Home renovation requires resilience

When you renovate a home, you need resilience, a sense of humor, and plenty of know-how.

Joanne Ciccarello/Staff/The Christian Science Monitor
Alexandra Marks plays with her dogs on her new property. She is renovating a 1902 farmhouse in an environmentally friendly way.

Like much of the rest of the East Coast, we in Connecticut are being inundated with rain. It started Sunday afternoon and has kept up a steady, strong patter on the roof since. It’s Tuesday, so we’re talking Day 3 of what’s beginning to feel like Noah’s flood.

As a result, Frank and Dale, our carpenters, are only able to clapboard the porch-protected parts of Sheep Dog Hollow – our green renovation experiment.

And since there are only two porches, we’re getting behind on our clapboard schedule – which means we’re going to have to delay putting in the spray-foam insulation, which means shifting the sheet-rockers a week or two forward, which means the house may not be finished by the fall.

Ah, construction.

The first lesson anyone should be given when taking on a large renovation project is to expect delays, unwelcome surprises – like a rot in a wall you thought you could save - and yes, lots of extra costs.

My advice to anyone involved in building or renovating is to maintain a wry sense of humor, and – probably more important – get educated.

I must confess that initially I didn’t take my own advice, at least about the latter. I just plunged willy-nilly into turning Sheep Dog into the home of my dreams.

Fortunately, I've had my fiancé Martin, a savvy businessman, along for the ride. He has forced me to keep a close watch on every penny and counseled me on how save some.

He also is wonderful in recognizing when things are going too slowly and headed for a disaster – and brilliant in getting them moving again without bruising any egos – including mine.

Since not everyone has a “Martin,” I’ve put together a reading list of sorts – books and blogs I wish I had read before I started this process.

– At the top of the list is a book that I should have bought years ago, if only because a friend of mine in Vermont wrote it. It’s titled: “What Your Contractor Can’t Tell You” and is a guide to building a new home. But it’s also an invaluable tool for renovators.

If I were smart, I would have taken the time to do all of the planning and research that Amy Johnston recommends. I also would have understood better many of the mysteries I encountered, from the myriad of Town Hall players involved in permits and approvals to how one contractor can honestly bid $27,000 for a project that another insists can be done just as well at $18,000.

– Another good book is “Be Your Own House Contractor: How to Save 25% Without Lifting a Hammer.” It isn’t as witty as Ms. Johnston’s book, which includes chapters such as “Ready, Set, Think” and “The World’s Second Oldest Profession: Choosing a Contractor,” but it does give a more market-oriented approach to the nuts and bolts of building.

It includes insight gems such as: The bigger the house or renovation, the bigger the overhead and profit for the general contractor.

– On the Internet side, there is the Home Remodeling Bootcamp, which is brought to you by the The testimonials on the site, including one from The Los Angeles Times, call it a “must read” and include comments like: “It really puts the hazards of dealing with contractor-bozos into chilling perspective...”

I do have a few problems with the site. First is its negative perspective. I may have been fortunate in my choices of contractors, but I truly believe most local builders are good people who not intentionally out to make your life difficult.

The second is the cost. The one-month online course is $67. Now it may be worth it, but I’m not willing to cough up the cash to find out since I already know there are very good, affordable books out there. (Yes, I make no apologies for my Luddite preference for the printed word over the cyber one.)

I was going to rattle off a few more sites and ides, but I just heard a loud thud from the basement here at Little Pug Farmette, my current residence. I went down to find an inch of water in the laundry room. When I investigatedI saw that the sump pump was working just fine, but my hot water tank had burst.

Yikes! Here’s another reason to go for on-demand hot water heaters.

I have to take care of that now. More on this topic Thursday.


Journalist Alexandra Marks blogs twice a week about her green and budget-friendly restoration of a 1902 farmhouse in Connecticut. Click here to find all her blog posts and articles.

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