This is the first of at least three posts on renovations–in general, and ours in particular. Come in!
You’ve heard the scare stories about the renovations from hell, right? The ones that stretch on for months? Where contractors screw up and don’t fix it? Or don’t even respond to phone calls? I’ve heard them, too. This was my very first renovation and it will probably be my last, as we plan nothing else for this house. Which is a shame, since I learned so much redoing our kitchen and family room. But I CAN share my renovation tips with you in the hope that they might spare you some aggravation.
The word “plan” is in the title on purpose, because it all begins with a plan. Get the plan right and the rest can go smoothly. For most people, the construction is the problem. For me? I agonized over the plan. The hardest part was finding all the right pieces that would integrate into the whole that I envisioned.
Some visions are clearer than others.
WHAT IS YOUR RENOVATION VISION?
Every renovation must begin with a vision. It seems obvious, but, as it turns out, I had a rough idea of what I wanted but no clue how I could get there–the details of the vision didn’t easily come into focus. A lot is said about the website Houzz, but I found it difficult to work with because it doesn’t allow you to save photos from its site except in an account on THEIR site. I understand why, but for me it was a flaw. Good for a few ideas–but it was overwhelming–so much! I looked online until I had carpal tunnel. But in the end, I didn’t want someone else’s renovation, I wanted mine. Mine would have color and action and would be modern. I knew it would also be one of a kind. I wanted it to be tasteful. What it wouldn’t be is traditional. I wanted to look at it and say “Wow!”
I knew it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea and I didn’t care. I wanted it to be mine.
HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOUR VISION!
Some people will love it and others will give it the stink eye. Believe me on that. Even if they say nothing, you will know. (All the stink-eyes became believers, though, when they saw the finished product.) Forget them. What matters is that YOU love it. No one else’s approval is needed. You’re the only people who matter in this equation.
I knew I had an eye for design but worried that left to my own devices, I’d be unable to integrate the color and shapes and motion I had in mind. I didn’t want it to be a circus kitchen. Nor did I want to be unhappy in the end. So I engaged the assistance of a designer, selectively, to help me find and validate some of my choices. And to problem solve. As in saying “I want it to look like X, how do I get there?”
Family room palette: where we began
USING A DESIGNER
You may think it’s money you don’t need to spend. I thought so, too, the first time we started this more than a year ago. We stopped because I was overwhelmed with doing it myself. Making it happen this time required some help.
We knew this was going to be an expensive renovation and wanted to avoid expensive mistakes. You know, the ones you don’t know you have made until things are bought and installed and your first thought is OMG, no! I’m a creative soul who wasn’t confident she could turn a wild idea into a practical implementation. It just made sense for me to engage a professional to bounce ideas off of and to help make my vision reality. It was some of the best money we spent.
Caveat: Make sure you like your designer! Otherwise, you’ll butt heads way too much.
In our case, the designer was our partner in crime, which meant we used more of her time than I’d originally expected. I’d narrow things down, then bring her along and often, she knew what was practical and what wasn’t, what would be affordable, and where the potential trouble spots where. Invaluable. At one point she and I spent almost two hours in our cabinetmaker’s large shop. We could see his work was meticulous but I didn’t see what I wanted. He painted, washed and coated different wood until I could tell he was a little frustrated and that was about the time that I found what I liked. My designer hung with me throughout, giving voice to her trained eye. But I had to bring the sample into the sunshine outside to see how it would look in the bright room. Alder with a clear wash just rocked. And I was right.
You can also pick and choose how you use a designer–maybe you want to get ideas at the front end and then buy an hour every so often throughout. Or only at the front end. Our designer played a validating role for some of our wilder choices and also played a huge role in driving implementation. She worked with the cabinet maker to ensure that we got the insides we wanted. She helped with paint choices. She and I picked silk fabric combinations to wrap a mat for a huge framed piece. She came with me to the glass place in San Francisco for the backsplash decisions. She winnowed down tile choices for the fire place so I could choose. It was super helpful to have her in that role.
Locating a designer is a whole story in itself. I’ll do another post on finding the right designer for you, because through no action of mine, I started with one but ended up with another. But more on that later.
Some of our crew.
FINDING A GENERAL CONTRACTOR
Save yourself a lot of aggravation and stress. Use a professional general contractor that you have references for–check the references. And don’t go cheap. The adage penny-wise and pound-foolish applies to renovations.
I used Yelp and a neighborhood e-list, plus recommendations from our network. We narrowed to five recommendations and interviewed them all. We checked references. In the end, M was impressed with the professionalism of one. He was not the cheapest but he was clearly the best. We were confident that he, like our designer, had a problem-solving orientation. His schedules were detailed and he routinely shared them via a Dropbox. (This is, after all, Silicon Valley.) And, it turned out, he was the right choice.
Every one of his subs was superior and had worked with him for years and years. His operation was finely honed and everyone did their part on time and on schedule, overseen by his operations manager, whom we also liked. They showed up on time, they cleaned up, they even came with their own toilet tissue, soap, towels and sanitary wipes!
Despite some (normal) hiccups, the schedule was met–actually, they were ahead of schedule–had it not been for my repainting the family room– ahead of schedule? We know it’s not that common in renovation.
I should tell you that M’s late father owned a chain of lumber yards and M is no stranger to construction. He could have been our general, but the stress would have killed him. There are so many moving parts to a renovation, it’s better to have a general with a longstanding crew. The crew continues to be motivated because they get all his business. A homeowner doesn’t have that same leverage.
SET A BUDGET BUT HAVE A CONTINGENCY FUND
It’s rare that a project comes in on budget exactly. Once you start tearing into walls and moving appliances, well, you see just what’s behind there and sometimes it means you have to do additional work. When the previous owners of our home renovated, they did it on the cheap. We had insufficient circuits. The gas line for the fireplaces didn’t run all the way to the fireplaces. They failed to vent the stove. The family room wall had to be re–drywalled so it fit the fireplace.
You know, things like that. Things that are going to cost more money. Be prepared
We decided to bring the rooms up to code and that did cost more. But it was the safe thing to do and the right thing to do. We exceeded our budget and our contingency, but we made a decision to go forward as planned, anyway.
When it was over, we were thrilled to no longer have to live in the back of the house, using the guest bathroom as a makeshift kitchen. But we kind of missed the crew. They were all so personable, Riley liked them and it was fun watching them do such a good job. I know, I sound crazy, don’t I? Maybe that illustrates how much we liked every single one of them.
Part 2 is coming soon, with before and afters.