Tim and I bought our first house, a long-abandoned foreclosure, about a year after our wedding. To say it was a fixer-upper…well, let me put it this way: When we gave my parents a tour, they cried.
I could see the place was a dump, but I trusted my husband and his vision for what it could become. As we packed our apartment into storage and prepared for the move, I was already daydreaming about paint colors and window treatments.
Little did I know we’d just begun an eight-month journey through homeowner hell. On our first day of ownership, Tim handed me a utility knife and showed me how to slice through the stained, disintegrating, thirty-year-old carpet. By the time I’d hacked and coughed my way through removing the filthy stuff in three bedrooms, my back, arms, and legs were so sore I could barely move.
It didn’t get any easier. We gutted the house, top to bottom. Flooring, plaster, cabinets, appliances, wiring, plumbing, windows, siding, shingles…they all came out or off, leaving behind a sad looking shell that in no way resembled my dream home.
It was my turn to cry.
Tim was working fulltime through the renovation, plus putting in hours each night and weekend on our place. In an effort to move things along a little quicker, he taught me a few skills. Demolition didn’t require much finesse, and refinishing the cabinets was sort of fun, but when we got into the drywall stage I faced a giant learning curve. That was the low point – standing on a ladder for hours each day, breaking my neck to sand the mudded ceiling joints. Between the dust on my contact lenses and the stifling heat, I developed a hatred for drywall that’s still alive and well today.
Living in the house during the project was a bit like camping. We nailed a scrap of used vinyl onto the bare plywood floor in one bedroom, and laid another strip through the hallway into the upstairs bath, which was bare except for one brand-new working toilet. Our mattress went directly on the floor, and a plastic bin in the closet held a few sets of clothing for each of us. Breakfast and lunch were usually cold and simple, followed by dinner cooked on the grill if we had the energy. We ate with paper plates and plastic utensils when possible, and washed up in the utility sink Tim had installed where there used to be a kitchen. In the evenings, if we were too exhausted to keep working, we bought cappuccinos at Turkey Hill and drank them in Tim’s truck while listening to Prairie Home Companion.
With a decade of perspective under my belt, I can now look back on the experience with fondness. I dwell more on those late-night radio dates and the exhausted bouts of hysterical laughter than on the drywall dust in my eyes and blisters on my hands. Truth be told, I think we learned a lot of valuable lessons during those eight months, and many of them had nothing to do with construction.
One insight we return to time and again is the importance of communicating expectations. Tim wasn’t surprised in the least that our first home renovation lasted eight months. I, on the other hand, was ready to throw in the ShamWow after three weeks. I shed a lot of tears and we had the first real arguments of our marriage during that project, and they all boiled down to a failure to communicate our expectations.
This is a powerful lesson for marriage, but it’s true anytime a relationship is involved, from parenting to business. We learned early on that failure to understand our customers’ expectations and inform them of ours inevitably leads to some sort of frustration. That’s why we build such detail into our quotes and make follow-up a top priority.
Some people claim that the best way to avoid disappointment is to keep your expectations low. I propose that disappointment isn’t so much about having unrealistically high expectations, but rather uncommunicated ones. For example, when my five-year-old has a birthday party, I’m not content to just expect him to forget to say thank-you to the gift bearers. I’d rather communicate beforehand that I expect him to pause after opening a present, look at the person who gave it to him, and express his gratitude.
Expectations: too high, too low, or simply too silent? Food for thought.
As for our renovation, I did eventually get around to the fun stuff, like painting and decorating. And about a year later we experienced the unbelievable joy of bringing our firstborn daughter home from the hospital.
Best finishing touch ever.