Fourteen years ago, when I met my future husband, I was in the middle of general contracting a spec home. I was 26-years-old and had an inexplicable and powerful desire to understand how homes were put together. This did seem odd for someone with a brand new English Literature degree. I wanted to have x-ray vision when I looked at a building and be able to SEE what it was made of. What better way to achieve this, I thought, than to take out a loan, general contract a home, and force all the trades to let me shadow them. For a year, I made no money, lost ten pounds, slept little, but learned much. I remember standing in the newly poured $30,000 foundation and crying; I had so far to go, and was not sure how I would get there.
Now, I’m married to that man I met back then and we are in the middle of our seventh building project together. Thus, I feel uniquely suited to advise couples on the reality of remodeling or building a home for yourself. And by “reality” I mean the hard parts no one wants to talk about. When someone is so excited for me that I get to pick paint colors or cabinets, I don’t want to squash their enthusiasm. Yet, for me, picking out interior finishes is such a small part of the two-year process of building a home. It’s not enough to carry me through a long weekend of installing ceiling insulation, moving gravel with a wheelbarrow for seven hours or stressing about paying for it all. However, a healthy dose of pragmatism and setting ourselves up for success in the beginning carries us through. What follows is a list of tips I’ve compiled based on our 14 years of ups and downs in sweat equity—or sweat debt, depending on how it goes!
- Front-load your project with communication coaching. You will be communicating with your partner nearly constantly about your project, and this could make or break your domestic harmony. Set ground rules for how you plan to communicate and make decisions. For example, Scott and I found there are times of the day that are horrible for discussing construction decisions. For me, the crush of the morning routine with our children is the worst time to ask me where I want to put the speaker wires, and if I ask him about budget discrepancies at 10:30 p.m., he’s in for a sleepless night. Instead, we have a standing weekly lunch date to discuss construction details.
- Prepare to make a bazillion choices. I recommend creating a decision making matrix. What is the top priority for you? Budget? Energy efficiency? Aesthetics? Timeline? This matrix will help you at 1 a.m. when you are just trying to make the final decision about light fixtures.
- You will need to make decisions before you are ready. Every step in this process leads to the final product. I keep joking that I need to decide what couch I want while pouring the foundation. There is truth in this—you need to make sure your windows are not in conflict with your furniture, the floor electrical outlet is in the right place for a reading lamp, and the couch fits through the front door.
- Forget about “weekends” for a year. Be prepared to be tired. I remember a friend turning to me before we started a challenging running race. He said, “This race is going to be really hard and push us to our limits, but we are going to make it through.” This is the mindset you need.
- Find partners you can trust. This means ALL your partners: lenders, builders, trades. Find reputable, local businesses with a great track record. You want them to return your calls, be responsive and stay in business.
- Cry once, not over and over again. Spend some money up front so you don’t regret your decisions every day. Invest in what cannot be modified later, even if it’s not “sexy.” Spend money on insulation, air sealing, energy efficiency and sound control. Trust me, it’s worth it. You can upgrade the counter tops and light fixtures when you have more money. Scott and I will probably be giving each other a light fixture for Christmas for the next five years.
- Get ready to take a leap of faith. Once you embark, there is much that will be out of your control. Commodity prices change due to storms. Interest rates move due to financial markets. You will not know what your monthly mortgage payment will be until the very end. If you’re like me, that means you type “mortgage payment calculator” in your browser daily.
- You’ll probably move in before it’s ready. Every project that we’ve done together I make the proclamation that I will not move in until it is COMPLETELY finished. And guess what, we’ve never moved into a completed home.
- Have a baby. Or get a puppy. We’ve done both in the middle of a construction project. Hey, why not? It’s your life after all!
- Enjoy picking out your paint colors and cabinets.