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Here’s How To BEAT The Homeowner’s Emotional Reno Rollercoaster

Emily and Brian made it to Portland. I am so happy. It is going to be great having them nearby. Emily’s exuberance and passion for every little treasure and Brian’s kind and funny observations are such a joy to be around. Of course, they probably are not all that enthused at this point. Their lives are in boxes, in mud, dusty and dirty while making sure their kids feel somewhat stable and sheltered. What a challenge they have taken on!

The emotions associated with remodeling tend to follow a path that I share with many clients to help them see the light at the end of the tunnel, including Emily and Brian. So, they asked me to share what I told them with you.  

I have a lot of compassion for people that go through these experiences. My favorite representation of the emotional ride that most experience is this chart: 

It is surprisingly accurate. So, brace yourselves 😊

1. Excitement

When I meet new clients for the first time, they are both excited and nervous, letting complete strangers into their home, telling them about their goals and dreams, being self-conscious about the state of their home, and trying to gauge these strangers’ personalities… what a moment. The first meeting is almost like a first date.

Clients want to get to know us and feel that they are being heard. Hiring the Design-Build firm you jive with is extremely important. You will know a lot about each other by the time the project is over. How do you know if you can trust these strangers with so much?

Our approach is to leave our egos at the door, focus only on the clients, and filter our thoughts through the gauge of what would we do if we were them, considering the house, their goals, and their financial situation?  

And then there is experience. Let’s be honest, in construction one can fake it quite easily; it is not like we are doing brain surgery. Be sure to check up on CCB numbers and references. Not hiring an experienced team might seem like the less expensive route to go, but it can snowball into a nightmare quickly. 

I tell my clients that feeling comfortable telling us their concerns and not worrying about hurting anyone’s feelings helps us all move the project in the right direction. We are lucky at ARCIFORM because we have worked with each other for so long that we can banter in front of the clients about our flaws and strengths, which makes it possible for them to get to know a little bit about us right away.  

2. Reality Is Mind-Boggling 

Unlike the chart above, we tread very lightly during the design process, way before final estimating, to be sure we align everyone’s expectations with reality while not hampering dreaming and the creative process. As so often is the case, money takes the fun out of things, and we try to address this hurdle head-on and not wait until the working drawings are all done to find out we have outlined a project that is too expensive.

Not to be too hard on reality tv, but I must say, the numbers they run for construction costs during their home improvement shows make me roll my eyes. They leave out half of the costs and one cannot purchase supplies for the prices they quote. 

My Impression Of A Reality TV Remodel Budget:

Plans & Specs Free
Project Management, Acquisitions & Delivery  Free
Permits What?
Demo  Free
Waste Disposal Free
Framing ???
Heating Cooling Plumbing Electrical Why talk about that?
Windows and Doors Free
Insulation What?
Drywall ???
Flooring Free
Cabinetry, Counters and Tile Free
Millwork ???
Painting ???
Plumbing & Lighting Fixtures Free
Appliances Free
Furnishings Free

Sometimes we might be a bit too straightforward about the costs of things since some clients want to be left in the dark as to how much they are spending, but we rather have this difficult conversation early on. 

We run preliminary designs by our construction team and our trusted subs as soon as possible. 

Then we have “The Talk.” This is when the first emotional crash happens. In my mind, it is the hardest. 

The Dream

design by catalano architects

The Reality

image source

But once we move beyond it, we can make informed decisions from here on out. As I hear so often, construction is a game of averagesOne thing may go great or cost less and then the next takes longer and gets spendy. Overall, we come out right where we’re meant to. 

3. Shopping 

This is euphoria for some and an identity crisis for others… or both. We make as many of the decisions before we do the final estimate and start construction to control costs and timeframes. Choosing what goes where, how big to make a window, which light brightens which corner, which lightbulb puts out the most flattering light, which tile pattern makes you the happiest… there is so very much to consider.  

For the best results, the space plan, shapes, and volumes, all the finishes, fixtures, case goods, windows, doors, millwork, hardware should be considered in context. We take it one step at a time, circle back, document it all, and wrap it up in a tidy package. 

4. The Dirty Work!

Now that we know what we are building and for how much we are feeling good. Construction begins! Yes! Finally, we get to see things taking shape.  –  Hold it! What! Noise, dust, destruction. Strangers in my house at 7:30 in the morning. For how long did you say? More strangers? My house is being temporarily supported by what? 

Our clients are champions of flexibility? From doing the dishes on their porch in snowy weather to…

having microwave and barbeque cook-offs with our carpenters.

We often build temporary kitchens in basements which have their own “charm”:

There are times during construction when it seems nothing is happening. Electricians are monkeying around in the basement for days, parts are broken and need to be reordered, one carpenter is sick and now the domino effect of rescheduling causes frustration. And the sheetrock dust – no matter how many protective measures we take, the fine dust sneaks through and will find a way to settle where it is not welcome. This is all so normal, and I am so thankful for the project managers, site leads, and carpenters for focusing on the tasks at hand, keeping their cool, shuffling and sorting and keeping everyone informed. 

I wanted to bring in another perspective, so I asked my friend of almost 30 years what she remembers unfavorably from the many years she had Arciform remodel her home:

“I’ve been remodeling my house for over twenty years, starting with structural issues like dry rot and drafty windows, then moving on to more creative, albeit necessary, projects. When I think about the process, it’s very easy to access the bad memories. I once googled why we remember bad things so easily, instead of good, and one theory was that it harkens back to living in a cave and having to remember which plants killed your friend, or where the sabretooth tiger lived. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, my memories never got in the way of me doing another project. Though sometimes it took a while for me to get back on that horse, that’s for sure.

I did not move out during the process. At the crack of dawn, I would go downstairs to get my coffee before work. I take milk in my coffee. During this project, my refrigerator kept moving around the house, and in the dark early morning of winter I would crack my foot almost every day on some new pile of construction the guys left blocking the new route to the fridge. I’m pretty sure they did this on purpose. You get paranoid after a while, you know?”

This friend supplied our crew with Red-Bull to make them work faster:)

And last but not least, probably my favoite story is when we were in the middle of a kitchen remodel and our lead carpenter Jack was buckling up his tool belt to start right at 7:30 am when a sleepy client walks into the kitchen to get his coffee, stark naked. Sadly I do not have a picture of this. But we will never let this client live this one down. 😉

5. How Lucky We Are

Now is when all the hard work and emotional ups and downs show fruit.  The sheetrock is up, the dust has been swept up, and yes (!), the tile is being set, the floors are going in, so are the cabinets and counters and finally the beautiful hardware and light fixtures. Every day is a new surprise, and, in my experience, the reality is always better than our imaginations.  

Let the team finish their work before putting up the blue tape. 😊 We do a walk-through when we feel we are all done to make sure you are happy with everything. We also come back a year later to repair where paint seams and caulk lines might have opened through a full rotation of the seasons. 

As Emily says, we are truly privileged to be able to do this for ourselves and our families, and while it is stressful, it is also an extremely rewarding experience. Hang in there!

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1 year ago

Renos are gnarly, especially when you are living in the house, with the construction. In 2017 we renovated the heart of our home – kitchen/dining/living/family rooms (all connected)…….those rooms took about 5 months (major structural work and a total gut job/started from scratch). The new hardwoods flowed down the hallway, which landed at the primary bedroom so why not install hardwoods there, which lead to finding a leak outside the adjacent primary bath when the carpet was pulled up, which lead to another 2 months renovating the primary bathroom because we “have to address the leak” and heck we’re already down here……..(omg I was on major reno-fatigue, so over making decisions let alone starting a room I had no intention of thinking about). All this work took a total of 7 months (with a solid 3 months cooking out of the laundry room; we had a 3 and 4 year old at the time), and THEN – THEN on the last day wrapping up the primary bath – the glass guys arrived to install the primary bathroom glass shower wall, and while they were doing that job, a pipe under our slab – in my NEW KITCHEN – burst. Flood… Read more »

1 year ago
Reply to  Karen

omg where’s the vino!

1 year ago
Reply to  Karen

Oh Lordy. I’m about to start a main floor reno while living in the basement, and your comment is absolutely terrifying. But glad you got through it all and found it worth the agony in the end.

1 year ago

I have renovated my kitchen twice…. once half assed and the second time with new cabs etc. I’ve also renoed my only bathroom. Both times took 2x as long as what was quoted and wound up costing 30% more. I am happy to say that those things are behind me. Having a small house and being pretty particular about where things go in my space made me quite stressed out. I lived in the house both times. for the absent bathroom I would use the neighbors every single time. Ugh!

emily jane
1 year ago
Reply to  StephanieZ

oh dear! (I’ve been recently dreaming of ‘updating’ my one-and-only bathroom buuuut as I do not know any of my neighbors as well as you, maybe I’ll hold off long enough to rectify that ; ).

1 year ago

Our final plumbing and electrical inspections are supposed to take place today. So looks like we are about to party according to that chart. Fingers crossed! We have been working on an addition since June 2020 and, except for two weeks when we didn’t have a bathroom, we have lived through it all with two young kids. My capacity for living in clutter and chaos has surprised me, but I am so so so ready to start using the new beautiful space. Oh, and we decided to self-contract to save money and since we are working from home and would be here all the time anyway. It probably would have been faster if we hadn’t done that, but I do think we are saving money.

1 year ago

Nice hearing from the construction firm. So many times you only hear the complaints of the homeowner, who may or may not have had a realistic view of how it would go. And it is ALWAYS, ALWAYS, 20% and 2 months more than you thought it would be. Emotionally prepare yourself at the beginning so you won’t be losing your mind at the (almost) end.

1 year ago

So true! Every bit of it! We just had our kitchen redone this year so totally felt ALL of this…the hardest part of this for me was the budget…I was hoping/planning for $45k-ish…reality was $80k…and that was after taking some things off the list (we delayed the flooring and lighting for example). The electrical / HVAC work was boring/invisible but so necessary for life-safety and now meets code…but $10k for that was still hard to swallow! Hardest thing for my husband was living with kitchen/dining/living room all in the family room for three months – he hates been squished but he was able to suck it up. We had to keep our fridge in the work zone….which was a little tricky sometimes as I work from home and trying to get to the fridge for lunch when its covered in drop cloths…I learned to pack a lunch & snacks in the morning even in my own home! Things felt so much better once we had a working stove and sink again – it was like Christmas in May!

1 year ago
Reply to  MC

I rewired my 1920s house from the original knob and tube this year. It was one of those things where it was absolutely invisible and absolutely necessary for fire and safety – but holy hell was it expensive and I have nothing to show for it!

1 year ago
Reply to  Kate

Did you tell your insurance company that you did this? You should at least get to see a smaller insurance bill for it.

1 year ago

As I start to embark on my first reno ever, this is so helpful. Just a gut job to my very cute starter home kitchen. But the what ifs, have me super concerned! Plus, I will have to move out of my house during the process. Which means finding a place to live for a 6-8 weeks, with 2 70 pound dogs. The unknowns are starting to make me a little sick if I think about it. But, construction won’t start until at least next spring. So a little time to start grappling with all of the emotions I’m feeling.

1 year ago

I love this post and I love the in-process pictures of real life renovations. Thank you Anne for a realistic look at what it takes to renovate. I really appreciate you sharing all of your experience.

1 year ago

Anne, thank you so much for writing about the reality of the emotional roller coaster of renovation. A++ for sharing this information in a direct and pleasant way.

1 year ago

I am a landscape architect and for a landscape design build company in the San Francisco Bay Area. I love your cost breakdown of a reality show project, lol! The most expensive and time consuming parts of a landscape project are the unseen support systems like grading, drainage, base preparation for patios, soil preparation, irrigation… Skimping (or ignoring) these really make or break a project in the long term.
Also I can’t say enough how valuable a design build process can be for the homeowner, but only if the homeowner is transparent about their budgets early on. We keep our early designs loose too. There is nothing worse (for both sides) than overdeveloping an idea only to find out it is not in the budget. As a design-builder, we have no interest in designing something that the owner can’t afford to build.
Thanks for including us in your journey!

1 year ago

These are wise words! Great graphic!
I tend to abbreviate this to the “U” of creative work. You start out with amazing ideas and excitement. Then your house gets torn up, it’s dirty and messy, you inevitably discover hidden problems you need to fix that causes increased costs and delays. Once the drywall is finally done, elation returns because all those design decisions start getting installed are your vision becomes real. Then there’s the money part – it’s just SO MUCH money!
Another truism: while you are saving up for the remodel, don’t neglect the maintenance.

1 year ago

That chart is the best; I can absolutely relate!

I loved this part, just one small sentence but it shows how much attention to detail and care your firm exhibits:

We also come back a year later to repair where paint seams and caulk lines might have opened through a full rotation of the seasons. 


1 year ago

That graph is soo good. I’m going to look at it whenever I need to remind myself that the low parts are part of the process!

1 year ago

I love the chart! Yes, it is so accurate. We finished a major 4-room renovation in our 1870s home, and we were lucky to have a design-build firm similar to ARCIFORM. Our firm also allowed us to dream and be creative while gently reminding us what some of our crazy ideas would actually cost. When we signed the contract, we knew that demolition would uncover other surprises, so we were prepared for a few budget adjustments to correct structural issues. The result was even more charming and beautiful than we had imagined! We had to wash dishes in our main floor bathroom for 5 months, but it was worth it!

Anna Charles
1 year ago

I absolutely love the post from

1 year ago

I think renovating in the US is much more difficult and expensive than in Spain. I fhave been flipping appartments which I completely renovate in Madrid forsix years now, and I always work with the same contractor. He gives me a quote all inclusive, specifiying i.e tiles up to 10€ per square meter, porcelain floors up to 12€, doors up to 120€, 50 electrical outlets etc Of course now I am very accurate in predicting the renovation costs the first time I vist the appartment, even soone when I see it in idealista. Then at the end of the work we make adjustments as necessary, but usually ther are not a lot of deviation. I have always worked with contractors from Romania, my best advice is: Ifyou can hire a romanian contractor, do it. They are the best, and, no, I am not from Romania. I understand though that there are very few romanian people living in the US. I learnt a lor reading american books on flipping and renovating and decorating, this is how I found out about this wonderful blog, and also on landscape planning because I have also renovated two beautiful houses, in the countryside, one of… Read more »

1 year ago

My husband and I have spent the last year getting plans drawn up, finally city approved and received bids to learn we cannot afford the whole project. A few thousand dollars later we are back to square one. I have learned many lessons especially about being realistic about budget, budget, budget. Also, find a design-build who ask the hard questions. I like what was said in this article, very helpful. Thank you!

1 year ago
Reply to  Barbra

What’s the solution for this problem? As an estimator for a custom home builder, I see this all the time. How can you learn about all the costs during the design, can the architect help more, should the builder be on board during the design phase?

1 year ago
Reply to  JIR

In my case, I knew better about what I had to spend and I made a costly mistake. I take responsibility. I am glad the project stopped with the plans rather than during the build. Firstly, I would say to architects be sure to get a client’s firm budget. Then understand their wants. And then have a hard conversation if the budget is not matching the wants. At this stage, I think a builder should be involved as they may know costs better than anyone. A builder can reign in the architect and client to what is actually doable. My husband and I are revising our project and learned we can keep our existing kitchen within our four walls and put off the master bath addition.

1 year ago

Thank you for this! Funny and real. And timely! We moved into a rental last weekend and start demo on Monday. We’re currently click, click, clicking up the rollercoaster from Bids (OMG!!) to Demo. After living in our 1984 house with blue toilets and 80s brass for a decade, we know the temporary pain will be worth it, but posts like this are so encouraging!

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