Hairdresser Jamie Simon swapped speed for savings, but it proved a hard tradeoff. He spent $125,000 for a two-story addition to the Olney Colonial he shares with his wife, their two children, a dog, and a friend. He’s sure other firms would have charged $300,000 to bump out the back and add a kitchen, family room, and sunroom. “The contractor said it would take four months,” he says. “I was prepared for eight, but not the 13 it took.”
The project involved moving gas and water lines, extensive electrical work, a kitchen with lots of cabinets and expansive stone surfaces. “He did what he liked to do in every room, but at some point he would lose interest,” Simon says. “You have to expect a few surprises and plan for the worst-case scenario.” As in when his contractor walked: “We just started paying all the subs ourselves.”
How can you speed things along?
Try to make product decisions early, track orders, and have the contractor explain fallback plans: If the windows are delayed, can he work on the fireplace?
Keep the crew close by, says food writer Julia Watson, who cooked her workers a hot lunch every day—which kept them from dawdling at a deli. She also became the “runner,” picking up supplies to save expensive contractor time.
Some things, though, are beyond your control—and you’ll have to learn to make the best of the situation.
Karen Van Breda Kolff didn’t discover for three months that the second part of her Jerusalem-limestone backsplash was never coming because Israel had quit exporting it. When a near match finally arrived from Turkey, the two slabs were cut smaller and set alternately in her Kensington kitchen. Says Kolff: “It looks like it was planned that way.”
How do you get by without a kitchen?
Schedule the work for summer, when you can eat outdoors and grill—Bonnie McDaniel learned to bake a perfect pound cake in her Weber. Contractors often will set up a food-prep area using the old cabinets and appliances. A basement, living room, laundry room, bedroom, or carport will do—any space with electricity, a work surface, and, if you’re lucky, running water. In tight spaces, you can get by with a microwave or toaster oven, refrigerator, and hot plate.
Wash dishes in a bucket or bathtub or with a garden hose; use disposables where you can. Feed the kids a lot of cold breakfasts, and know that the whole family will ingest scary quantities of junk food and takeout pizza/Chinese/Mexican. Call in social chits by inviting yourself to other people’s homes as often as decently possible.
Ellen Kassoff Gray, co-owner with her husband, Todd Gray, of DC’s Equinox restaurant, ate many a meal in her back yard. When it turned cold, a spare bedroom became the kitchen/dining area. “I hadn’t used a microwave since college, but I discovered all sorts of things you could nuke, like mac and cheese and frozen vegetables in steamer bags,” says Gray, whose son, Harrison, was then eight.
Washington Post culture critic Philip Kennicott got creative with a panini maker—perched for months atop the grand piano in his Capitol Hill rowhouse. Nothing beats the puffy mass of grill-ridged eggs he dubbed “the corrugated omelet.”
How can you make the job go more smoothly?
Living through a renovation is a job requiring that you be informed, organized, and assertive but not obnoxious. Write a contract providing regular payouts for finished work, and hold back a chunk at the end to guarantee completion. A builder who has collected nearly all his fee has little incentive to work another few months for a fraction of the total.
Prioritize, and defend to the end, those three or four things that matter most to you. Pick your battles with your contractor.
When interior designer Ruth Jansson redid her 1925 Sears-kit house in Chevy Chase, she declared the elliptical shape of the new windows nonnegotiable. The contractor got it wrong, and the replacements cost him $12,000: “He knew it was integral to the design of house. I wouldn’t back down.”