Surviving a Remodel

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Remodeling is demanding–often in the extreme. The stress of not having all your familiar spaces and the conveniences of home for several months can bring out the worst in you and your family. Add mounting financial pressures, and you have a potentially volatile mix. It can bring anger and frustration, intensify communication issues and test everyone’s reserves of creativity and patience.

Stay or go?

One of the primary decisions that affects your stress level is: Should you stay in your house or move out during the remodel? If you move into a rental, you’ll maximize financial stress while minimizing other stressors. If you move in with friends or relatives, it’s a matter of what kind of space they offer and how much pressure the cohabitation puts on those relationships.

A few hardy souls choose to stay in their houses during reconstruction, requiring maximal creativity. If you’re building an addition and not touching the existing house, a good dust-tight barrier and some noise-avoidance strategies will help get you through. If, however, you’re tearing out the kitchen and bathroom and altering other living spaces, you’ll have to set up temporary cooking and bathing facilities and carve out some sacred space for yourselves. In fact, there are those who would just say, “Don’t do it.”

Survivors’ tales

I interviewed several families who kept it together while remodeling, each of whom had a different solution to the “stay or go” question. My clients Robert and Joy Marcus, who stayed in their home while the kitchen was gutted and remodeled, installed a camping stove in the dining room–but mostly they ate in restaurants or ordered take-out food. “You just make the best of it,” Joy says, “because that’s what you have to do.” With Robert gone all day at work, Joy and the kids turned it into an adventure. “We played in the yard, we went out to play miniature golf, and we visited friends a lot during the day.”

Architect Kelly Lerner and her family remodeled their entire house, but they, too, didn’t want to move out during construction. They remodeled in phases and migrated within the house. In an early phase, they turned their garage into a family room with a sleeping loft; later, they were able to hole up in the family room while the rest of the house was rebuilt. When they gutted the kitchen, they created a temporary outdoor kitchen on the patio. Only when construction dragged into the rainy season did they tire of the arrangement, finally resorting to restaurant meals.

My clients Kristina and Matthew Heim also remodeled their home in stages over a period of two years–and they tried every living arrangement. At first they and their two teenage children toughed it out, staying in the house and sealing off the areas under construction. When they tired of the mess and noise, they moved into a small, older travel trailer on a rural property owned by Kristina’s parents. “What saved us,” she recalls, “was going out to eat. It was warm, dry, comfortable and quiet–our home away from home. We’d hang out in the restaurant for hours. Of course, you have to build that into your remodeling costs.”

When a bobcat showed up in the neighbors’ kitchen, however, the Heims decided they’d had enough of roughing it. Their next home away from home was a motel, paid for by the month. “The kids were good about the whole thing,” Kristina says, “but their idea of a fun vacation probably never will be camping in a trailer.”

Leslie Thomas and her family took advantage of husband John’s sabbatical to Australia to have their kitchen remodeled. “The upside is that we were perfectly comfortable,” Leslie says. “The downside is that we were stuck with whatever happened while we weren’t there. I ended up with a shelf at the wrong height, and when the contractor couldn’t get an item I wanted, I had to trust him to find something else I’d like.”

If they could do it again…

I asked the same group what advice they would pass on to others. “It’s all about communicating. You can’t do too much of that,” Leslie says. “And constant vigilance is important. If you leave town like we did, get back before the workers have packed up shop; you still might be able to rectify some errors.”

“Work the remodeling project into your schedule,” Kelly advises. “Allow time every night to list the decisions you need to make the next day. Set aside time every weekend for picking out tile or choosing paint colors. And celebrate the milestones–even the smallest things!”

“Remodeling tests your relationship,” Kristina says. “It brings out fear of the unknown, of chaos. There isn’t a status quo. Your life is disrupted, so you have to work together and not get into the blame game. Keep your eye on the final product and maintain your excitement, because it’s all worth it in the end,” she adds.

“It’s like having a baby: When you’re in labor, it’s so horrible you never want to do it again, but once your child is born, you forget all that and the joy takes over.”

Let’s go surfing!

In my decades of Leslie Thomasal practice, I’ve learned to assess my clients’ fitness for handling the craziness of remodeling. It all comes down to how good they are at surfing the chaos. If my clients tend to be distrusting, have a low tolerance for stress, require order at all times and don’t communicate well, I suggest they look to buy an existing house that meets their needs instead of remodeling. The risk of misery, lawsuits, divorce–you name it–is too high.

However, when I’m working with a family who enjoys a bit of adventure and surprise, can set aside funds to cover unexpected events, is willing to accept advice from seasoned professionals, and is good at communicating their needs and working with others, I say, “Let the games begin.”

The main point is this: Don’t assume life will go on as usual during remodeling. If you understand this is an unusual situation with special demands, if you practice good communication skills with family and workers, and if you take good care of yourselves throughout the process, the chance of surviving with your family and your finances intact is very good.

Carol Venolia is an eco-architect who is passionate about reuniting humans with the rest of nature. She is the coauthor, with Kelly Lerner, of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006).

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