Help! I'm surrounded by renovators and remodelers! Forget the next Centers-for-Disease-Control-forecasted pandemic—I live in fear of catching renovation fever.

So many people close to me have embarked upon projects to utterly transform their home-sweet-homes. And it all seems to have happened so suddenly. One friend purchased a scary, worn-out place and is in complete demolition mode. I hear the pounding and drilling as I write this.

Another took an already beautiful bathroom—full of space, sparkling fixtures, huge mirrors and immaculate tiles—and gutted it to create a true shrine to the porcelain gods. A wall was almost removed and then replaced three inches east to accommodate a one-inch-longer bathtub. But then the cost of the custom shower doors would have surpassed the price of the custom bowl sink (think four figures), which floats in air, no plumbing to be seen.

Then another simply moved in to a new place, and in the process threw out every piece of his old furniture. He would like to visit us, but his girlfriend has informed him that they will be shopping for new furniture at least for the next six months. We won't see them for awhile.

According to "The Changing Nature of the Housing Industry" put out by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, home renovations and remodeling in the U.S. have reached a never-before-seen level. In 2000, Americans spent $150 billion on home remodeling; by 2004, it had shot up to $224 billion.*

The trend is forecasted not to slow within the next decade.

What drives people to live inhaling old house dust, surrounded by exposed floorboards and without bathroom facilities for any extended stretch of time?

A DIYer—"do it yourself" renovator—from this aforementioned group allowed me some insight. Mike Moser (NOT his real name) is a 30-something writer with a day job who lives in the 'Burbs and works in the computer industry in New York City. Moser was so committed to turning his kitchen and dining room into one huge kitchen, just the way he liked it, that he stuck with it for almost three years. He has earned the personal motto, "DIY or DIE." It is this passion, obsession and vision that drives him and people like him.

How long did the kitchen project take? In the world of DIY, the meanings of "start" and "finish" have been redefined. "It was a multi-stage process," says Moser. "I took out half of the wall between the kitchen and the dining room. It was like that for about two years. Then I decided to take out the wall between the kitchen and the central hallway. Then there was the other half of the first wall to take out. Then I had to put in a new floor to fill up the space where the wall had been and match up all of the hardwoods between the rooms."

This already was a lot for me to digest. When I think of a kitchen renovation, I think of new appliances and new countertops. Then somehow the rest gets done...by someone else.

"Then, I decided to upgrade the electric and the plumbing, which meant the walls and ceiling had to come down so that work could be done to code. What started out as a effort to get a bit more light in one room ended up being a full renovation of two rooms."

How much did all of this cost? "I'll have to calculate that. $14,000 for the cabinets, $3,500 for the countertops, and of course, two new floors, wire, junction boxes, light fixtures, copper and plastic pipes, two new sinks and lots of new tools. Every new task is an opportunity to buy new tools. You justify the cost by thinking how much it would have cost to pay a tradesman do the same work."

While any renovation can be damaging to the wallet, it can also be physically hazardous. This renovator developed a condition called "trigger finger" sometime during the years of banging and hammering. "But it cured my carpal tunnel," he adds happily. "Give a little. Get a little." And there are other hazards. "The biggest negative was that my house was a construction site, so there was no entertaining at home," recalls Moser. "There were less evenings out playing because I was at home replacing old pieces of my house with new pieces. But now it's all done, and I have a delightful place to welcome people. And I get to find new friends because my old ones have forgotten me."

With such a sunny outlook, Moser was able to withstand these stresses. He has heard of people completely losing it, however. "Lots of people lose their minds during renovations. Some perfectly placid, totally unflappable people who have never felt stressed in their lives—they hire a contractor, and wind up either losing their minds or getting a divorce, all because they want to change the surfaces and use of space in their rooms."

How was our hardy DIYer able to survive all of this? "I don't mind living in chaos, and only permit tolerant people around me, which are very rare." Indeed. In the end, the result is the big payday. Says Moser, "I now have natural cherry cabinets, with glass doors in an oriental motif, black stone countertops, and lots of surfaces and two sinks for 'assistant chefs' to prepare ingredients. I have bright lights for cooking and soft lights for eating and a kitchen that's a delight for the cook, by her own testimony. I have light in parts of my house that had never seen it, and a whole feeling of welcome has charged the house."

Is it all worth it? "Absolutely," says Moser. "I've gained new skills and learned a lot about the process of re-making a house. In fact, I thought it might be a reasonable way to spend time when I retire: buy houses and fix 'em up. However, I would take a more orderly, direct, business-like approach to it because you have to get in and out. Time is money."

DIYers believe that they can transform damp basements and dreary rooms purely with their own muscle, smarts and sweat. Some succeed. This remodeler did most of the projects by himself and with the help of friends; in his opinion, "The reason why DIY is so popular is because it's impossible to get anyone else to do this for you." Some contractors made appearances at the end of the project. Based on these encounters, he believes, that finding "an honest workman who'll charge you a reasonable price and care about the outcome is like looking for a unicorn." Interestingly enough, he admits "it might cost more to do it yourself, but even if you have to do it twice, once to learn and once for use, you will get a better result that trying to rationalize the shoddy efforts left behind by the typical worker."

Another crucial and often intimidating aspect of DIY home improvements is handling your own contracts while hiring people to work for you. Our DIYer did not play around with this, instead getting a loan from a bank that will not release funds until the project is over. And there have been cases of contractors who are really, really nice people but who can be a bit loose about when they show up and when they actually complete the work. This can further fray nerves and test patience.

Our DIYer recommends financial motivation, "It is difficult to demand delivery and services from people who have spent time ingratiating themselves. But still, get everything in a written contract and withhold 20% until all is done to one's complete satisfaction."

Perhaps a reason why home renovation shows are so popular is that people know this is hard work and expensive and would rather renovate vicariously. Home renovation television took off two years ago with The Learning Channel’s Trading Spaces and the launch of the DIY cable network. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition first aired quietly on ABC last year as a midseason replacement. The show’s ratings have grown to where it now draws an average of 15.9 million viewers a week, putting it consistently in or near the top 20 shows. But the ratings for Trading Spaces declined recently (659,000 last year to 429,000 this year on Saturday nights), and now the cable network has gone to a non-perky-host format. Perhaps instead of watching neighbors paint the walls, we’d like to see what a team of experts could do to our little castles.

Renovating takes a big commitment. It is stressful beyond measure. It can be painful in myriad ways. And once you start, you have to finish it—not good for those of us who like to dabble in hobbies or daydream. I come away with a new respect for these courageous people who turn their lives upside down often on a whim and wonder if I have the mettle to follow suit. Are you ready to renovate?

*(Source: The National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) Homeowner Remodeling Survey 2004)

Links:
Want that nifty laser pointer measuring thing? Find it at: www.amazon.com
Worried about trigger finger? www.merck.com

 

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