Steve and I have lived through a half dozen renovations together. I was finishing a renovation when we met and one of our first dates was a picnic on the floor of my new kitchen. We sat on 24 inch wide reclaimed pine flooring. I remember thinking that I would be there long enough to see wear in the golden planks and wondering whether Steve would be there beside me. I was sort of right. Steve didn’t leave me but we both left the pine floor to move in to our little house on the lake. That move was the weekend before our wedding, which also took place at the house. Within a few months we were opening up the basement apartment into a wide open guest room flooding the views and light all the way to the back of the space.

That wasn’t the only thing that flooded. The drainage issues on the sloped site hit the bottom floor hard, and what was eventually going to be the foundation of a bigger home became compromised. So instead of living downstairs and renovating upstairs as we had planned we moved out. Oliver was 10 months old, Leo was incubating, we were both working full time. We looked for a rental but with two dogs and four cats and a super tight rental market we ended up buying a starter ranch out towards the suburbs.

The day Leo was born was the same day we tore down the house on the lake beginning the process of building our forever home. As if. Eleven months after I went into labor we were moving into our labor of love. We decided to rent out our neighborhood ranch instead of selling it. The market had slipped and we were happy to find a young family who was thrilled to be there.  Right around the time we decided to leave the house we built from scratch we discovered that our ranch renters where hoarders. Evidently they moved out with two tractor trailer trucks under the cover of night. When we went to investigate we found 6 dump loads of things to get rid of. There were dead things in the freezer and other unidentifiable objects. We needed to rip out floors and walls and went though a mandatory renovation on that place. Meanwhile our next home went through two rounds of renovations. First the kitchen and living room. Then the mudroom and dining room. Two moves later we are going into our fourth year in our house in Denver. When we bought it we knew it would need a new kitchen, two baths and upstairs re-work. The only way to the master bedroom was through Oliver’s closet. Which was the size of a stand up shower stall.

We moved into a rental down the street and tore through that project. Now it is time to make some changes again. Our neighborhood home prices have gone up so much that even with a correction we have equity in the house. We are dissastisfied with our 3/4 car garage and entrance directly into the kitchen. We are working on plans to change those things and maybe, possibly excavate beneath the garage to build a dark scary space where I can watch sports. That last decision will depend on zoning rules and return on investment. Basements are not the best.

Here are some areas that were most important to make sure that Steve and I made it through our renovations as well as our houses did.

Ensure that renovation is the best answer. 

  1. To build or not to build… The first question to ask is will your renovation solve the problem you are looking to solve. There are times when moving is the right choice. When our kids were little and our house was very isolated. We wanted them to have friends and build independence from us in a family neighborhood. No amount of renovation could have changed the reality of our location. So we moved.
  2. Will your renovation”overimprove” your house? A realtor can give you a free valuation of your house as is and using comparable sales in your neighborhood help you understand your maximum home value  at this time. If what your purchase price plus the cost of your changes are higher than the max value of your home you should have a serious conversation with your partner about whether to move forward, or just to move. Steve and I have made this mistake. We grossly overimproved a house which we sold before the market could rise to make up the distance. We lost almost 20% on that house, wiping out all of the gains we had made on past renovations and sales. It caused us enormous regret. Luckily we did learn from that. When we did our first renovation on our current house we cut back on many things. Although we replaced three walls with steel beams to open our space we left in tact a fourth wall that would have necessitated us pouring new footings to support the posts. I had to mourn that loss for a bit, but it helped to remember the feeling of our last overexpenditure. We also set aside the idea of a garage addition at the time. We were new to Denver and I had a track record of relocating us from house to house. With the garage we would not have been able to get our money out of our house. Three years later that is no longer the case. We can add a garage and the market “should” be able to bear the cost of our addition. There are no guarantees of course. Which is probably the most important thing to have in mind as you embark on a renovation.
  3. Are you choosing the best places for your money? http://www.remodeling.hw.net/cost-vs-value/2017/ There are lots of sources that let you know what the return on investment is for your building project. Ti varies year by year and region by region. These numbers are huge averages across the country. Your case may be different. Even though kitchen renovations have dropped in ROI from 110% to 87% (at the time of this writing) I believe that our renovation was closer to the high end. The old kitchen was tiny and odd. The new one is open and generally appealing. We have not always paid attention to what the numbers say. A few years ago we knew that our passion project (turning a dining room into a mudroom) was one that would appeal to very few people. In fact it was likely that it would decrease the value of the house. Even though we were mindful about making changes that could easily be reversed back to a formal dining room we still took a risk. We thought that our needs and experience trumped any unrecouped expense. That was not our experience when we went to sell. Instead we felt regret at our choice to make a renovation that did not have mass appeal.

Determining that renovation was the best choice will help you get through the dark days of cooking only in a microwave or coughing through drywall dust.

Admit that your marriage will be a threesome.

This one is tricky. I often think that there should be research on the relationships between builders and their clients. It is rare that I come across one that is neutral. There is a strange boomerang of power difference that comes from the client paying but the builder holding the project in his or her hands. There is also the fact of the sheer amount of time and space you will share. Your heads will come together over drawings and tile samples, you will talk on the phone about granite slabs, you will likely spend as much time with your builder as your partner. It is your builders job (for the most part) to try to make your dreams come true. There is something appealing about that. I have become friends with my builders in the past. Many of the men and women I worked with in Vermont came to our parties and invited us to dinner. For a time we were friends with our Colorado builder as well. I remember sitting outside at a concert and watching him on a call with a client. His wife nudged me and said “that is one of his other girlfriends.” I was ashamed and a bit jealous. Not of his wife, who I really liked, but of his other clients with whom I had to share his attention and time.

Yet that is not the only story. There are times that you and your builder come close to divorce. Deep into our whole house build I felt as though I was making changes every day. Changes are frustrating for the builder and expensive for you, the client. However each of these changes were pretty important. This contractor was particularly demeaning about my choices, and I found myself doubting my instincts. When I pulled out my drawings for the niches for the art on the stairway and he questioned my request for a crisp plaster edge instead of wooden framing I felt defeated. After so much push and pull I finally gave in and scrapped the kitchen skylights that he didn’t feel happy about putting into the standing seam roof. On the heels of this discord he installed the posts in the living room, the organizing principle for the space, in the wrong spots. When I went to correct this he had a fit and I ended up having to go over his head to the company owner. I was crying with anger. I didn’t work with him again. The project however went on the win awards and be published in multiple books and magazines.

Even though it may not feel it at the time your primary relationship is with your partner…not your contractor. Steve and I took time almost every night to talk about progress and set back in the project. This kept us on the same page. I recalled conversations and disagreements that I had with the builders on various renovations. He was always in the loop both practically and emotionally, and even though this was sometimes awkward it was always helpful.

Get ready for a rift in the space time continuum.

  1. Whatever the architect and builders say you should calculate that it will take 50% longer and be 50% more expensive than planned. This means that if you have a hard and fast budget DO NOT allow the initial estimates to run close to that budget. DO NOT. Eliminating the stress of unexpected expenses is one of the best things you can do to preserve your relationship during renovations.
  2. Think about moving out. Before things begin you can imagine plastic perfectly sealing you off from your project. That is not the case. The dust gets everywhere. But more than that there are people in your space. There is noise. And dust. And noise. There are workers peering at you in your PJs at 6:30 in the morning. It is annoying when they are there and annoying when they aren’t there. (Where IS that electrician?) It goes the other way too. Too much of you can slow down construction. A set daily or weekly visit depending on the stage of the project is best even if you are just on the other side of the plastic. Then both sides can save questions, time, and give each other space.

Focus on what can’t be changed.

  1. It is very very very easy to get bogged down in the details. There are endless decisions during a renovation. Which light switches switch which lights (something I have NEVER gotten right.) Where do the outlets go. Grout color on backsplash tile. Counter finish. Hallway width. Most of us get hung up on the counters, but they are not the big story. Those finish materials are just the jewelry. The bit you can’t change is the proportion of rooms, direction of natural light, and flow from room to room. The best book I have ever read on this is Patterns of Home. Steve and I have a basic system. We work together on those big things. The permanent things. Then I limit the choices for finish materials and present him with just a few. This way I like all of the options and he is involved in the big and little picture.
  2. Figure out what you will go to the mat for. In our family for Steve it is the kitchen layout. He is the chef. For me it is windows and natural light. We are both willing to give up other things to afford what mean the most to us. This way we don’t argue over small details.

Money money money

I talked about the 50% rule. It is worth repeating. Whatever the estimate expect to pay 50% more. Unexpected leaks in the walls, 10th hour changes, material upgrades…none of these things are in that first go around. Also factor in rental costs if you are moving out for the construction (good idea!) Additionally consider what you might spend on new furniture for your refurbished space. Sticking to your budget busts the number one cause for discord during a renovation.

Renovations are tumultuous. Schedules are up in the air. Money and space and time are all difficult to navigate. There are people in your life intruding on personal space and time. It is important to remember that renovations are temporary and your partner is forever.

 

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Anna Rosenblum Palmer is a freelance writer based in Denver, CO. She writes about sex, parenting, cat pee, bi-polar disorder and the NFL; all things inextricably intertwined with her mental health. In her free time she teaches her boys creative swear words, seeks the last missing puzzle piece and thinks deeply about how she is not exercising. Her writing can be found on Babble, Parent.co, Great Moments in Parenting, Ravishly, Good Men Project, Sammiches and Psych Meds, Playpen, Crazy Good Parent, and YourTango. She also does a fair amount of navel gazing on her own blog at annarosenblumpalmer.com.

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