My Turn

All of us have so much on our minds these days. Important things, like will hand sanitizer stains come out in the wash? Will my house burn in a wildfire? Why did we have these kids? I’ve had my own sleepless nights worrying about your projects and processing my fears like what will happen if Virgin Atlantic does not emerge from bankruptcy. Like you, I wake up feeling exhausted.

In July, with endless energy and remodeling experience in spades, James and I decided it was a good idea to make a real estate purchase. Virtually overnight, after some bare-knuckle financial moves, we had an accepted offer on a house we’ve been after for over a year. The next days were spent making prudent plans to tackle only the urgent repairs. In just shy of a week, the house was ours. "This is going to be easy," or so we thought.

Are you sure you don't want to read the instructions first?

You may be surprised that we advise clients who have purchased new homes not to hire us immediately. Our approach with our clients:

  • Do repair work to the home and move in first.

  • Live in the home, and pay attention to how you live in it.

  • Make notes about what works and what doesn’t, where the sun shines in the house, along with your favorite and least favorite areas.

  • When you feel like you are starting to understand the house, give us a call.

Your insights better inform the design collaboration. We help our clients set a reasonable timeline, budget, and expectations about the process, and importantly we advise to allow for extra time and cost. Finding unexpected conditions when you open the walls are the norm, rather than the exception. Once construction starts, we also encourage our clients to not add to the scope, as contractors add extra fees when making these changes.

Looking back, I think the exact moment James and I went off the rails was when we lost sight of our agent's tail lights as he drove away. We both felt a rush, like when your parents leave town for the weekend, and you waste no time calling your friends to find out who has the most convincing fake ID. Fifteen years of experience guiding remodels for my clients evaporated from my memory like a temporary case of amnesia. “This place has so much potential -we need to get in here quickly” replaced all our prudent plans and guided our decisions going forward. Confident we could add improvements to our already unreasonable timeline and budget, we made a list of all the things we were sure we couldn’t live without, including a Vitsoe shelving system in the closet. (more about it in Things We Love)

The “while he’s here, we might as well add…..” symptom appeared the first hour after the electrician arrived to repair the melted electrical panel. His eyes got really big when I outlined the few new things I’d like him to do: replace all the switches, outlets, and light fixtures, add outlets in the closet, new lights and switches in the bathroom, and a few extra lights thrown in to highlight our art. He was genuinely perplexed when I insisted on saving the original bathroom exhaust fans, which to him looked dated and barely worked. Lastly, I asked for a ceiling fan in the bedroom, a decision that ultimately turned out to be the most expensive upgrade of the entire project.

In the beginning, our enthusiasm was endless. When our walls looked like a stop sign shot with a shotgun, our faces beamed with adoration.However, it didn’t take long for the mood to change. We knew that the house needed work, as a matter of pride I was not seduced by the new appliances or faucets meant to distract average buyers from the fact that the electrics put the house in danger of burning down. Recalling how a bad outlet kept the dishwasher from powering on, only to find out that the dishwasher then wouldn’t drain because a plugin the plumbing wasn’t removed during the installation, now feels like watching the trailer to an upcoming horror movie.

The movie’s plot centers around new homeowners who discover they bought an alien parasite disguised as a house. The alien fuels itself by feeding on the energy, emotions, and bank accounts of the new homeowners. When the homeowners are broke, exhausted, and filing for divorce, the alien attracts new victims by putting the house on the market. I’ll share with you two key scenes.

We discovered that the original ceramic tile, a key motivator in buying the house, was not made by Heath Ceramics, as we had hoped. On closer examination, we discovered all the tile in the house was inexplicably installed with particleboard as the substrate it was glued to. Over the years, the board had expanded and warped with moisture, dislodging our beloved tiles, which now break in half under your feet with a satisfying snap.

Another feature of the home that attracted us was the radiant heat. Perplexed by the missing hydronic manifolds, I settled on it being an electric system, similar to a heated bathroom floor. Checking out the day's progress on the ceiling fan addition, I spotted an unfamiliar black film with THERMOFILM 240V stenciled on it. Like a car accident, I don't remember what happened next. My browser history shows me searching for every variation of “heated ceiling” I could dream up. Infrared radiant ceiling heat, I learned, was touted as an “efficient and economical” way to warm the twelve-foot ceiling in the living room. Maybe science had not yet learned that heat rises? I messaged a friend in London, “Check out this photo, it seems we have radiant heat in the ceiling.” He replied, “Correction; you used to have radiant heat in the ceiling.”

Through our "let's get a few things done before we move in" project, we went through all the stages of emotion that our clients (and new parents) experience. We’re starting!! Excitement! Less excitement! Barely excited. Can we speed things up? Why is this not done? This was a terrible idea. I’m divorcing you for making me do this!

As of the writing of this update, James and I have moved in, not exactly on schedule or budget, but who's counting? While I think our greatest achievement is that we're still married, I'm happy to report that the house has also proved better than we could have ever imagined. There’s still plenty of work to be done, including modifications to the improvements we impatiently completed, but now understand there was a better option. As for heat, we have it in one room, where you can find all of us this winter. Next fall, we plan on installing an energy-efficient heating and cooling system, costing exponentially more than the $300 ceiling fan. I’ve berated myself for going into the ceiling, but reminded myself that x-ray vision is expensive and that one never stops learning about how houses from the past were built.

It was my turn to do a remodel, and I made all the mistakes that I work so hard to guide my clients to avoid. Once I total up the cost of the work -a reality I’m putting off until tax time- I suspect I’ll want to post my own advice with magnets on the refrigerator before I start any new work. Throughout this adventure, I’ve gained a better understanding of the emotions that buyers get with a new home, and I’ve gained a lot more sympathy for what my clients are going through during their remodel process.

Thank you to everyone who's done a project with me, and for all of you who are considering a project, thank you in advance for being open to our unique approach, and perhaps learning from my own mistakes.