Valuable lessons learned during remodel

#500 in a series of true experiences in real estate
November 2005, Hills Newspapers

Long ago in a house that my then-husband and I owned we tore down some of the walls. An architect friend recommended the demo, we immediately agreed, and my husband got to buy a new power saw. I still remember the anticipation I felt as the saw began to cut the first wall. In moments there was a hole through which we could see into the adjacent room. A few more moments and the opening was wider and taller, then a second wall had a hole.

We’d laid drop cloths but there was gritty plaster everywhere. Using our hands and a shovel, we picked up as much of the debris as possible, depositing it into garbage bags. Plaster pieces tore through the bag, dust was in the air and all over the walls, and sweeping the floor seemed only to move the top layer around and leave it elsewhere.

Just a short while before the room had been clean and clear. I marveled at such a dramatic change in such a short time. My, remodeling was exciting! Several poky little rooms were now open to one another and we were able to imagine how pretty the new space would be.

Except for taking down the walls, which went quickly, everything seemed to develop slowly, and at times, I despaired that the house would ever be whole again. The problem was that every single time we thought of something we wanted changed or included several steps were necessary.

First was having a vision of what we wanted. Sometimes this was obvious but often not. Next we needed knowledge that suitable materials were available and how to get them. Lastly, we had to locate the right workman. Sometimes finding personnel proved quite difficult, and when we did find someone we thought would be good, he couldn’t always fit our job into his schedule.

Even when a workman arrived to do his part, things still went wrong. The plumber reversed the hot and cold in the shower. The kitchen sink and faucets were set into the counter before we decided to add a backsplash and this made the spacing too tight. Our fault, we didn’t think to think about the spacing before the work was done. When the new refrigerator was delivered, it wouldn’t fit in the alcove built by a carpenter friend because the sides narrowed at the back. The refrigerator stood in the living room until we could have a wall torn out and rebuilt.

I learned many things during our remodel, such as: Men insist on saving all used lumber. That lumber remains in your backyard or garage forever. When I couldn’t stand looking at the pile for another minute, I’d move it to another location out of sight. I moved it several times.

Our electrician taught me that it isn’t always as easy as I had assumed to replace a light fixture in an old house. Sometimes a new, well-anchored box is needed in the ceiling and this takes the electrician’s time and costs more money.

I learned that when you take out walls, usually you need new supporting beams. Also, the floor where the wall stood will need repairs.

And I learned that to get what you want, you have to figure out where you want things located and what you want them to look like. Then you have to tell the workman. Because if you don’t, he’ll do it some other way.

Things you must decide and tell include seemingly tiny and obvious (to you) details such as where the electrical panel box will be located. Also, will the door thresholds be wood or metal, straight across and butted or fitted around the door trim?

Most of our intended remodel of that house did get done over the next few months although there were details that were not finished for another five years. My husband and I worked on quite a few other house redos during our marriage, the last one being the house that I still live in.

This job was considerably bigger than others we had tackled, with many rooms and many parts of those rooms being changed. We were living in the house with two small children during the work. But worse, we intended to do our own designing and general contracting, both of which required far more time, money talent and patience than we knew.

When you have several workers showing up each morning the money flows out very fast. We thought we had enough, but we had to borrow more. Parts of the house were completely torn to pieces, too many of them at once, so that it was hard to concentrate on individual parts.

Tool belts, saws, ladders, sawhorses and materials were everywhere. The workers needed to know things we hadn’t considered yet. Where on the walls were the lighting sconces to be placed? Did we want under-cabinet lights? How high above the kitchen counter should the cabinets be hung? Should the sheetrock have a finished edge at the top or would we be using a trim piece? How wide should the casings around doors and windows be?

I was getting phone calls at work from my husband asking questions. Yet, I’d go home at night and everything looked the same. It’s amazing how little actual, noticeable progress can be made in a day in a torn up house.

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