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A House Divided? Advice for Conquering Renovation Struggles


Major renovations can strain domestic relations; here are four steps to keep the union happy

My friends Mike and Judy are, to me, the ideal couple for tackling home renovation. They’re ambitious, able to focus on the goal rather than griping about the gathering heap of rubble around them, and eager to pitch in together to do some of the work themselves. As a result, their house looks great, but what is most remarkable is that they actually seem to thrive on the projects they undertake.

Not everyone is so well suited to living through construction projects, of course. Mention “home renovation” to the average divorce lawyer, for instance, and a knowing smile will reveal everything they know about the havoc that these projects can create — not just to the home but to the family that lives there.

Too often we focus on the pretty pictures in the magazine that we want for ourselves and forget that the process of achieving it can be a long slog through the construction wilderness. There are delays as well as cost overruns. And that mess! Even with the neatest contractors working in your home, you’ll find yourself sweeping plaster dust and sawdust night after night, and wondering if things wouldn’t have been better off left unrenovated.

Despite the difficulties, I believe there are four essential steps that can help minimize the impact of any construction project. They have served me (and my wife, Mary Beth) well through more 50 renovation projects of our own.

Know what you’re getting into. Let’s say you want a new kitchen. Sounds simple, right? Most people flip through some magazines to choose cabinets and backsplashes, and consider their work done. But take a close look at what the kitchen renovation will involve: weeks and perhaps even months of a ripped up room in the center of your home. How will you cook and get everyone ready in the morning? Where will you store food, or feed the dog, or leave refrigerator messages? If you answer these questions in advance, and make a plan to handle them, you’ll be better prepared to weather the renovation storm. In this case, building a temporary kitchen in another part of the house to sustain you through the renovation may be the best solution.

Plan your finances in advance. Mess and inconvenience are bad enough, but when an extra digit suddenly appears in the running total, that’s when things become even worse. Finances rank as one of the top causes of family discord, as everyone knows first-hand, but these can become even more extreme when combined with renovations. The result can be a project that either grows or consumes the entire family budget or a project that is left in a perpetual state of non-completion because there’s no money to pay for it. The way to avoid this is to create a real budget for the project, based on numbers a contractor tells you and not numbers that you dream up yourself. Then, add 15 to 20 percent as a buffer against any cost overruns.

Choose the right contractor. This is probably the single most important component to a successful renovation, as well as domestic harmony. Too often, the choice is based on cost alone. And while everyone likes a bargain — especially me — the problem is that a poor contractor will most likely cause additional problems, such as delays, shoddy workmanship, and cost overruns. Instead, ask friends and family for recommendations, visit a few places the contractor has worked on, and be prepared to pay — and to wait — for the right workers.

Create a safe haven. This is a place where nothing is being touched. An oasis from the storm, a place where you can enter free of dust and debris and with a door to close. During one renovation of a home, our master bedroom was completed and the rest of the house was torn apart. Many a morning would come when my wife did not want to go through that door. Trust me; it works to keep everyone’s sanity in check.

A renovation can be a great experience, and by following these steps you can help guarantee that when it’s over your house-as well as your family life-will be a thing of beauty.

Photo courtesy of jaygoldman via Flickr