8 Lessons on Renovating a House from Someone Who’s Living It
Victoria Elizabeth Barnes
More than three years ago, my husband and I bought an 1890 Victorian disaster with the intention of restoring it ourselves. I fell in love with the house before we even got in the front door. I loved the wraparound porch. I loved the giant, ornate hinges. I even loved the crazy mess and decay.
At the time, I thought I loved the house so much that I did not care that it was falling down. But now I understand that it wasn’t that I didn’t care. It was that I didn’t actually see the broken parts. I only saw what the house could be and I had no concept of the chasm between the two.
My enthusiasm for our new house was matched only by my failure to understand true DIY. Prior to the move, I had never experienced any kind of intense house project. I had no concept of the sheer avalanche of what we had signed up for. My husband did his best to prepare me; but as it turns out, if you have not lived it you understand nothing. Not even your own ignorance.
But after three years of gutting and ripping and hauling and patching and repairing and sanding and painting and dirt and mess and exhaustion, now I understand what DIY means. What construction means, what chaos means. And what it means to see no end in sight.
If that sounds fun to you, here are eight things to consider before you and your partner commit your nights and weekends ad infinitum to a house that needs more than a little work.
1.Whatever your relationship is like now is exactly what your project will be like. Except you will both be on fire.
If you communicate calmly and kindly while you are in flames, you’ll be fine.
Not you? Then can you endure the extended stress of seeing about 12 times more of your partner’s least-lovable self?
2.Sometime in the first six months, you are going to regret your decision in one way or another.
When the construction has eaten your house, and your life and your sanity, and when you’ve gotten used to climbing over a toilet in your foyer, you are going to look around in despair and wonder why you ever thought you wanted to do this.
That regret will be temporary, but it is nerve-racking to question uprooting your entire life after it’s too late.
3.Your house project will not be a form of entertainment.
It’s a second job. A job you cannot leave or go home from. It’s more like a second life.
Dreaming and planning are great. It’s one of the best parts — aside from being finished. But if at any point you or your partner says, “This will be fun!,” You should stop right there. There are only 10 people on the planet who would define living in a construction site as fun. Chances are, you are not one of them.
4.You really cannot know what a house needs until you live in it.
No matter how carefully you plan, there will be complications. (This is multiplied by infinity if you are buying an old house.) And the character trait you are most going to appreciate in your partner is the ability to adapt and move on.
My husband likes to point out that if I had been on the Titanic, it would not have sunk. The ship would have been kept afloat by my sheer aversion to diverting from the plan.
5.One of you should really know what you’re doing.
But even if one of you is a pro, it can still be a challenging dynamic. The novice (me) initially had no concept of the reality of making an idea work, but I had every awareness that it would be awesome.
I had so many ideas for this house. Had I been in charge, we’d still be on the third floor building the ballroom that I dreamed up in my mind.
My husband was frustrated that I didn’t see we had “serious” work to do. I was frustrated that he didn’t see the value of my genius.
6.There will be one project that goes on for so long you actually forget there was a time in your life when you were not mired in an epic quest to find the perfect tile.
Our hallway bathroom remodel took at least three times longer than it should have. If there is a better way to make my husband insane, I do not know what it is.
It made him insane that he could not force me to pick a tile, a sink, a toilet, anything. I was so fixated on every detail that I was utterly unable to conceive of a time when I might not view the choice between polished chrome and polished nickel as a matter of life and death.
7.Did it turn out beautifully? Yes. Was it worth spending every free minute researching fixtures? No.
We’re gearing up for our total kitchen remodel, and this is the advice I am going to have tattooed on my forehead: Find something you like, buy it and move on. The end result does not hinge on every tiny detail.
The longer you spend on the Internet looking at inspiration, the more you forget a few key things. Like you have a budget. You do not have a 5,000-square-foot house. You would like this project to be done in your lifetime.
8.Stress and dirt magnify all your worst qualities.
When you share the certainty that you are in it together, it also means that you can push each other that much harder.
This house has seen us lying in 3 inches of plaster and lath and filth in an unheated house in December, laughing hysterically.
Living in a construction site and sharing the role of general contractor and work crew is going to give you a lot of extremes. The extremes of irritation. But also the extremes of appreciation for a part of your partner that you might not ever experience otherwise.
Entering our fourth year, my favorite thing about this house is my husband. Who he is. His ability to figure things out. His ability to just keep going. And? Of course his ability to bring home every mirror I find on Craigslist.