How do we survive an extensive home remodel?
September 2, 2015 10:06 AM   Subscribe

We just bought a new house. Yay! It needs a LOT of work. Boo. How do we make it through the next year with our sanity intact?

We just bought a house that has the potential to be the home of our dreams. Thing is, it needs a lot of work - not a complete gutting but halfway there. We're talking at least 6-9 months of work.

On the plus side, we don't have to move out of our current house until it's done, and it's only about five blocks away.

But according to every single person we tell (and Hollywood), renovations are traumatic. (I'm sure I'm naive, but I kind of have a hard time understanding exactly why - it's just a bunch of decisions, right?)

Anyway, we want to gird our loins for the coming year or so. Not just in terms of dealing with contractors, but relationship-wise too. In the long run we trust this purchase will relieve a lot of the current stress of living in a small home with two young, energetic kids. But in the short term, obviously, it will add to that.

How can we make this an exciting, bonding experience instead of a couplehood claymore?
posted by gottabefunky to Human Relations (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
(I'm sure I'm naive, but I kind of have a hard time understanding exactly why - it's just a bunch of decisions, right?)

It's a bunch of decisions, and a cascade of if-this-then-that-unless [sound of doom] where [sound of doom] is something critical is on backorder and the process grinds to a halt and/or subcontractors disappear briefly or lengthily for a better-paying gig (how hot is the construction business in your area? if demand is greater than the supply of good workers, your contractor may have trouble keeping or getting guys) and/or a subcontractor fucks something up and things grind to a halt while they/you/the contractor work out who owes what to whom and when.

Our downstairs neighbors just had their kitchen/bath overhaul stretched out by months because someone fucked up the cutting of a piece of counter, finding a suitable replacement and discussion over who would end up paying for what took forever, and someone else forgot to order some critical bit of specialized plumbing gizmo.

The good news is you have a place to live, with kitchen and bathing facilities, while all of this happens.
posted by rtha at 10:22 AM on September 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Construction business is a flaming sun in the area (Portland OR).
posted by gottabefunky at 10:24 AM on September 2, 2015

Best answer: The fact that you aren't living there while renovating will make it much less stressful. However. I can promise that you'll cry tears of frustration at least once during the process. Your family develops a vision of what you want, you put hours and hours into making that vision a reality. And then, wham! "That won't be possible, because X." Expensive things will break, tools will go missing. Subcontractors won't show or will do substandard work that will need to be redone. And at least one thing you buy will not fit and the replacement isn't nearly as nice as the original. And you have to live with it. Forever.

As for the exciting, bonding experience, make daily visits with your family so the kids can see the entire process. Use it to reinforce whatever age-appropriate skills they need to develop, such as measuring and fractions if they're old enough. Even young kids can help with cleanup around the site, so that's a great way to get them involved.

Good luck. It IS worth it in the end.
posted by raisingsand at 10:46 AM on September 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

To make it fun for your kids, you could allow them to draw on a wall that's going to be removed / replaced. When I was a kid and my parents were remodeling, my brother and I got to draw all over a wall and then hit it with hammers. It is one of my favorite childhood memories - I rarely broke rules, and there was something so fun and transgressive about it, even with permission.
posted by insectosaurus at 11:05 AM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, take before/during/after pictures. And maybe pick some particular relatively small piece of things that you can document in enough detail to make some entertaining gifs or timelapse. As hugely frustrating as our friends downstairs found the process (they were living there throughout, and ate a lot of takeout and showered at our place), the results are fantastic and make them so, so happy.

You will end up getting weirdly (or not) fixated on stuff like drawer pulls, decorative tiles for the backsplash, and other bits and bobs like that. Make some google spreadsheets or shared Evernote notebooks or something to keep track of all the links of things you find that you might want. It's also easy for price creep to happen - when you're spending a zillion dollars on the whole thing, you can end up thinking "I love these drawer pulls! And they're only fifteen bucks a pop!" It sounds crazy, but the process is crazy-making.
posted by rtha at 11:09 AM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Watch Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House before starting. It's from 1948 but it is still very relevant and funny today.

On a more serious note, agree on a process for change orders with your general contractor. Ideally you need a piece of paper saying that you want X changed, and that the contractor agrees to do that for an additional cost of $xxxx. Only changes with a signed change order will be acted on.

Also verify that the general contractor will obtain all necessary permits and inspections.
posted by monotreme at 12:00 PM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Here's my recommendation: If you think it's going to take 6-9 months, make sure you don't require that it is done for ~18 months. If you keep on the contractors, it probably will only take a year, but you don't want to be forced out of your current house before your new house is done.

The reason that people hate renovations is a combination of:
  • Contractors acting a whole lot more certain than they actually are about how much something is going to cost and how much work it will entail.
  • Contractors and sub-contractors going to work on other projects and not making progress on your renovation at pace you would like.
  • The customers (i.e. you) having an unrealistic view of how much work a "small" change is.
As an anecdote: there was a small fire in our house that didn't result in much "char damage", but resulted in a ton of smoke damage. The first estimate was that it would take ~a month. The second estimate was 14-16 weeks. It ended up taking 5 months.
posted by Betelgeuse at 12:07 PM on September 2, 2015

Think of it like a process where there's going to be a series of problems that you have to solve; rather than something that's supposed to go perfectly, where every time things go off plan it's unexpected and thus really stressy and awful. The build is a challenging problem solving exercise, not like "something that went wrong in every possible way, and then it went wrong again".
posted by emilyw at 12:26 PM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

In the original post, you say
"We just bought a house that has the potential to be the home of our dreams."
There is a common aphorism among architects and builders that covers the situation perfectly: "Among Budget, Quality, Schedule - choose two".
You and your partner should really figure out ahead of time which two you choose. It will make the live decision making much easier. Also, never, ever, say "house of our dreams". It's just a house, made by humans, existing in a real place. Compared to your dreams, it's bound to disappoint. On the other hand, if you're engaged in solving real problems, it's awesome!
FYI, I'm an architect. My wife and I took 15 years to completely renovate and remodel a 120 year old Victorian. The house is awesome, we love it, we still love each other and we're not broke.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 1:22 PM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm sure I'm naive
The only thing that sounds a little too optimistic here is "6-9" months. Especially as you say the renos are "extensive." Maybe double/triple that in your mind so you can be pleasantly surprised?

How can we make this an exciting, bonding experience instead of a couplehood claymore?
Humor! And taking turns being enraged/insane. One of you at a time gets to be the cuckoo one; the other one has to be a calm, rational, comforting presence. Switch off as needed.

You're way ahead of the game not actually living at the property.
posted by kapers at 1:47 PM on September 2, 2015

The key to success in any major renovation is having a competent General Contractor that you trust. The GC should wrangle the permits and sub-contractors, and schedule everything so that it comes together at the right times. The key to finding a GC that you can trust is to do lots of research. You should first try to find a GC through personal recommendations if possible.

The GC should have a portfolio of happy former clients that are proud of their projects, and if they are, they won't mind if you ask. You should ask. This is important.

A good GC will be expensive, of course. And you'll probably have to wait to get scheduled in.

(side note: it's nice to get the little kids involved (I loved construction sites when I was little), but when the job gets in full swing, then the work site will become very dusty, dirty, sharp, ugly and rather dangerous. So: common sense please.)
posted by ovvl at 3:56 PM on September 2, 2015

I'm 1.1 years into a project I'm working on mostly on a DIY basis. You're 100% ahead of the game not living in your project. Within three weeks of my start,
I had to take a night off and go to a hotel just so I could sleep somewhere NOT COVERED IN SHEETROCK DUST. And I was renovating a home with an inlaw apartment (now renovating the inlaw and living in the home) so I was never without a functional kitchen, bath or bedroom. It will wear on you.

It's worth it. My advice:

1) if you're fussing over a detail and it's not key (kitchen drawer pulls, etc) let it sit for a bit then revisit.
2) get 3-5 quotes on all the things, then downselect your suppliers and haggle
3) if it takes a contractor or expert to put it in, make it a neutral/classic choice. It may be your dream home, you may want to keep it forever, but if the fates conspire to make you sell in 5 years nobody else will want to deal with your $100s/f turquoise countertops embellished with amethyst flecks. Buy turquoise and amethyst throw pillows instead.
4) ditto light and neutral paint colors
5) remember that you are lucky to have the problems that will arise, some people don't have homes and you have one(!) that will be really awesome in the end (!).
6) don't put too much money down on anything. Your contractor could be slow, or could ghost on you. Minimal up front payment, pay in installments based on milestones.
posted by slateyness at 8:24 PM on September 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh wow -- well, good question! I'm the survivor of a five-year ("four month") remodeling process. We met some shady contractors and even ended up in a lawsuit. But it made my relationship stronger, so this can be done!

General coping:
- Be aware of where you face the greatest risk, and try to address those as soon as you can. Consider the worst that could happen and mentally prepare for it. Don't make hopeful assumptions (e.g., about what's behind the walls) where it isn't very well justified.
- Set aside time for decisions. Tell your contractors that you need advance notice of all choices. Otherwise, at 3 pm Tuesday, they'll ask if you can pick a stucco color by 7:30 AM Wednesday. Get as many decisions made up front as you can. Ask for a list: paint color, cabinets, countertops, light fixtures, etc. (Though I didn't have luck getting one, if you're working with a higher-end team or an architect, you probably can.) Try to keep decisions simple (e.g., you can't go wrong with white walls).
- Get used to spending about 10-15 hours / week on this and try to work it into your schedule systematically; otherwise, you'll have constant interruptions. Figure out who can miss half a day's work to be there for city inspections.
- Talk to each other about priorities. You may have a difference of opinion about where to spend your budget. You may have a difference of opinion about what should be done first. You may learn a lot about what drives the other person over the edge or gives the other person peace of mind.
- Don't let this absorb your life. For instance, if vacations are important to your family, pre-book vacation tickets now while you still have the money. Otherwise, this can become the sole, all-consuming priority.
- See if roles naturally evolve. Find out which of you is good at what.
- Get some good advisers -- an outside contractor you know, a friend who has done a lot of construction, and so on. Having contacts who can give you a second opinion can be really helpful. If you have a lot of money to spare, it might prove worth it to pay an outside inspector to advise you or check their work at each step of the way.

Dealing with contractors:
- Be extremely careful in choosing contractors. Try to get recommendations from someone who has worked with them extensively. Check their licensing. Check online for bad reviews (especially on the licensing board website). Make sure they're bonded and insured. Call the bond company yourself to verify.
- Make the contractors pull the city / county permits so that long-term liability rests with them.
- Make absolutely sure you and your contractor understand the job the same way. Ideally, get a nice detailed set of plans. But even for the most mundane thing, take the time to walk through what they're going to do and make sure it's what you want done.
- Learn as much as you can about everything that you're paying someone to do. If you do, you will be amazed at how much wrong information you hear from contractors. It can be a very helpful tool for figuring out who does high-quality work. Don't think "well, they do it professionally; I should defer to them." You're the one who has to live with the mistakes. [1] [2]
- In reviewing the contract with the contractors, look for the following: costs broken down by activity [3] (unless the task is small), a timeline, a requirement that they remove debris, great clarity about your ability to request that work stop or to withhold payment if work is not done to a certain level of quality, (this is my opinion) an agreement to use mediation to resolve disputes [4], and what happens if the contract is breached [5].
- Never give contractors so much money that if they stopped, you'd be screwed. Keep an eye on how much remains in the contract so that it's always worth their while to keep going. If you've paid them $4900 out of $5000 to do a job but the final debris removal is going to cost them more than $100, they may well become too busy to ever get around to it. ("We'll send a guy out next week.")
- Check the work regularly, taking lots of photos. Constantly look and think about "what could be getting skipped here?" Check things like the corners and the harder-to-reach spots.
- Be there for the city inspections. You want to know what the inspectors say.

[1] I had a contractor tell me it was okay to put the french drain higher than the basement floor slab because the foundation wall was deeper than the slab; "water doesn't flow uphill." Well, if you imagine putting a divider in your bathtub that doesn't go all the way to the bottom, then turning on the bathtub, you know that in fact, the water *will* go under the divider and "flow uphill" on the other side, such that all the water in the tub is at the same height. So if I'd let them drain the basement via a drain that's 2" above floor level, I could expect to eventually have 2" of water in the basement. Even though I learned this from the manual of the very product they were installing, I still had to reach the "just humor me" and "look at this diagram right here" stage of the debate to convince them to put the drain 6" below floor level as the manual called for.

[2] Ask questions like "how are you planning to waterproof the shower?" They'll say, "we use this paint-on plastic membrane called XYZ." Then go read the installation directions for XYZ online. You'll discover things like XYZ requires three coats and must cure for 48 hours between each coat. Then you can have conversations about why they only planned to spend one day on the waterproofing.

[3] If they skip out before doing a piece of work, the front stairs, let's say, you're going to have to pay someone else to do the stairs, and you're going to want to deduct that from their pay. You don't want to end up arguing about whether the stairs are valued at $5k or $10k or $20k.

[4] Even if you don't use mediation, I'd remove all comments about the winner being entitled to attorney's fees. My experience is that it's hard to collect damages from contractors, whereas you're more of a sitting duck (e.g., you're a homeowner whose home they can lien, whereas they're a business entity that can declare bankruptcy). I'm not an attorney, though; this is just my feeling based on my experience.

[5] I was very grateful for a line that said something about how, if the contract falls apart and I must hire someone else, the builder is liable for any excess costs that result. In other words, if they say they can do something for $5k and you pay them $1k up front, and then they start doing it in such a negligent way that you have to stop work and hire someone else, who eventually charged you $8k, bringing your total costs to $9k, they'd responsible for that extra $4k. That can be important if you've created a budget based on holding those costs to $5k.

Anyway -- best of luck! There can also be hard days, but this can also turn out to have been really satisfying, so hang in there!
posted by slidell at 10:50 PM on September 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Also you will discover things like: it takes concrete six weeks to six months to dry. You will discover this 48 hours before your floors are delivered. The floors that now must sit stacked in giant mountains in the living room you are supposed to move into next week.

And then you will move into a house with concrete floors and a pile of oak and live that way for months and months while waiting for THE FUCKING FLOOR TO DRY.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:10 AM on September 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am in Month Three of our first home, and I also just watched our beloved former apartment neighbor gut her own new place. I am not even kidding when I say that you should watch a lot of Renovation Realities on HGTV/DIY. It gives you a good idea of the kind of time and money expansion that can happen when you get going on this stuff.

Now, obviously this show is dealing with DIYers of varying skill levels, but the other key thing that often comes up whether you have a contractor or not is the number of unexpected problems. You're repouring your driveway: great! Except when you dig it up, there's no drainage underneath AND the remnants of a concrete sidewalk that probably requires a giant jackhammer and regrading. Or you have mold in your walls. Or a plumbing job goes through a stud on a load-bearing wall and that is not up to code.

The more you at least see what's out there and learn to develop a discerning eye, the better you will be able to suss out decent contractors and specialists when it comes to choosing someone. That's the really tricky part: you're kind of flying blind, and you have to just hand over thousands of dollars to someone who could do whatever they want to your house.

You'll get a sense of what is worth paying someone for and what is doable on your own. You'll make decisions about what you can live with and what you can let slide for now because you just want to get in the house already. (Answer: LOTS.)

No matter how much you get other people to do, take ownership of your house and do as much as you think you can. It's okay if you don't have time to be over there and can only do so much. But do be on site and live in it as much as possible so you can feel how it really flows and works before you, I dunno, tile up some counter space that would have been really useful for something else.

This is so exciting! Congrats!
posted by St. Hubbins at 12:33 PM on September 3, 2015

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