Remodel vs. Renovation: What’s the Difference?

You say potato, I say potahto. Remodel vs. renovation … same thing, right? While the terms remodel and renovation are used interchangeably all the time, they are actually very different animals. So exactly what is the difference between a remodel and a renovation?

The key difference is how deep the changes go. A renovation means you’re updating an existing structure with cosmetic changes, whereas a remodel involves changing the structure through demolition and construction, explains Jason Larson, founder and president of Lars Remodeling & Design in San Diego, CA.

So, a renovation of a bathroom, for example, might involve refreshing the tile and paint, possibly even removing and replacing the existing sink, toilet, and shower, but keeping the plumbing and electrical systems in their original locations, explains Larry Greene of Case Design/Remodeling of Indianapolis. By contrast, the same project would qualify as a remodel if you, say, moved the pipes to make room for a washer/dryer combo.

If your house feels a little dated, a renovation can add a fresh look, Greene says. But a remodel is better if you need to update your home’s functionality by, say, knocking down a wall to create more space in the kitchen or putting up a wall to create a nursery.

Who ya gonna call?

A homeowner can hire an experienced handyman or home repair expert for most renovations, says Greene. Remodeling projects, on the other hand, are often significantly more complex and require more specialized expertise.

“Home additions, converting to an open floor plan, changing the configuration of a kitchen or bathroom, or digging out a basement are all extensive projects that are best left to an experienced design-build remodeling company,” he says. In addition to the general contractor, you should also have access to an architect or building engineer to ensure that the project is structurally sound.

Remodel vs. renovation: What’s the difference in cost?

In general, renovations are the cheaper route, because you’re only altering surface details. “Most minor cosmetic work for a renovation can be done quickly and on a budget,” says Betsy Bingle, associate broker at LintonBingle in Jackson Hole, WY. Renovations also typically entail fewer surprises, since the materials and labor costs are much easier to estimate, given the limited parameters of the project.

The bigger changes of a remodel, on the other hand, tend to be more expensive—plus, you may also need to obtain permits, which can run you between $500 to $1,000 and much more, depending on the extent of the project. Also know that when getting a bid for a remodel from contractors, you should also make sure to factor in items like appliances, flooring, and paint, which many contractors leave out as they focus on the structural elements, says Larson. He recommends padding your remodeling budget by 7% to 10% to be on the safe side.

You may also want to factor in a project’s return on investment—or how much money you’ll recoup whenever you decide to sell your home. This chart can help ballpark your cost vs. value.

Cathie Ericson is a journalist who writes about real estate, finance, and health.