Top 10 Marriage Tips for Surviving a Renovation

This week David and I celebrate something pretty major in our lives: our tenth wedding anniversary. In July 2011 we got married; in July 2013 we bought this farmhouse. We’ve been slowly and surely renovating this place together for 8 of our 10 years together and we’ve often been asked about what it’s like to live through it, so I thought I would share some of our key tips for making a marriage work while living in a constant state of projects and renovation.

couple high fiving in front of old farmhouse
Our naive 20-something selves right after we bought the house

1. Learn about each others’ personality types.

I think this is by far the most important tip to renovating a home with someone else. You have to both know who you are and who you’re dealing with. We started exploring each others’ personalities when we started premarital counseling back in 2010 and we haven’t really stopped since. We’ve done A LOT of the things over the years… Strengths Finders, enneagrams, Myers-Briggs, etc., and it is so incredibly helpful being able to understand where each other is coming from. We both recognize what a dreamer I am, and how I love to start projects but am not good at finishing them. We also recognize how dreaming big can make David feel anxious, and how he really dislikes projects being half-done. We’re able to laugh about our personalities and understand how we react instead of argue since we feel differently.

This house adventure may be learn-as-you-go, but prepare for it by learning about each other before you’re in the thick of it. We both have different approaches to life and knowing about how we think differently can make it fun instead of stressful.

2. Get a home inspection. A really good home inspection.

Know what you’re up against. The fewer the surprises the better.  But also realize that home inspectors can’t see everything (such as multiple layers of wallpaper under the outer layer of wall paper)!

3. Write down (this is important, not just talk about) a project timeline plan.

We didn’t figure this one out until a few years ago and man, I wish we’d started sooner. I’m the dreamer and David is the practical guy in our relationship (sound familiar, anyone? I think this is pretty standard). I feel like in most couples there’s one emotional partner and one logical partner and those viewpoints can collide big time when it comes to a renovation. It will not go according to plan, but one of the most valuable lessons we finally learned was to come up with a multi-year plan about what we wanted to accomplish.

For example, here was our plan:

Year 1 – new roof, new kitchen appliances & countertops and facelift on cupboards, new electrical system throughout house, new plumbing throughout house, remove wallpaper from all the rooms

Year 2 – paint shutters, new kitchen floor, take down overgrown trees next to the house, repair damaged ceilings upstairs, insulate attic, new half bathroom downstairs, new guest bathroom upstairs, paint master bedroom, paint nursery, paint living room

Year 3 – new HVAC system for downstairs, paint hallway, convert sunroom into back porch, new washer & dryer, carve out kids’ bathroom, new master bathroom

…etc.

Obviously (or maybe not obviously if you haven’t experienced a whole house renovation yourself) things will NOT go according to plan. Emergencies will arise, financial situations will change, opportunities will come up. For example, we were planning on originally restoring the old pool in our backyard back into a pool. It was in our original 5 year plan. Then we got a bunch of estimates and realized we couldn’t afford it, so we let it stay a big ditch in the ground and used it as a fire pit. Then our dog fell into the pool area (we think, we weren’t here) and impaled his eye and we freaked out and realized it was a major safety hazard and we put a deck over it asap. We had to move back some other projects in order to afford the deck but we were both united in our desire to deck it over and prioritize that over the other projects.

I recommend taking time to sit together and figure out what matters to each person the most and prioritize when to make the projects happen so that when the plan does inevitably change, you’ll both be on the same page about knowing how to roll with the punches. The important part is writing it down in a place you can both reference (we kept a shared “note” in our phones). This makes it easy to be aware of the plan at any given moment, which we’ve found to be helpful.

4. Delegate each of your roles for every project.

This is another one we didn’t figure out right away. I think our society puts a lot on women to be the “homemaker” and therefore in charge of all of the stuff that happens to the home during a renovation, but our society often forgets we’re not in the 1950s anymore and women also have, ya know, careers and interests outside the homemaker category. Since I’m the visionary and David’s the practical guy, we make a great team when it comes to figuring out what we want and how we want to do it, but the trick is communicating exactly who’s going to do the details. Here are some of the items to delegate:

  • who will research contractors for this particular project/ get estimates
  • who will research material costs
  • who will research ideas for how you want the end result to look or turn out (visually or functionally, and so on)
  • who will be the liaison/ contact point for anyone like a contractor
  • who will be keeping track of receipts/ budgeting
  • who will be the gametime decision maker when something unexpectedly comes up

We were really good at this at first: I did everything except for the money part, which David handled. But we quickly realized it was like I had taken on a part-time job. So then we switched to David taking on “more” for the next project but we didn’t clearly communicate with each other what “more” looked like. My advice is to be crystal clear for every project (not just a one time thing!) who’s going to do what. It will likely be chaotic at times but having clear roles gives a little bit of structure to the chaos.

5. Have a getaway plan upfront.

We quickly realized we’re not cut out for ongoing renovations with no end in sight. (Note: I think this is important for something like a kitchen renovation or replacing all the plumbing but maybe not so much for something like turning the sunroom into a back porch.) When your daily life is extremely altered as a result of a renovation, it gets exhausting and drains you mentally. Having contractors in your personal space gets old. Not knowing when contractors are going to show up is frustrating. Not being able to use something like a kitchen or any indoor plumbing for days and days (or in our case weeks and weeks) is tiring.

We found we were much more equipped to weather the storm if we knew we were going to get out of our house, even if just for a night. We went camping, we went on staycations (once we just drove to a hotel 10 minutes away and sat on a pool float in their pool for an afternoon), we visited friends and family outside of Charlottesville… we needed mental breaks. They don’t have to be fancy expensive getaways. It helped us get through the monotony of having our house torn up and dirty while we were living in it and gave us a chance to breathe.

Having something to look forward to that we could control has been really helpful. No matter how many renovation projects go wrong or are outside our control, a little night or weekend away is something to anticipate and plan on that gives me (someone with control issues) a little stability when the house can feel so unstable.

6. Write down a budget, and include an emergency fund.

Everyone knows this but it’s worth pointing out again. Old houses = a money pit. Acknowledge the budget is more of a “wouldn’t it be cool if it actually only cost this” thought exercise, because as any old house owner knows, EVERY project is going to become more complicated once you start. I think we’ve done one project that was actually on budget (our master bathroom) but even with that, I forgot to include glass shower doors when making our budget so when we added those at the end we were technically over budget. I’ve heard that for every project, budget 150% of the estimate, but even that doesn’t seem to be a good rule for us.

What does matter is having a budget at all though. It got really complicated for us once we became parents. We started having to make those big decisions: how much of our monthly income should go to house projects? What about paying off my student loans? What about saving for our kids’ educations? We have had more than just a handful of house projects cost waaaaay more than we expected (like waterproofing our basement, ugh) and the only slightly comforting thing in those situations was knowing that we had a little wiggle room in our budget and could take away from other expenses for a few months.

pregnant woman and husband with house behind them
pregnant with our first baby in 2014, one year after we bought our house

7. Discuss how you want to budget your time.

Just like you decide how to budget your dollars, when you go through a whole house renovation you need to decide how to budget your hours/ days. When we first started our renovation, we had just moved to Charlottesville and knew virtually no one. We struggled each weekend with the choice of “do we work on our house or our social life?” and often we regretted whichever choice we made afterwards. This choice changed to “do we work on our house or spend more time with our kids?” once we became parents, of course. It’s funny… when we lived in Alexandria in a brick townhouse, the dogs were our “babies.” Then we moved to Charlottesville and the dogs took the back burner because the house became our “baby.” Then we actually had a baby and the dogs became accessories, the house became purely functional, and all of our attention went to our sweet little girl. Tack on a few more kids after that and we have to be very intentional with our time.

We don’t have free time, plain and simple, so choosing how to spend the precious minutes each day is paramount. Old houses are NEVER, ever done. We could both be working on the house every evening and every weekend for every day these past 8 years and still have more to do. Being on the same page about what’s realistic and designating time as house time has been a lifesaver for our marriage. It’s really helped us understand where the priorities are for each of us and then get to really relax when we’re doing things other than house projects.

8. Drink. Together.

It’s going to be rough at times, and I think the biggest gift we’ve had is the ability to embrace it all while not taking it too seriously. Sometimes we freak out and get overwhelmed, like when we spent thousands of dollars to get the basement waterproofed and then it started flooding again, and then I spend hours on realtor.com dreaming of an easier life. Honestly what brings us back to center is making time for a drink to process it all together. We have a nice little bar set-up and we enjoy making each other new cocktails to try (either while we’re working or just hanging out).

9. Don’t let your blood sugar get too low.

When we first started our renovation project, we were both working full-time jobs. We had no kitchen (literally ripped it out before we moved in) for our first month and so I’d pick up salads from Trader Joe’s for dinner on my way home from work every evening, then we’d spend the rest of the day tackling renovation projects. And guess what would happen by bedtime? We’d be snippy at each other and frazzled. At first we attributed this to cramming too much in after a day at the office, but we noticed we’d act the same way on the weekends after lots of rest too. We finally realized we weren’t making time to eat enough! We’d be so wrapped up in a project that we weren’t really eating enough. I usually did more of the painting type projects and David would do a lot more heavy lifting, so he would be sweating and burning calories left and right.

Then I got pregnant and realized if I wasn’t eating every few hours I would become nauseated. I started snacking nonstop and David joined me, and our moods/ mindsets improved drastically. Once we figured this out, I kept granola bars, nuts, chocolate, etc on hand and we would make sure we were not running on fumes. It worked really well– we were both a lot more patient with each other and with the projects we were doing, too! Over the years we’ve been doing projects together, we remember to nibble while we go and it seems to help us both.

couple returning home from hospital with baby
Returning to our farmhouse after welcoming our second baby

10. Embrace the dirtiness.

I feel like at any given moment there is sawdust in my house. There has been sawdust in my house pretty much since we moved in. Frequently there are people I don’t know in my house fixing things we don’t know how to fix, or have the time to tackle.

House renovations mean your house will become a mess. A big mess. You can stress out about cleaning it up all the time or just embrace that it could be literally weeks (even after the project is complete) when it will be clean again. We still recommend cleaning up as you go, but just not getting worked up over it.

At the end of the day, is it worth it?

A big, resounding, yes: it will be worth it. We’ve learned to have patience not only with the house renovation process, but with ourselves. We’ve grown so much as a couple by living in a historic fixer-upper and while it hasn’t been easy, it’s been exciting, and we’ve learned to laugh more than cry. Most of the time. 🙂

 

Happy 10th Anniversary David… I love you and I love the life we’ve built here together.

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