I said it again a few days ago, as my husband and I began the process of preparing for our latest renovation project.
“You know, I really didn’t think we were buying a fixer-upper when we decided on this house.”
He looked at me incredulously, as if I were either joking or completely insane. But I meant it.
When we bought our house in 2010, I knew it needed a bit of work, mostly cosmetic. Built in 1909, it had so many original details that drew me in. So much character.
To be fair, looking back on when we first saw our house, I remember my husband joking that “character” actually meant “expensive repairs” in real life. I shrugged him off at the time as a cynic.
We were approaching the house hunt from two different perspectives. Although we had been living in Manhattan for the previous five years together and both adored city life, my New York City residency stretched back a solid ten years prior to that point, while he had owned a house in the suburbs as a bachelor before I lured him out of Connecticut. As a result, he had seen this movie before — the one where gullible buyers think that old houses are charming but they invariably end up becoming money pits. Apparently I skipped that movie to watch bad reality TV instead.
But he was dealing with a woman who, for the better part of 15 years, had grown accustomed to living in minimal urban space that required certain lifestyle trade-offs. I never had a kitchen in the city wherein I wasn’t able to simultaneously touch all of the walls. I got used to storage and closets getting categorized as luxuries. As a perpetual renter, I hadn’t controlled my own thermostat in over a decade, and became accustomed to sleeping with the windows open in the dead of winter as the inside temperature lingered around a steady 81 degrees and the radiator activity resembled that of an active geyser.
So, about sixty houses into our two-year hunt, this was the one that satisfied most of our respective wish lists. Sure, it showed some signs of wear and tear from its 101 years, but it had a good deal of what we needed, plus it was located where we wanted to live and was within(ish) our budget. So what if the kitchen was dated? I didn’t have to store sweaters in the oven. And the old floors? Certainly not in their moment of glory, but original to the house. The bathrooms needed a facelift, but there was more than one! It was a plural bathroom situation. The unfinished basement? It was glorious storage.
I figured that some paint and a few modest upgrades would be all we needed.
Fast forward six years. This morning, the work began on our fourth major renovation project.
You see, since 2010, our then three-year-old and eight-month-old children grew a ton, as they are prone to doing. They accumulated a shitload of stuff and required more space to destroy. Oh, and we had a third child as well. I also no longer worked full-time and became more attuned to what kind of space we needed day to day.
And so, we took on a few projects.
We first finished our basement. Many people could end that thought with a singular sentence, but our estimated five week project took eight months and has several lengthy blog posts devoted to it — many of which involve thinly veiled threats to my often-MIA contractor who had better not ever set foot on my block again.
This was the first time I learned that when you fuck with a 100 year-old house, it never goes as planned. I also learned that a giant steel beam can be shimmied under your house, when necessary, to keep it from collapsing. (Related: Steel beam shimmying wasn’t in the original plan or budget.) Yay for the new basement!
After a lengthy PTSD recuperation and a total HGTV blackout period, we regrouped and decided that maybe we’d make some straightforward cosmetic updates to the curb appeal of the house. You know, refresh the front porch and add in a paint job for good measure. Hilarious.
Because you know what happens when you fuck with a 100 year-old front porch? Unexpected steel beam #2 to support the weight of the house. Yay for the new front porch!
My husband, feeling my growing anger and resentment toward the house that was steadily betraying us, abandoned our previous plans to build an addition for obvious reasons involving sanity, dollars and remaining married. He did, however, gently suggest that perhaps our powder room on the main floor was in dire need of a refresh before we hosted this past Christmas. No plumbing moving around, no major changes, just updating it.
This became known as a case of “while we’re at it,” a common renovation syndrome where homeowners fall prey to the logic that, while already suffering through work on the home, they may as well just add on one more item in the nearby vicinity. This one more item, for us, became an entire new entryway, extensive work on the dining room, new moldings, updating paint colors, replacing the original floors (because the basement upheaval had caused them to assume an endless “whack a mole” quality with tetanus-prone nails and planks perpetually popping up) and expanding a hallway. No steel beam to get any of this done, but we almost canceled Christmas.
But what really needed more work than anything — what really stood out and cried for desperate repair — was the kitchen.
Remember when I said that the kitchen was dated but that was OK because it had enough storage and space? I lied. It’s not OK. And I don’t just mean because it’s ugly. I can live with ugly for more way more than six years.
What I can’t live with as much is shit falling apart. Like warning helpful relatives and friends as they open my kitchen drawers, “OH, WAIT! Watch out! That’s heavy and will fall right out onto your foot!” (There’s only one way to find that out for the first time, by the way.) And I don’t need a giant kitchen. We actually have a decent amount of space there, but it’s so poorly laid out, with some really wonky features. Its design makes little to no sense and can just be reconfigured so much better, without actually expanding the footprint of the house (because, again, sanity/dollars/marriage, my friends).
It took a lot of convincing to get me to agree to this project. A lot. I mean, can you even believe we are doing this instead of, say, torching the place? The truth is, despite what I’ve described in the last six years, I’m not a renovations kind of gal. I have a Type A personality, three young kids and an aging pug. I don’t do well with people in and out of my space, making a mess and creating chaos. I’m not that person, but I play one in this house. Apparently.
(Insert logical questions here about why not just move instead or why not just do all of the renovations at once instead of in a torturous piecemeal fashion. Just know that you can’t ask us anything that we haven’t already talked to death on our end.)
All conventional wisdom says to do kitchen renovations in the summer. I get that. It’s the season of grilling, of being out and about, no schedules, no homework and the occasional getaways. And so we began these “conversations” (which I really didn’t think would ever become more than that, based on my resistance levels) a few months ago with designers, architects and contractors. And we kept going. And we filed permits. And we ordered cabinets. And then we were all-in as summer approached.
And it was pretty much last weekend, as we began to empty out the kitchen and the adjoining family room (which will also be impacted), when I started to have a panic attack. Our plan was to relocate to the basement (see Project #1), as it has a microwave, sink, a full bathroom and some decent storage. Also, it has a wine fridge, if we really need to pinpoint my anticipated center of gravity during this process.
What it does not have is an oven, stove or dishwasher. And, hey, I don’t mind hand washing some dishes, but if your kids are card-carrying members of the Use All of the Cups We Own Every Day Club like mine are, you can see how it starts to give me anxiety. Yes, I’ll be loading up on paper plates this summer (shhhhh, sorry environment) and the grill is at the ready. But, honestly, I’m trying to embrace the sort of freeing feeling of not actually being able to properly cook all summer long. Oh, and entertaining? Off the table this summer. We’ll be at your place if you want to get together. Unless you want to enjoy a chilled white wine in my laundry room with me. Just don’t tell the kids I’m in there.
They say it will take eight weeks to get it done, but I know better. I even know where the steel beam is going this time.
The real irony here is that, apart from when we are upstairs in our bedrooms, all of our common indoor family time will now be spent in the basement this summer — which basically is like taking the smallest apartment I ever had in New York, on my own, and adding four additional people to it. And their toys. And their food. And their noise. And the pug (who is totally discombobulated and pissed off by his forced proximity to the kids).
I’ve come full circle. All I need is a George Forman grill, an overbearing, narcissistic boss and, hell, I’m practically back to my old city life.
It’s all going to be OK. I’m keeping my eye on the prize, even as the hammers bang and the dust flies and everyone is all over me about dinner as I try to fashion a meal out of a fucking hot plate.
Day one is done, and I’m getting a pizza. But I’m stopping at the wine fridge first.