Keeping a level head when renovation turns rough

Home Work

July 06, 1996|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

Randy hasn't been on the kitchen renovation job for two days in a row. Karol knows why he hasn't shown up -- he has an ugly summer cold that makes him sound like Woody Allen on steroids. Still, it's frustrating to have nothing happening while the weather's beautiful, after a week when it seemed more appropriate to be trying to build an ark.

But that's the way it is with any kind of major home project. Frustration is simply part of the territory. Almost everyone is surprised, in fact, by the psychological toll taken by having your house worked on.

Even if you've done it before, it's dirtier, more disruptive and more frustrating than you remember.

If you're the type of person who really likes to keep a tight rein on things, just buy a new house that has everything you want. Renovating would drive you nuts.

However, even a person with the most laid-back of personalities needs to do some mental preparation to stay strong during a project.

Here are some of the givens of any big project, to help you anticipate them and stay sane.

Annoying things will happen.

Expect delays due to bad weather, delays while the contractor goes back and rehangs someone else's door, delays while the carpenter is sick or has to knock off early to take his kid to baseball practice.

Some parts of the construction will have to be inspected before the job can continue, and it may take a while to get the building inspector out.

It helps if you like your contractor to begin with, and if you stay in touch. This works both ways: Homeowners who take a day off from work to talk to the contractor, and he simply fails to show up, are going to be a bit testy when he appears the next time. This is why God made telephones.

Other annoyances will be unexpected construction problems (in Karol's case, the tangle of old and new electrical connections that ran through the demolished addition), problems with suppliers (when you finally, agonizingly, make up your mind about door hardware or plumbing fixtures, those items invariably will be out of stock), problems with vandals or vermin or litigious neighbors.

One or more of these things will make you want to hit the ceiling. Instead, learn to accept the things you can't do anything about. The rain will stop, the fixtures will arrive, the raccoons will leave, the police can deal with the thieves who lifted 90 feet of copper tubing.

Try to keep things in perspective. Yes, it may be expensive, it may be important to your family's greater well-being, but it's just a house.

It's not "ER," it's not Bosnia, it's not Armageddon. Just bricks and lumber, wires and nails, all replaceable.

Expect everything to get dirty, and expect something to get broken. The dogs will have muddy paws and jump up on the sofa, someone will track roofing tar across the foyer. (Karol, who really does know better, left back-bedroom windows open during a day of demolition, and her formerly white miniblinds turned a grimy, dusty gray.)

Demolition and construction are by nature heavy, dirty jobs. Demolition dust will be followed by sawdust, and sawdust will be followed by plaster dust. If the dust really troubles you, work out a quick-cleanup system for areas that are essential. (Karol bought a good supply of cleaning spray and extra paper towels for kitchen counters.)

The combination of big guys, heavy equipment and a sense of urgency mean that all small and/or fragile objects are in danger. Put away as much stuff as you can and cover up what can't be moved.

Keep yourself and all family members out of the workers' way. If you're lucky, damage will be confined to a few smashed fingers and maybe the rake that some idiot (probably you) left in the path of the backhoe.

Something will turn out to be impossible. Maybe you can't have track lights and a ceiling fan, because there's not room. Maybe the tile you love has been discontinued. Maybe the zoning department will veto the bathroom bump-out (too close to the property line), or the neighborhood association will nix your exterior color scheme of red, white and blue. Don't get mad; get perspective. Life is not fair, even when you're paying all the bills.

Recognize common goals. You and your contractor both want the same thing: A completed project. He wants to get done, get paid, get a good reference, and get referrals from you for other jobs. You want to get your life back in order. Of course, some jobs do develop big problems, and those have to be dealt with, starting with serious negotiation. Try to remember that you have that common goal; it will make coming to terms easier.

But you will know the big problems when you see them. In the meantime, remind yourself that nothing lasts forever. The dust and disruption will come to an end.

Keep a notebook with samples, drawings or pictures of the finished project, and all its beautiful details, that you can look at when you're feeling low. Keep a clear mental picture of the finished space in your mind, and try to imagine it being filled in, board by board and wall by wall.

Buy the future space a present (Karol has already bought her future kitchen a chair, a table -- they were on sale -- a pillow, and a paper towel holder. There was a lot of rain.) Or, if it's really been a bad day, rent "The Money Pit" and count your blessings.

Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail us at, or write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

Pub Date: 7/06/96

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