Part 9i: So You Want to Buy a House and Fix It Up? Thirty Suggestions for Survival
[30 suggestions over 10 sub parts, starting with Part 9a. -ed.]
27. Make sure you’re on the same page as your partner
The renovation divorce is not urban myth — they happen. A friend of mine personally knows of two. My own feeling about renovation divorce is that the renovation is not the root cause of the divorce. Rather, a major renovation can act as a very effective stress test of a relationship, revealing any deep fissures that may exist, and splitting them wider. Or, conversely, it can serve as a grand diversion, a common purpose that occupies a couple, allowing them to avoid dealing with any issues in their relationship. A renovation, or the building of a new house, may even be undertaken as a symbolic fresh start. Once the renovation or house is complete, and the novelty wears off, the underlying issues crowd back in.
My wife and I survived our grinding, three-year renovation, and the upheaval of firing the first general contractor, battered but mostly intact. We each learned things about the other, and about ourselves. My transformation into Captain Ahab, monomaniacally pursuing his white whale, is a tendency I need to rein in. We adapted and made compromises along the way. But there were also nasty blowouts. Cooling off after these rough patches, I would reiterate to myself that the relationship was more important than the renovation. People are more important than things.
For couples considering a renovation for the first time, assume that you are not going to agree on everything. And assume that there are many renovation details that you don’t yet know about or understand that you are not going to agree on — decisions and conflict points that arise in the course of the project, once the pressure is on. In our case, one such decision was whether or not to spend an extra $15K or $20K on rainscreening and re-siding the house, once we discovered the original building envelope was beginning to fail.
As much as possible, partners should make sure they’re on the same page before embarking on the joint undertaking of a major renovation. A simple and well-known tool called ‘the project triangle’, explained in the next section, can give you an idea whether harmony or discord lie ahead, and allow you to work out differences in advance.
28. Fast, good, cheap — pick two
The project triangle illustrates the three basic characteristics of any project — speed of completion, quality of work, and cost — and suggests that realistically we can get the best of two, while the third characteristic will suffer. The overlapping areas in the diagram are the three different possibilities for any project.
For a major renovation, here’s how the project triangle can play out:
• If it’s fast and good, like our reno once the competent general contractor took over, it won’t be cheap because you’re paying market price for a crew of true professionals. You may be willing to pay because you have a particular standard of quality in mind, and you don’t have the rest of your life to learn how to do the work well, and to do it yourself. You feel you are getting fair value. But does your partner have the same conception of ‘value’ that you have? Nothing causes more friction in couple relationships than money.
• If it’s good and cheap, because you’re a skilled renovator and do large amounts of the work yourself, and act as the general contractor for the rest, there’s a high probability that you’ll be on the ten-year-plan, like our neighbours M and S. Some people derive a lot of satisfaction from an ongoing project that slowly comes to fruition, and may not mind living amid an ongoing renovation for years. Others may find that unacceptable. Or the demands of family life make it completely impractical.
• If it’s cheap and fast, there’s a high likelihood that the quality is mediocre or poor, because it just isn’t feasible for one contractor or company to significantly and consistently underprice the competition, and beat them on completion dates, while maintaining comparable quality. You might get lucky from time to time, but on balance you’ll get what you pay for. And what you’re paying for, whether you understand it or not, is probably a superficial papering over of deeper problems, or something that’s going to fall apart, or look like crap in short order, or maybe even right away. Cheap and fast usually equates to quick and dirty, and there’s another little maxim about projects: long after quick is gone, dirty remains. What seemed cheap in terms of money will start to reveal itself as cheap in terms of quality. Which ultimately means it’s not cheaper in terms of money, because it will have to be replaced sooner.
The root of couple tension related to a renovation likely stems from two different renovation conceptions conflicting because they fall into different overlapping areas in the project triangle. Discovering this incompatibility before starting a renovation, and working to resolve it, can spare a couple a lot of grief. Resolving it requires that regardless of which of the project characteristics you value most highly, you have a shared definition of what you mean by each characteristic. Is $300K a reasonable amount to spend for what you want to do, or is that far beyond the bounds of what you’d ever consider? Is second-rate finish carpentry with joints that don’t always exactly meet not that big a deal, or does it make you cringe? Is three months of disruption the maximum you’re willing to put up with, or can you handle living in a renovation zone while you pick away at things for years?
Coming soon: The tenth and final sub-part –
Part 9j: So You Want to Buy a House and Fix It Up? Thirty Suggestions for Survival – Suggestions 29 & 30.
Part 9 subsections are posted every Tuesday and Friday.
Read them all before you call Holmes. -ed.