How to survive big home-improvement projects

The importance of spreadsheets, bunk beds and 'construction zen'

What made me think that I, a neighborhood newspaper editor with no calluses on his hands, could be my own general contractor for a top-to-bottom home renovation?

There were the usual motivations: cheapness, hubris, obsessive-compulsiveness and, yes, control-freakishness.

Besides, I had closely watched a smaller expansion we'd done at our first house, and helped out during a subsequent bathroom renovation. Plus, my day job involves lots of logistical organizing. So organizing a major construction project was not a completely foolish act.

Now, six months later, I have satisfied that desire to save money, learned a lifetime of neat construction tricks and felt the glow of bringing a six-figure project in on time and the way I wanted.

But there's a cost. I also became monkishly single-minded, experienced a lifetime worth of marriage meltdowns, struggled on my day job, let friendships slip and barely noticed my kids.

Was it worth it?

Yes, but only because I have a flexible boss, a strong spouse, cool kids and loyal friends. Plus, six months isn't so bad if you're planning to live in your renovated home for the rest of your life.

Still, there are a few things I wish I'd known before I started this whole project, from the definition of general contracting to understanding the zen of construction.

Build a roster

At its root, general contracting is the choreography of subcontractors. Pros have a bunch of "subs" they work with regularly -- the electrician, the plumber, the person who does the house framing, etc. Amateurs usually struggle because we have to build a roster from scratch.

Fortunately, a great handyman/carpenter and plumber had worked on my first house, so I didn't have to hunt for them. Also, as a nosy, inquisitive journalist, I had few qualms about hitting up everyone I knew for recommendations on other subs. Extroversion is an unexpected advantage for a do-it-yourself organizer.

Buy some time

Another huge advantage we had was time. Our new house unexpectedly fell into our lap around Thanksgiving; we bit the bullet and decided to pay two mortgages for two months so we could work on the new house from March to May. (Not everyone has the luxury of dropping $1,000-$3,000 on that extra mortgage -- but within the context of a $100,000 project it was the best money we spent, especially compared to the price of remedial psychoanalysis.)

That gave me December, January and February to plan and line up the subs -- and I needed every bit of it. You have to be able to rough out a timeline in your mind -- hopefully, one of your earlier subs has some all-around experience and will help check your work.

Prep, then prep some more

Then you have to start calling, for price, availability and references. Most subs are hugely impressed if you give them more than a month's notice -- two, and they're ecstatic. So try for that.

Of course, you're the person who has to be at the house to show countless subs around. You learn quickly how general contractors earn their fees.

According to my spreadsheet (more on that later), I used 17 subcontractors and probably got bids from twice that many. I probably made 50 trips to the house just lining up people before any of them did any work.

Management basics

When you rough out your construction schedule, you quickly learn that reliability is worth paying for. A sub who shows up an hour late for a bid is not the person you need, if 10 other things depend on him getting his work done. That's why having time is so important up front -- better to audition too many subs early rather than have some rum-ball collapse your remodeling schedule like a house of cards later.

Fortunately, my subs ranged from fantastically reliable to reliable enough. Almost all gave me helpful advice and helped me see obstacles.

'Construction zen'

Many of the good ones don't talk a lot. Being an extrovert, the reticent subs intimidated me at first. But one of the more pleasurable and surprising rewards of amateur general contracting was being wrapped up enough to absorb "construction zen."

Good subs have an intense pragmatism, think in steps, don't fuss unless they need to and hone in on the least complicated way to solve even complicated problems. If they sense that you "get it" -- you're not some Chihuahua-type client always yipping about non-problems and borrowing trouble -- they generously share their wisdom and you'll be grateful.

Bottom line: they work with their brains as well as their hands, and if you don't appreciate that, don't even think about being your own general contractor.

Keep tight or jump ship

Like a peony bud in May, your construction project will seem to erupt overnight. By March, I had a four-page Excel spreadsheet with my budget, my contractor info, my calendar and my payment schedule. The metastasizing spreadsheet became sort of a running joke, a visual representation of my increasingly cluttered mind.

It was OK to laugh at myself because I knew that if I didn't stay on top of details, we were dead.

Life is not split into little rooms

Unfortunately, making your house your priority undoubtedly makes your life miserable. There were more than a few times when the fifth phone call from the earnest carpenter collided with a newspaper crisis. Neither the carpenter nor the newspaper got the best I could give.

The only advice I have is full disclosure -- don't try to hide your project from your bosses, and don't try to hide your professional obligations from your subs. If you're honest, most people will understand -- many have been through some level of home project, or job juggling, before. (If your workplace isn't flexible, don't try general contracting unless you can easily get another job.)

As construction wore on, I ruefully referred to the house as "my third child." Certainly, my two human children were getting less attention. For a while, my son didn't want to go near the new place because it was such a sinkhole of my time.

I know this won't make the pages of Parenting magazine, but my wife and I did hit upon a two-word solution that got us past the worst: bunk bed. (Like any good project manager, you need to build in 15 percent of your budget for contingencies -- and the bed was maybe the biggest one.)

You'll get there

Now, I can look at myself in the mirror because our new house -- with its generous back yard, playroom, and eat-in kitchen -- is the family-friendly place we hoped it would be. The short-term misery has been justified by long-term benefits.

During the construction crazies, stop and remind yourself that whatever stresses you're thrashing about, these are problems of affluence, not poverty, and ones you choose to bring on yourself.

Did some things cost more than I planned? The $470 for a 45-minute job moving the stove's gas pipe left me gasping for air. But for every breathless moment there were breathtaking ones, like the virtuoso plasterer who worked Saturdays and early mornings -- no extra charge -- so we could move in on time.

In the end, did we save money? We completely remodeled and replumbed a kitchen and two bathrooms, sanded three stories of wood floors, added a deck, repaired a roof, insulated our crawl spaces, added a patio door and several replacement windows, replastered the bedrooms, living room and dining room -- all for $100,000.

I'm still recovering, but at least I have a nice place to convalesce.