So you bought a charming, old house, and on the outside, everything is the stuff your dreams are made of. The beautiful architectural details, the amazing woodwork, the stained glass windows… How did you get so lucky? But then you look deeper. Sketchy foundation? Uh oh. Termite damage? Yikes. Ugh, an ugly kitchen you just can't live with.
If you feel like you're facing more things going wrong than right, the word "renovation" may come to mind, but the first question is: Where do you start? Enter Frank and Sherry Fontana, the husband-wife duo behind the . Frank, a home renovation expert and celebrity interior designer, and Sherry, a self-taught DIY connoisseur, have been tackling older homes and salvaging them from various states of disrepair. So they've definitely been there. Here, their tips for what to ask yourself before you dig in.
1. "How much can I — and my budget — really handle?"
"Besides managing your budget, manage your expectations," warns Sherry. Her best advice: Have a realistic outlook on the process and set benchmarks for all the stages. "You should also talk to people who have lived through renovations before," Frank adds. Expecting to do too much, too soon gets people in over their heads and can cause tension – with your spouse or family and the professionals you hire. And don't underestimate the cost of a renovation. "Always tack on 30% more than you think you're going to spend," says Frank.
2. "My budget is small and/or I have multiple rooms to overhaul, where do I want to focus?"
"A rule of thumb: Kitchen and bathrooms bring the biggest return on your investment," Sherry says. "But I never neglect entryways and ceilings." First impressions are everything, Frank adds. So if you've got limited funds, keep those at the top of your list.
3. "Where should I DIY and where should I go pro?"
Most homeowners think they can do it all. "I urge first-timers to stay in their comfort zone," Sherry says. Things like plumbing and electrical should be left to the pros, and always look into permitting and city codes before you start any renovation. Failing to follow the rules of construction in your state can lead to major personal and financial headaches.
4. Be critical with your contractor selection — ask yourself, "Do I like this person enough to do this together?"
A reno is a big adventure. "Relationships are everything. You are going to get intimate with your contractors — let them into your personal space and spend a lot of time with them," Sherry warns. While you're evaluating prospects, ask a contractor if they are licensed (if your state requires it). Some states do not require general contractors to be licensed and that's OK — that doesn't mean they are bad if they are not. And also ask for proof of insurance, to see a portfolio of prior work and for referral clients to .
5. "Are there key non-cosmetic fixes that I really need to tackle?"
When looking at everything to fix, Sherry suggests you assess the structural elements of the home carefully — joist integrity, support beams, and foundations should be your top priority. Mold and water damage are big problem spots. Mold can cause serious respiratory issues and long-term health effects if not treated properly. "Addressing leaks on any level of the home is crucial and should be done quickly," she says. Also, look for signs of unwanted critters, Frank warns. Aside from age, things like termites, mice, raccoons, and other unwanted guests can add to damage, mess and germs that shouldn't find their way into your home.
6. "Which space is most important to me and how do I use it?"
When it comes to rooms to redo, it's not just about fixing the musts. It's about prioritizing your desires, too. Sherry says kitchens are her favorite because she's an avid cook. "Frank will bring the style to a kitchen, while I bring the function to our designs," she says. "Each family we design for has their own needs so the process of discovering that is fun. We spend time with them in their kitchen and observe the individual needs of each of the family members — then bring that to life."
But it doesn't stop there. "We love to make over bedrooms," Frank says. "We are a romantic couple and feel that if a couple doesn't have a bedroom space that elicits passion, romance, and escapism — it wouldn't encourage them to find those things in their own relationship."
"We aren't just designers — we can be relationship experts, too!" he jokes.
Tune-in to "Downtown Shabby" on Saturday, October 15 at 10 p.m. ET on FYI. For more info visit