Tom Bulger had already been through five renovations when he and his wife, Diana, a remodeling virgin, decided to blow out the back of their Chevy Chase Colonial. Piece of cake, he thought. Find an architect to plan the two-story addition. Hire a kitchen designer and granite contractor. Pick out appliances, cabinets, and fixtures. Sign lots of checks, eat out often, live amid chaos for months, and then finally revel in a new gourmet kitchen, great room, and master suite.
Despite the lure of early-completion bonuses, the $225,000 “nightmare” was only two-thirds finished six months past the promised date. So the couple—he’s a lobbyist, she’s director of public relations at the Fairmont hotel in DC—spent another $80,000 on new crews to finish the job. Tom even took time off at the end to haul trash and sweep floors. “I basically was working for my own workers,” he says.
But it paid off.
“The night before Thanksgiving, it was finally done, and it looked so beautiful I burst out crying,” Diana says. “Tom pulled it together for me because I was freaking out—20 people were coming for dinner the next day.
“I love it, but I never want to go through that again.”
Elaine Heumann Gurian and her husband, Dean Anderson, hadn’t considered remodeling their split-level rambler in Northern Virginia until fire hit in 2007. From the ashes came a friction-free, creative collaboration to make battle-scarred renovation veterans weep with envy: seasoned carpenters Keith Easter and Bob Henderson of Keystone Contracting in Culpeper; Mark Trone, an Arlington flooring expert who doubled as the homeowners’ rep; and DC architect Victoria Kiechel. (Full disclosure: Kiechel redid my condo six years ago.)
Gurian, well versed in the building and design arts after decades working in the museum world, assembled the team quickly using referrals from neighbors and colleagues. For the first six months, she and Anderson lived in a rented house nearby and visited the site daily to make scores of decisions; later they relied on e-mail and on Trone, the flooring expert.
It took one year and $590,000 to craft the eco-friendly, modernist dwelling with curved interior walls, dramatic windows, and quirky details.
“A lot of architects do drawings and walk away because that’s all the client has paid for. That leaves problem solving to the contractor,” says Easter, who owns Keystone. “But Vicky was so hands-on. I learned tons of different things, like Frank Lloyd Wright designs that I never would have attempted because they require so much shoring and bracing.”
Gurian was thrilled: “They all had gorgeous visions, they all started to anticipate each other, they all knew what I liked. It was amazing.”
Even happy renovations can be stressful, not to mention expensive, disruptive, dirty, noisy, and subject to the vagaries of weather and bureaucracy.
If the current homebuilding bust has a sunny side, it has been to make renovation more affordable than it’s been in years. Consumers, who would rather stay put than risk buying larger new homes, can hire talented help at a discount even as economic jitters have trimmed their wish lists.
“Clients are much more conscious of money,” says Tim Burch Jr., the third-generation head of Burch Builders Group in Warrenton. “Two years ago, they would have done it all at once, with the best materials and fixtures. Now they’ll do their first and second priorities, like the kitchen and family room, and wait a year or two to add a master suite or redo the lower level.”