How Not to Remodel

(This essay originally appeared in my essay collection Second Thoughts.)

We all know about the potential discord that can arise in a marriage when a couple decides to hire a contractor to do some remodeling work. Costs start out reasonably, and then escalate. Tradespeople don’t show up on time, and delay the project. Decisions need to be made constantly. The strains of remodeling can put even the strongest marriage under stress.

But consider the alternative: doing the work yourselves. Together. That is a true test of a marriage. There is an old adage, “The couple that installs a bathroom together, stays together.” Whoever said that doesn’t know spackle from grout.

During our marriage husband and I have “fixed up” three residences and two rental hones, largely doing the work on our own. Certain jobs we farmed out to professionals, such as installing new windows or shower pans. But much of it – painting, sanding and staining floors, installing light fixtures – we have done ourselves.

During these years of remodeling, I have picked up a few pointers that might help other couples who plan to experience the joys of working together on their homes.

…Make sure you agree on the finished look BEFORE it’s too late to turn back. After your spouse has spent two hours installing a light fixture in a narrow hallway on a ladder with his neck crooked to one side is not the time to tell him, “It just doesn’t look quite like I imagined.” He will not take this as constructive criticism.
…Don’t nag each other about unfinished projects. It was a rainy Saturday when you decided to refinish the bathroom cabinets. Then the sun came out. There has been a drop cloth on the floor for three months now, because any day you are going to finish up.
…Thing Not to say after your spouse has sanded the entire bedroom floor by hand to remove the foam rubber that was left by a carpet that had been glued to the wood floor: “You missed a spot.”
…Thing #2 not to say – “I told you we should have hired someone who knew what they were doing.”
…Thing #3 not to say – “I could call my father and ask him what you did wrong.”
…A general rule of thumb is that a man will never admit he doesn’t have a clue how to fix something. Just let him sit under the kitchen sink for half a day with his flashlight, and keep all small children away. And when he finally calls the plumber, who fixes the problem in three minutes and charges you $165, you will never mention it again.
…Don’t be critical of your spouse’s abilities. After all, it’s free labor. Even if you consider the enamel trim that you painted to be vastly superior in quality to his job, do not go there.
…Keep your conversations to the work at hand. This is not the time to mention your good friend Martha, whose husband just took her to Hawaii while their acoustic ceilings are being scraped and re-plastered.
…An acceptable conversation might be, “We sure are saving a lot of money by doing these ceilings ourselves! I hear it rains a lot in Hawaii this time of year. The Liebermans are going to have a huge Visa bill when they get back!
…An unacceptable conversation would be, “It’s too bad you’re not a dentist like Joe Lieberman, so we could afford to go to Hawaii. We could be sipping Mai Tais on the beach instead of being stuck in this hell-hole.”

Hopefully this discussion will help pave the way for you should you decide to embark upon that perilous, but rewarding journey of “doing it yourself.” Seriously, there are few greater thrills than gazing upon completed work that you have done yourself, in all its glory. Unless, of course, it’s a trip to Hawaii.

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