Homeowners say they save money and stay in control, but some contractors beg to differ.
By Katy McLaughlin for the Wall Street Journal
Updated Oct. 2, 2019 11:26 am ET
Doris Pearlman, the president of a Denver-based interior design firm, knows the golden rule: Never live in a home during a renovation. “You move out! Of course you do!” she cried.
But when it came to a recent, roughly $350,000 kitchen, dining and laundry room remodel of her Greenwood Village, Colo., home, Ms. Pearlman failed to practice what she preaches. Her husband wanted to stay closely involved in the process. Packing up and renting short-term accommodation “is not as easy as people might think.” Then there is the fact that “you can get used to almost anything,” Ms. Pearlman said, like dining in the basement for seven months—until it flooded with 20-inches of water during a construction snafu.
For many homeowners, remodeling means months of camping in their own homes. Dennis Gehman, treasurer of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, estimated that 90% to 95% of all homeowners remain in place during renovation work on their homes. Even in the luxury home segment, roughly 50% of homeowners stay, estimated Robert Criner, president of Criner Remodeling in Newport News, Va., and a former chairman of the remodelers’ special interest group at the National Association of Home Builders.
Doris Pearlman’s home in Greenwood, Village, Colo. Before and After a $350,000 renovation. PHOTOS: ANNA HUDSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL(3); DORIS PEARLMAN(3)
Meanwhile, national spending on home remodeling has jumped 31% to $448 billion since 2013, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.
All of the homeowners interviewed said they felt that living in their projects not only saved the cost and hassle of moving, it helped avert design or engineering snafus and increased communication.
Contractors, on the other hand, aren’t always thrilled to work around their clients. They argue that any money homeowners save renting another place can be lost to the additional costs involved in allowing them to stay put, which contractors estimate can add anywhere from 5% to 20% to a job.
Costs grow the more a project needs to be “phased,” so that subcontractors like plumbers and electricians come back multiple times to work on portions of the house rather than all at once, said Denny Conner, president of CRD Design Build in Seattle. Cleaning up daily, sealing off rooms with plastic sheets or temporary walls, and sucking out dust with air scrubbers also adds to the bill, said Eric Enfield, president of Architectural Alliance in Santa Fe.
On a current $700,000 renovation job in a Chicago suburb, Chris Donatelli, president of Donatelli Builders in Downers Grove, Ill., estimated that accommodating homeowners living on site is adding $1,875 a month. And that is not accounting for increased cost of doing the work in phases, he said.
Many remodelers don’t require clients to move out during a renovation, as doing so would make them uncompetitive in the bidding process. One who has put his foot down is Jesse Fowler, president of Tellus Design + Build in Los Angeles. He said several “horrific” experiences led him to implement a rule that clients cannot remain in their homes during construction. “Because it’s hell,” he said.
The crisis that ushered in the new policy occurred when the company was nearing completion of a renovation in West Los Angeles. The homeowners moved back near the end of the project, Mr. Fowler said, and began to fixate on minor problems—a mislaid tile, a not-smooth-enough-wall—before Mr. Fowler’s team could catch and fix them. The client ultimately withheld $140,000 worth of payment; the issue is currently at an impasse, and both sides have lawyered up, said Mr. Fowler.
Despite the challenges, Mr. Conner in Seattle said moving out is simply not an option for many of his clients, because finding short-term rentals has been difficult and expensive amid the recent housing boom.
Passing through zippered plastic tarps throughout the house feels “kind of like camping,” said Martin Dimitroff, a 56-year-old biotech consultant who hired CRD for a $220,000 remodel of his kitchen and dining area. His wife, Tee McKennon, a 48-year-old biotech executive, said they had never remodeled before when they bought a 3,300-square-foot contemporary in the Magnolia neighborhood in 2011. But Ms. McKennon, an avid cook, became disenchanted with her enclosed, dark kitchen, cut off from the home’s views of the Cascade Mountains.
Mr. Conner’s team knocked out walls to combine the kitchen and dining room, and connect them to a family room. They also rerouted plumbing and electrical work from a load-bearing wall that had to be removed. Throughout the four months of construction, the couple made carnitas and Indian cuisine with a pressure cooker and induction burner in the living room. When the plumbing was being rerouted, they showered at a friend’s house.
Every day, the lead carpenter on the job spent an hour cleaning, Ms. McKennon said. Clean up, dust barriers, hardwood floor covers and other accommodations added about 12.2% to the cost of work, said Mr. Conner.
Dust is a scourge. Scott Lake, a 51-year-old geriatric and palliative medicine physician in Charleston, S.C., said the crew at Classic Remodeling & Construction carefully sealed off the workspace and cleaned up every day during his $300,000 remodel.
Nonetheless, an hour after the crew left each day, dust seemed to appear, including upstairs where Dr. Lake, his two teenage daughters and wife, physician Piave Lake, had set up a makeshift kitchen. Fine particles of dust suspended in the air or on the ceiling were gradually settling. Dr. Lake bought a $700 Miele vacuum cleaner, which he said was worth the price because it eliminated the dust that “drove us nuts.”
Bob Fleming, president of Classic Remodeling, warned that Type-A personalities tend to fare poorest in the process, though high strung pet owners run a close second. He said he once had a client whose dog was so stressed by the remodel and hot weather that his team built a fenced area in the backyard, with an air conditioner set up on a chair to cool the pooch.
“We are psychologists who just happen to do remodeling,” said Mr. Fleming. “However, we wish we were psychiatrists and could prescribe medication.”