My husband and I have just bought a small house in the country. We love it, but we’re expecting our first child, and we’ll need more space. We’re considering putting on an addition, but we have no idea where to start. We have never had any experience with renovation. Where do we begin?

Steve Barkhouse, Amsted Design/Build, answers:

This is an exciting time in your lives, but of course, big decisions can also be stressful. You might think (as people often do) that hiring a professional renovator is going to cost too much. Actually, it’s the most cost-effective thing you can do – assuming, of course, you use a professional, certified renovator. If you do, building an addition doesn’t have to be as expensive as you might think.

In an ideal world, you’ll hire a renovator who does both the design and the building. In this way, you get the assurance that both aspects of the process will be looked after, seamlessly, in a way that takes care of you from beginning to end.

Sometimes people will tell an architect what they want, and the architect will do the drawings. Then comes reality, when those drawings have to be carried out by a builder. At that point the clients can end up with a nasty shock when they realize how much it’s going to really cost. You’d be surprised how often things can fall through the cracks just from simple miscommunication between designer and contractor.

Sometimes people will go to an uncertified builder, and that’s when trouble really hits. They’re the people who can (and often do) end up on one of the Mike Holmes TV shows. The job is a mess and their money is gone, and it takes nothing short of a miracle to set it right again. Naturally, that’s not what you want.

Before you go to a professional, have a general idea what you want. In our business, we like to label Wishes, Wants, and Needs. If it’s an addition to accommodate another child or two, let’s say, we’ll start there. Will you also want an extra bathroom? Would it be fun to have a whimsical playroom? Or do you really only need another bedroom? You give us the ideas; it’s our job to figure out the “how” of it — in keeping with your budget.

At the very first meeting, your professional renovator or design-builder will take a look at structural, mechanical, and energy considerations as well as space and zoning bylaws. You’ll discuss what you want, and right there you’ll get a range of cost for the whole project. At that point, you’ll be in the driver’s seat, and it’s where you’ll stay. You’ll know if you want to go ahead, if you want to scale back, if it’s worth it, or if you should just sell your house and move into a bigger one.

The important thing is to know you’ll be going into something where there will be few surprises. The one thing you don’t want is to find yourself in the middle of a project and realize it’s going to cost you far more than you had anticipated. And you don’t want to find out there are big ugly problems you hadn’t foreseen.

We do a forensic inspection before you sign any contract. We actually take a look inside the walls to know what we’re dealing with. Sometimes it will tell us things that will save you money; sometimes it’s the opposite, but at that point you will know… before you sign the dotted line.

So go ahead and dream about that addition. But first, do your research. Get references. Only hire the best. And believe me: you’ll be happy with the result.

For more information, see www.amsted.ca