17 Renovations, 17 Years, and 5 Lessons Learned

Our last ever renovation is nearing an end. No one seems to believe it will really be our last one. When I make the proclamation it seems to end with a bit of a question mark while my husband makes his proclamation with an exclamation point, “I’ll never do this again!”

You always hope to end on a high note. Some of our past renovations were clearly more stressful while others more tolerable, but they all seem less horrific as time passes. . . which simply means the latest renovation is always the worst.

My husband hates surprises. To him surprises mean more money, and he’s usually right. His most memorable surprise was at one of our Chicago condo remodels when he discovered the new parquet flooring was lifting – a whole house of floors had to be replaced. I came home during a master bathroom remodel to find water pouring through the chandelier over the dining room table. Then there was the renovation before last when our contractor had to call a bee keeper to relocate thousands of bees from the walls of the third floor.

My greatest angst comes from a project careening off schedule. Despite the catastrophic blunder, that master bath remodel was only 2 days over schedule, although a master bath remodel years earlier went a full 2 months longer than estimated. No two projects are ever alike. Some houses have been stripped down to their bare walls, or just one or two exterior walls, and rebuilt in the same amount of time as other projects involving only ‘cosmetic’ changes.

It seemed poetic when we realized just this week that we have finished, on average, one renovation for every year we’ve been married. We spent a full day cleaning the construction dust from one of the rooms in this last project, and sat down with a glass of wine to discuss what, if anything, we had learned from these 17 projects. . . turns out there’s been a very good education indeed.

1. Be flexible.

There’s rarely more than one or two things in a house that are terribly important to my husband. The location of the TV is one. . . neither of us could think of a close second. For me, I’m quite the opposite and no detail is too small.

In all these projects, I can’t seem to find such a thing as perfect. It’s always a great pleasure to work with contractors that have a ‘can-do’ attitude, but sometimes there’s something that can’t be done, or something that would be a world easier if done some way other than the way you imagined.

The fact is, there’s usually more than one correct answer, and a good deal of heartburn can be avoided if you view these obstacles as a design opportunity rather than one more thing that didn’t go the way you wanted. Some of our favorite designs have come about as a result of something that couldn’t be done the way we first envisioned.

2. Focus on what’s really important.

Being flexible should only go so far. If you want your bedroom light in the center of the ceiling, or the tv exactly center on the fireplace, don’t accept 12 inches right or left. Decisions made during a renovation last many years. It’s good to figure out for yourself what’s important, and stand your ground.

3. Pick your battles carefully.

Inevitably the time comes when the renovation has overstayed its welcome, the contractor is ready to be done with your job, and you’re ready to be done with that renovation. Or, it is possible you’ve found yourself in a remodel that is swarming with issues. If every interaction you have with the workers involves a complaint, those fine workers will shut you down, the relationship becomes adversarial, and it is not a win-win. Lesson No. 2 becomes the guiding rule. . . don’t sweat the small stuff.

4. It always takes longer than you think.

Sometimes I’ve packed up my paper dolls and moved in ‘ready or not.’ Sometimes I send my husband in to be the bad guy and declare the project will be finished or else. I would like to report that any approach whatsoever makes a difference, but the things that caused the project to careen off schedule have probably happened long before you’re disgusted with said project and pitching a tantrum will only destroy whatever can be salvaged at the end of the project. Lesson No. 3 becomes the guiding rule. . . (Side note: it almost always goes over budget too. Be forewarned.)

5. The beauty is in the details.

It is in the quality of the smallest details that make a home truly spectacular. You could spend a million dollars, but if the sheetrock is finished poorly, the tile isn’t straight and level, the crown molding doesn’t match up at the corners, or if any one of a long list of details are flawed, the entire renovation will lack the wow factor that comes with a home where these details have been given the appropriate attention.

It’s not the kind of thing you can request be done. A person must take pride in their img_2500work; to produce a quality product because it’s important to them, not you.

After 17 renovations and 17 years of marriage, I could not necessarily advise which of these lessons are more important for the renovation. . . or for the marriage.


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