Surviving The Remodeling
Moving the family to a hotel for the duration sounds tempting when the kitchen is just a memory, laundry facilities are two blocks away, the furniture is draped with plastic, and there’s no door on the bathroom.
But if living elsewhere isn’t a practical option, certain strategies can help your family avoid the traumas of a construction zone.
Well before work begins, ask your contractor specific questions: How much cleanup can be expected each day?
Security is another consideration—a dozen or more different work crews may be in and out of your home before the job is done, and after-hours access is sure to be easier than usual. Store irreplaceable valuables elsewhere for the duration. Rent an oversized safe-deposit box for vital documents, jewelry, handguns, coin or stamp collections, etc.
Be wary of giving out keys to your home, although the general contractor probably will need one. Have secure locks installed on all doors and windows as early in the project as possible, and rekey all the locks as soon as you’re able to restrict access to family only. If you must be away for several days during the remodeling, consider hiring a housesitter or asking a friend to keep an eye on things.
The inconvenience and disruption of a major remodeling project are almost impossible to avoid, but there are ways to help the family cope.
Try to keep at least one family living area intact—whether it’s the den, kitchen, or bedroom-so that there’s a comfortable retreat for homework, bill paying, TV, and casual meals. Having one clean, orderly spot to relax in makes it easier to deal with chaos in the rest of the house. What time of day will workers arrive and leave? What are your responsibilities for moving household items and keeping children from underfoot?
Speak frankly about such matters as whether workers may smoke indoors, which bathroom is available for their use, etc. Often homeowners come to think of workers as extended family, but minor annoyances can begin to seem major when you’ve shared the same disrupted spaces for weeks or niouths on end.
Try to maintain a semblance of normal family life in the midst of the construction, including regular meals and predictable bedtimes. Organizing and planning ahead are crucial—set out the next day’s clothing and make lunches before going to bed; get up a half hour earlier to allow for the confusion of early-arriving workers. Provide a “safe place” for each family member, a drawer, closet, or box where toys, homework, business papers, etc. can be stored undisturbed.
Managing the Mess
Remodeling is a messy business, no matter how hard workers try to contain the dust and clean up debris as they go along. There are some simple steps homeowners can take to keep the disruption at a manageable level.
Provide plenty of old towels or mats so that workers and family members can wipe their feet coming in or out. Take the mats out and shake vigorously each night, and toss them in the wash often.
Change air-conditioning filters much more often than usual, perhaps once a week during the worst of the drywall work and lumber sawing. (In fact, when construction is at its peak, you may want to take the filters outside and whack them against a fence or wall every night to get the worst of the dust out between changes.)
“Communication is very important, both on the front end and throughout the remodeling project,” says Brad Cruickshank, who owns an Atlanta design/build firm and serves as a director of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.
“The contractor and the homeowners must have some regular form of communication, whether it be face-to-face, a message pad on the refrigerator, a marker board, or whatever,” Cruickshank adds.
Make sure all family members are fully prepared for the scope of the project. Living in a chaotic environment is stressful, but understanding the overall plan in advance can help even young children cope more easily with the upheaval.
Make sure children and pets are kept well away from dangerous chemicals, tools, and construction hazards. Post emergency numbers near each telephone. Install smoke detectors in several key locations, even if they must eventually be moved as the remodeling progresses. Keep a light on at night so that children—and adults—won’t trip over construction debris. Make sure each family member has a flashlight near his bed, too.
Move upholstered furniture as far away from the construction zone as possible, and further protect it from dust and debris by covering tightly with inexpensive plastic drop cloths. Pack fragile glassware and other breakables in sturdy boxes and store them out of harm’s way. Placing some furnishings and accessories in a commercial storage facility for a few weeks also may be a good option.
Protect sensitive home computer equipment by enclosing components in plastic garbage bags when not in use. If you haven’t regularly cleaned your computer in the past, now is a good time to start. Remove surface dust from the keyboard by holding a vacuum cleaner dust attachment as close to the keys as possible.
Continue to dust and vacuum floors and furniture as thoroughly as possible—it will seem an exercise in futility, but the more dust you can remove from the air, the better the family will feel.
Living at home during a major remodeling requires careful planning, flexibility—and a sense of humor to help smooth over the worst of times.
The Contractor’s Viewpoint
Homeowners are not the only ones inconvenienced when they live on-site during a major remodeling project. Contractors working on occupied houses generally must spend more time and money on cleanup, worry more about safety precautions, and dedicate more time to answering questions and making changes than would be required if the homeowners were living elsewhere.
“Personally, I love working in an unoccupied house,” admits Brad Cruickshank, who specializes in large-scale remodeling projects.
To help make the remodeling go as smoothly as possible, Cruickshank offers the following advice to homeowners living on-site:
- Confine pets, or at least keep them well away from the work site. Valuable time—and money—is lost each time a worker must chase a pet that makes a run for it when a door or gate is opened.
- Don’t expect remodelers to move furniture for you, especially valuable antiques or breakables. “Although we have big, burly carpenters,” Cruickshank notes, “we are not in the moving business.”
- Protect children—and yourself—from construction hazards, such as openings in the floor, torn-out stairways, holes in the walls for new windows, etc.
- Learn everything possible about the job at hand, both by reading magazines and books and by asking questions. That way you’ll better understand the process and know when certain things happen and why.
- Don’t overstep the contractor’s authority. “Coffee breaks and picnics provided by the homeowner are nice, but it’s important to understand that the workers are there to work first of all,” Cruickshank notes.
- The National Association of the Remodeling Industry, a trade association, offers a free booklet filled with tips on selecting and working with a professional re-modeler. Order a copy by sending a self-addressed, stamped envelope to NARI, 4301 North Fairfax Drive, Suite 310, Arlington, Virginia 22203.
Who Needs a Kitchen?
(Or, how to feed a family of four when the microwave oven’s in the laundry room, the refrigerator’s on the patio, and no one’s seen the stove in weeks.)
Oh, I’d heard all the horror stories from friends who remodeled before me—how they washed dishes in the bathtub, cooked soup in the coffeepot, thawed frozen sandwiches with a hair dryer.
Absurd, I thought. Why didn’t they just eat out? What could be more luxurious than a month or two without cooking a single meal?
It took just about a week for that notion to fly out the window. Doughnuts and coffee for breakfast. Fast-food hamburgers for lunch. Cafeteria or family-style restaurant meals for dinner.
Within seven days, my family of four faced jaded palates, expanded waistlines, and an eroded bank balance. Grilling cheese sandwiches on a waffle iron in the bathroom while tomato soup simmered nearby in the Mr. Coffee began to sound like a perfectly sensible plan.
Although we spent over eight weeks without a fully functioning kitchen, the waffle iron sandwiches never panned out—actually we still haven’t found the waffle iron.
But we did discover ways to put together three simple meals a day at home, using whatever appliances were accessible at the time.
Following are some tips on how you can do the same:
- Set up a makeshift kitchen if possible, including refrigerator or ice chest, microwave, toaster oven, coffeepot, electric wok, or other small appliances. These don’t all have to be set up in the same room—for much of our remodeling, the microwave was on top of the clothes dryer in the laundry room, the refrigerator was hooked up in a protected area of the patio, and small appliances were plugged in wherever we could find available outlets.
- Stock up on paper plates, plastic cups, and disposable flatware to keep clean-up chores simple. Essential ovenproof dishes, pots, pans, and such can be stored in a sturdy box between meals, along with staples like coffee, spices, and oil.
- Shop often, realizing that you can’t really plan more than a few meals at a time when your home is so disrupted. Keep menus simple—after a few weeks of eating out, a humble soup-and-sandwich menu at home may taste better than the most elegant restaurant meal.
- Take advantage of prepared foods from the bakery, deli, or seafood shop as the basis for good “home-cooked” meals. The salad bar at your local supermarket also offers a wealth of choices, from raw vegetables for snacking or simple stir-fry meals to single portions of gelatin desserts and puddings.
- Improvise, improvise, improvise. Hungry for pizza but the oven’s out of commission? Spread bottled pizza sauce on tortillas, layer with peppers, mushrooms, and cheese, and cook in a toaster oven. Pasta? Simmer angel hair pasta in bottled sauce thinned with a little wine or water in an electric skillet or wok. Cook hamburgers or chicken outside on the grill, or on a camp stove, steaming packets of foil-wrapped vegetables alongside.
- Change the vacuum cleaner bag more often than usual, perhaps once a week.
And throughout the remodeling, try to maintain your sense of humor and view the project as an adventure. Make pictures of each room before, during, and after remodeling—a look back at the worst parts of the project will help keep things in perspective on bad days. When the kitchen looks like a disaster area, set out place mats on the coffee table, and light candles to make a fast-food meal seem festive. Spread a picnic in front of the fireplace, or pack up the whole family and head to a park for breakfast. If the sound of table saws gets to be too much, go to the library for afternoon homework or paperwork, then stop for ice cream on the way home.
One family—faced with the bleak prospect of Christmas in a torn-up house without a functional kitchen, living room, dining room, or den—packed up presents and the makings for a holiday feast and headed for a lakeside cottage. They cut a scrawny cedar tree, decorated it with homemade ornaments, entertained themselves with board games in front of a roaring fire—and created a once-in-a-lifetime memory of “the Christmas we remodeled.” Linda Bennett
Formerly Home Editor of The Arkansas Gazette, Linda Bennett is a freelance writer based in Little Rock. She shares her recently remodeled home with her husband, Anthony, and their two sons.