If I Had A Hammer ...The Joys of Home Renovation
By Amelia Newcomb

Renovating, rather than “moving up,” has become increasingly popular as real estate prices where we live in the San Francisco Bay area skyrocketed through the last decade or two. These days, many people end up in homes that they know will either need to be expanded eventually or are simply in varying states of disrepair.

class=MsoNormal>Renovating can mean simply adding a new coat of paint and some built-in cabinetry, or it can mean updating bathrooms or kitchens and yanking out walls. It can involve paying contractors so that you can just orchestrate their performance, or it can mean learning a lot about plumbing, Sheetrock™, painting, laying floors and the joys of sweat equity.

class=MsoNormal>Your choices will influence your sanity for the duration of whatever you do. From my point of view, it’s not so much the difference between a pleasant and an unpleasant experience as it is maintaining your equanimity and sense of humor doing something that usually lasts too long, costs more than you expected, and results in something slightly different than what you’d imagined. That said, a well-thought-out home improvement can dramatically change the feel of a home and increase your pleasure in living in it.

class=MsoNormal>My husband and I ended up doing major renovations on our home of seven years. We started the day after we moved in and continued in spurts for years – one job often inspiring, or requiring, the next. (One of the truly insidious aspects of renovating part of your home is that the unrenovated parts suddenly look badly in need of an upgrade.) Probably because we did a lot of the work ourselves, every room is 90 percent done. At least once a month, we peruse the walls/ceiling/floor of the room we’re in and speculate how swell it would be if we could make that last 10 percent push. It’s probably not going to happen any time soon.

Lessons Learned
class=MsoNormal>In our case, each room is rich in home renovation experiences, a few of which might be helpful in planning a renovation of your own.

Lesson one:
The job is always bigger than you think. We figured that our living room, a large addition off the back of the house, would be a magnificent room absent the ancient shag carpet, fluorescent valance lighting and cheap paneling. No big deal. Actually, the job turned into stripping the entire room of everything, including an inadequate heating system. Work then ground to a halt, with the room looking something like a street in
Kabul for a few months while we welcomed our newborn son.

Lesson two:
Try to avoid two dramatic events at the same time, especially if you’re doing the work yourself in both cases.

It soon became clear that someone else was going to have to finish what we had begun. Instead of hiring a general contractor to handle everything, we selected our own workers.

Lesson three:
Remember, if you take this approach, you are essentially becoming your own general contractor. This is cheaper but it does put the responsibility of selection and organization squarely on your shoulders.

First, you must check references thoroughly. This means not only calling references, but trying, if at all possible, to go see some of the person’s work. “Finish” is a highly subjective issue and it’s useful to check if your idea of a square matches the carpenter’s.

Coming to Terms

Once you decide on someone, get a detailed work outline, including anticipated finish date. Agree on a price, and how to handle any extra costs that may come up during the job. Most contractors require one-third pay up front, one-third part way through and one-third upon completion.

Finally, unless it’s a really big job, which is earning the contractor a good chunk of change, be prepared for delays and mornings of no-shows. I finally realized that the contractors for our living room took the job because it was two streets away from a second-story addition they were doing. We got time when it rained or they were waiting for an electrician or someone else. On the other hand, they did a very good job for a reasonable price.

Lesson four:
This involves avoiding tears, gnashing of teeth and other domestically unpleasant scenes along the lines of “how could you have let them do that?”

Once you hire someone else, don’t assume anything. Although contractors can make you feel two feet tall for peering around the corner to see how things are progressing, you should do this as frequently as possible. Your ideas about certain things may change, and it’s not too late to correct a work in progress. You can see if things are being finished the way you would like. You can notice little details, such as interior doors hung backwards. You also can find out – as we did in the case of our kitchen – that, unlike the first contractor who did a job for us, this guy had no intention of taking the garbage (Sheetrock™, old cabinets, etc.) any further than our garage. 

Garbage Is Important
Remember that getting rid of that old stuff is usually an expensive task. Garbage is a hot issue, and Dumpsters™ – which are left in your driveway, usually for a week – are far from cheap. However, the cost can be mitigated slightly by accounting for a Dumpster’s social value. They’re a great way to meet your neighbors, and you can count on previously total strangers coming over and reserving space for their politically incorrect garbage.

When dealing with multiple contractors, you will also have to mediate disputes or decide whether to ask someone to undo work that another contractor says should have been done differently.

Our plumber, who was installing heating, disputed the opinion of the carpenters over his placement of the baseboard heating. Looking back, I wish I’d been braver in intervening in this argument, which was fairly reasonable but tainted with a heavy dose of young whippersnappers (the carpenters) supposedly not knowing as much as the seasoned veteran (the plumber).

As it turned out later, an energy company survey put the carpenters in the right and left me agonizing over the percentage of our living room heat that was warming up the exterior walls of the room.

Lesson five:
When in doubt (and also if being treated, as will occasionally happen, as the little woman who can’t really understand), feel free to call work to a halt and get another opinion.

Getting Involved
One down side to our approach was our tendency to do half the work ourselves – usually all the destruction and some of the construction. You sometimes have to look around for a contractor who is willing to work with you on such projects. But even if you find someone like you, you have to remember that you won’t always automatically get the level of polish you’re looking for when the contractor doesn’t have to present you with a thoroughly finished project. This doesn’t have to be a major problem, as long as you’re vigilant about speaking up.

While you should definitely not underestimate the hassle factor in fixing up a room or a whole house, don’t forget that it can be a rewarding process too. One important thing to remember is to take your time, and not to do something until you’re quite sure about it. Our house ended up with some rather drastic changes – but they worked because we lived with each step before plunging in again. And, we got new ideas along the way.