Have you been mooning over those slick design magazines in the checkout line again? Has your Fifties kitchen turned from “cozy” to “cramped”? Have you finally put in enough sixty-hour work weeks to warrant a he- donistic master bath?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above, then it’s time to talk home renovation. The economy being what it is. few can afford to buy up into the ultimate dreamhouse, the one with the whirlpool tub and the sleek Eurostyle kitchen. The alternative is to forcibly sculpt that dreamhouse out of your present residence-not a bad idea if you like your location, your neighbors, or your school district.
Of course, renovation has its downside. Think of it in surgical terms: you’ll be ripping out and rearranging the very guts of your house. The haven you call home will be gone, reduced to three rooms surrounded by temporary walls. It’s like camping out in your own home. Workmen will invade your privacy, and plaster dust will invade everything else.
Renovation will never be pleasant. But it can go somewhat more smoothly if you heed the following words of wisdom, culled from those who have renovated and lived to tell.
Rule Number One: Hire an architect or a designer. At first glance, a design professional may seem like an unnecessary expense. When you’re spending that much money ($25,000 at least for any serious work), architect’s fees can look like an easy budget trim. But don’t be tempted.
“You might save $2,000 on an architect and spend $5,000 or $10,000 on work that’s inferior or has to be redone. That’s as common as renovations themselves.” says contractor Pete Carpenter, who’s been in business eight years in a field where the average business life span is a year and a half.
Architects are invaluable as mediators in those inevitable clashes between homeowner and contractor, the times you’re upset because the job is behind schedule and the contractor is testy because he’s spent $20,000 and hasn’t gotten a payment yet. “Anybody can come up with a great design,” says Mark Domiteaux of Metro Architects. “The hard part is keeping the work going and closing the project out so that everybody’s satisfied.”
Architects, since they organize space for a living, can also bring an informed and innovative perspective to your plans. “It’s difficult, very often, for the owner to see what the possibilities are, since he’s living there and he’s accepted the limitations of the house. He can’t recognize all the various options that might be there.” says architect James Pratt.
The real test of quality for any renovation project is the detailing-the subtle finishing touches-that design professionals do best. “A well-detailed job may cost exactly the same as a poorly detailed job,” says Carpenter. “Everything’s the same except the way it’s put together. That’s where an architect comes in.”
And. too. architects remember to take care of all the niggling little details do-it-yourselfers might overlook. Like installing light switches, electrical outlets, and cable jacks before the wall is plastered.
So how do you go about choosing this architect you now realize you need? Forget the Yellow Pages. Instead, rely on recommendations from friends who have renovated. Flip through design magazines to find architects whose styles you like. Find out who designed your favorite chic restaurant. Then interview at least two or three candidates and choose the one you like the best. After all, you’ll be working very closely together for the next several months. Communication is important, as is a sense of humor. Also look for an architect who will supervise the project, at your job site, in the flesh.
Once you’ve picked an architect, don’t be vague about what you want. No doubt you’ve been collecting renovation ideas and pictures from magazines for a couple of years. Feel free to dump these all on the table during your initial planning sessions: the more concrete your wishes, the better the chances they’ll come true.
Rule Number Two: Put it to paper. Draw up detailed written contracts with your architect and contractor-no gentlemen’s agreements or scribbles on the backs of envelopes. Of course, having detailed drawings isn’t always a guarantee. One Dallas project was stalled for a month because the plans had to be remeasured. Seems the architect had hired a foreign exchange student with a poor grasp of Arabic numerals to measure the house.
Also: make sure you’re planning far enough ahead. If this is the house you plan to stay in forever, take future lifestyles into account. What happens when your toddlers are teenagers? What happens if an elderly mother-in-law moves in someday?
“Never do anything that you’re going to undo later,” says Linda T. Anderson, an interior designer/art consultant who spent the better part of two years renovating a Dallas ranch-style house.
In other words, don’t paint the nursery pink unless you’re willing to repaint it later.
Rule Number Three: Overestimate. There’s always one great, mythical expense story making the rounds of architects. This year’s version concerns a Dallas woman who started a four-week, $50,000 renovation last July. By the end of the year, the job had run to $300,000 and still wasn’t finished.
In a renovation, you’re going to go over budget somewhere. The general rule of thumb is: whatever you budget in time, double it. Whatever you budget in money, be prepared to triple it. If you’re careful, you might be able to stay in line monetarily. But then there’s “the change order.”
Most budget overruns happen when homeowners decide to change plans during construction. “Change orders always cost twice as much, just because you didn’t get to plan and execute them in an orderly fashion,” says Carpenter.
And change orders are practically inevitable. Chances are you’re not trained to read and visualize architectural drawings, so you don’t really know what your house is going to look like until it starts to come together in 3-D. Not until construction is under way can you realize that you really would like that window another two feet to the left.
As for time, a very basic renovation generally takes eight to ten weeks. If you’re adding on any new foundation, add four weeks on top of that.
Of course, these estimates rarely prove accurate. It rains in Dallas-a lot-and that throws construction off schedule. And there’s the Murphy’s Law of Renovation: for every project you undertake, you’ll uncover at least one more job that needs doing first. Strip the wallpaper, and half the plaster will come off with it, uncovering a wall frame full of termites.
In The Money Pit, homeowner Tom Hanks keeps plaintively asking, month after month, when his renovation will be done. “Two weeks!” reply an army of workmen, month after month. Well, it’s no joke, says Carpenter. You’ll hear that line during your renovation, so be prepared.
There is, interestingly enough, a homeowners’ version of the “two weeks” line. It goes something like, “I’ll have a decision for you by Tuesday.” Remember, keeping a renovation on schedule is a joint effort. Set deadlines for yourself on color decisions, etc., and meet them, before you start taking out your frustrations on your contractor.
Rule Number Four: Get out if you can. The easiest way to survive a renovation is to rent another house for the ensuing months. But if you can’t afford to move out, look on the bright side. You’ll probably wind up with a better renovation. “If you can possibly tolerate living in your house while it’s redone, you end up getting a better product,” says Anderson. “Because you’re on people all the time, you’re always watching them. If you want a truly custom product, it’s a daily, hands-on deal.”
If you can afford to vacate the premises, make sure you go by the job site every day, to keep as much control as possible.
Rule Number Five: It’s not over till it’s over. Remember the old joke about the light at the end of the tunnel being a train? Well, in renovation, the train is called “the finish-out”-the last month or so of the project, when you’re down to finishing touches, when work seems to drag on and on and on and on. “That last month really drags because the painter has to come finish out. the doors don’t hang right, the hardware doesn’t work right, all the little picky stuff,” says Domiteaux. “That last month is really the most painful for homeowners.”
This is the point where you notice things that aren’t up to your standards. Further delays can be heartbreaking, but you have to insist that inferior work be redone. You’re paying for it, you’re living in it, you can’t afford to wimp out.
The ordeal of renovation can be excruciatingly nerve-wracking. “In the end, you’re worn out emotionally, you’re tired of living in disarray, and it just starts to drag,” says Anderson. “The contractor had fifteen people out for framing, and you wind up with two for painting and finishing. Two guys painting a whole house.”
To avoid that scenario, check with your contractor early in the job about the size of the finish crew. It’s also a good idea to hold back a certain amount of money, say 10 percent, until every single thing is finished.
Rule Number Six: Don’t think you’re immune. Renovation pitfalls trap even the smartest and the best-intentioned. “You think you’re invincible, that by your cheery attitude and boundless determination you’re not going to have the same problems,” Carpenter says. “Well, that’s a surefire way of learning humility. You will be humbled by the time the process is over.”
Getting through renovation also requires a sort of Orwellian double-think. “Once you realize that what you’re trying to do is virtually impossible, it’s possible to meet it head on,” Carpenter adds. “But until you realize that, there’s no way the human mind can comprehend the problems you’re going to have to deal with.”
But. once the tiles are laid and the woodwork is painted and you’ve cleaned the plaster dust out of your toothpaste, a renovation is worth it. “The fortunate thing about the whole process,” says architect Howard Glaz-brook III, “is that you forget all about the days when nobody showed up for work, or the workmen left their lunch sacks in your living room. There’s a pride in doing it right that’s there on an everyday basis.”