Start by asking the big questions. Carefully consider what you think you want, focusing on what you’d like to gain and possible options for obtaining it. If you’re looking to redo a dated bathroom without moving anything around, then layout isn’t a consideration. But if you want to correct a dysfunctional floor plan, enlarge a kitchen, or add a bathroom, you’ll probably have several possible layout options. And if you need to add living space to accommodate an aging parent or tot or two, you have a great deal to ponder: Does the house have an unfinished basement or attic space you can tap? Does it have underused living spaces worth converting? Or is an addition the best solution?

The key is developing a wish list and then weighing it against what you’ll probably pay to fulfill it. Will you really derive $25,000 of enjoyment from that remodeled bathroom? How often will you actually use a new $50,000 home theater in the basement? These considerations are especially important if you’re considering a major renovation or addition. For example, if it costs $150,000 to add a great room downstairs and a new bedroom and bath upstairs, are you better off building them or using that money to trade up to a bigger house? Identifying goals and thinking through available options will force some decisions—and also help you set a budget cap.

When thinking about overall costs, many homeowners factor in how much the improvements will add to the value of their homes. Discussing ideas with designers and home-improvement contractors often leads to recommendations for extra work or expensive products that will “more than pay for themselves” by raising the value of your home. If you expect to sell within the next few years, it makes a lot of sense to focus on the additional market value you’ll get by remodeling and to focus on making improvements that maximize that gain. But view with skepticism claims that you will recover what you invest. See our article on thinking like an appraiser when judging the value of remodeling options.

Once you’ve decided what to do, educate yourself. Read our articles. Visit design and remodeling websites, review home-improvement magazines, and watch TV shows that feature projects similar to yours. Ask neighbors who have remodeled similar homes if you can see how they use their new space. If you find a feature you like, take a picture. Visit open houses of homes for sale that are similar to yours to see how the owners tackled recent remodeling work. Your goal is to accumulate ideas about how you want your remodeled space to look and live.

Make lists of things you like: colors, materials, fixtures, fittings, and surfaces. The more you focus ideas and articulate them later on, the better you’ll communicate with designers or contractors.