Old House Newbies: Renovation Scope Creep

By: JoVon Sotak , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Home Improvement Tips

Old house newbies, beware the renovation scope creep.


Sounds scary, doesn’t it?  Scope creep is not some old-house voyeuristic phantom with a putty knife (If someone steals my concept and makes a B movie, remember that you read about it first here at OldHouseWeb.com). Even if you’ve never worked in project management or technology management and  actually used the phrase, if you’ve been restoring or renovating an old house, you’ll recognize the symptoms of “scope creep.” Old House Newbies, scope creep can be fatal–for your sanity, bank account, and old house.

Scope creep is what happens when uncontrolled changes affect the scope of a project.  If you had unlimited money and time, scope creep wouldn’t exist. But few of us have those two luxuries. After all, that new roof needs to happen before the first snow, right?

I rarely regard Wikipedia as the authority for anything, but it has good tid-bits on scope creep:

This phenomenon can occur when the scope of a project is not properly defined, documented, or controlled. It is generally considered a negative occurrence, and thus, should be avoided. Typically, the scope increase consists of either new products or new features of already approved product designs, without corresponding increases in resources, schedule, or budget. As a result, the project team risks drifting away from its original purpose and scope into unplanned additions. As the scope of a project grows, more tasks must be completed within the budget and schedule originally designed for a smaller set of tasks. Thus, scope creep can result in a project team overrunning its original budget and schedule.

So how do you prevent it?  The first step is the proper scoping of the project so that you can start the project with the best possible cost and time estimates and accurately assess priorities. When it came to the house that I was buying (I say was because there’s an update–but you’ll have to wait until next week), I enlisted the help of several people early on to help scope projects, including an HVAC professional, two electricians, an engineer, and a contractor. Other people who do this sort of thing for a living will think of parts of the project that you might not.

When I realized my scope was creeping (and the project contingencies required a flow chart), I took a step back. Michelle Schmitter, a resource strategist and architectural historian who has spent the last 20 years working on old houses, had some suggestions for drilling down the scope of an old house renovation project and assessing priority levels:

  1. “Structural stuff has to be first,” Michelle told me. This includes the foundation and the sill plates. If the house is listing at all, that has to be taken care of first. The roof is also critical.
  2. Systems are next: heating, water, sewer, electrical. Do you really need to replace all the electrical right away? “If you’re doing the kitchen/bathroom, you might need to do GFI, but you may not have to replace all the wiring,” said Michelle. If you already have a room stripped to the studs, then it makes sense to do, but otherwise, is may not be immediately necessary for safety.
  3. All the stuff that bothers you inside the home?  “Just leave that stuff alone at first. That’s just you having a reaction to the appearance,” advised Michelle.

With these priorities in mind and with the project properly scoped, you might want to go back and look at your self-assessment again.

This is part three in a series for Old House Newbies. Check out: