The Dark Side of Renovations That Nobody Talks About

published Aug 12, 2018
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(Image credit: Abby McCartin)

If you’ve ever done a home renovation you know what comes along with it. Gut-shredding, teeth-grinding, hair-pulling, night-terrors stress. It is an absolute wonder why any of us would ever do it again. But, maybe as is the case with other painful things like tattoos, or (I hear) childbirth, we seem to forget in our headlong rush to start that next project just how bad it can be.

Tip-toeing to the edge of the abyss that is the next project in our 1890 home–a kitchen redo–I’m frozen at the thought of the nightmares to come.

I chatted with two experts about the whole big ball of money and stress that comes with renovations to break down what’s happening and find out how best to contend with it.

The experts:

Shannah Compton Game is a Certified Financial Planner and host of Millennial Money Podcast

Hommemaker founder Orlando Soria is an interior designer who launched a massive kitchen renovation only to lose his full-time job shortly after

(Image credit: Eric Striffler)

Why is renovating a home so stressful?

Think of the unknowns when it comes to a major home improvement. There’s no way to truly know whether you’ll see a return on your investment, to start. There are ways to play it safe, but nobody has the real estate crystal ball. Many of us don’t know how long we’ll end up being in a home, Game pointed out, and have no idea what the market will be like when we sell. Or maybe we make bad design decisions. So you could sink $25k on a reno and never see a dime of it back. No wonder we lose sleep!

But perhaps a bigger problem is that we may be wearing blinders when it comes to our expenses and budgets–whether that’s our household finances or the reno. “When I ask couples if I can see their budget it’s often some mangled sheet of paper,” Game says. “Most of us don’t really want to see the numbers. We think we know the numbers but we’re often wildly off.”

And then of course there’s the emotional side. “For most people, home is often how we express and define ourselves so there’s pressure there that our home is this perfect example of ourselves,” Game said. And it takes a lot of money to get to whatever we think perfect is.

Not to mention the worry that comes with wondering if we’re being taken advantage of by contractors, Soria added. And things can be out of our control when it comes to a construction project, he said, which is a scary place to be.

(Image credit: Kim Marcelo)

So, what can you do if you’re stressed about your budget?

Look, there’s no getting around the stress—most of it money related—of a home renovation. Things you never could have imagined will go wrong.

Contractors will no-show, over-charge, and under-deliver. Every day is like one of those prize wheels you spin at the carnival except instead of winning a teddy bear, today you land on the drywall can’t come in the window because of electrical lines so you have to hire someone to carry every. last. sheet. up three flights of stairs, and no you didn’t figure that in the budget because they said they’d deliver it, no problem. (Pro tip: There’s always a problem.)

But wait, there are things you can do. And they sort of fall into two camps–the money-crunching, concrete side and the philosophical side. Because there’s only so much leeway in how much money you have—you pretty much have what you need or you don’t—let’s start with the latter. I love what Soria says in a blog post revealing the details of his kitchen renovation nightmare:

Sometimes when I’m stressing about something money-related I ask myself “Take money out of the equation, would you still be stressing about this?” If the answer is “no” I try to get over it. Worrying about money is a never-ending game you can’t win. So whenever I realize that money is at the root of a stressor (as it definitely was in the case of this kitchen renovation), I try to move on and concentrate on what’s next, rather than dwell on money I’ve already spent (wasted?).

But I wanted specifics. How do you get over it, Orlando Soria? It comes down to keeping things in perspective. Everybody worries about money, he said, no matter how much or little they have. So you’re not alone, and this is normal, for what that’s worth.

The other thing he keeps in mind is to remember that whatever’s come at him, he’s always managed. “I have had a pretty nontraditional career path and with that has come financial instability,” he said. “I used to be stressed out but somehow what I’ve learned is I always land on my feet. Even when I’m like, ‘shit it’s getting really tight,’ I have that confidence.”

So think about it. If you’re in a position to even be considering a reno, you’ve clearly made it this far. Have some faith that you’ll persevere through this, too. Anytime I start freaking out about how much things cost I remind myself if I didn’t spend it on this I’d spend it on something else, so it may as well be on something that (hopefully!) increases my home’s value and that I’ll get enjoyment from.

Ready for some left-brain talk?

My biggest takeaway from Game (and confirmed by Soria) was to not bury your head in the sand about costs. Develop a realistic budget for the project, and for your household expenses. “Even if you don’t like the numbers at least you have the information,” she said. “It’s going to help you make clear decisions.”

(Image credit: Esteban Cortez)

Whatever you do, don’t live in denial about unexpected costs–something will always happen. So besides having a budget, Game said, have a plan in place for when those unforeseen costs start raining down. Know where you’re going to draw that extra cash from.

Game reminds us that an emergency fund is critical to your overall financial health, but “it usually gets vaporized in renovations.” So she recommends also having a potential plan for trimming your daily spending while the renovation is going on. “Have a plan, look at numbers, what are you spending each month?,” she said. “Are there ways you can lower your spending so if you do go over it’s not going to crush you?'”

And here’s a great idea. Before you even start dreaming over those Pinterest boards, go to a financial planner. “They can help you say whether you can afford this or not,” Game said. “It’s also a fresh set of eyes not as tied to [the renovation industry]. So many financial planners you can hire for an hour or two at a time, and that’s a relatively small investment to make sure you’re doing it the best way possible.” They can help you decide not only how to fund the renovation but how to address and fund emergencies. Do you want a home equity line of credit? Should you stop contributing to your retirement briefly? An expert can help you make those decisions.

She’s also known couples to go to therapy before, during, or after renovations. At minimum, if you’re doing this with a partner, you should have some very clear communication about your project vision and your comfort level with various financial scenarios, Game said.

Feeling like you’ve made decisions with some expert input, taking a cold, hard look at the real numbers of the renovation, and having a plan should all help reduce some of that tilt-a-whirl feeling that can be causing so much stress.

And when all else fails, take a hike. Or a walk. Or get coffee with a friend. Whatever helps just to get some distance from the situation. Renovation can take over your entire life, she said, so put some self care on your calendar and do it every day. It takes you out of that mindset and lets you come back with a clearer mind. And hopefully a less stressed one.