The 5 1/2 Stages of Renovation

No survivor of a previous home-improvement project would ever consider another go-round without having had sufficient time to recover

Photograph by Twenty20

With a bow to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, who devised the "Five Stages of Grief" to describe the journey of people coping with terminal illness, I’ve created an alternative 5 1/2 Stages — this, admittedly, for an affliction not nearly as dire as a terminal disease. Still, it’s a condition that threatens your psychological, physical and financial well-being, no matter how prepared and savvy you think you are: renovation.

Trust me. I know.

The husband and I had been through this twice before, with the old house. But renovation is like childbirth. The end result is so great that you forget how awful it is until you do it again. No survivor of a previous home-improvement project would ever consider another go-round without having had sufficient time to recover. Which is how we talked ourselves into updating (ha-ha!) the old kitchen in the new house.

Stage 1: Denial You’re either a virgin to remodeling or enough time has elapsed since the last job to allow yourself to start dreaming again. A spanking new stainless steel/marble kitchen! A spa bath! Other people have these things — especially other people in glossy magazines — so why not you? Going into it, you must simply deny the fact that the new renovation will cost twice (if you’re lucky) as much as you bargained for. Our latest project went over budget by a multiple of five. Then you must pretend that it won’t take at least three times as long or be much more difficult than the contractor — who hopes you’ll hire him — estimates during the early romance phase of your relationship. Which leads us to …

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Stage 2: Lust I made up my mind that this time I’d do things right. I wanted to be clearheaded. Hard-nosed. Make all my decisions early and stick to them. What’s more, there would be no change-orders! The contractor (the cheapest guy — another big ha-ha!) came up with a modest drawing for a modest update of the old kitchen. Same footprint, even. Then I met with a very talented architect — just for a little consult! — and it was all over the day she showed up with the drawing of a kitchen fit for Daniel Boulud. Like a teenage girl with her first crush, I fell head-over-heels in lust. So what if one wall would have to be moved and another blown out? So what if we needed to hire an engineer, put in a new foundation, erect a steel beam? How could we ever go back to Plan A?

Stage 2 1/2: Addiction The crazy train had left the station and I was a woman addicted. Obsessed. I spent every second of my waking life — which had once involved work, exercise, conversations with friends and the husband about topics other than renovation — scrutinizing the endless possibilities on, not to mention taking expensive field trips with the architect to select stone for countertops, tile for backsplash, faucets, pulls, light fixtures to hang above the island and, God help me, appliances! Honestly, if you’re designing a kitchen for Daniel Boulud, are you going to buy your appliances at Sears — or will you absolutely have to have a Miele this and a Subzero that?

Stage 3: Anger This is also known as the Sticker-Shock-and-Awe Stage, as well as the While-We’re-At-It Stage — and, I freely admit, I suffered from serious While-We’re-At-It Syndrome. As in, while we’re doing all this — and I’m going bankrupt anyhow — why not add in a new powder room, redo the fireplace and surround it with a whole wall of bookcases, throw in a sound system and put in new wood floors throughout the house? True, it was me who signed all those blasted change-orders. But my rage was also justly directed at the contractor, a real charmer whose low bid won him the job, but who — in a dazzling feat of contractor math — found a reason to raise the price of every single thing we did, even items that were part of our original contract.

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Stage 4: Depression This stage occurs after you’ve doled out wads of cash, the old space has been demolished, there’s a heap of dirt in the middle of the floor just like in a Samuel Beckett play, the planning commission has yet to approve your permit application and the contractor goes AWOL. This is the dark night of the soul of renovation and — like the hero’s journey —you must endure it and then, by your wits and persistence, come out the other side. That would be the Or-Else Stage, in which you sweetly tell the contractor, “You must finish by next Tuesday or else (a) I’m going to kill myself, (b) I’m going to kill you, (c) my husband is going to kill us both." This usually gets things moving.

Stage 5: Acceptance This stage comes easy. By this point, you’ve been completely worn down and all your resources drained. Your faith in the final outcome of your project — or belief that there ever will be a final outcome — has been so shattered that just the sight of a working sink can bring you to tears of joy. But be still your heart: Those tears of joy are nothing compared to the tears of joy you’ll shed the day you realize that your new kitchen is even more beautiful than you’d dared to imagine. But beware: As the memory of the torture fades and the loveliness of your creation abides, you run the risk of starting to fantasize about redoing your bathrooms — and you know where that leads.

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