January 2016: we bought a little cabin in the mountains to escape summer’s heat.
If home remodeling projects could be called children, our second project of this past year definitely fits the mold of the middle child – plain, drab, neglected.
February 2016: furnishings were gathered.
Taking pictures helped us remember what we had bought (and which store we had left it in!).
March 2016 – construction wraps up.
A new roof, new windows, remodeled floor plan, insulation, and running water.
Move-in day was on the last day of March. . .
April 2016: spring had sprung.
May 2016: lazy, happy days.
June 2016: back on the market.
How could we leave these beautiful mountains at the end of the summer? Instead, we hatched a plan to sell both homes (the cabin and our home in Greensboro, N.C.), and move back to the mountains permanently. Our trusted agent’s photographer captured our renovation efforts on camera.
July, August, September, October 2016: showing, after showing. . . after showing.
A showing request comes in – at all times of the day or night. Spiff things up, sweep the porch, check for cob webs, dust the furniture, put away the dog bowls, hide the dirty laundry, turn on all the lights, drive the dogs away in the Jeep. . . wait, wait, wait (sometimes an hour, sometimes 10 minutes). Two days, or two hours later: repeat.
January 2017: SOLD!
This little cabin proved to be a determined little house. It was brave, willing to think outside the box and open to compromise. It may have felt neglected for a long time, but when the time came for it to shine, it embraced the opportunity. A classic middle child indeed.
It was the windows of this home that first stole my heart – casement style with a crank handle that go beyond stylish; they’re downright romantic.
Maybe it stands to reason then that the first ‘decorated’ space in this home would be one of these lovely windows. While unpacked boxes were everywhere, and we could barely move around the misplaced furniture, I found a pair of drapes and immediately installed them in the keeping room. It did not escape my notice that there were no kitchen cabinets, stove, kitchen sink, or master shower at the time, but we had one beautiful window – then another, and another, and another. . .
Renovating a house is the easy part. Moving in is where it gets interesting.
We’ve spent about seven weeks living in our latest renovation. The ‘moving-in’ part happened in July, although that move-in day excluded us. When we made the decision to move ourselves into the house, it wasn’t necessarily because the construction phase had ended, but that it had gotten sufficiently close enough to being finished that we could save time by settling in while the last few projects were wrapped up. I asked my husband what he would say about living here over these past seven weeks. He said, “It’s been a trip.”
We thought the kitchen cabinets would be installed by the first week of November. . . they were late. The stove arrived, but the propane tank sat down by the road for several days – which left the stove looking quite nice, but totally useless.
The cabinets finally arrived, but we had lost our install date for the countertops. When the countertops arrived last week, we discovered the drain didn’t fit our extra deep farm sink – which left it looking quite nice, but totally useless.
We had finally pulled everything together for a proper kitchen, except the kitchen sink.
You may wonder what can be accomplished without a kitchen sink? More than you might imagine. . . although I would tell you the modern kitchen sink is not overrated.
It seems my house is like our American election: endless surprises, mud slung everywhere, and the end result the biggest upset in history.
As for my house, there’s no kitchen, the master bath is still under construction, the attic access has been temporarily closed off, which means the electrical work can’t be finished, the painting was done before the electrical was finished, and now there’s sheetrock repair and re-painting everywhere. . . suffice it to say, not one room in the entire house can be considered finished. And I don’t mean decorated.
Fortunately, on the days I have a meltdown my husband is optimistic, and when he has a meltdown, I’m in good spirits. I couldn’t promise the outcome if we both had a meltdown on the same day.
We moved in about three weeks ago, and ate out for all three meals a day for two days when I declared I couldn’t take it anymore. My husband purchased a small toaster oven, and made it his mission to prepare delightful meals at home, which we ate from plastic plates with plastic utensils (easy cleanup at least).
Finally, the cabinets were installed – oh happy day – except there were issues. Replacement parts have been ordered, countertops measured, and sometime before Christmas we may actually have a complete kitchen.
Although I’ve spent oodles of time studying French Provincial decor, it has not transformed one iota of my belongings into French. And, since I am unwilling to sell off the whole caboodle and start from scratch, a somewhat modified French style has emerged.
The foyer’s coat closet was demolished with the intention of settling this oversized armoire back into its alcove, except the armoire began to look more at home in the living room over time, and I discovered these great columns in the back room of a local antique store that fit nicely into the vacated coat closet alcove. Our next job is to paint the interior doors a beautiful shade of gray, and stain the columns black.
We took the drapes from our little cabin for the Keeping Room – even though I was unsure about mixing their animal print and black velvet with the contemporary blue velvet of the new Ralph Lauren chairs. The electrician will add the swing-arm sconces over the bookshelves. . . soon I hope.
The down side of this home’s mansard roof is that it eliminates the majority of the upstairs walls for artwork leaving me with too many pictures! In a diversion from my original vision, our guest bath was the only place that could support all five of these botanical prints, which led to a predominantly black scheme for our pink bathroom.
All that’s left for this room is a window treatment, and window seat cushion.
I read the advice of a designer long ago who said every room should have a touch of black, advice I have enthusiastically taken to heart. . . although blue has become the surprise companion color, including beautiful blue-green drapes for the living room that will be here – yes, by Christmas.
Our last ever renovation is nearing an end. No one seems to believe it will really be our last one. When I make the proclamation it seems to end with a bit of a question mark while my husband makes his proclamation with an exclamation point, “I’ll never do this again!”
You always hope to end on a high note. Some of our past renovations were clearly more stressful while others more tolerable, but they all seem less horrific as time passes. . . which simply means the latest renovation is always the worst.
My husband hates surprises. To him surprises mean more money, and he’s usually right. His most memorable surprise was at one of our Chicago condo remodels when he discovered the new parquet flooring was lifting – a whole house of floors had to be replaced. I came home during a master bathroom remodel to find water pouring through the chandelier over the dining room table. Then there was the renovation before last when our contractor had to call a bee keeper to relocate thousands of bees from the walls of the third floor.
My greatest angst comes from a project careening off schedule. Despite the catastrophic blunder, that master bath remodel was only 2 days over schedule, although a master bath remodel years earlier went a full 2 months longer than estimated. No two projects are ever alike. Some houses have been stripped down to their bare walls, or just one or two exterior walls, and rebuilt in the same amount of time as other projects involving only ‘cosmetic’ changes.
It seemed poetic when we realized just this week that we have finished, on average, one renovation for every year we’ve been married. We spent a full day cleaning the construction dust from one of the rooms in this last project, and sat down with a glass of wine to discuss what, if anything, we had learned from these 17 projects. . . turns out there’s been a very good education indeed.
1. Be flexible.
There’s rarely more than one or two things in a house that are terribly important to my husband. The location of the TV is one. . . neither of us could think of a close second. For me, I’m quite the opposite and no detail is too small.
In all these projects, I can’t seem to find such a thing as perfect. It’s always a great pleasure to work with contractors that have a ‘can-do’ attitude, but sometimes there’s something that can’t be done, or something that would be a world easier if done some way other than the way you imagined.
The fact is, there’s usually more than one correct answer, and a good deal of heartburn can be avoided if you view these obstacles as a design opportunity rather than one more thing that didn’t go the way you wanted. Some of our favorite designs have come about as a result of something that couldn’t be done the way we first envisioned.
2. Focus on what’s really important.
Being flexible should only go so far. If you want your bedroom light in the center of the ceiling, or the tv exactly center on the fireplace, don’t accept 12 inches right or left. Decisions made during a renovation last many years. It’s good to figure out for yourself what’s important, and stand your ground.
3. Pick your battles carefully.
Inevitably the time comes when the renovation has overstayed its welcome, the contractor is ready to be done with your job, and you’re ready to be done with that renovation. Or, it is possible you’ve found yourself in a remodel that is swarming with issues. If every interaction you have with the workers involves a complaint, those fine workers will shut you down, the relationship becomes adversarial, and it is not a win-win. Lesson No. 2 becomes the guiding rule. . . don’t sweat the small stuff.
4. It always takes longer than you think.
Sometimes I’ve packed up my paper dolls and moved in ‘ready or not.’ Sometimes I send my husband in to be the bad guy and declare the project will be finished or else. I would like to report that any approach whatsoever makes a difference, but the things that caused the project to careen off schedule have probably happened long before you’re disgusted with said project and pitching a tantrum will only destroy whatever can be salvaged at the end of the project. Lesson No. 3 becomes the guiding rule. . . (Side note: it almost always goes over budget too. Be forewarned.)
5. The beauty is in the details.
It is in the quality of the smallest details that make a home truly spectacular. You could spend a million dollars, but if the sheetrock is finished poorly, the tile isn’t straight and level, the crown molding doesn’t match up at the corners, or if any one of a long list of details are flawed, the entire renovation will lack the wow factor that comes with a home where these details have been given the appropriate attention.
It’s not the kind of thing you can request be done. A person must take pride in their work; to produce a quality product because it’s important to them, not you.
After 17 renovations and 17 years of marriage, I could not necessarily advise which of these lessons are more important for the renovation. . . or for the marriage.
“Shopping“ punctuates every remodeling project, and eventually takes on a life of its own. So far our shopping list has included toilets, sinks & vanities, faucets for the sinks, shower and bath, a kitchen countertop & kitchen cabinets, the refrigerator, stove & vent, dishwasher, washer & dryer, marble for the shower walls, bathroom floors & kitchen backsplash, paint for the walls, ceiling, trim and doors, doorknobs for every door, a heating & cooling system, a fence, propane tank, and light fixtures for nearly every room.
And with every project, there’s something on my shopping list that proves totally elusive. . . wearing my patience thin. In our last project it was the drawer pulls for the kitchen cabinets. This time it was the sconce for the powder room, although I haven’t gotten to the drawer pulls yet.
With this many things to buy at once, the name of the game becomes budget.
We’ve driven to the other side of town to plunder marble remnants, made a trip to the appliance clearance corner at Lowe’s every week (we found our washer for $300 – a savings of $700!), and waited for the deal of the day to pop up everywhere and anywhere. The biggest impact to the budget, however, can be made with the one item that shows up most often on my shopping list: light fixtures.
This house had just three original fixtures that could be kept, which meant we needed 14 new fixtures. Ten choices have been made. . . four to go.
We bought the chandelier for the kitchen before we had officially bought the house (I wish I could say this was an unusual thing for us to do). Now this chandelier is in one of the many boxes stuffed between the remodeling debris, and I can only describe that it has beautifully colored crystals of clear, pink, red and purple (as best I remember).
The upper cabinets have been removed above the sink, which overlooks the keeping room. Then the price dropped on these Pottery Barn crystal pendants (from $299 to $103) and a pair of them will hang over the sink cabinet.
Gray cabinets were spot checked to be sure they wouldn’t clash with the cobalt blue of the refrigerator. Red velvet drapes match the red velvet bar stools, which I hope will also match the new chandelier, and the table and chairs we used in our previous kitchen.
The Keeping Room
Several months ago E.J. Victor held a warehouse sale at a non-descript warehouse in Morganton, N.C. We wouldn’t dare miss it. . .
Two upholstered chairs sat in a separate room from the case goods typical of these sales. Although we noticed them immediately, they were blue. . . not our go-to color. Nonetheless, they were shockingly beautiful and I couldn’t take my eyes off them.
I’ve tried not to let the chairs dictate the light fixture for this room – it is possible the chairs could wear out before the fixture needs to be replaced some dozen odd years down the road – but I can’t help but see the chairs and the room as one.
We’ve blown our budget a bit to secure fixtures that would help make the old paneling in this room sing (my husband hated the paneling). Swing-arm lights will be added over each of the three bookshelves, along with one somewhat modern yet stunning flush mount.
The master closet (shown at the far end of the photo) has been demolished with that space being added to the master shower (on the other side of the wall). Both windows include window seats, and an opportunity for seat cushions with fabulous fabric.
Rosie 5 Light Crystal Pendant by OK Lighting (Wayfair: $118) Anichini Tapestry Linens (The Red Collection $200)
A full set of Anichini’s tapestry linens showed up at my favorite consignment store in Greensboro, N.C. (The Red Collection) for just $200 (retail value: $1000+). The perfect chandelier showed up on Wayfair’s clearance rack for $118 (retail: $195) where the copper finish and smokey grey crystals will compliment the linens and new wall color (Sherwin Williams Buff). Hardwood floors will replace the green shag carpet.
I found the large gold chandelier for the dining room at a consignment store for just $45. From top to bottom left, fixtures for the guest bath, upstairs office, and guest room – each one $100 or less.
We had intended to add can lights to the barren living room ceiling until we met with the electrician who enlightened us to the consequences of those can lights – he would have to drill into the lovely crown molding. Our fallback plan is to add several well-placed sconces, although we don’t know that any one of the six light switches along the interior wall will actually control anything we add to this room.
Not every room can support my idea of the perfect light, my own design decisions have put restrictions on the perfect choice for some rooms, and the very fact that the price has dropped significantly is what makes other fixtures perfect.
In the ideal renovation where we have stripped the walls down to the bare studs, there are few compromises. Every fixture contributes to the ideal plan. Sometimes life isn’t ideal though, and in those cases isn’t it nice to know we can still find the light of our life.
Our agent emailed a picture of a house to us last February. The subject line said, “This might be the one!” We had put our dream home in the mountains of Western North Carolina on the market a few weeks earlier having made the decision to move ourselves to the beautiful city of Greensboro, North Carolina.
It would be a gross misrepresentation if I admitted to you now that my husband was anything less than furious when I had said to him, “What if we moved to a larger city?” For several weeks I failed miserably at answering his question, “Why?” He remained reluctant through the entire house hunting phase until we walked through the front doors of this lovely, old home. This home changed everything.
We bought the house as-is. There was no inspection, no need for due diligence really. Bees had set up residence in the 3rd floor bedroom walls, the kitchen flooded when the water was re-connected, the key broke off in the back door when we tried to escape the flooding kitchen, yet it was the garden that frightened my husband more than anything we faced inside the house. It was perfect.
The previous owners had left a note on the counter wishing for us all the same happiness they had enjoyed here for nearly 50 years. After four months of renovations that took the house down to its bare bones, we had created the perfect home. We moved in the first week of the hottest August I’ve ever met.
We had barely gotten unpacked and settled when the doctors discovered his cancer. Working our way through this experience made us realize life is short, and ultimately the same question entered our discussions again. “What if . . . ?”
It was after we had bought a little cabin in the mountains to escape the summer heat that I discovered the answer to my husband’s question of Why? It seemed to me our move to Greensboro had served its purpose, to discover and treat the cancer all previous doctors had missed, and now it was time to go home.
On May 4th we put our lovely, old home up for sale. May 6th it went under contract, although that contract was sadly terminated on the 24th. After a 10-day silence, the 3rd person to see this house extended our 2nd offer, and we finalized the deal on June 24th.
Every square inch of this nearly 100-year old home was poked and prodded; every nook and cranny analyzed, discussed, and debated. There were a few surprises. For example, excessive moisture was creeping under the foundation courtesy of the torrential downpours we’ve had all summer. Due Diligence deadlines came, went, were extended, and sometimes extended themselves all on their own. Experts were consulted, repair lists amended. All the while, we waited. It was on July 4th when my husband said to me, “We should write a book on how to inject stress into life.”
We became experts on the installation of a French Drain, compiled a thoughtful reply to our Buyer’s list of concerns, and fiinally finalized the deal four days ago. This weekend our belongings will be moved back to the mountains. . . just shy of 12 months from the day we left.
Our lovely, old home was a good investment, my husband is in good health, we’re ecstatic about returning to the mountains we love, we can finally move into our ‘forever’ home, and as our agent back home says, “Yeah!!!!! Maybe life can go back to simply remodeling.” My thoughts exactly.