home renovation couple

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This post is a home renovation survival guide.


Welcome, fellow homeowner. I take it you’re ready to tear your house apart?

Excellent.  You’ve come to the right place.  (Insert evil laugh here.)

I, Noreen, descend from a long line of 5 generations of carpenters, dating all the way back to Ireland’s potato famine, who each individually drove their wives mad by ripping apart the house.  (Ok, I’m not 100% sure about the potato famine thing, but I do know that my dad’s a 4th gen carpenter.)  There’s something in my bones that equates tearing out a wall to a good time. 

Derek and I (with lots of help!) together have renovated 2 kitchens, 3 bathrooms, and 5 bedrooms in our house.  All totaled, we feel we can speak on this topic quite candidly, and intimately know the challenges you might be facing. 

Before you bust a move, I have some advice on how to survive the mess you’re about to create!

To help you avoid the doom and gloom that is a decreased living space permeated with increased stress (and dust!), we’ve created this home renovation survival guide for you.

Behold, our best advice for surviving the mess you’re about to make!  I’ve organized some of this by room, for your sake, unless you’re a level-ten crazy, like Britney Spears ca. 2008, like OJ and that white Bronco, like… we are, and decide to rip out your bathroom, kitchen, and master bed all at once. 

Without further ado…

The ultimate home renovation survival guide.


Plan, plan, plan

The best thing you can do for yourself is to plan!  Plan everything.  Make a goal end date and work backwards from there. 

Want to finish your kitchen in time for Thanksgiving, to avoid renovating during the holidays?  Good, make an end date for some time in October (leaving yourself a buffer), and plan how long you think it will take for your chosen renovation scope

Remember: the more you remove, the longer your project will take.  A full gut-reno will obviously take longer (and possibly include more hiccups) than painting your cabinets and changing out hardware. 

Regardless of how intricate or simple your plan is, just… plan it.  This gives you the time and head space necessary to order materials (check for everything! Don’t let your dream fixtures be back ordered!), get your crews and subcontractors in order, and give yourself time for permits, dumpsters, inspections, etc. 

I cannot emphasize the importance of planning enough.  With a good plan, you’ll be thriving, not just surviving.


Budget

You know, this topic isn’t fun, but it’s necessary.  It’s part of Personal Finance 101: set yourself a realistic budget. 

We personally do not take out loans for our renovations (except for our 203k), and recommend you do the same.  Save up for it if you need to.  Paying a huge interest rate for years on your French Country Kitchen isn’t worth it for your long-term financial health! 

Know the cash number you are willing to spend.  Assess what is reasonable.  As a result, there may be some give and take on what your project will involve.  That’s okay!  Better to hash this out ahead of time than be sitting on a pile of sheetrock and realizing you need $20k more.  (An entire post on project budgets is coming down the pike, promise.) 

For now, just list your needs and wants, and budget from there.  Oh, and if you want to save a few bucks, check out our post on how to save money on home renovations.

It’s also wise to budget a 10% buffer above your expected spending.  This will keep your monetary plan from going haywire if an unforeseen expense comes along. 


Be realistic

Be honest with yourself.  If you think you work fast, that’s great! You probably do. 

But in our experience – particularly in our house, which was built before the Titanic sunk – you might encounter unforeseen hiccups.  Entire walls filled with brick, rodent infestation, unknown plumbing issues… the list could go on and on.  (Why yes, we did encounter each of those things in our beloved two family…)

If you’ve gotten yourself a fixer upper or a foreclosure (or a “both” as in our case) – know that you will likely be correcting bad work as you go.  Think about it – if the previous owner couldn’t afford to pay their mortgage, then they probably cut corners. 

Don’t be like them.  Budget yourself some time to correct their mistakes.  Things like door frames, crappy trim installation, suspicious electric… these things take time to do properly. 


Get people to help you

If you learn anything from this home renovation survival guide, please know that it takes a village.

If you have anyone – and I mean anyone – in your life who knows about houses, ask for their help. Yes, just ask them! Don’t be shy! I mean, of course, offer to feed them or pay them or help on their next project – beg or barter, but whatever you do, GET THE HELP.

Feeling doubtful that folks will help? I beg to differ.

We found that there are good people in this world who think it’s fun to work on houses. It’s true! When we replaced our entire staircase, my dad called in a few friends who thought it would be really fun to install a 14-step staircase in our house. I couldn’t believe it. There they were, a bunch of middle aged fellas, giddy as kids at a theme park to be covered in dust and working together on an unmercifully heavy staircase.

Make the ask. Get help.

staircase installation
Truly. A bunch of good folks came over to our place to shove a giant staircase into place, just for fun.

Hire out when necessary

AKA point and pay!  Keeping up with a renovation is very time consuming. 

If you’re working full time or even part time, take a realistic inventory of your physical & emotional energy stores, and hire out some stuff if you can swing it financially.  We have an entire post dedicated to all the reasons to point and pay on house projects

You know your skills and limits the best.  You’ll know when it’s time to raise a white flag and hire a subcontractor. 


Take a break when necessary

Having grown up a competitive Irish dancer, I do understand the “no pain, no gain” mentality.

However, modern thought has discerned that workers work better when they take a break. You are likely no different. Whether it’s just you, or you + crew, be sure to take breaks to hydrate – and of course, if you’re working through a morning, craft yourself a sweet coffee break!

Also, don’t underestimate the power of leaving your reno site.

Quick story: we happened to be invited to 4 weddings over the course of our 2019-2020 1st floor kitchen reno.  We went to all of them.  Three out of four were out of town, taking a full weekend each.  We knew it would slow down our project, but we didn’t mind.  Here’s why: 

  1. The mental, physical, and visual break from our reno was rejuvenating. 
  2. It’s always nice to celebrate and witness a wedding. 
  3. We got fed while we didn’t have a kitchen at home! 

(Okay, #3 is shallow, but c’mon, a Jersey wedding when you’ve been eating freezer meals for 6 months is a serious treat!!). 

My point here is that while yes, it’s important to finish your project and hustle and get ‘r done, it’s also important to maintain your sanity and be regular people doing regular things outside of your house. Remember, this is a home renovation survival guide. Emphasis on “survival.”

Wedding attendees
Why yes, we did attend a 6pm wedding after sheetrocking our master bedroom that morning!

Tearing out the kitchen

Alright, let’s get room specific.  This home renovation survival guide will increase to the “advanced” level when you descend upon the kitchen.

I will assess, the kitchen is hardest because it is command central in umpteen ways!  We have an eat-in kitchen – maybe you do too? – so ours included the dining space as well. 

If you’re tackling the kitchen, I humbly suggest the following:

  1. Have a plan!!  See #1 above.  Plan anything you can think of.
  2. Make some freezer meals.  There is an ocean of freezer meal info on the internet.  Check out our favorite freezer meals here!
  3. Make yourself a renovation recipe cheat sheet – a go-to list of what to cook during a kitchen renovation.
  4. Create your makeshift kitchen – fully explained in this post.  The quick version: define the space, assemble your small appliance army, and fill your shelves & drawers with strict intention.  
  5. Move out.  Yep, move out of your kitchen, complete with moving spreadsheets and labeled boxes.  Just shoving stuff into a corner won’t do!  You’ll lose your mind looking for a random item later.  Keep organized and you’ll thank yourself in the end, I promise!
  6. Plan for longer than expected, just in case.  See #2 above, Be Realistic.  Better to be prepared for extra time than to be side swiped by surprise when you encounter an unforeseen setback. 
  7. Give yourself a place to wash dishes.  You’re always going to have a dish to wash, unfortunately.  Please keep a sink available somewhere!
kitchen reno monkeys
As you can see, we definitely kept our sanity after installing our kitchen floor.

Tearing out the bathroom

Second only to the kitchen, ripping out a bathroom is a tough one.  This is particularly difficult if you only have one bathroom in your house to begin with.  Even if you have an extra half bath, the no-shower situation can be daunting.  Let’s explore.

Have another bathroom

The easiest solution to ripping out your bathroom is to have another bathroom.  We specifically renovated our 2nd bathroom (i.e. turning our basement bath into a dream) before renovating our 1st floor bath.  We knew that our 1st floor reno would take a while and didn’t want to be stuck without a john for months on end. 

If you only have one bathroom, see #1 above and plan very carefully.  If you clean up every night after working and get your plumbing done quickly, you can do it!  I believe in you!  Get creative – temporary shower curtains over studs and reallllllly quick showers can get you through a few days.  Just… get the toilet done, and fast. 

Where you gonna shower?

Here’s the thing about DIY.  You’re the one who’s gonna get dirty.  You’re going to need a place to clean yourself up at the end of the day, whether it’s convenient or not. 

There are ways to solve this challenge.  One example – my big brother ripped out his house’s only shower, and for a week, he and his wife maximized their YMCA membership by showering there.  As for his two young kiddies at the time, I believe he just sponged them down and hoped for the best. 

Perhaps you have a pool outside with an outdoor shower.  Set up a sprinkler and add some soap for the kids if it’s summer – they’ll probably think it’s super fun! 

Or… maybe just talk to your neighbors and see if you can borrow their bathroom for a day or two.

For heaven’s sake give yourself a toilet and a sink

In other words, prioritize the essential plumbing.  Showers are wayyyy more easily solved than a toilet and sink. 

If you haven’t ripped out your kitchen simultaneously, then you can use the kitchen sink to wash your hands, brush your teeth, or shave.  Then plan to get your toilet done quickly. 

If not, I mean… there’s always the great outdoors?  Or rent a classy port-a-john to put on your front yard?  I personally have not lived this one – please comment if you have ideas or have lived through this!

Hand sanit!!

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably survived the year 2020, never mind surviving your crazy home renovation.  You know the deal: buy a gallon of hand sanit.  

And use it. 

Often. 


Living space / Bedroom

Ok, now we are getting into the “easier” rooms.  Living spaces and bedroom are inconvenient, but they’re a bit more “doable” than rooms that involve plumbing. 

Our best advice:

Have a place to sleep that’s comfy – you’re gonna need it

Even if it’s the futon in the rec room… give yourself an oasis to plop down into at night. 

DIY can involve some hard work.  You may or may not discover muscles in your body that you never knew existed. Your hands will feel dry and need some TLC.   You’re likely going to feel exhausted.

Create a place to rest your head. 

Have a room that’s oasis land, even if it’s multipurpose

Particularly if your living room is ripped to shreds, you’ll want a room to chill out in on the days and evenings that you’re not working. 

Especially if you have kids – they’ll need a place to go away from the mess! 

If you have a spare basement room or guest room, these are ideal for some hang-out space! 

Pare down and move out as much “stuff” as possible!

As I mentioned earlier… it’s really tough to work on a room that’s got furniture and boxes in it.  Do yourself a favor and move out (without losing your sanity)!  Pack it up like you’re about to load the u-haul. 

You’ll thank yourself when you’re not tripping over boxes when trying to paint.

Fringe benefit: your nice stuff will remain exactly that… nice.  And not covered in construction dust. 


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    When all else fails…

    You and I have both watched our share of HGTV, right?  It looks so fun!  However, I must remind myself that 99.9% of the time (and I can’t recall a case in the .01% I’m accounting for here), the crews you see on TV are working on empty houses. 

    What a luxury!  Here in the shadow of Manhattan’s skyline, we should be so lucky to have such vast working space. 

    I imagine it’s possible that you, too, are working on a house that’s uh, shall we say… occupied.  And if you’re a DIYer, I imagine that you’re planning to work on your humble abode while you and your family are still living in it. 

    It’s easier to reno without well-meaning-but-unhelpful-people underfoot.  When all else fails, send the kids with grandma to a local museum or waterpark, beach day, the theatre, play date at the neighbors’, summer camp for a week, whatever you can make happen. 

    Working on an empty house requires meticulous advance planning to have your materials and crew ready to go on the date you want most.  But, even if it’s only for a day to work in peace, your project will get a huge jump forward for every day that your efforts have a laser focus!    


    Alright, fellow homeowners, that’s all I’ve got.  What am I missing?  What essential tip would you add to this ultimate home renovation survival guide?


    home renovation survival guide