Getting through a renovation (without going insane)

As I am typing this, work men are pounding on the floor above me. We really loved this house when we first saw it seven years ago. Indeed, deciding to buy this house made moving from New York City to suburban Pennsylvania a little easier. However, there were a few things I never liked. Over the past seven years, we have slowly been making progress on changing them. It’s mostly been little stuff, but about six months ago I decided it was time to redo the kitchen, living room, and master bathroom.

The kitchen was fine — good layout, open concept — it was just dark and dated. The living room walls featured a textured paint style that was big in 1999…and not since. (Plus the kids had destroyed the furniture). The master bathroom shower had sprung a leak, warping the floor. Everything had to come up, and if it did, I figured it was best to take the opportunity to redo the whole room.

I decided this in the fall, but as anyone who’s been through a renovation knows, it takes a while to get started. I interviewed three contractors in January, and chose one around the first of February. They started the demolition on March 22.

I am happy to report that we are now back in our kitchen! Please see the before and after photos. The living room is also freshly painted, though the furniture is still arriving. The bathroom is in process — hence the pounding above me — but that has been more about the pace of permitting and municipal inspections than anything else. I hope to be back in there in the next 10 days. Its absence is only really an issue for my husband and me, so it is not as big a deal.

Anyway, not having access to our kitchen for several weeks was the most disruptive aspect of the renovation. It wasn’t just about the food prep. The kitchen is also our command center — where we keep all the car keys (with 3 cars and 3 drivers there’s a lot of switching around), sort the mail, keep the membership cards for the zoo and children’s museum and all that. My house is not always neat, but it is organized. Removing a major room disrupts the systems. Here are the strategies we used to handle the past few weeks.

Disappear. Five out of six of us were in London for a week of the renovation process. We don’t have any sort of vacation house or family in town, but I definitely know people who’ve timed major renovations for summer when the kids at least could hang out in Grandma’s lake house or some such.

Reroute the systems. I put a mail-holding box in the mudroom to catch all incoming correspondence. I created a hanging folder for all museum passes, which was also hung in the mudroom. A bowl in the dining room served as the home for the car keys.

Stage a temporary kitchen (if possible). Some people going through a kitchen renovation try to eat all meals out, but this was just never going to work for us. The kids could buy lunch at school, but breakfasts and weekend lunches just don’t lend themselves to loading everyone in the car. We are very fortunate to have a bar kitchen in the basement with a small fridge and a sink. This became our working kitchen for the duration of the kitchen renovation. We moved the microwave and coffee maker down there, and the plates and silverware. Then we bought a 2 burner portable stove (like people use for parties). This functioned quite well (especially since we could still use our freezer in the kitchen — an adult just had to climb over stuff to get to it). In the absence of a bar kitchen, I think it would be useful to find a spot near a sink (like in a bathroom or laundry room) and then put a microwave, a mini fridge, and possibly a mini-stove like ours. Put milk and sandwich stuff in the fridge. Make space in a closet for cereal, fruit, and bread, and maybe even stuff like soup (which can be heated up in the microwave or on the mini stove) and you’ve got a semi-functional kitchen for non-dinner meals.

Have go-to dinners. We wound up eating a fair number of sandwiches from WaWa. We’d make pasta for some of the kids, and then the adults (and 8-year-old — the one who likes things like mustard and pickles) would eat hoagies. Because we had the fridge, there were also a reasonable number of chicken Caesar salads: bagged lettuce plus rotisserie chicken from the local grocery store. We also became familiar with their buffalo chicken dip (yummy with carrots and celery).

Have go-to-restaurants. The kids can all eat at Ruby’s Diner and Uno Pizzeria & Grill, and so we wound up there a lot too.

Assume moments of despair. Unhappiness is often the result of a gap between expectations and reality. If your expectations are low, then there is no gap. There were definitely some low moments. I see on my time log that at one weekday lunch, I wrote there was no food in the house. Not totally true, but I didn’t want a peanut butter sandwich, which is what there was, and there were 6 trucks blocking my car in the driveway. Our lowest moments happened with the fish. We moved the fresh water tank to the dining room floor, but the 3-year-old found it irresistible there, and poured soap in it at one point (and then tried to scoop all the fish out…I guess to rescue them?) The saltwater tank had to be moved out from the wall so the walls could be painted, and the fish seemed to do OK with that, but the 10-year-old wasn’t really thinking about the tank when he wasn’t seeing it, resulting in some neglect that not all the fish survived. (The fish are very much the 10-year-old’s job, since he asked for the tank and has been choosing the fish. My husband is the back-up adult on fish care, but he somehow elected to be gone even more than the rest of us. I am trying to think of all of this as a learning experience about responsibility for the 10-year-old, though it was all kind of upsetting at the time.)

Anyway, with despair assumed, it has not been so bad. In a few weeks, everything will be settled, and the new furniture will be in place, and it will all be great. One way or another, we’ll eventually be on the other side of these weeks, and I’m already really liking looking at the new kitchen!

If you’ve done any home renovations, how did you stay sane during the process?

Note: My website is getting a renovation too! It should be up in the next few days. There may be a few glitches. You can email me your thoughts on it at lvanderkam at yahoo dot com.



26 thoughts on “Getting through a renovation (without going insane)

  1. Nice improvement! One design question for my own similar kitchen, did you just paint the cabinets or replace them all together?

    1. @anne – Thanks! Painted them, though that sounds a lot simpler than it was. Everything had to come out since there were several glass doors revealing the insides, which had to be painted. And they aren’t flat front cabinets – they’re fairly ornate. So a lot of detailed work.

      1. Come now! Couldn’t you have simply spray painted the old cabinets like they used to do on Trading Spaces? 😉

  2. We had our kitchen gutted and incorporated an uninsulated closed-in porch, so we were out of it for 8 weeks. We did it in the last weeks of the kids’ school year and summer. My husband and 4 kids went to his parents’ house for a week, we grilled a lot and learned new ways to use the microwave and toaster oven. We had our old fridge moved into the basement and the plumber installed a temporary sink near it so we could do minimal washing. It wasn’t easy but really wasn’t that bad, either.

    1. Love the kitchen! When I renovated a kitchen some years ago in a much smaller house, we moved the fridge into the dining room and set up a temporary kitchen there, mainly consisting of a place to store food, a mini microwave, and a wash basin because there was no sink. I played it like camping, but with more electricity and less fire.

      However, I did not have kids at the time. 🙂

      1. @Byrd- yep, kids do complicate things, though they were also excited about eating somewhere different. I can’t imagine using a wash basin for weeks, though. I think I would have been eating out every meal then!

    2. @Lisa – the temporary sink is a great idea if there’s none that’s convenient anywhere else. The ability to get water and wash dishes in the same place where you eat is huge.

      1. We used mostly paper plates, but the sink allowed us to wash reusable containers for leftovers, serving dishes we used to carry food in from the grill, etc. It made a huge difference! The kids being in school for a few weeks helped, because our district has free breakfast and lunch for everyone, too. It was easier than sending them to camp and having to feed them in the morning and pack lunches.

  3. Did you get new cabinets or just paint your old ones? I am now understanding how a month long renovation was possible for you. In our case walls would have to be removed, new cabinets purchased and installed, electrical and plumbing redone, which is obviously more of a pain. Glad things are chugging along for you guys!

    1. @Omdg- painted! Definitely made it easier, though not easy (see comment above about the detail work). New sink, light, countertops, backsplash, and wall paint — but not moving walls makes for a speedier process for sure.

  4. Your kitchen looks beautiful!
    We are currently living with friends for a (hopefully) short time while our new house is finished being built. Seeing your kitchen makes me excited for my own- I also picked out white cabinets ( eggshell)! I am getting a darker granite counter, but I will have a grey backsplash and knobs similar in color to yours!
    Thanks for sharing your survival tips, we are implementing similar strategies for being temporarily re-located.

    1. @Angela – glad you like the kitchen! here’s hoping your new house is done soon. I’m sure it will be great. White cabinets definitely lighten things up a lot. But boy are there a lot of shades of white! Who knew?

      1. I have picked some bad paint colors in the past, without testing them, so I was pretty nervous about picking the “right” shade of white for our bedroom/bathroom. Luckily, I chose well and am super happy with Sherwin Williams Alabaster. It’s amazing how different they look at different times of day and locations.

        1. @ARC – I forget which white I chose for the cabinets. But the walls are “Navajo white” which as far as I can tell looks yellowish. I like the yellow, but I’m still not sure why it qualifies as “white.”

  5. We flooded during hurricane Harvey and had to move out for 6 months. We lost our whole first floor plus a car, and I was 30 weeks pregnant. It was not a good situation, but we are home now, and the remodel is beautiful. Attitude is everything!

    1. @Marci – that is one amazingly positive attitude! I can’t even imagine. So glad you are home and that the beautiful remodel is a silver lining on the experience.

  6. That looks awesome! I’d like to do something similar in our kitchen – lighter painted cabinets and change the countertop. We changed the counter on the island (so that we could get a better sink and faucet) and now the perimeter looks sad and neglected 😀 But as we’re eking out the last bit of work on our master bath this weekend (final cabinet door repaint/install) I need to lay off the reno projects for a while…

    You must be so happy to be almost done!

  7. Great job on the renovation. Hang in there, you are almost done. We hosted a “thank you” breakfast for our contractor and all of the trades, plumber, electricians, tile, painting, designer, etc. They loved it and were able to see the completed project instead of the “in process” work.

  8. The kitchen facelift looks gorgeous. I love the painted cabinets…now I’m thinking about whether that could work in my own kitchen since a full-scale reno isn’t in the cards right now!

    Laura, I have a question about Off the Clock. I’m thinking of pre-ordering but debating between Kindle and hardcover — does this book contain a lot of time diaries like your previous books did? If I remember correctly, they were somewhat difficult to read in the ebook version.

    1. @Jenny- glad you like the kitchen! This book contains zero time diaries in the body of the book (there’s a blank one at the end). So it should be much more readable in Kindle format. So it’s really more a question of what format you prefer!

      1. Thanks so much! Kindle rules my life right now since it’s so much easier to hold with a nursing baby, so ebook it is!

  9. I like the text bigger and not as gray. Previously difficult to read. the comment section has given me some pause. Not clear where to type – -just white space and not clearly marked boxes.

    1. @Eileen – thanks for your feedback! I’m glad the blog is easier to read in this format (that was a goal of the redesign…)

  10. It looks lovely! I appreciate your creativity in managing during the renovations! Three years ago, we did a whole house renovation & addition after living here for 15 years. We had to move out completely & we rented a house on a neighboring city for 9 months with a 4 yr old & 7 yr old. We have fond memories of that situation, though the renovation left me a bit shell shocked & I’m only now starting to be interested in going to home improvement stores again! 🤣

    1. @Kelly in SF – I cannot even imagine moving out for 9 months! I guess it would be an adventure. I’m feeling more positive now that I am back in the kitchen. Maybe it will even inspire me to tackle a few more small projects around the house (ha ha).

  11. I’m going through a reno at the moment – my kitchen was demolished in mid-February and it’s still not finished (apparently soapstone countertops take a LONG time to come in). Thankfully I only have teenagers, and they pretty much eat anything, so it was much easier to manage food. I can’t wait to get back to normal though …

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