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Reno Confessions: Don’t Hate. Renovate!

A writer learns to stop worrying and embrace the chaos of home improvement, one small project at a time.

renovated bathroom illustration

When my brother was a preschooler and I was a tween, my parents decided to have our espresso-stained wood floors stripped and refinished in a lighter ash to brighten up our 1960s Georgian Revival in northern Virginia. My parents shelled out thousands of dollars, we all brought our sleeping bags to the cricket-filled basement, and my brother immediately came down with the chicken pox.

I saw a look pass between my folks: This horror-movie sequence was going to be worth it to improve our forever home, right? Cut to a few days later, when we learned that the reason the floors were so dark was to hide dog-pee stains in every. Single. Room. Frustrated that they’d spent our vacation fund to essentially improve nothing, my parents had the floors restained the same espresso and didn’t attempt another home project for more than 20 years.

So when my boyfriend (now husband), Tony, and I started shopping for our first home, although he was willing to look at fixer-uppers, I wanted turnkey. I knew renovations could be tricky, expensive, and sometimes fruitless. The house we landed on was perfect with the exception of the bathroom, which had a tacky wallpaper border, the kind of shower with the moldy plastic doors that you have to slide apart before stepping into a wet, claustrophobic phone booth, and espresso-colored tile floors (an omen?). It’s just a little bathroom, I thought. We would fix it someday when we were ready and had the funds, in an orderly and well-planned manner.

Confident in our project-management skills after planning our wedding, I felt ready for a new challenge and brought up tackling the bathroom around the time of our first anniversary. Thinking that if I prepared enough, our reno would go much more smoothly than my parents’ had, I launched into journalist-research mode, pricing out estimates from contractors, creating countless Pinterest boards, ordering fixtures so everything would be on hand, and schooling myself on the differences between ceramic, porcelain, and cement tiles. We made our decisions and handed over half the fee to the contractor.

“I cried from the decision fatigue, with new things to research every time something went wrong. It was a choose-your-own-adventure where every path meant more time, more money, or both.”

But as he ripped the bathroom back to the studs, every step unveiled another disaster: Our subfloor was definitely not up to code, and it was a miracle that the toilet hadn’t fallen into the living room below. The black-and-white Moroccan cement tiles I’d ordered from a chichi San Francisco maker kept getting stained by the black grout, even after the contractor applied seven layers of tile sealant, adding days to the project. Even after he installed the grout with his fingers, as the tile company advised, the white of the tiles ended up sepia-toned. The fancy faucet I picked to zhush up the simple Ikea sink didn’t fit. The hingeless shower door leaked water onto the floor no matter how many times the installer returned to fiddle with it.

Everywhere I looked, I had visions of one of those old-timey cash registers—ka-ching! I cried from the decision fatigue, with new things to research every time something went wrong. It was a choose-your-own-adventure where every path meant more time, more money, or both.

There were many, many moments during the process when I thought, Why did we do this? Why would anyone do this to a functioning, if dated and incredibly brown, space? (OK, the toilet was a hazard, but we didn’t know that when we decided to go all-in.) Unless renovating your home is necessary for the health and safety of your family, the whole process is the definition of “first-world problem” privilege, a self-inflicted wound. And often a pretty darn expensive one. So why do we do this to ourselves?

I know why. Creating a nest for your family is one of our most primal desires, connecting us to every other animal on the planet (just ask a bird). The reason we fall asleep with tile catalogs on our chests, binge HGTV, seek the perfect shade of emerald green paint for a rental kitchen, or rebuild an old Victorian with “great bones” is the same: The instinct to make our space reflect who we are is universal. Renovating turns beams and grout into your vision of how your life should be, your hopes and dreams realized. And in a world that can feel out of control, our homes are the safe, reassuring landing place for us and our families, who we’d do anything for.

As a final step, our contractor replaced our ’80s track lighting with two stunning metal and glass pendants that reflected the rays of the skylight. Then he called me in to look. Something clicked, and I didn’t know whether I should gasp with joy or sigh with relief—the bathroom was done, and it was beautiful. Taking my first shower there and looking out at it all, it felt worth it. Sure, that spot in the shower still leaks sometimes, but we took this space and made it our own, dealing with every challenge. And while there were way more than I’d planned, the discomfort along the way was a memory. We started with a shower that made us feel somehow dirtier, and now our sparkling bathroom is our favorite room in the house, the one that feels most like home, most like us.

A few years on, I’ve started tentatively cultivating Pinterest boards called “kitchen inspo.” I’m ready to dip a toe back in using what I learned during the last go. That includes the knowledge that renovating is like falling in love: You have to take a risk, and while it might be a roller coaster along the way, if it gets you to your happily ever after, it was worth the ride.

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Budget Tip: Build in a Little Wiggle Room

“The majority of unforeseen expenses happen in bathrooms. We suggest bumping up your contingency budget to 20 percent of your projected renovation costs. If you still find yourself needing to stretch the budget, look for all-in-one solutions, such as vanities that provide storage, and simplify hardware decisions.” —Drew

By Sarah Z. Wexler | Illustrations by Cassandre Montoriol

This article originally appeared in the Holiday 2022 issue of Drew + Jonathan Reveal, Drew & Jonathan’s home and lifestyle magazine.

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