Chris Patey for MyDomaine
Everyone has a renovation horror story. And after finally finishing my own apartment overhaul earlier this year, I totally understand how common it can be. Contractors woo you during the walkthroughs only to do a substandard job during the gig; deadlines are missed; building issues arise out of thin air; budgets are blown; and crews disappear for days. My apartment renovation took about a year and a quarter to complete, with a good five months of inactivity while we were between two sets of contractors. While I was in the thick of it, I thought our trials and tribulations would never end, but now that the job is finally complete and I get to walk through an apartment every day that I truly love, I know it was one of the best learning—and rewarding—opportunities I’ve ever had. Would I have done it differently if I could? Of course (there were a lot of rookie mistakes). So, to be the good Samaritan and help you avoid some of them, here are the top five things I wish I knew before starting a home renovation.
What I didn’t know about selecting a contractor is that my husband and I were handpicking an incredibly intimate relationship; we were not only inviting this contractor into our home, but we had to commit to working together for the next year (and then some). The commitment isn’t just about signing a legally binding contract either. It’s seriously emotional. I spoke with my contractor nearly every single day, checking in on timelines, troubleshooting materials, and negotiating scope changes. If I knew from the beginning that I would have been speaking to this person daily (or at least thinking about speaking to him) for a good year of my life, I would have been a lot more thorough in researching into his company and firm, getting multiple references from past clients, and touring projects in person.
Because my husband and I did not exercise this type of due diligence from the get-go, our relationship with our contractor went south very quickly after we realized his team’s skill-set and his own knowledge and understanding of our design choices didn’t match up to what we were expecting (there’s always a trade-off when you go with the lowest bid that comes in). We ultimately hired a second contractor to finish the job, but more on that in a second.
If you hire an architect to draft up plans, set a budget with a contractor, and scope out the costs of all the materials, you’d assume that’s the final total for the renovation, right? Wrong. There are last-minute appliance swaps and unforeseen electrical issues that couldn’t have been itemized, along with paying for a weekend trip here and there when you just need to get out of the dusty apartment. Knowing your spending limits but still being able to be nimble ultimately worked in our favor. We hired an architect friend who could draft up the plans but not act as an on-site GM, looked for the most basic materials like industrial Daltile instead of choosing custom finishes, and opted to stay in our apartment (for the most part) during the renovation, which is definitely not for everyone. But by saving extra money on some expenses, we were able to spend more when we needed to and ultimately put the money back into the house rather than losing it forever.
I knew I loved the look of certain materials—lots of blonde wood, white 1x1 shower tiles, matte white paint—but what I didn’t know is that most of the dream homes that I was swooning over on Pinterest all featured some of the most fickle materials to maintain. There’s a reason people love using oversize tiles and Caesarstone countertops—they leave less room for error during installation, and they are super durable and easy to clean. Little did I know that some of my favorite aesthetic choices were the most time-consuming for upkeep.
We ended up installing a wooden butcher block countertop from IKEA, but as a trade-off for the initial savings, we now have to wax and seal the wood once a month and immediately wipe up any spills in order to not damage the finish. I got my minimalist dream bathroom complete with my favorite 1x1 tiles, but now every morning I spend a good amount of time wiping down the shower with a cleaner in order to avoid staining the super-visible grout. And those white matte walls that look so cool? We ended up repainting because it showed bumps or knicks instantly, making it a Magic Eraser nightmare.
It took me some time to realize that all of those images on Pinterest are all retouched and staged (shouldn’t be shocking since I work in media, but hey, I forgot), so I had to let go of the notion that all of the work done on my apartment would be absolutely flawless. There will be lines in the moulding that won’t be perfectly straight. Your tile grout may look great from afar, so examining every single right angle every time you’re in the shower will make you absolutely crazy. I had to learn very quickly when to push and pull with our contractors because, yes, I was paying them, but we’re still relying on human labor and there is only so much that can be done.
Once, a close friend came over and I was thick in the middle of complaining about some carpentry issue when she said to me, “No one is even going to notice that once you have furniture.” A wise reminder. Plus how many fights do I really want to have with a contractor about redoing a job? At some point, I reached my limit. And so did my first contractor. After I realized his team just wasn’t skilled enough to do the job to the level that we wanted it, we went our separate ways and I hired a new team to do the finishing touches, like adding shoe moulding, repainting our once matte walls with semi-gloss, and repairing some of the kitchen cabinetry that were just not right.
I never thought I would learn so much about hardware: types of latches, knobs, pulls, and screws. Suddenly, every banal detail in my home was my business, and my contractors were always asking me for the final say on all of the finishes I never really considered, let alone knew what they were called. And no, no two latches are created equal. The types of finishes can transform an apartment from looking like a quickly gutted rental to a custom home. While it was fascinating for a bit, I never need to go into a hardware store again (fingers crossed) to search for a knob plate or hinge at just the right ratio for our pre-war doors. And I can navigate House of Antique Hardware like a pro, which on the right day is a fun party trick.
Do you have any more redecorating tips to share with us?