much for some homeowners. As an alternative, consider a soft remodel — one that doesn’t require construction, but can still go a long way toward making a dated house feel new. The results you can achieve simply by refreshing paint, flooring, fixtures and window treatments can be astonishing, especially if you spring for new furnishings. “It’s the reason I encourage clients to hire a stager when it comes time to sell,” Dreyer says.
To get a snapshot of what is possible, we asked three Marin County homeowners to tell us about their recent renovations.
Room to Grow
Bringing your work home can put additional stress on a family. But if you’re an interior designer tasked with transforming a young child’s bedroom into a coming-of-age retreat, and the client happens to be your daughter, you wind up the hero.
“My daughter, Kate, came to me one day and said she didn’t want a pink room anymore,” says Linda Baron, a mother of two and owner of StudioBARON in Corte Madera. “This was understandable, as she was now in middle school.”
So Baron whipped out a color wheel and her basket of textiles and asked Kate for input. “The palette we chose ended up coming from a favorite fabric, which we used to create bulletin board panels in her closet and as a bolster for her bed,” Baron says. But the piece that pulled the whole design together was an early 20th-century Louis XV–style full-size bed frame snatched up at a price representing a fraction of its actual value due to structural defects. “I paid $1,800 for it and had my contractor put in new slats and reinforce the joints. Now it’s probably worth $5,000,” Baron says.
For the walls, she and her daughter settled on a spa-blue color enhanced with a hand-painted motif. “We created a wall stencil influenced by that pom-pom flower people blow on to make a wish,” Baron says. “The walls give the space a calm, floaty, ethereal feeling.” Stealing space from an adjacent bathroom, she was able to turn a 24-inch-wide closet into a roomier 53-inch-wide space. The footprint tweak also allowed for the addition of a tiny alcove makeup vanity.
Rather than spring for built-ins to organize her daughter’s closet, Baron spent 4673 on Elfa shevling from the Container Store. Design includes short and long hanger space, roll-out drawer baskets and shelving.
A window treatment customized at a cost of $2,000 including material and labor.
Bathroom on a Budget
Ellen Kogan and her family moved into their current San Rafael home five years ago. From the get-go, they knew the ’70s-style master bath would have to go.
“We did some minor renovations before moving in, but put off doing the bathroom because, well, life just got in the way,” Kogan says. But as her kids, now 9, 14 and 16, got older, tackling the problem bathroom seemed considerably more doable. So she hired a designer to help her work out a plan. And while she found the professional help indispensable in terms of figuring out the layout of cabinetry and fixtures, there was a disconnect between the finishes the designer was suggesting and Kogan’s intended budget. “I wanted to keep this project in the $25,000 to $30,000 range, but whenever I added it up, the finishes she was suggesting put us in the $60,000 range,” Kogan recalls.
Which left Kogan wondering if her expectations were simply unreasonable. Fortunately, fate intervened. “I bumped into a friend who has renovated several area hotels,” she says. “He told me I could easily get a bathroom done for $20,000 and laid out a budget with realistic allowances.”
Kogan parted ways with her designer and became her own project manager. Keeping costs in check required lots of research and even calling in a few favors.
“My friend met me at a plumbing supply store, and this allowed me to use his contractor’s discount,” Kogan recalls. And while she used top-quality fixtures, a few well-placed Ikea purchases helped offset the cost of wish-list splurges. The dated closet, for example, was demolished and the contractor recessed in an Ikea wardrobe with high-gloss double doors. The result was a custom look, at an off-the-shelf price. “The door to the old clothes closet would swing out and hit the door to the bedroom,” Kogan says. “This change made a real difference in terms of the flow of the room as well as in the overall look.”
The bath cabinets, glass quarts stone countertop and two sink bowls were purchased as a package on wayfair.com for $2,100. The counter arrived with a minor scratch, so the company offered Kogan an $800 refund in exchange for accepting the product “as is.”
$7,000 for tile material and labor.
Meg Sorota and Brian Lahart of San Rafael are no strangers to remodeling. “We put on an addition that included a guest bedroom and bathroom that also functions as our home office,” Sorota says.
And after a few years of downtime, they were up to the challenge of re-envisioning the nerve center room of practically every family — the kitchen. As this is their forever home, they were willing to make a significant investment.
To see their dream to fruition, they hired interior designer Michele Dugan of Michele Dugan Design, who’d helped them on the earlier project. “She was fantastic at synthesizing what I wanted and helping me home in on it,” Sorota says. The result was a contemporary space with all the bells and whistles, including top-of-the-line appliances, custom cabinetry, highend fixtures and a long list of modern conveniences. But “I liked that we also gave a nod to the rustic farmhouse,” Sorota adds.
Those homey touches include barn wood cladding around the skylights, open shelving, and simple oak tractor stools around the kitchen island. Also a throwback: a baking cart on casters that rolls out from under the island. “I love this feature because I’m height challenged and it allows me to prep on a surface that’s table level instead of counter level,” says Sorota. “It’s also great for baking with the kids and allows me to store all my supplies in one place.”
Conversely, nothing says contemporary like a kitchen with a dedicated beverage center. Cold beverages get stored in one of two refrigerated drink drawers. And made-to-order drinks are available at the touch of a button. “The Top Brewer Station makes you any kind of coffee you want; it can also do fizzy water, and it steams and froths milk,” Sorota says.
Restoration Hardware bar stools cost just $179 each and blend seamlessly with the room’s many custom finishes.
The Top Brewer Station was $15,000, including plumbing installation and cabinetry.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Bang For Your Buck“.
Dawn Margolis Denberg has worked as a professional journalist for 20 years. Her work has appeared in top publications, including Wired, Shape and Parenting. She has also written several books for children including, The Men in Black Agent’s Manual The Official Godzilla Movie Fact Book. And, most recently, an episodic audio series for Tales Untold.