Learn from my mistakes

The dos and don’ts of home renovation

click to enlarge Learn from my mistakes
PHOTO COURTESY ELIZABETH WATSON
The author in her kitchen shortly after new laminate countertops, which she now hates, were installed in January 2022.

During the pandemic, I was one of those extremely fortunate individuals whose worst hardship was having too much time on my hands. In hindsight, I can see how I could have more virtuously used that extra time – say, by filling food pantries or checking on elderly neighbors – but as it was happening, it seemed that my only option was to buy my three kids new iPads and continue staring into space. As I honed my newfound skill of staring at walls, I realized I was simultaneously building another strength: a crystal clear awareness of everything that was wrong with my home and everything that needed to be done to change it.

I shared my new field of study with my husband, Josh, one rainy evening during lockdown. (Remember how it seemed to rain constantly that spring?) I had made a list of everything that needed to be renovated and what I thought each line item might cost. Josh, with his uncanny ability to throw kerosene on the fire of my crazy ideas, looked up at me and said, "Let's just move."

And move, we did. What ensued is a cautionary tale for all budding home renovators.

Do: Communicate clearly and honestly.
Don't: Lie to your spouse.

To my credit, I was lying to myself as well, so I really didn't mean to pull the wool over poor Josh's eyes. When we saw the new house for the first time, I was feeling super emotional, and I honestly believed the words I whispered to him as we left the showing: "This is the one. We won't need to change a thing." Which brings me to my next warning.

Do: Be more cautious than you think is necessary.
Don't: Make huge decisions based on whims and assumptions.

My big, unchecked assumption was that a 1990s subdivision house would be straightforward and easy to fix up and maintain compared to the 100-year-old house we were used to. Untrue!

Do: Factor in realistic sums for skilled workers and high-quality materials.
Don't: Plan to do everything on the cheap.

My one-year-old laminate countertops cost a tenth of what a higher-quality material would have run us. And they are already stained, warped, chipped and burned. I hate them.

Do: Listen to expert advice.
Don't: Selectively mute voices that disagree with your dream house narrative.

All the ceilings had a subtle stamped texture, and I wanted them flat. Multiple wise contractors, painters and drywall pros tried to tell me what a huge project it would be and that I ought to just live with the ceilings the way they were. No way I was doing that. Now, after many months of work, untold thousands of dollars, and who knows how many years off my life, I'm still wiping up drywall dust, and the ceilings still aren't quite right.

Do: Close off areas of your home to protect work in progress.
Don't: Let your pets ruin everything.

During one of the many low points with the ceiling debacle, our family room was such a mess that our cat started using piles of drywall debris as a litter box. Don't even get me started on the effect of our two huge, wild doodles.

Do: Celebrate small improvements.
Don't: Reject anything but absolute perfection.

Josh would always come home from work and naively say how good everything was looking. Never one to let Josh enjoy a single second of ignorant bliss, I would lead him around and educate him on all the screw-ups of the day, for his own good.

Luckily, two years later, we love our home – and we still love each other. We miss our old neighbors, but we've made friends with the people on our new street. (It turns out Springfield is full of nice people!) Going forward, Josh and I are living by the old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Elizabeth Watson is a freelance writer and mother living in Springfield. She loves helping friends look at paint colors and fabric swatches.

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