What no one will ever tell you about renovating is what you most want to know: How long will this take, and how much will it cost me?
It’s not because the pros are hiding anything. It’s because each house is a different beast, and so is every contractor. Until you get to down to business, no one is quite sure what you’ll find. Anyone who offers a firm promise doesn’t really know.
What they will tell you is that every project goes over budget, and it always takes longer than the contractors say. When people warned us of the potentially expensive surprises once work got underway, I imagined the contractor cutting open a hole in the wall and finding a thousand creepy-crawlies. That’s not how the overages happen, exactly.
We started out hoping to spend around $130,000 on the renovation (that’s in addition to the purchase of the house and the closing costs). By midsummer, about seven months after we bought our place, we had exceeded our original budget by $40,000. What we took on was largely enabled by new funds from a couple of work projects and a decision to take on some short-term credit card debt.
What we did: All new electrical, heating, and plumbing for all 3,000 square feet of the house (including the upstairs rental apartment and workspace and a half-bath in the basement). The expanded budget included a total overhaul of the 1,000-square-foot first-floor unit where we would be living, including a new layout, all-new kitchen and bathroom, plaster restoration, painting, and some new flooring.
We also increased the scope of the project after deciding we might as well invest in improving the rental unit while we were in work mode: new kitchen, upgraded bathroom, and some new flooring thanks to a partnership with Armstrong Flooring*.
We finished the cellar bathroom and basement workspaces with a combination of CNS; a smaller-job contractor, Nicolas Diaz, recommended to us by our architect; and our own DIY. (My partner spent weeks scraping and painting the ceiling beams in his studio, then painting the jagged foundation walls.)
Then there were the mundane but essential overages, like reinforcing the staircase (to the tune of $2,100). We hadn’t accounted for painting the common hallways, with all their plaster and wood moldings. The old radiators were pretty busted, the plumber advised, so we replaced them with ones easily half the size. And then we decided if the electrician were already there, we might as well add simple backyard lighting.
And of course, the basic law of paying a percentage is that as the scope widened, Otto’s fee rose accordingly.
So how long did the reno take? It’s hard to pinpoint a precise beginning and endpoint. Our contractor started sanding and stripping and plastering while we waited for permits in January and February, and the outside contractor for the Caesarstone countertop forced a multiweek slowdown that prevented CNS from finishing the kitchen backsplash and some of the plumbing. We had hired our architect the previous November, permitted construction began in March, and we finally moved downstairs in mid-June, just in time for our tenants to move in.
All told, from the time we closed on the house to now—having just completed the office space in the basement and scheduled a photo shoot—our time frame was about nine months.
Among homebuyers and renovators, we know we are the lucky ones. Partly because we’re actually done, which turns out to be a rare thing. We’ve begun living and working and entertaining in our house, our tenants are paying a good chunk of our mortgage, and so far, we’re pretty damn happy about it. Through months of what felt like a second full-time job for both of us, our relationship is still intact. Also, the place is, if we do say so, beautiful.
I’ll just come out and say it: We feel like our dream came true.
People say things can’t make you happy, but the grain in our white oak floorboards gives me joy every time I look at it. When the flooring was first finished, I sprawled out and decided which of the quarter-sawn planks was my favorite. (There’s one in front of the refrigerator with the most sublime dense swirl.)
The restored original details, from the tin ceilings to the plaster medallions to the wood moldings, make us happy. The golden afternoon light streaming into the kitchen makes us happy. The two of us cooking and putting things away while chatting with dinner guests makes us happy.
There are still things I’d like to do, most of which revolve around bookshelves and the backyard, but the sense that we’re here to stay and almost all of our labor is done is deeply satisfying. Some day, if we have a bigger family and need more space upstairs, we won’t be terrified of renovating again, and we’d try to work with (most of) the people we worked with this time. What more can you say than that?
Last but not least, a few words of hard-learned advice:
- Hire an architect, especially if you’re a first-time renovator. A good architect isn’t just for aesthetics; she or he will be your guide to this strange new land.
- The chemistry between your architect and contractor matters. If you can use a contractor your architect likes, it’s worth it.
- Never hire a subcontractor separately from your general contractor, even if they come with the greatest recommendations or are cheaper. It’s not worth the logistical headache, especially if it causes tension with your general contractor.
- Don’t sleep on Ikea, especially if you can upgrade it using custom doors, and use the skills of their in-house design professionals if you don’t have your own. (I rue the day we had to return to Ikea because I didn’t realize I was missing the hinges on our PAX.)
- See bathroom fixtures and finishes out in the world as much as possible, in showrooms and stores. But for items you can’t take home or get delivered easily, Amazon Prime is your friend.
- BuilderDepot is a great resource for marble tile when you can’t afford a whole slab.
- Double- and triple-check every single order, even if your architect has already done so, because everyone misses things and the wrong dishwasher or door could set you back by weeks. We learned that the hard way. Then make sure you actually get the refunds on returns because we also learned that the hard way.
- Be patient, be persistent, and be prepared for it to take a huge chunk of your time, even if you’ve hired professionals. Decisional fatigue is real. Just answering questions and keeping track of orders really adds up.
- Remind yourself why you’re doing it — a tangible improvement in your daily life for years to come. And if at all possible (we think it is), have fun.
*In partnership with this Renovation Diary series, Armstrong provided vinyl plank flooring for the upstairs rental apartment and laminate flooring for the basement office.