Taking on a renovation project can quickly become a juggling act of evenings & weekends, conflicting preferences, contractors, and unplanned expenses. We’re often asked how we keep our plans moving along (and maintain our sanity) when working through projects large and small. Recently, a reader (hi, Stephanie!) asked:
Kim + Scott, how do you track and plan for your renovations (i.e., how do you research and decide on the order of projects, etc.)? Do you keep it in a digital spreadsheet? Do you have a binder with lists and inspiration? And how do you guys stay on task and communicate on a project?
I feel frustrated when I am always asking my partner, for example, ‘do you prefer shiplap or beadboard in the basement stairwell before we trim?’ It’s time consuming, and I don’t get decisions or answers right away so projects get dropped and unresolved until I bring it up again. This is overwhelming at times, and I feel like we aren’t moving ahead. Thank you!
Stephanie certainly isn’t the first reader or friend (or family member or neighbor or …) to ask a similar question, so we’ll do our best to take you through the steps that we’ve found to be helpful. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it works for us!
If we’re working on a weekend project, we find that picking up all of the materials – and any additional tools! – we need on Friday night allows us to get a huge head start on Saturday morning. Nothing kills momentum more than dropping what you’re doing to run to the hardware store. While this can sometimes mean sacrificing dinner with friends, the stores are usually desolate, and we can get any help we need and get checked out much more quickly than if we waited until Saturday morning. We reward ourself with dinner and a drink afterwards and turn it into a mini date night. This also allows us to fuel up on coffee and get to work first thing on Saturday morning – as opposed to the hardware trip lasting through lunch.
We stick to a calendar system (literally)
We use an (admittedly archaic) calendar system that involves small, colored sticky notes that get juggled around on a paper calendar. Kim and I are both very visual, and having a tactile system is what works for us. Could our system be more efficient and accessible if we moved to a digital platform? Of course! But this relic of a system works for us and that’s what’s most important. Find a system that works for you and commit to it. We simply need to see what projects are up tomorrow, next week and into the future. The sticky notes also allow us to move and manage the tasks simply and quickly when schedules inevitably change.
We consolidate tasks where we can
Stopping by the hardware store that you pass every day on your way home from work while you’re actually on your way home from work is a great way to save yourself time. Simple automatically timed reminders (we use the native iPhone reminder function as well as a shared AnyList) act as a digital brain so we don’t forget things when we’re already out and about. Different apps allow for weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual reminders so using them to your advantage will save time (and probably gas) in the long run. And let’s be honest, the feeling of no time! can be the most frustrating wrench in your DIY plans.
We work on one room at a time (mostly).
Renovation chaos is REAL. We find that when the mess spreads, so does the likelihood of getting overwhelmed and frustrated. Focusing on one room at a time allows us to stay on a much more linear track and keep things in check and contained. The ability to close the (literal) door on a project that might have a long way to go before it’s complete can keep your mind from wandering down the path of exactly how much work is left to do. Before phase one of our Chicago home’s renovation was complete, the guest room was our ‘safe space.’ The living room was in shambles, and we had to wear shoes at all times, but we had our one space where we could turn it all off. It’s hard to look at that same living room now without remembering how far we’ve come! (Although, years later, we’re already itching for a change as we grow and change, too!)
On occasion, we’ll step away from a large project for a day or two and pepper in some small, gratifying projects for a little boost in our sense of accomplishment. As an added bonus, we’ve found that taking these little breaks can be a good way to let our finances replenish in the midst of a large renovation.
We don’t bite off more than we can chew (again, mostly!)
We have three general rules of thumb that we use to determine if a project requires professional help:
- We don’t run new plumbing inside walls. Connecting sinks, toilets and other fixtures is simple enough – once the in-wall plumbing is done. What’s not simple is discovering that you’ve got a leak inside a wall once your beautiful new cabinets, countertops and tile backsplash are installed! We leave this to the pros that know the codes and can be trusted to do good work.
- We don’t install new electrical connections. Much like item 1, we’ll connect light fixtures and install dimmers, but we’re not electricians. We trust professionals to make sure this work is done correctly and safely.
- We don’t cut holes in exterior walls. Window and door installations are left to folks who do this sort of thing all day, every day. Correctly sealed windows and doors are mandatory for this crazy Chicago weather.
At it’s root, this is a DIY blog, and we do our best to share the good and the bad. We don’t only use contractors for things we don’t feel comfortable completing ourselves, but sometimes we hire out work that we simply don’t enjoy (smoothing drywall) or that we can’t squeeze into the (outdated paper) schedule. Here’s our case for not doing it all!
We use the right tools for the job
Have you ever heard the expression, ‘when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’? We find that using the right tool for the job is not only safer and easier, but it will also save time in the long run. If you don’t own the right tools for the task at hand, rent or borrow them as needed. In the cases where you know you’ll need a tool more than once, consider purchasing what you need! We tend to purchase the tools we know we’ll use again and borrow or rent the specialized tools that might not come in handy down the road. For example, we purchased a high-quality wet saw secondhand for tile work when we started our kitchen remodel because we knew we had two more bathrooms to tile – as well as a garden apartment kitchen project that popped up unexpectedly!
Sometimes it feels like we discuss a project to death before even starting it, but we think that’s what keeps unwanted surprises at bay and keeps us on task. We talk about the division of labor and timelines, we hype each other up, (I) make bad (Dad) jokes to keep the mood light and we always, always, always find the right playlist for the work at hand. Good (or maybe it’s purposely bad?) music makes the DIY world go ’round.
We reward ourselves
DIY work can often times be just. plain. hard. The labor is physical, the tools and materials can be heavy and a lot of times, a part of the work is done outdoors regardless of weather. Plus there is math. Math hates me and I freakin’ hate math.
In order to aid us in pushing through the work that might not be as enjoyable as we’d like, we set goals and try to get the toughest stuff out of the way early. When possible, we’ll set a time or task oriented goal for the day. For example, if we have dinner with friends scheduled for 7, we’ll promise to stop working by 5 so we can get our workspace cleaned up and (hopefully) get to dinner not covered in sawdust and smelling like we’ve been at the gym all day. Setting a task-bound goal can be as simple as saying, we’re going to finish the baseboards in this room, then go get a drink on a local patio afterwards, or if we’re still working at 2, let’s take an iced coffee break and get back to it. It really is the little things!
We’ve also tricked ourselves into longer term goal/reward scenarios; when we rehabbed the garden apartment last summer (here’s that before and after), we knew we had to complete the project and get the apartment rented in order to enjoy our Palm Springs getaway before sweet Lucy joined our lives! However the goals and rewards work for you, the important thing is that you give yourself something to look forward to.
Although it can be challenging, at the end of the day, we love the work we do and that’s at the core of our motivation. We joke the we’re both addicted to the sense of satisfaction that DIY brings. Knowing that you completed a project yourself is a powerful motivator, and we’d love to hear any other tips and tricks you’ve developed along your renovation journeys!