How to survive a renovation with your marriage intact

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? 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.


Is in the way you look at things

When the Mugar Omni Theatre opened at the Boston Science Museum I was school aged. We had annual treks to the museum to see the large tyrannosaur model, Appolo something capsule, and enormous incubator of super fluffy yellow chicks.

Those field trips went from pretty fun to thrilling when the theatre was built. Leonard Nimoy narrated the opening segment which showed off the armature of the dome that was behind the screen through dramatic backlighting. Then the THX sound system counted out its speakers, and we began a tour of New England, flying slowly over pleasant streams, having a lobster held towards our faces until we giggled and protected our noses from its claws. We zipped so quickly over fast motions traffic on 93 that inevitably one classmate would moan and close his or her eyes, and on one memorable occasion actually lose her lunch. (Dawn, if you are reading this, I have never forgotten you.)

Over all of this Leonard (who grew up three blocks from “here”) intones: “The difference in New Englanders, is in the way we look at things.”

I don’t know about having a “New England” world view…but I do know that our roles can shape our outlook.

When we were planning the construction of our last house Oliver was just 1. We had two large dogs, three cats and I was pregnant. The construction calendar was unclear. Even if it had been clear I would have considered it unclear because my family and I have been renovating and building since the time the Omni Theatre opened.

We decided (right in the real estate bubble) to buy a tidy small, 3 br home in a family neighborhood with a fenced back yard right on the bike path. It was just as comfortable as I imagined it would be. Hazy with a newborn and the commute between temporary home and home in the making, I still remember sledding on the side hill, crunching in lead piles, baking a birthday train cake, harvesting enormous zucchinis, and walking to the neighborhood beach pulling a wagon. My memory has done its job, gilding the time into that young, golden family image. Erasing the vomit, and dog hair, and daily drudgery.

We planned to either rent or sell, and the first family that came to look had two young girls and asked for a three year lease. We were thrilled. In three years we received the checks on the 3rd of the month every month and NEVER heard from them about repairs. Perhaps in retrospect that should have been a signal, but with everything else going on we chalked it up as good luck for us, and a family who had house pride in their rental house.

Three months ago they gave us two weeks notice and moved out.

When I went to walk through the house I was shocked. There were four full dump truck loads of things. Trucks that I had to call and pay for. These loads ranged from moldy rugs, to plastic boxes with dead markers, to spoiled food, to  They had written on the walls in the bedroom. The neighbor reported that they had filled two huge moving trucks. The house is 1100 square feet. The family really could not have been able to move around in there.

In about ten minutes the tag that my brain put on that house went from “setting for happy times” to “sickening burden.”  We tore up the moldy carpet. Installed new and refinished the wood floors to get the cat pee smell out. We put it on the market for 30% less (and significantly less than we paid for it) than anything in the neighborhood and waited for an eager family to take the savings and tag it “home.”


OK. So I met a friend over there last week as part of a rescue mission. He usually builds find homes so he is squeezing in this spit polish as a favor. We selected paint, granite, appliances, changing some trim to make it more substantial, and a bit of exterior power washing. I figured this would be enough.

The first of our team arrived this morning to begin the painting. His job requires the ability to see things how the will look after his work is completed. After over 50 showings with no real interest this painter walked through the door and declared that he wanted the house. It’s in the way he looks at things. The repairs it needs are a burden to me, and an opportunity to him.

Having two people look at the same thing different ways is a basic fact of life.  My boys and I explore this frequently… “What if what I call blue is really what you call green but we have different name for it?” “I love to play defense and Leo loves to play offense but it is really all soccer” “I think watching backyardigans is super fun and you want to poke your eyeballs out.”

We also talk about how we can have two feelings about the same thing. You can feel that your brother is an excellent playmate, and that he would get lost for ever on the Hike for Hunger.  You can be excited to see your friends and school AND nervous about being away from home.  Feeling excited, doesn’t erase feeling nervous.  Feeling appreciative doesn’t erase feeling annoyed. What do we do with these two feelings? How can we choose the way we look at things?

I don’t think we can change our feelings, just how we act on them. Remembering that there are many points of view and then choosing which view point impacts your behavior. You might be SO ANGRY, and still allow your respect for your teacher to dictate how you express yourself. These are advanced skills, and most of us are still working on them. Yesterday the boys were bickering over a lollipop. Sure this lollipop had been sitting on our counter since September 16th without inciting any interest, but Oliver wanted it, so Leo wanted it. Obviously.

Shrieking, pushing, grabbing. All that. Then somehow, and although I was in the room keeping my mouth shut I cannot report how, they decided to set the lollipop on the counter and talk. “How about I take a lick and then you take a lick?” “Ew.” “How about I get this one and you get the next one?” “No way” “How about mama cuts it in half and we each get half?” “OK!” “You know if I cut it in half either only one of you will get the stick or neither of you will get the stick. (why I decided to add that wrinkle I don’t know, but it might have something to do with visions of a melted down kid rolling on the floor screaming that I ruined the lollipop. Perhaps.) “no problem.” “that’s fine.”

I cut it. It didn’t shatter. One side was larger. One side had the stick. “I want the bigger side” Oliver said at the same time that Leo said “I want the stick.”

One of the jars that has been on our families Marble Jar shelf is “cooperation”. It got two new marbles after that.

Maybe when we fill the jar I will take them to the Omni theatre.