With 2018 quickly fading into the rear-view mirror, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on the year of renovation we’ve just survived! The truth is that this past year was different from most; at some points, this has felt like the longest year of my life. Living through 15 months of renovations with 2 kids, a puppy and countless surprises along the way has taken its toll! But now, as I sit in my almost finished house, I’m grateful for where we are today and how far we’ve come. As I reflect on what I’ve learned through this renovation process, I decided to make a list of things I wish I had known before we started and as the saying goes, “sharing is caring”. You’re welcome world!!
The Real Life Truth of Living Through a Renovation
It’s not a surprise to those who know me in real life that my home renovation project has been one huge disaster! Let me clarify, I am so happy and grateful for the finished product- but the process to get here has been excruciating. Some of you have been on this journey with me on Instagram, where I’ve shared pictures of the progress, but for the first time, I’ve decided that I shouldn’t only share the good, because real life doesn’t always fit in pretty little insta boxes of perfection. A real-life renovation as massive as the one I’ve just survived is messy. There are so many unexpected conditions and issues that may be thrown your way, that it may feel like you are fighting just to keep your head above water. Every renovation is different and no two people will have the same experience. There are so many variables that will affect your experience and as they say hindsight is 20/20. So here goes…
The Architect: The Ultimate Yes Man
As I mentioned before and I will mention again, every person’s experience is different. I’m not an expert and I never claimed to be one, I am merely sharing my perspective and my own experience. And in my experience, I have found that my architect was a dreamer just like me!
We hired an architect because our project was massive! We purchased an 1892 Cape Cod house that had an addition built in the 1990s. Our goal with this project was to maintain the original charm and character of the 1892 part of the house while re-designing the floor plan to create a layout that was conducive to the lifestyle of a family today. This involved taking down staircases and moving walls, beams, and flipping hallways into living rooms, and so on and so on. An architect was not only a nice to have, but a must have for a project of this size and complexity.
Our architect was on board before we even put an offer on the house. I shared the visions I had of how I would want to use the space and the architect added to my visions with even more amazing ideas. The excitement of new possibilities and personalizing the space to make it exactly how we want was intoxicating! But here is when I experienced the first of a series of disappointments that I set myself up for. I asked my architect,” Can we have this project done in 6 months???” And his answer was, “Of course we can!”
To spare you a lot of boring details, let’s fast forward to 6 months after that conversation and we hadn’t even started the project!
The planning phase alone took one year. We had many meetings with the architect to go over plans, and revisions and changes and more changes. I’m glad we didn’t just immediately start renovations. Living in the house for a year before renovation allowed us to experience how we really use the space throughout the different times of the year and the different needs we have during the different seasons. That one year of planning involved lots of changes and that’s because as I mentioned before, the architect is a dreamer. What he’s not is a numbers man- at least the architect I hired. Although, architects should be and some are knowledgeable about budgets, the architects’ primary job is to be a visionary. That’s their forte and sometimes they get carried away!
We had a budget but we also had a vivid imagination. Oh and there’s also Houzz and Pinterest that helped fuel our imaginations. After the first set of plans were done and sent out to contractors for bidding, they came back with astronomical figures, well beyond our budget. That literally brought us back to the kitchen table to revise and scale down our grand dreams! (Bye-bye wine cellar dreams-for now!) Now looking back, we should have been strict with our budget and before allowing our architect and ourselves to get carried away, we should have had a contractor along for the ride as we drew plans to keep us in line with our budget. This would have saved us (and the architect) hours of work and going back and forth with the designs. However, our architect bills by the hour, so he surly didn’t mind the back and forth because he made BANK! But if you want to be smart with your money and minimize your expenses, hire your contractor first and bring him along to your design meetings. As you dream, your contractor can easily bring you back down to earth when he tells you how much the secret door from the bar into the cellar is going to cost you! (That had to go too *sigh*).
Pick the right contractor for the job
This brings me to the most critical factor in how well your renovation project will progress and that would be the contractor. The General Contractor you hire is the executer of your dreams. And making sure you pick the right guy or gal for the job is critical. I’m sure there are a ton of other articles about all the things you should do when you interview and hire a contractor. I read them all too and yet I ultimately don’t think we hired the right company for the job.
We followed all the advice of screening our contractor by talking to a LOT of people who had also used them. I visited their homes and paid close attention to the details. I asked all the important questions and thought I knew what I was getting into. We hired the contractor that renovated my next-door neighbor’s beautiful house! How could we go wrong?
Everyone we spoke to had glowing reviews of this contractor. He lives in our town and knows all the people down at town hall, who are an important part of the permitting and zoning process. He is well known and has a good reputation for building quality homes. Sadly, our experience was less than stellar. Although we thought we had done our due diligence with screening our builder, there was no way for us to know the financial hole that he was in. Unfortunately, and unbeknown to us, right as we started our renovation project, our builder had a huge shake up at his firm. There was a big staff turnover, and he lost a large majority of his staff who had been with him for years. He also took on several large projects and was facing the skilled labor shortage that is plaguing the construction industry. All those factors resulted in a slow progressing job. What he estimated would take 6-8 months has turned into 16 months (and at the time of writing this, we are not done yet).
So, the lesson here is, if you think you’ve done your due diligence when hiring your contractor, do a little more. Maybe a little more digging would have uncovered some of these issues that have caused us so much lost time, frustration and money! And maybe more digging wouldn’t have yielded us any of that information. Good companies and good people hit rough patches in their careers and in their projects and sometimes its beyond anyone’s control. We went out and looked for a local company, with a big reputation that I thought would have all the resources and workers to get our job done efficiently.
However, now I wish I had looked for a smaller contractor, who only works on one project at a time. Bigger is not always better. A smaller operation that has close relationships with their sub-contractors and is focused on one project at a time, I believe is the way to go. And if I could go back, that would be the first big change I would make in my process of selecting a contractor.
In addition, before starting a project with a contractor, I would ask for the specific sub-contractors he plans to use and or/hire on my project. I would then look into those subs and their reputations. In the end it all comes down to the specialty trades who can ultimately slow down a project to almost stand still. I can’t tell you how many times the electrician was supposed to show and was MIA for days. Working with a contractor who is transparent about who his subs are and gives you access to them before hiring him or her, is critical to your decision making. Ultimately these will be the people who are working on your house and their work ethic and quality of work is what is going determine whether your project is executed properly.
Setting a timeline and due dates in the contract
It goes without saying that you should definitely have a contract in place before you start a big renovation project. We spent hours making sure the contract covered all the little details that were a part of the design plans. We didn’t want any surprises halfway through the project and so we focused so much on making sure all the elements of our project were spelled out in the contract. What we missed was setting a timeline, with due dates for each phase of the project. Of course, this is something that many contractors may not agree to because in construction, and especially in a renovation where there are many conditions that are known until they start taking down walls, it is extremely difficult to set a timeline and stick to it perfectly. There is a lot of fluidity in projects like these. Many surprises and conditions come up all along the project and having to redirect or redesign takes time. However, our mistake was that we did not set a timeline at all in the contract and so we found ourselves in a situation where the workers disappears for days and weeks because he’s under no pressure to follow a timeline. Of course, this is a huge indication of his financial troubles and the fact that he is spread so thin among many projections. However, he wouldn’t have been able to get away with it as easily as he did, if we had a timeline in place that he had to answer to.
Pick all your finishes before you get a bid
Now that you’ve hired your contractor and he’s along for the ride as you design your project, whether you are working with an architect or not, picking all the finishes before your job is priced out is critical. If I could go back in time and could only make one change, this would definitely be the change I make. We spent so much time working with the architect on the design and layout of the project, but we didn’t get to picking out finishes until after the contractor broke ground and started working on the stuff behind the walls; framing, electrical, plumbing, etc. These are the building blocks of the home and the finishes are the fun part! Our contractor gave us a line item in his bid with what he anticipated our finishes would cost. This includes, appliances, cabinets, countertops, vanities, tile, wallpaper, etc. And let me start by saying, I broke that budget on Day 1. The allowance the contractor had estimated for us was literally 10x lower than what we actually ended up spending. Our budget was totally blown because he priced out the most basic, standard grade finishes to keep us in line with the topline budget we gave him. However, that was not realistic with the vision we had for what our home would ultimately look like. Having an accurate number upfront would have saved us tons of money and allowed us to better budget and allocate our money from day 1.
Rainy Day Fund!
Since we are on the topic of budgets, let’s talk about the buffer. Make sure you have one that is at least 20%. We went so over our budget because we didn’t build in a buffer to account for surprises and there were many! But also, as I mention above, we didn’t pick our finishes before the contractor gave us an estimate. Unfortunately, the ideas we had about the appliances we would us or the tile we would install was so far off from what the contractor had estimated, that went over by a LOT. This made for the perfect storm and lead to us having to cut back on large parts of the project so we didn’t run out of money! (Sorry Kids, it’s either a college fund or a finished basement!). It is critical that you set aside at least 20 per cent of your budget and hey if you don’t end up needing it, you can always use the money to add those wish list elements to your project later. But really, I never thought that I would have to replace all my landscaping, but after 15 months of dumpsters and diggers and porta potties living on my front lawn, there is not one blade of grass left on my property! You will also be glad that you put aside that money…because don’t forget after renovating, you’re probably going to want some new furniture!
Don’t sweat the small stuff
They say it’s the details that make or break a project. It’s the attention to all the small details that sets the finished product apart from the rest. While these statements are certainly true and the details do matter, there is a fine line of obsession that you can find yourself quickly getting sucked into. It’s important to take a step back and realize that some of the tiny imperfections that might seem glaring to you, will not be noticeable to other people. In fact, a few days or weeks into settling into the new finished spaced, you will not even notice those small imperfections. It’s true that whatever your budget and whatever type of construction or renovation project you are doing, nothing is ever perfect. There are always pre-existing conditions that you must work within and sometimes not even the most creative person can find ways around those pre-existing conditions. So, pick your battles wisely and don’t forget to take 2 big steps back and look at the big picture! I bet it’s going to look pretty darn good!
It’ll be worth it at the end
Every step of the way, when I would feel like I could not go on any longer with this renovation, I would have a friend who’s gone through this process before say to me “It’ll all be worth it at the end, you’ll see”. And while I’m still not at the absolute end of this project, to some degree I do think it was all worth it. While hindsight is 20/20, I feel fortunate that we were able to embark on this journey and build our home together. It has been one of the hardest experiences that I have had to endure, but I’ve also learned so much through this process. I am also so happy to have been fortunate enough to have been able to design and furnish our home in our very unique way. Would I do this again? The short answer is Yes, I would! I hope that by sharing my experiences, I enlightened you with some tips that you may not have heard already! If you have gone through a big renovation too, what were your biggest lessons learned?