Photo Credit: Amanda Follett Hosgood
Renovate, Innovate: A Crash Course on Surviving Renovations
One of my formative memories is driving down the Oregon coast with my dad. I was the proud new possessor of a learner driver’s licence and the feeling of cruising along the winding coastal roads, warm wind buffeting us through the open windows, a gas-station-purchased Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young cassette blasting out of the crappy stereo, was blissful. Little did I know that the impetus for us taking the trip was so my dad could escape the renovations going on at home.
Renovations can be a nightmare. But they don’t have to be, and when they’re behind you—nothing but a fading memory of big dirty boots tracking through the house and dust everywhere—renovations are often what make a house a home. There’s a deep satisfaction to be gained by transforming your digs into something that is uniquely you, re-imagining how your home can look and function.
For my dad, the best way to handle a renovation was to vacate and pay the professionals to do their thing (and let my mom handle the craziness of the transformation). When we rolled into town a few weeks later with our sunburns and memories, we came home to a fresh new house.
For most, though, that tactic isn’t an option and navigating the whole renovation process can be daunting. Any big project has its own set of unique challenges and learning to take the hiccups in stride is probably the most important part of the process. This article gathers together a grab bag of ideas to help you plan and survive your next renovation.
Plan and design
If you’re thinking about a renovation right now, plan for next year. When you open up that wall, you don’t know what you’re going to find, and even the most carefully planned schedules tend to end up needing extensions. Plus, here in northern BC, the number of tradespeople qualified to do the work is limited; chances are, trying to find someone last minute means you’re going to come up dry—or find someone less qualified. Plan ahead, be patient, don’t rush.
That doesn’t mean don’t do anything, however. Every reno starts with a design. Even if you intend to have someone else do all the work, knowing exactly what you want before you hire someone is a good idea. Skipping the planning process is like going in for a haircut and telling your hairdresser, “Do whatever you like,” except you have to live with it for the next 10 years or more.
These days, design inspiration can be found on websites like Pinterest or Houzz, or by searching images on Google. If you’re a TV person, there are entire channels devoted to home renovation and design, and in the print industry there are hundreds of publications on the subject. Hit the library, troll the online world, gather your source info, make notes and drawings, get excited. Planning your space should be fun—just try not to argue too much with your partner while you’re at it.
Think about things like weather, access and functionality during the process. When you rip out the kitchen, where are you going to cook? When
you rip out the bathroom, where will you—well, you know. Once you have a solid idea of what you want, a rough idea of how you think it will happen and a scary idea of how much it will cost, talk to a professional and start pulling together a schedule and a realistic budget.
Budget for beer
Renovations are never straightforward and budgeting can be the trickiest part: “You almost never see a job that goes exactly as planned,” says Erminio Venditelli, a carpenter and contractor based in Prince Rupert. “It’s not like building from scratch. Be prepared that it’s probably going to take longer than discussed and, cost-wise, it always seems to go over.”
Mike Sawyer, Smithers-based owner of Net Zero Structures, recommends using the best-quality materials you can afford while allowing for a couple of pricier “highlight” items.
“Budget is always a concern,” he admits, “but you can use cheap and cheerful materials to do the bulk of the project and pick one or two specialty items with pizazz.”
Whatever helps you stay calm in the face of adversity is worth including in your plans. Maybe that’s a well-timed dinner out, a yoga retreat or an overnight hike to a cabin. Actually writing a mid-renovation reward into your budget is a great way to keep yourself from getting overwhelmed.
Not all renos are about making the house look better. Even if your plan is simply to make your pad look gorgeous, at least consider the idea of increasing efficiency. These days, when environmental awareness is at the forefront of our collective consciousness, reducing energy consumption is an ethical choice. But economical and practical considerations come into play, of course, and lots of homeowners worry about spending too much money on those unseen upgrades.
“There are lots of benefits to relatively low-cost energy efficiency renovations,” says Sawyer, whose company specializes in building high-efficiency structures. He explains that many—if not most—of his customers want a renovation that will make their home prettier and increase its resale value. But, he says, improving a home’s airtightness and insulation has value, too.
“Let’s say you’ve got a shabby-looking house and you want to spruce it up, replace the siding and generally make it look nicer,” he says. “That’s the perfect time to do an energy upgrade.” If a homeowner is going to the trouble of hiring someone to remove and replace the exterior siding, he explains, the opportunity to beef up the insulation and seal off any drafts is only a minimal additional expense and will eventually pay itself off in reduced utility bills.
Find the right crew
Sawyer warns that finding a properly qualified contractor can be tricky.
“In BC, unlike plumbers and electricians, you don’t have to be a carpenter to be a home renovator, and contractors can be highly variable in actual skills,” he says. “There are a lot of guys in the reno business that are doing things that aren’t legal.”
Things to look for in a contractor include years of experience, examples of previous work and references, some kind of professional accreditation, such as a Red Seal journeyman ticket or registration with the Canadian Home Builder’s Association (CHBA), and insurance, including third-party liability and Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB). Also, educate yourself on the word “holdback”—the amount retained from a builder until all sub-contractors have been paid—lest you find yourself paying your bills twice.
In smaller towns, it’s not too difficult to find out who does high-quality work; word gets around and just talking to friends and acquaintances will help you find the right person. Nailing down those top-notch contractors, however, might not be as easy. If your first choice is busy, ask her/him for a recommendation. With a little legwork, you can pull together a quality crew. And, as mentioned above, plan far enough ahead and you might not run into that problem at all.
Once you have your contractor and crew in place, let them do their jobs: “It’s nice to have the time to work and not be interrupted,” Venditelli says. “When the customer is out of the way and I can do my thing and then go home, everything is way easier.”
Instead of continually checking in throughout the day, he suggests that the homeowner discuss job details at the beginning or end of each day, leaving the bulk of the time for everyone to just get on with the work. Good communication from the start is essential.
“I like when we have a good understanding,” he says. “The best customers
are people who are pleasant to deal with and easy to talk to about what they want.”
Do it yourself?
In this online era, you can find out how to do pretty much anything on the spectrum of home improvement. That doesn’t mean you should take on an entire reno by watching YouTube videos, however. Becoming a ticketed carpenter, electrician or plumber takes years of apprenticeship, study and on-the-ground training for a reason: these trades aren’t easy.
There are legal and insurance implications as well. Renovations require building permits and inspections and most home improvements need the official endorsement of a professional for your insurance to remain valid. Plus, there’s a lot of misleading information out there and the last thing you want is to start a big job yourself, botch it, and then have to call someone in to fix the mess.
One way for you to contribute to the project and cut costs, without having to take a crash course in the various trades, is to work with your contractor on a division of labour. Ask what you can do to reduce labour expenses. Things like demolition and site prep, buying supplies and lumber and bringing them to the site or even just cleaning up after the day’s work are usually jobs up for grabs that will save you a bit of money. Finishing work is often a safe bet, too: painting, installing baseboards and putting up light fixtures are all relatively easy jobs that you can negotiate to do yourself.
The farther your materials travel, the higher the overall carbon footprint of the project. Buying local isn’t always an option, of course, unless your budget is
As Sawyer suggests, consider splurging on a couple of locally sourced accents to the reno, maybe a big cedar timber or some local birch flooring. Check in at your local lumberyard. Ask them where they get their wood and try to find out what they keep in stock from local sources. Talk to your contractor as well and ask around. There are numerous small-scale mills scattered across northern BC, great places to track down some local wood and support local economy while you’re at it.
When it comes to things like light fittings and handles, the process gets even harder to buy local—but it is possible.
“I got these made in Williams Lake,” my neighbour says showing off the custom iron drawer handles in his new kitchen. “A hundred bucks for all of them.”
That may be more expensive than grabbing some pre-fabricated, made-in- China handles from a box store, but it’s a perfect example of how to highlight a reno.
Knowing that the renovation is not going to stick to the schedule, it’s going to cost more than planned and there will be unexpected hiccups along the way, should you just not bother? Well, home should be comfortable, functional, cosy and, above all, yours. There’s no question renovations are inconvenient, challenging and stressful, but when they’re done, you get to spend every day living in the result—and life is short.
And hey, if the idea of living through the reno is too daunting, you can always just set it up and take a road trip. g jobs require big tools. Look for rental companies, or hire a licenced operator.