Time to Sweat the Small Stuff


I was visiting my daughter over the weekend—she’s at college in Providence.  Seeing her apartment always reminds me of some of my own when I was her age and renting in Boston.  It’s heady stuff – getting those early apartments. 

Oh, the possibilities, the promise, and the adrenalin surge of undeniable autonomy! But, holy moly, what we put up with.  Bedrooms without closets or windows, train noise that made the glasses in the sink rattle every 11 minutes, walk-ups where you had to walk up and up and up and up.  I lived briefly in a crowded house on the Cape that had only one toilet, which was broken. 

So, in order to make it flush you had to go back-and-forth, and back-and-forth to the kitchen tap with your gallon jug to fill the tank, and then finally flush your poo.  “Wow,” you say, “that’s a lot of work.”  Yes, it most certainly was.  And, believe me, it did not happen near as much as it should have.

But we were young, and adaptable, and our lives were filled with promise, even if our apartments weren’t.  That was then, but what’s our excuse now?  Because I see some of the same adaptable nature at play in many of the houses I’m asked to look at.  I had a client a while ago that hired me for a kitchen and bath renovation.  Her home was lovely, and my project would make it even more so.  But as we walked around, I noticed that the newel post was wiggly and one of the stair treads was cracked.

She complained that there was no place in the foyer to hang coats, and she hated the metal shelving that was in her master closet.  We’ve all been there.  We all have our own lists.  But here she was, about to embark on a sizable, and disruptive renovation – and it didn’t occur to her to put these other items on the list.

As a professional, I charge flatly by the hour, so I have no horse in the race when it comes to the size of the renovation.  And I’m very aware of the discomfort my clients feel when their projects (and their budgets) bloat.  So, I tread lightly on this topic.  But I also know from experience that there is just no better time to be further disrupted by your renovation, than when you are already being disrupted by your renovation.  With my client’s project, she already had workers traipsing in and out of her house, and she was already down a kitchen and a bathroom.  (I know, it sounds horrible.) 

But think of the specialists she was going to have at her fingertips: carpenters, electricians, plumbers, tile installers, floor refinishers and painters too.  It just makes sense to find out how much extra it will be to add an electrical outlet here, or install shelving there, or to swap out that almond sink you hate in the half bath.  There is just no better time.

But I do hear you.  “What about the budget?” you are asking.  This is an excellent point, and of pivotal importance.  Extra work costs extra money – there is just no way around it.  But after a sizable, disruptive renovation you have earned the right to that ahhhhhh-this-was-so-worth-it feeling at the end.  And it’s hard to feel that way when you are walking around creating yet another list of projects. 

Plus, that brand new kitchen at the center of your home?  It has now set the bar a little bit higher for the rest of the rooms.  Suddenly the paint job that you thought was “fine” is now looking dated and dull.  Or you are kicking yourself for not refinishing all the floors when you did the kitchen.  So yes, these extra details are more expensive, but they are also more integrated into that so-worth-it exhale than you might think.

One thing I do for clients that helps out with this whole business, is to create a “Scope of Work” document.  When I do one professionally, I include pictures and layouts, but you could do a simplified version for yourself. Yours could be as simple as just making a list.  It’s a great exercise for you and your partner to think about your house as a whole and to prioritize your projects. 

The point is to agree upon and outline the major projects you want to complete, and to add any maintenance “extras” at the end.  That sounds easy, right?  Well, it can be… or sometimes not.  But worth it regardless, because not only are you gaining clarity on the scope of your project, but you’ve also created a great document to obtain estimates with.  Because when you are getting quotes from more than one contractor you need to make sure, financially, that you are comparing apples to apples.

By the way, I’m not immune to the pull of adaptation over resolution when it comes to my own home projects.  I’m the one that steadied a wobbling radiator with a stack of pennies.  I lived with a wire coming out of my bedroom wall for years before I realized it wasn’t connected to anything and I could just pull it out and patch the wall up.  If my pipes rattle at full water pressure, I just adjust the stream until it stops. Is it our Yankee-ness?  Or just human nature? 

We will never know for sure.  But I know I’ve matured.  All of my toilets have been working for years.

jennifer coles, colescoloranddesign.com, paint job, local interior designer, contractor, home design, interior design