7 lessons from a home renovation
Always expect to find more asbestos
Now that we’ve been back home for two months, I have had some time to reflect on all that we learned from our project. These are the things I want to remember, should we ever partake in such an adventure again, and the things I wish I had known before we started.
Lessons from a seven-month home renovation project
In which we added on approximately 900 square feet to our basic, rather nonsensical 1959 Cape Cod; refinished all our existing floors; repainted everything, inside and out; got a new back deck; and moved out and into a tiny apartment while the work was being completed
Define a clear vision for how you want your home to look and feel before you start the design process. I’m very grateful that my mom helped me identify and name my style before we began working with the architect and making design decisions. I knew, for instance, that I could not be persuaded to try a “more modern” look, even though it was very much in vogue and recommended to us, because that is not really what I wanted our house to look or feel like. I knew that, given my tastes, an addition with giant pane-less windows and modern roof styles wouldn’t fit with my vision for the home, inside and out. In less certain times, I could see myself being convinced to veer in this direction, because it is trendy and cool, and I’m glad, in retrospect, that I had the language—and design rationale—to stand my ground.
Have a good reason for doing what you’re doing. “Just want more space” is not really a good reason, we realized. Four years ago, we had tried to undertake this project and even paid a different architect for totally different plans, but it wasn’t coming together as we’d hoped (and we also didn’t have nearly enough money). We weren’t sure what we wanted to do with the house. I am glad we waited till we had both boys and had a fairly complete idea of what we wanted our house to do and be. Fixing the major flow issues in the house (e.g., the nicest bathroom in the house was in the basement, where there were no bedrooms; our only living space was the tiny front room, which could barely fit one sofa, much less two high-octane male children) took top priority. Spending many years living with the house gave us clear direction about how we wanted it to transform.
Find a compassionate architect. On our first Zoom call with our architect, whilst we were giving him a virtual tour, he said, “Wait, is there a closet there? And around the hallway, a tiny bathroom? Yep. We live in the same house.” It was meant to be. Our architect brought meaningful problem-solving skills, sharp design instincts, and good humor over the many months we worked together, and we are so happy with the design solutions he proposed.
Pay extra for the good guys. This might be the most important lesson. Once our plans were finalized, we got several quotes from different contractors. One quote came in a full $100,000 less than the team we chose. But that tantalizingly low number actually made us feel nervous. After asking for recommendations and having several meetings and calls, we went with our instincts, which was for the team that had glowing reviews from friends and acquaintances; prompt communication; and generous, friendly demeanors. The company owner, Steven, talked with us for literal years about this project and never gave up on us. When it was finally time to get going, our project manager Sam and site supervisor Eric were absolute heroes: compassionate, clear, professional, and thoughtful. Our big project was finished on time, which is basically unheard of these days, and it’s all because of these guys. Seriously, if you’re in Charlottesville, hire Dwell (merged recently with Element Construction). Moses, for his part, was so enamored with Eric and his ability to fix anything that he declared to me in the car one afternoon, out of the blue, “Mommy… Mr. Eric is my favorite person.” Fair. I get it.
Once you start tearing it up, it’s hard to stop. Figure out how and when to stop. Once walls start coming down, it is difficult not to want to fix everything you’ve ever wanted to fix about your house. I was not always great at prioritizing, and Guion and our project manager, Sam, often helped me see the bigger (financial) picture.
It’ll be more expensive than you think/hope. On that front, everything costs time and money. This lesson is not the fault of our builder and definitely on us, given the aforementioned point. But have money set aside for unexpected costs, even big ones (like that extra $8,000 in asbestos abatement you hadn’t planned on) or ones that you weren’t planning on but discover you really ought to do now (like replacing an old HVAC unit, refinishing all the existing hardwoods in the house, and painting everything).
Nothing is too precious. Don’t get too hung up on mistakes you (or contractors) made. Walls will get dinged. Brand-new windows and floors will get scratched. It is just a house, after all, and it will continue to live and change as we do.
We are grateful and humbled by the process, and really, just glad to be home.