Living in, and through, your remodel

Remember that TV show Trading Spaces? The one where friends overhauled each other’s living rooms, sometimes with amazing success? My husband and I loved that show, and were inspired at the time to think that we could take on the task of repainting our kitchen cabinets. The home we lived in had these really dark brown circa 1972 kitchen cabinets that were just oppressive.

We learned the hard way that there are professionals for a reason. Although DIY projects are fun, and lots of people are capable of tackling these kinds of projects and having great results, we are not in that group of people. Our cabinet repainting project was not an amazing success. At all. At our next house, we worked with professionals, and we learned that home upgrades, when done by someone who knows what they are doing, are not all that bad. We enjoyed seeing the progress every day. The changes we made helped us sell that house and buy the home we live in now.

Our current home was effectively the same as it was in 1959, with updated appliances and flooring. We are now approaching the end of a significant remodel of this house, and we have stayed in the house through the entire process, except for three weeks we spent in a hotel when we had to leave due to health and safety concerns – you know, like asbestos removal. We started the project in August 2016 with the outdoor demo. It is now June 2017 and we still have a couple months to go.

Many people cannot afford to do their project if they have to move out and rent an apartment or second home, so staying in their home during the work is a popular solution. Living through a renovation is a serious decision that you and your family must commit to so you don’t run into too much family conflict. Had we fully known what to expect, we might have done a few things differently, so I wanted to share some of my learnings to hopefully help you make the plunge into happy home renovation.

Here are my tips on how to prepare for living in – and through – your renovation.

  1. Plan to discuss every decision with your partner openly, and reach an agreement together before taking any action. If you don’t agree with each other, you have to find some way to come together in compromise so you can happily live in your home once the work is done. Communication is important in general so that you don’t harbor any resentments or negative feelings that may develop during the project. Your remodel is a huge step in home ownership and should be one of excitement, not lingering anger or annoyance.
  2. Decide what your style will be. Once we realized we liked and wanted to embrace the mid-century modern style of our home, everything was easy. When you have no idea what you want things to look like at the end of the project, there can be confusion about floors, walls, door styles, baseboard styles, cabinets, etc. You don’t want styles to clash or not work with the flow of the home. You may choose to work with a designer, and that can be helpful if you are uncertain about what coordinates, but be sure to interview potential designers to make sure they “get” your style and you. We also spent literally hours researching on the internet. Any minor thing we were unsure of we looked for pictures. How should the baseboards meet the kerf jambs? Look on Houzz. Should we use light or dark grout on the kitchen tile? Google it. Another resource is YouTube. There are literally thousands of videos that just show snapshots of a theme – if you want to see French country kitchens, retro diner inspired interiors, or homes made out of Airstream trailers, well you can.
  3. Pare down your belongings as much as possible. This one is a hard one for many people, but what is the point of doing a massive remodel or upgrade, just to fill it up with “stuff” once finished? I’m not saying you have to get rid of Grandma’s quilt or Uncle Fred’s baseball collection, but do have storage solutions for the things you are going to keep. I have a collection of family serving dishes so we built a china cabinet into the kitchen cabinets so it can all be displayed and used. Referring back to #2 above, if you are changing your style, there is no sense in keeping things that won’t mesh with it. You can get rid of your old dishes and buy all new once your home is finished if you like. More importantly, if you are planning to live in your home during your remodel, you don’t need your stuff 1.) in the way or 2.) getting damaged. Keep only what you absolutely need for day to day. If your project will last several months like ours, make sure you keep your winter clothes handy while you are packing in late summer, otherwise you will find yourself cold and shopping in December (not that I speak from personal experience, ahem.) Be prepared to continually pare down your stuff as the project progresses. Finally, if you are planning to store your stuff off site, carefully evaluate whether the cost of storing that single-use appliance or collection of soup ladles is worth keeping them. For us, the answer was frequently “no” and the people at Goodwill knew our car by the time we finished packing.
  4. Work with professionals. Unless you are a general contractor, most people don’t have the contacts in the industry to hire all the necessary trades, schedule all the different jobs, arrange for city or county inspections, and manage the overall process. A licensed, insured and bonded general contractor is worth every penny. They will spell out everything in a contract so you shouldn’t have have any questions, and if you do they should answer them all. They also know lots of people and companies in the building industry, and can tell you who to talk to, and guide you to brands they have good experiences with. Any additional personnel you hire should also be professionals – architects, designers, landscapers – and should be able and willing to work with your general contractor to move the project along toward completion. When the trades work against each other it only creates delays and headaches. Finally, if there is an issue during the project your general contractor should be your advocate to ensure you get what you want.
  5. Negotiate pricing wherever possible. We worked with a local appliance wholesaler who would price match. You bet we searched every item on sites like Amazon and Best Buy. When we were researching tile for the kitchen, we talked not only to the distributor our contractor likes, but several others, and we did shop them against each other. No shame here, this is a major investment. Get the best price you can without being cheap or rude. Remember that the people you talk to at the wholesale houses just work there. If the tile you like gets discontinued before you place your order, it’s not their fault so don’t scream at them. Don’t forget that you get what you pay for, so be educated on the differences between laminate, hardwood, vinyl, and tile, for instance. If you buy cheaper supplies, you may have to replace sooner than later.
  6. It will be much more dusty, dirty and inconvenient than you could imagine. We were fortunate to have two bathrooms and the ability to split our project into two parts so we would have a full working bathroom throughout the project. However, sharing a small bathroom with your whole family involves coordination and patience. Try to keep routines whenever possible (for kids in school, work schedules, etc) but be flexible with one another. Keep the spaces you use as tidy as possible. Cramming your whole family into one bedroom can get crowded, and clutter will just make Mom and Dad irritated, leading to yelling and crying – no fun for anyone. There is very little privacy. Consign yourself to wearing slippers and/or shoes all the time – if you are like me and like bare feet, this is no fun at first but there will be nails, screws and splinters dropped on the floor. Drywall dust is pervasive and you will find it everywhere, even in the rooms you don’t touch. If your kitchen is being redone, consider setting up a place in your house for a toaster oven, microwave and coffee maker. This will be your kitchenette for the duration, and will help keep you more healthy than if you eat out every meal. Don’t forget that you will be washing dishes in your bathroom sink. If you enjoy wine, don’t be afraid to drink it.
  7. Accept that there will be delays and things may take longer than you expect. There will inevitably be delays. Things happen and there will be situations that are out of your control. We had a window get delivered in CO instead of CA and the extra shipping broke it. Getting a new custom built window delayed us almost a month. This is no one’s fault. The installation of flooring is precision work and should be done with care and attention to detail. If your contractor budgets 2 days to tile a 2000 square foot house, something is not right there. Some days we could hear the workers hammering but had no idea what they had done all day. While demo, framing and drywall are very visual and seem to go really fast, the detail work is slow but just as important.
  8. Draw a line in the sand on change orders. As you install wiring for a wall-mounted TV, you may be tempted to install wiring in every room in the house. If you did not include it in the original project, this is a change order, and change orders are what send well planned projects over budget. The new kitchen cabinets may make the unchanging bathrooms look shabby. If you paint the walls but keep the existing floors, the floors might start to look dingy. Prepare for changes during the project but agree upon a point where there will be no more changes. This will save you money and heartache in the long run.
  9. Be prepared to cut things from your project. This can be necessary if there is hidden damage exposed when drywall comes down, or previous work on your house isn’t up to code. Having a set amount of money is a blessing and a curse at times. You only have so much, so you need to prioritize how you spend that money. When it came down to it, we chose to replace large plate glass windows with safer tempered glass and we cut into our A/V spending. Health and safety come over in-wall speakers.
  10. Get to know your crew. We have developed a healthy respect for the various trades and the people who perform this work for us. Living and working here, we see them every day. Not too many people ever think about what goes into building or remodeling a home, but it is the largest purchase most of us will ever make. Know the people who are helping to make your house into your dream home. Not only will you appreciate their workmanship, they will want to do the very best job they can for you.

BONUS ITEM – Take tons of pictures. Of course, you will take pictures! Take more than you think you will need. We have saved ourselves some pain long after the fact because we took pictures during the framing, plumbing, electrical, and every other stage. Once that drywall is up, you might not remember where the sheer wall ends, where exactly those pipes were set, or where the electrical wires wind through a stud. A photo can give you and your team a better idea when they have to make adjustments. If your camera can do a panorama view, take a few of those from the same location throughout the project. It is fun to see how that space changes over the months. We used a time lapse camera for some parts of the project, such as framing, drywall installation and flooring. It really works best in a large space. We also did monthly video recordings updating what had happened in the previous month. These will be fun for us to review in the future.

I hope that these tips help you as you prepare for your remodel. Make it as enjoyable as you can so that once the project is concluded, you will have many happy memories of it coming together. For some fun, check out my Instagram feed for pictures of stucco going on, custom cabinets getting installed and more.

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