Avoiding Homeowner Meltdown
How do you handle the stress of a renovation? Here's some advice from the owners of This Old House TV's Watertown project
This Old House TV's Watertown project
There's a certain point during a renovation—sawdust is falling,
decisions are pressing and checks are flying out of the checkbook—when a homeowner's temperature reaches its boiling point and the meltdown begins. How do you handle the stress of a renovation? How can you prioritize decisions that need to be made all at once? To find out, we went to the experts: erstwhile This Old House homeowners who have braved the vagaries of large-scale renovation on TV time. That is, at speeds best not tried at home. Learn from their experience, and save yourself.
Christian Nolen, owner of the Watertown house, claims his renovation experience was "relatively speaking, pretty stress free." The key to his ease? He was able to take time off from his work as a real estate developer and dedicate himself full-time to demolition and decision-making. "I didn't drop in on surprises. I was there as surprises happened. The scariest thing is when something unexpected happens. You're tearing up the floor and see that plumbers had cut up all the joists. I could see it as it happened." So when the crew discovered that the house's sill and porches had weathered a termite invasion, he was on hand to inspect the damage.
His wife, Susan, wasn't so lucky. "She would come home asking questions like 'What happened to that ceiling?'" Needless to say, she soon followed suit and left her job for a while so she wasn't out of the loop. While Christian realizes that not everyone may be able to both pay for a renovation and take time off during the work, he recommends being "at the job site as much as possible. If not all the time, then morning and night at least. That way when surprises arise—and they will—you won't have to take your contractor's word for it." Which brings us to Christian's next recommendation.
"You need to have an amazing sense of trust with your contractor. You need to be able to trust that they are doing the right thing. If you trust the people you're working with, it takes away the stress. If you don't, you'll be second-guessing if they're doing it right or cutting costs." Luckily, Christian could cross that worry off his list the moment This Old House signed on. "Tom Silva tells it to you like it is and lays out the options for you. Then I'd say to him, 'You're the carpenter, what's the best way to do it?' I couldn't make decisions without the background."
Savannah house owner Mills Fleming backs up Christian on the importance of a good contractor. "Find a contractor who has a reputation for doing it right the first time," says Mills. "I hired Mark Fitzpatrick before TOH got involved, but the fact that we already had a great guy on board made all the difference — especially with the added pressures of television." His downtown row house, situated on one of Savannah's historic squares, kept its stately face while the rotting porches around back were replaced with a 420-square-foot addition that expanded the existing kitchen, baths and master bedroom and gave a facelift to the house's garden-level rental apartment.
Surprisingly, it wasn't the construction that Mills found stressful so much as the planning. "Converting the design from paper to reality changes things. What's planned doesn't always work. It's never quite the same."
Mills also claims to have suffered only mildly from meltdown. "I was
pumped up about doing it. I had no heart-attack moments until the bills
started rolling in." The key to his cool head was organization, firm
decisions and adrenaline. "You're going on all cylinders," says Mills,
"and you can't dwell on things. You have to make decisions quickly and
move on to the next." To be sure you're making the right ones, he says
try to make as many decisions up front as you can, before the pressure
of empty rooms makes you feel as if the walls are closing in on you.
"It's useful if you've been through a renovation before," says Belmont house owner Dean Gallant, whose renovation of his shingle-style Victorian home featured the hazards of asbestos removal and a parade of carpenter ants brought to light during kitchen demolition. "If you have experience as we did, you know it's messier and more complicated than you think. If you haven't done it yourself, talk to friends and neighbors who've been through it. Renovation becomes part of your life while it's going on. If you talk about it with everyone you meet, they recommend things back to you. You'll get great advice from unlikely sources. Don't be afraid of good advice wherever it comes from; not necessarily the professionals."
First-timers should also be prepared to spend a lot of money, "more than you think you have to," says Dean. "We went over budget — not dramatically. The roof was an unexpected cost; but after consulting we thought we would enjoy it once it was done."
The impulse to add on is renovation's strongest temptation; call it "while-your-at-it syndrome." When you've already ripped down walls, what's one more? When you're spending $100,000 on a renovation, what's another $2,000 for hardwood floors? Well, the difference between staying within your means and busting your budget. While most renovations go 15 to 20 percent over budget, there's a way to control your hemorrhaging check book: Plan for the overrun. If you have $100,000 for the project, plan to spend $85,000 and chances are, the final tally—surprises included—will round out to $100,000.
Aside from financial discomfort, there's also the difficulty of living in your home during renovation. "You should lower your standards for how comfortable you'll be during the renovation," says Dean. "Dust will be everywhere. The house is never quite clean, no matter what you do."
Above all, our homeowners recommend having patience, paying close attention and holding firm to the belief that someday the work will be done.