Maximizing Miles From Home Renovations

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The New York Times real estate section has a piece today on how to use rewards cards to offset the cost of home renovations. I was interviewed for the story, along with some other miles and points gurus, as well as a few property owners who have leveraged their remodel budget for outsized rewards.

Fortunately however, ours wasn’t one of the properties featured in the accompanying photos. When the New York Times is asking to send a photographer over, you really want more of your remodel to at least be at this point:


Living room is trending towards done

Rather than this point:

Someday the shop vac won’t live in the entryway, but today is not that day

As is often the case with big media stories, the final version places much more emphasis on the impossibility/wow factor, rather than the nitty-gritty details that make it all possible.

And since I’d already gathered a bunch of this info for the interview, I figured it might be helpful to those of you looking to get the most out of your own renovations.

Background on our project

I don’t want to go into too much detail on this, because OMAAT is not a house blog (though we have the start of one here, if you’re super into that sort of thing), but we purchased a mid-century modern home last April that was…decidedly lacking in the “modern” department.


Living room before

According to property records, our 1960’s house has had five owners, and four remodels. Hearing from the neighbors though, there have been nearly two dozen families who have lived here over the past 50 years.

Needless to say, the property was somewhere between “desperately needing updates” and “fixer-upper” when we moved in.

The bones of the house are amazing (my dad nearly had a heart attack when we opened a wall to find air-dried old-growth fir had been used for the framing), but there was a significant amount of deferred maintenance, and some truly ill-advised renovations that had been done over the years.


Raspberry wood paneling, why not?

As an example, at some point the original open mid-century floor plan was closed off, making the house feel very dark. There were also nine different types of flooring, and no two rooms had the same baseboards or window-trim treatments.

This photo from the listing will tell architectural enthusiasts everything they need to know

On the scale of remodels, ours was theoretically relatively minor. We wanted to restore the original feel of the home without creating a time capsule, so basically set out to undo the prior renovations, bring consistency to the space, and then update two of the bathrooms.

We took out one and a half walls that weren’t original, and moved another by three feet, but didn’t have any structural changes to contend with, thankfully.

And then we got to do a surprise bonus kitchen renovation, so that was fun. ProTip: don’t accept “unable to inspect due to owner’s belongings obstructing space” on your home inspection.


At least we then had an excuse to change out this kitchen that really didn’t match the house…


…for something more in keeping with the style. Eventually we might even have a range hood and backsplash!

Fortunately, (since we’d been aggressively saving to buy a house in California for the past ten years, and only needed a fraction of those funds for a down payment on a house in Spokane) we had the cash on hand to do all of this.

That gave us much more leeway in terms of earning miles and points for the project, as we could use a variety of cards to earn the most miles possible.

Get welcome bonuses

This is the focus of the NYT article, and I’m not going to go into it too much. I think if you’re reading One Mile at a Time it probably seems obvious to apply for new credit cards before making major purchases.

I will add the addendum that it’s critical to think about your travel goals, and how a given card will help you achieve them rather than automatically opting for the best bonus available.

As an example, the day our loan closed we applied for two cards each — a Freedom Unlimited® for him, The Business Platinum® Card from American Express OPEN for me, and one apiece of The Blue Business℠ Plus Credit Card from American Express. Those cards didn’t necessarily have the highest bonuses available, but they fit best with the gaps in my mileage strategy.

Just something to think about.

Leverage 0% interest offers

We don’t talk about this much on OMAAT, as we like the emphasis to be on paying cards off every month and generally being responsible with your credit, but there are a slew of cards offering a promotional 0% interest period as part of the welcome bonus.

0% promotional interest cards

The promotional period varies across card and issuer, but in all cases you will want to pay any balance off before that period ends. These cards have variable rates afterwards, but are certainly not low-interest products.

In our case, his and hers versions of The Blue Business℠ Plus Credit Card from American Express with generous credit limits gave us up to 15 months of breathing room on several of our large purchases. No Mas Coach utilized a similar strategy with a cash-back card for their remodel, so there are a few ways to play this.

Negotiate discounts for paying in full

Fortunately (or possibly unfortunately, I haven’t decided yet), we’ve been able to do the bulk of the renovation work on our own, with extra help from my dad and other skilled family members. And it doesn’t hurt that my husband’s engineer brain is comfortable tackling any project I can come up with.

And that’s all good, because procuring goods and services in Spokane is shockingly difficult. There is way more demand for skilled tradespeople than there are people performing those tasks. We waited six months for countertops, as an example, because there is literally one person in a 300-mile radius building concrete countertops of any quality.

Seriously, if you’ve ever thought “my life dream is to build artisan cabinetry” or whatever, come join me in Spokane! You’ll have more business than you can handle. And the snow isn’t that bad.

But one thing that helped us in both getting skilled help more quickly and being able to earn miles, was offering to pay in full — and negotiating discounts for doing so promptly. Many small businesses here prefer not to take credit cards, or will charge a processing fee. Paying a 3% fee typically obliterates the benefit of any rewards you’d be earning, but in many cases we were able to get a 5% discount (or more) for paying ahead of time and in full.

For companies that didn’t take credit cards, we sent a check through Plastiq. I’ll happily take a net ~2% discount and put the charges on a mileage-earning card.

Shopping portals!!!

There is a lot of creative hoop-jumping you can do with purchasing gift cards for home improvement stores, but I honestly don’t have time for that. I also like having the warranty protection provided by my credit cards should something go wrong. Shopping portals are easy, and can be insanely lucrative.

We tried to time our big purchases to coincide with big shopping portal bonuses. The best way to prepare to maximize these purchases is to find a few potential retailers that carry a given item, then set alerts on cashbackmonitor so you can purchase during promos.

I found tile that I liked for the bathrooms, made a list of what retailers stocked it and at what prices, and then waited.
Master bathroom is not quite ready for its closeup

But is vastly improved from what we replaced

Eventually, the British Airways Mall had one of their triple Avios weekends, and I earned 26 Avios/$1 on two bathrooms worth of tile. That ended up being about 130,000 Avios — no complaints there!

Check your Amex Offers

Amex Offers can be lucrative for all kinds of purchases, and in my case I scored big with an offer for an additional 1x point/$1 spent at HomeDepot.com with my Amex EveryDay® Preferred.

You might think “Sure, but how much are you really ordering from an online hardware store, when you can just go down and pick stuff up?”

And the answer, my friend, is EVERYTHING.

Home Depot offers “buy online pick up in store”, and those transactions process as web purchases. That means you can also use a shopping portal (usually offering at least 2x, but sometimes 6x or more), and not have to wait for delivery or pay shipping fees.

So when you drill through the water line while installing your vanity, you can order repair supplies en route!

Bonus: ordering online for in-store pickup can be a major budget saver. I don’t think my dad or my husband have ever even driven past a Home Depot without spending an impulse $100+, so having someone else fetch specific items rather than leaving them to wander the aisles saved us goodness-knows how much money. The extra miles were just icing on the cake!

We’ve used other Amex Offers as well, for everything from bonus points for our smoke detectors to statement credits for furniture purchases. It’s always worth checking.

Bottom line

Somehow, shockingly, this remodel hasn’t killed me, and we’re getting to the point where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel in many rooms.

Sadly, that light comes from the yard, where there is ~250 feet of fencing that needs to be replaced.

At least I’ll be able to earn more miles.

Ultimately, while there are more complicated  “extreme stacking” ways to maximize points, I don’t know that those are terribly realistic for busy professionals or people doing so much of the construction work themselves. But even with the bare minimum of effort we’ve earned an average of 5x miles for every dollar we’ve spent on renovations.

And if you’re considering remodeling a home yourself as a way to earn miles, I would highly, highly, highly recommend doing literally anything else. 😉

Anyone else doing home renovations? Want to share some mileage-earning tips (or wine/sob stories)?

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Comments

  1. you can buy lowes or home depot gift cards from office stores for 5x with ink cars. You can also buy lowes 10% coupon codes on paypal. This coupon is good on materials only, not installs thru lowes.

    Lowes will sometimes run 10% off promos using their own credit card

  2. This advice all makes sense, but should come with a caveat. Home Depot online pricing and store pricing can be very different. I’ve often actually found the online pricing to be more competitive than in-store pricing, but be aware that there are instances where you will pay less in-store.

  3. I think posts like these are great. I don’t think I’m a total noob but it wouldn’t have occurred I could get 26 avios per dollar. I also like your caveat that you waited on the new cards until after the loan closed.

  4. @ anon — We did use a bunch of Lowes coupons from our address change, good point! And I don’t mind using gift cards for smaller items (though acquiring them is a bit of a hassle in our case), I just like to make sure big-ticket purchases go on a credit card for the protection benefits.

  5. Great ideas! Others:
    1. Helps meet cc minimum spend faster
    2. Helps get to 30 transactions for Amex EDP card
    3. An opportunity to diversify your points portfolio (ie – I have lots of Chase and now I’m dipping into Amex points)
    4. Can’t stress how great 0% is (ie – pay off a $10k balance over 12 months interest free plus earn points) etc.
    5. Have a game plan and don’t go into too much debt that you can’t pay off as part of a good plan!
    6. Use CF, Amex EDP, SPG card, or Amex Blue bus card as they have the highest non bonus spend value

  6. As a construction project manager by day (and mikes and points junkie by night) one thing I NEVER do is pay a contractor up front. They don’t get a dime for any work that has not happened yet. That being said, I don’t pay contractors with credit cards at work (I wish, and no, I can’t).

    Did you have any problems with contractors not performing after paying them upfront? If so, did you get any relief through the banks (such as disputing the charge)?

  7. @ Marcus — I guess technically, depending on your credit situation, that wouldn’t be strictly necessary. For our loan we had to fill out paperwork explaining any of our requests for credit in the 90 days prior to requesting the loan, and I just didn’t want to do it again, or make anyone’s life more difficult.

  8. This post was great. I just finished a 1 year long gut and reno project. I knew I should be more strategic about which cards I used, but in the midst of 1000 other decisions I just gave up trying to maximize points. Hope others see this and can get that benefit.

  9. @ Mike — If it were a full-on construction company I probably we wouldn’t have either. Because we did so much ourselves the things we were hiring out were smaller and specific, so we have typically been dealing with highly recommended 1-2 person companies, and I think the cash flow has been really appreciated.

    Our pacing also helps/hurts, because with the exception of the drywall and tile work, most of the things we’ve outsourced have been day or half-day projects (I think we’ve had a plumber out here ~12 times, but spread out over 10 months). There’s no way a large firm would have dealt with that, and I feel like being generous with our payment terms has helped with getting the work done at all. We had one guy show up Saturday morning with kids in tow (puppy loved that), as it would have otherwise been five weeks before he could get to us, etc.

    So we haven’t had any issues, but in theory if someone did they could certainly dispute the charges. Great point.

  10. Really loving this article, of course this is a travel-focused blog, but articles like this *enable* travel, and that’s just as valid(and as entertaining) as a review of an airline’s cabin! Thanks Tiffany!

  11. This was a wonderfully enjoyable read.

    Tiffany, did you move to Spokane for the house or did you buy the house because your family had to be in Spokane?

    My home is a tiny (800 sq ft), much beloved row house in Washington, DC. However, my complicated employment situation requires me to spend time each year in Little Rock, Arkansas. And there I have a magnificent mid century (1961) house located amidst the woods and hills to the west of the city. I am antsy to give the place a proper, historically sensitive renovation. Like your home, my Arkansas treasure (only one previous owner!) has great bones: the original pinewood floors and cabinets; a stone-clad fireplace with a 6ft by 4ft firebox; the original harvest gold kitchen counter top, which I really would want to keep despite my love for concrete counters. This would be a labor of love, but one that would be too time consuming for me to consider anytime soon. And while I love the house, I wouldn’t want to live in it full time because..um..it’s in Arkansas.

    Anyway, splendid post. Love your light fixture in the living room.

  12. @ Imperator — Thank you! Your house sounds stunning, and like it certainly would require more sensitivity to update!! I really wish that we’d had more to preserve, but all the original fixtures had long since been removed by previous owners.

    We chose to move to Spokane because my cousin is here (and we’re closer than siblings), and with both of us telecommuting our San Diego studio apartment just wasn’t working. We’re frugal and have good careers, but not at nearly the scale required to purchase a 3-4 bedroom home in California and have any quality of life. This way we both have offices, and the dog has a yard, and I really don’t mind living in a smaller city.

    “Full-time” is hard to quantify for people who travel anyway, and the Spokane airport is surprisingly well-connected, so it doesn’t feel less convenient than San Diego did. You might not hate Arkansas under those terms!

  13. @Dan if the same item is offered in store and online, the store price will ALWAYS be reflected online, assuming you’ve selected your specific store as a point of reference. The only time this would not be the case is if the item is on clearance in stores.

    Source: Let’s just say I have a very detailed understanding of how the internal systems work…

  14. Five months on from our kitchen renovation we are still without a splashback.

    Tip: using baking trays propped up between the hob and the wall is a great temporary splashback solution.

    Loved the article, as always!

  15. I LOVE the mid-century modern look! I live in a mid-century mod parts of which were unfortunately “updated” over the years (I’m looking at you 1980’s). THE bathroom (is it circa 1962, lucky to have indoor plumbing) has been remodeled so far and I am stealing many of your ideas for the other rooms. Plus, leveraging for miles, baby, miles!

  16. I really enjoyed this post and the practical recommendations. I always forget about shopping portals and didn’t even know cashbackmonitor existed!
    Love your house!

  17. I agree about using a credit card and not gift cards for big-ticket items. But as one person mentioned, Citi Rewind eliminates the need for needing to shop around plus I receive the extra benefit of the two-year extended warranty if electronics are involved. For me, that can be a greater benefit than the points.

  18. Back in 1990, I built my own home and was the designer, engineer, and contractor. I negotiated with the local materials supplier to allow me to pay my bills by credit card (Marriott card) and to also get a 10% discount for paying quickly. The house was 6500 sqft and nearly 10,000 under roof. Not as expensive as you might think because it was 1990, but we got alot of points.

  19. Great work Tiffany! I’ve used several of your strategies over the years with general home improvements (old houses have so many opportunities!) I always giggle a bit when using one airline’s shopping portal with another airline’s branded card, I feel so wicked. 😉 Like you, the savings of in-store pick-up has been a real budget pleaser too.

  20. Love the post, Tiffany. Very timely for us, as my DH has finally agreed to add a sunroom for my plants and me this spring. To my shock, the company doing the install is willing to take AMEX for the cost of the whole thing! They didn’t blink at the first payment of 30k on my SPG card. Yippee! Not bonus spend, but certainly unexpected!
    Thanks for the tip about cadhbackmonitor. I never heard of it either. I may have missed an OMAAT post.
    Enjoy your very nice renovation.

  21. Just finished a $75k kitchen redo. Of that only about $10k was delivered by checks directly to contractors – the rest went through cards. My wife and I got 9 new cards with a min spend of $54k and got points valued @ ~ $11k. In there were two SPG 30k, an SPG Biz 35k, an Amex Plat 100k and a targeted Amex BGR 75k, among others.

  22. @Ron – thanks for the inside scoop! That’s good to know – of course, sometimes you don’t want your store price reflected online 🙂 I generally run a quick cross-shop with google shopping, just in case.

    I do recall one time buying something (I think a propane torch) online, and picking up in-store. Before picking up, out of curiosity, I checked the price on the shelf, where it was cheaper. Promptly picked-up the online order, returned it, and grabbed the item in-store. But it hasn’t often happened that way, as I usually don’t bother to check online store prices. Also, I’m always changing my local store depending on where I’m going to be closest to with other errands, so that’s probably screwing it up a little as well.

  23. LOVE your Sputnik light!

    I’ve been working on a gradual remodel for my 2001 townhouse, and have definitely utilized the Home Depot and Lowes links through Skymiles Shopping for buy online, pick up in store. If there are products that I know I’ll want to purchase in the near future, I snap a photo of the tag when I’m in the store so I’ll have the SKU number to search it online when I’m ready to order, since there are millions of items on their websites! I’ve also tried to coordinate some of my purchases when Skymiles Shopping is offering bonus miles (i.e. 1500 miles for $500 in purchases) around the holidays, back to school, etc. It’s awesome to be able to order bulky stuff and already have it loaded on the cart when you get there…I did this for patio pavers a few weeks ago!

  24. Currently finishing up a 3 month renovation. One money saving tip for stone countertops (quartz, granite, etc): find out who your local Home Depot, Lowes, Ikea subcontracts out to and contact them directly. I was getting quotes of around $60 sq ft for quartz, and was able to get that down to around $45/sq ft.

  25. Love this post. It combines something unique and interesting with miles and points opportunities. Great job!

    I love the house, too. Someday I’d love to get a mid-century modern but they’re really pricey in my area. Sounds like your house has “good bones” which is more than half the battle. My 1940-vintage home is also constructed of nice, straight, stable, fir. You don’t find that anymore. If the house itself is sound, then everything else is cosmetic.

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