One of the great benefits of the Internet for new home builders and the real estate industry is its ability to show prospective buyers a complete picture of both new and existing homes in great detail. Users who can walk through a “virtual house” and view almost all of its rooms are increasingly able to use this tool to select the house they want to buy. And because these homes have a set price, the prospective buyer can match the home to their budget.

In the remodeling market, however, particularly at the middle and upper end of the price range, almost all projects are custom designed and custom built. As a result, it is hard to provide —quickly, reliably, and affordably — enough information for a prospective customer to make any decision to buy a particular project, whether it is a deck, a sunroom, a porch, a family room, a kitchen, or a bathroom.

There are plenty of Web sites that provide step-by-step instructions about how to build a deck or install a new bathroom vanity, but few if any provide a complete tour and estimated installed cost for a prospective remodeling customer.

I believe it's just a matter of time before such a “pre-designed projects” approach enables prospective remodeling customers to replicate the new- and existing-home shopping experience that already exists on the Internet.

Limited Targets There will, of course, be limitations. First, the range of homes to which pre-designed remodeling projects applies will be limited primarily to one of four types that make up the majority of the more than 40 million homes built since 1950: two-story colonial, split level, split foyer, and ranch. In most of these homes, the two most remodeled rooms — the kitchen and the bath — are of standard size: Almost every kitchen is 10x10, 12x12, or 10x14 feet, and almost every bath is 5x7 or 5x8 feet. The electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems are relatively standard — in need of updating, not complete replacement.

Pre-designed remodeling must also be confined to a set of standard projects. Projects within the existing footprint are easiest to implement and include swapping out an existing kitchen or bath and basement finishing. Projects that would add space include one- or two-car garages and adding a deck, sunroom, or porch. Projects at the upper end of pricing and complexity could include the addition of a larger space serving as a master suite, family room, home office, or even a granny flat.

Mass Customization Pre-designed projects need not be identical. They can be customized, although in a more limited way than the customization options offered by home builders and car companies. Flooring, for example, might be offered in three good-better-best options of carpet, tile, and hardwood; countertops, in laminate, solid surface, or stone. Or, a standard 5x7 bath option might be to add ceramic tile wainscoting. Even so-called “unknowns” can be handled as standard add-ons — replacing lead waste or water lines, for example, or replacing outmoded wiring.

Implementation won't be easy, but it won't be impossible, either. It will require preparing the basic specifications and options for each project type, along with corresponding pricing. One of the biggest challenges is selecting and training certified contractors to do the work. But today's successful remodeling franchises are learning how to do this more reliably.

Pre-designed projects may seem like a pipe dream now, but current trends support the idea. For one thing, handyman business is growing fast, proving that small projects of short duration with flat-fee pricing can be profitable. Precedent has been set by basement finishing, deck, and bathtub liner franchises, all of which have been around for nearly 20 years, but whose success has recently jumped. And as design/build remodelers begin to dominate the high-end and retail home centers target the low-end, the huge middle market is ready for new solutions. —Walt Stoeppelwerth publishes management and estimating information for professional remodelers. 800.638.8292;;