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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Emery

9 tips for SURVIVING a renovation

My clients often tell me I could be a therapist, as not only do I design, but I also work with people’s anxieties, relationship dynamics and money concerns. However, it wasn't until just recently, in renovating my own home, that I gained a deeper understanding of just how much patience, empathy and faith it takes to successfully get through a renovation.

And now, as I head into the final days of my own project, and get ready for the big reveal, I am finally able to reflect on the experience with some perspective and acquired wisdom. Here is my list of the top 9 steps to surviving a renovation:

1. Discuss potential stressors with your partner ahead of time

Acknowledge and discuss the upcoming stressors with your partner so it doesn't blindside you. Discuss strategies that work best for your partnership ahead of time. What are your priorities, what is your budget, what are your goals for the project? It is also helpful to discuss how much involvement, and in which areas, each of you wants. It generally makes sense for only one of you to be the point person with the contractor/designer, even if both of you will be attending meetings, or want to be involved. From the perspective of your contractor and any design professionals, working these things out in advance makes communication more clear and the job more efficient.

2. Create a budget to use as a road map

Create as detailed a budget as you can and review it together. Determine where your priorities are and are not. You may decide to make adjustments as you go, but having this road map is an important touchstone which you can keep coming back to and making sure you are staying on track. In my work, I often find that people have a lot of anxiety around the fact that they no idea what things will cost. Unless you really have an unlimited budget, it is important to get a handle on this. For my clients, I create a detailed, line item budget which includes all the potential costs. Then, we review it together before any work begins to make sure everyone is on the same page, as well as to identify priorities. As I tell my clients, it is helpful to figure on another 15 - 20% to cover you for unforeseen issues and changes in scope. If you find this number exceeding what you can manage, you can make smart choices in where to cut back and or figure out what can wait until another time before you even get started.

3. We regret what we don’t do, not what we do do

When you are reviewing items in your initial scope and budget, ask yourself will I regret not doing this? Always keep in mind there is never a better time than when the contractor is already there, and take it from me, once you’ve done it, you will most certainly not want to go through cleaning out your closets or kitchen again any time soon. You can always add wallpaper, paint, get a new sofa, or change a light fixture later, but other things are much harder to come back and do once you have completed a renovation. In my project, we hadn’t intended to replace our floors. Even though they were old and creaky, they were charming, and in particular we were balking at how much it might cost. However, once we got a quote for the work, and considered the cost in the scheme of the project, it made more sense. We adore our new floors, and they have such an impact on the space that it is now hard to believe we considered keeping the old ones. To be honest, we did not come to this decision during the budgeting process, as we were already over budget, and didn't think we could accommodate one more thing, but when we started pulling everything else apart we realized it was now or never. At this point it was almost too late, as the contractor was just getting ready to start installing new base mouldings. As a result he had to hold off his carpenters until we selected the material, ordered it, had it delivered and let it acclimate for a bit, stalling the process for several weeks. As I said, it was ultimately well worth it, but it would have been much less stressful and efficient if we could have figured that out before we started.

Our original sub floors exposed, before being reinforced
Sneak-peak - Our cat, Pippa, enjoying our new floors

Along the same lines, most projects expand the scope as they go, either because people haven't thought everything through, or like us they don’t want to spend the money initially and then realize they are being penny wise and pound foolish. It will be less expensive in the long run to expand your scope before the work begins, rather than making decisions on the fly and adding work on which can potentially take more time and cost more money as an add on, rather than something i the contractor’s original scope. Think through all the potential renovation elements ahead of time and try to be really disciplined in deciding which you will and will not do.

4. Dont save packing for the last minute

Start early, and take your time going through closets, papers, photos. You are going to come across many things you will want to spend some time with, even if you ultimately let it go. Don’t rush that process. This is one of the hardest parts of the project, but also one of the most important as we don’t often make the opportunity to clean out otherwise, unless we are moving out. And here is that regret piece again - you don’t want to regret holding onto things later, believe me I say this from personal experience - so take a deep breath, get ready, and go.

5. Make sure you have all materials for packing at hand

Make sure you have plenty of boxes, tape, wrapping paper, bubble wrap and markers on hand. Staples or your local moving company are good sources for this. Remember, it always takes more than you think and it never ceases to amaze me how the contents of closets seem to expand exponentially as they are pulled out. I placed multiple orders for boxes and tape and each time I was sure it was going to be enough. Take it from me, it is so much easier to over estimate and not have to stop the process mid track while you wait for the packing materials. You can always return what you don’t use, as long as it is unopened.

6. Celebrate

Celebrate your cleaned out space by sharing photos with loved ones. You deserve a major round of applause. A client of mine recently shared photos of her empty closets with me and made me realize I should have made a bigger fuss of it when I did the same rather than rushing to get to the next step. It is a major milestone and you should celebrate and get lots of kudos for reaching this point! Now you are ready to get the work started.

7. When things get hairy, visualize

Aside from packing, the 2nd hardest part in my experience, is seeing your home torn to bits. When I do this work for clients I love this part because it means progress, and as the walls come down I can start to see the end in sight. It wasn’t until I went through it myself that I could really appreciate how upsetting it can be when it is your own home. It’s natural to ask yourself if you are doing the right thing and if the work you are doing is going to be better than what you had. It can feel a bit overwhelming as you realize there is no turning back and all the work still to do to put it all back together again. In working with my clients I try and help them focus on the progress and next steps. Here are a couple of things that worked for me personally. Taking a cue from Marie Kondo, the night before demolition began, I walked through the apartment and thanked it for the good times and tried to visualize some good memories in each space. I highly recommend it, but if it feels too woo woo, another thing you can do is take photos of the before (and after) so you can both preserve some memories of what was and also appreciate how far you have come when the work is done. The point is, create some sort of ritual, that will help you deal with the difficult bits and then let go.

8. Wait for it…

Although there is no end in sight for the supply chain issues and the products that are affected keep shifting, in my experience, it is usually worth waiting for the things you really want, even if they take a little longer. With furniture, you don’t have to have all of it in place as soon as the work is done. In my work with clients, I help them focus on the most important items first and there are a number of options to tide you over. I have purchased decent quality, inexpensive furniture at big box outlet stores, which later went to a young adult’s first apartment, or sold on the next door app. I have also rented furniture for clients, though my experience has been that the quality tends to be pretty poor with a lot of wear and damage and the rental costs add up, particularly if there are project delays. All you really need is something to sit on, an inexpensive card table and folding chairs for meals, and if you dont know what your bed will be yet, you may want to just start with a blow up mattress. There are some very comfortable ones these days. (More on the ins and outs of mattress selection in a later post)

When is it not worth the wait? If you can find something you like just as much. I have a favorite dining chair from Ligne Roset that my husband had also been eyeing ever since I purchased them for a family friend, and I always thought that’s what we would get when the time came. I knew they had a long leadtime, but with the pandemic, the timing jumped from 24 to 48 weeks. We actually did consider waiting but ultimately I was able to find other chairs that we loved just as much, so we didnt feel like we were compromising.

Chair we wanted

Chair we got

9. Relax, enjoy the process and celebrate, again

Finally, it’s not always easy, but relax and enjoy the process. The best way to do this is to set reasonable expectations and take the long view. While it is hard to understand how long things are taking when you are in the middle of the project, in the scheme of your life, it will constitute just a blip in time. There were times on my own project when I felt like it was never going to move forward and get done. The feeling was a little overwhelming. What worked for me was imagining the finished product, reminding myself about all the improvements and why we were making them, and especially, picturing my family enjoying the space.

Celebrate the little advances, and most importantly, as hard as it can be to go through a renovation, appreciate your good fortune that you are able to undertake the project.

Stay tuned for the FINISHED PRODUCT...

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