Dan's Kitchen: Real-life Lessons from a Real-life Renovation

Renovation Diary

Dan and Mara enjoying the new kitchen.
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Name: Dan Bailey
Type of Project: Kitchen remodel
Location: East Boston, Boston, Massachusetts
Type of building: 2nd Floor Condo in a Greek-Revival Row House

Now that all the dust has settled, we're checking back in with Dan one more time to see what he learned during his (unexpectedly lengthy) renovation process. If you think there may be a renovating project in your future, check out these words of wisdom.

Now that the project is over and you're looking back on it, what are the most important lessons you learned through the remodeling process?

  1. This was my first experience with a major renovation project, and it certainly turned out to be an intense introduction. So needless to say, I learned a few things along the way. Here, in no particular order, is a list of some of the lessons I learned over the course of the renovation.
  2. If you find yourself in the midst of a months-long renovation, prepare yourself emotionally and financially for other stuff in your home and life to go wrong. During my kitchen renovation there were two major plumbing leaks in my condo, my 1999 Chevy Blazer finally gave up the ghost, and my boiler suffered a catastrophic electrical failure, leaving my girlfriend and me without heat for a few days in the depths of winter. Fortunately, the boiler and plumbing leaks were repaired in short order, and I was able to buy a new car. Renovations are stressful on their own, but other, unrelated mishaps can compound this stress; try to take setbacks in stride.
  3. Renovation projects are messy. Really messy. Demolishing my old kitchen created an astounding amount of dust, which worked its way into every corner of the condo and settled on every exposed surface. For a few weeks I fought a losing battle to keep the dust out of my bedroom and living room. Once demo was done, I assumed that the dust situation would improve, so I cleaned up as much of the residual dust as possible. This turned out to be a grave miscalculation. From installing the countertop, to hanging drywall, to cutting and installing trim, almost every aspect of the renovation created mountains of dust. Cleaning dust is the last thing you want to do after a long day of renovation work, but keeping a few areas of your home clean during a renovation goes a long way toward maintaining some semblance of normalcy.
  4. Be prepared to do some serious cleaning at the end of your renovation. I’ve always associated new construction with cleanliness, but after my kitchen was complete, my girlfriend and I spent nearly a week cleaning out the brand new space before it was suitable for preparing food.
  5. Undertaking a renovation involves making a lot of little decisions, and sometimes the smallest decisions can be the most difficult. Throughout the renovation, I chose appliances, fixtures, countertops, and even the cabinetry layout without second guessing myself. And then, at the very end of the renovation, I got hung up on cabinet hardware. I bought and returned two sets of knobs and drawer pulls before settling on my final hardware choice.
  6. When renovating an older home, there will almost certainly be horrible surprises lurking behind the walls.
  7. If you hire a contractor, find one who is willing to collaborate with you and is committed to making your renovation ideas a reality. I was fortunate to have Gregg as my contractor for my kitchen renovation. Since Gregg lived in the apartment below mine for several years, he was familiar with the building and shared my respect for its historical architecture. Throughout the renovation he offered creative solutions to unexpected problems and was willing to find ways to make even the most inconvenient renovation requests happen.
  8. Even really beat-up, old wood floors can be refinished to look amazing for much less than the cost of new flooring.
  9. If your renovation drags on as long as mine did, allow yourself some time away from the construction site to hang out with friends and family and have some fun. I took a week-long vacation in Arizona in the middle of the renovation, and it was a fantastic way to escape all of the stress and mess surrounding the renovation for a bit.
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If you were to do this again, what would you choose to do differently?

This was my first renovation experience, and before it began, I hardly knew where to start. So I decided to dive in head first and work out the details as I went. This strategy led to a drawn out timeline with numerous delays as the scope of the project shifted. But at the same time, it was a cautious approach that allowed me plenty of time to carefully consider each decision that went into the renovation, and fortunately my contractor, Gregg, was remarkably tolerant of this approach. But if I were to undertake another renovation project, knowing what I now know, I would plan out a detailed timeline, gather materials, and line up subcontractors before beginning demolition.

Did your schedule go as planned? What took more time than you thought it would? What took less time?

In the end, the renovation took more than twice as long as I had originally thought it would. Going into the renovation, I had very little sense of how long each aspect of the renovation would take. Framing and leveling the walls, ceiling, and cabinets was some of the most time-consuming work, but it was something that I had almost completely overlooked before the renovation began. Once all of the framing and leveling was out of the way, I was shocked at how quickly we installed all of the cabinets. But toward the end of the renovation, progress slowed again as I struggled to find motivation to finish all of the final patching, painting, and caulking.

What is your next project going to be?

Eventually I’d like to redo my bathroom. With the kitchen all new and beautiful, the bathroom looks even worse by comparison. Someone painted the bathtub and surrounding tile long ago, and the paint is now flaking off at an alarming rate, clogging the drain, and exposing splotches of the old, yellow tile. The floor is composed of several layers of tile and vinyl, and the plumbing needs to be updated to meet modern code. But realistically, I’ll need to wait at least a year before I’m financially and psychologically prepared to take on another major remodel. In the meantime, I have lots of smaller projects in mind, like redoing the layout of our small bedroom closet to maximize storage space, and possibly collaborating with my neighbors to fix up my building’s entryway and front stairwell.

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This renovation seemingly took forever and was a lot of work, but sharing the process here has been one of the most enjoyable parts of the renovation. Thank you again to everyone who has followed along!

Thanks, Dan! And congrats on your new kitchen! Readers, if you'd like to hear more from Dan, you can catch up with him at his new blog.

This concludes Dan's renovation diary. You can check out the full series to see the whole renovation process, step-by-step, or you can explore all of our Renovation Diaries.

The Renovation Diaries are a new collaboration with our community in which we feature your step by step renovation progress and provide monetary support towards getting it done in style. See all of our Reno Diaries here.

(Images and diary text: Dan Bailey)

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Renovation Diary: Dan's Kitchen

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