Everything I Know about Renovating a House I Learned from My Mother
Stop and think about all the things we have learned from our mothers. Sometimes we learn from example and sometimes we learned what not to do from mom's mistakes.
Recently, we sat down to talk to a mother and daughter who both supervised their own home renovations. Mom renovated a country home on eastern Long Island, a project completed just in time for her daughter's wedding. A few weeks after the beautiful ceremony in the backyard, the daughter renovated a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, a project made easier by all the lessons she had learned from her mother. "I watched all the confusion and craziness on my mom's project and all the money wasted, and decided that my renovation would be much more controlled," says the daughter.
Did she succeed?
Let's start with mom's country renovation, a job that began with a budget of $400,000 and a schedule of four months and, eventually, wound up costing more than $1,100,000 and taking almost two years to complete. What went wrong? And what did the daughter learn from her mom's experience?
Don't Be in Such a Hurry!
"First and foremost, we were in too much of a hurry to start," says Maggie MaGee, the mom in question. "The architect had not finalized the plans down to the last detail so the contractor had noone to blame or question. I found that the architect was generally only interested in the overall look of the house and not in the details. Once construction started, the details had to be resolved on the job and confusion reigned."
Natasha, Maggie's daughter, learned how to avoid this problem when she set out to renovate her apartment. Nastasha and her new husband, Gabe, had architectural plans drawn up that included the minutest details. When designing her kitchen, Natasha noted everything she used—from the size of her platters to the number of pots—and made sure her architect created a space for everything. Her closets, cabinets and shelves were designed to include all of her shoes, her pottery collection and her husband's extensive CD archive.
A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned!
Maggie admits that she did not pay enough attention to where her money was being spent. "I did not educate myself as to my job as owner," she confesses. "I left the responsibility for managing the money to my architect and my contractor, two people who had no interest in saving me money. In fact, it was to no one's interest to find a less expensive way to do something, except mine, of course, and I was not watching the store."
Natasha was careful to avoid this mistake. From the very start, she locked in her $50,000 budget and then stayed on top of every expense. "I learned from my mom's experience to ask about every additional charge over budget. I insisted on a work order and an estimate for every expense. I also learned to ask for things that seemed small and inconsequential."
Of course, even with Natasha's careful planning there were unexpected costs. "We had a $1,000 budget for electrical work," explains Natasha, "but during construction we discovered we needed a new electrical box and that was a job we had to sub-contract out. Also, we discovered that both of our toilets were leaking and we needed a licensed plumber to fix the pipes, another unanticipated expense." Still, even with these unforeseen charges, the total budget for Natasha's renovation only went over budget by $7,000, or about 10%, as compared to her mother's almost 300% override. As for the schedule, even with keeping strict tabs on the progress of the work, Natasha's job—originally planned for six weeks—took four months to complete. Still, that was considerably less than the two years mom spent trying to get her renovation completed.
Pay Attention to the Work and your Stuff!
Another lesson mom taught her daughter was to stay close to the job. Because Maggie travels extensively and spends more than half her time on another coast, she was not present for large chunks of the renovation. "Even with the best of intentions, contractors get pulled away to other jobs," explains Maggie. "People who yell the loudest seem to get the attention." This is one of the reasons why the work on her house fell so far behind.
During her own renovation, Natasha visited her apartment almost every day and kept a close eye on the work in progress. She also learned from her mother's experience to move everything out of her apartment before construction began.
"I now advise everyone to take everything out of their house when they renovate," says Maggie. "My contractor assured me that I could store things in my basement and attic and it would be fine. Well, it was most definitely not fine. There was so much dirt and dust that a lot of my things got ruined. And other stuff just went missing."
Is it Good Enough?
While mom is something of a perfectionist, her daughter learned not to get caught up in having to have things done a specific way all the time. "I learned to keep some perspective," says Natasha. "There are a million things you can keep changing and each change eats up both money and time. After seeing what happened in the country house, I came to terms with the idea that things had to be good enough, not perfect. I would ask myself, 'If I just walked in would that (detail) be good enough? Would I be happy or would something like those bullnosed tiles on the backsplash really make me crazy?' I learned to pick my battles and only fight for stuff that really mattered."
At the end of the day, living through and supervising a renovation was harder than either mother or daughter had anticipated though in both cases, they readily admit that it was well worth the effort. Today they are thrilled with their new homes. The house in the country is a showcase where family and friends gather almost every weekend to enjoy the extra bedrooms, the new family room, a fabulous slate patio and an extended kitchen. Natasha's apartment in the heart of the city is a cozy and well-organized retreat for her, her husband and their three cats.
When asked if they would renovate again, both mom and daughter look at each other and laugh. Maggie shrugs as if to say she is not so sure but Natasha answers right away. "Sure," says the daughter, "but only if I'm in charge." Mom nods her head in agreement.