Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Pitfalls for the unwary: Renovations edition

As I might have mentioned once or a million times, we are in the middle (or hopefully close to the end) of a kitchen renovation at my house.

This process kicked off back in August, with the getting of quotes and choosing a supplier, and the selection and purchasing of the appliances, but the construction phase really started in the week of 19 October, with a four-day Empty Out All the Junk From the Kitchen Whhhhhy Is There So Much Junk blitz before demolition commenced on the 23rd.

We've gone the almost-whole hog, retaining nothing from the old kitchen but the slate flooring and one section of wooden wall panelling. The cabinetry, appliances, sink, benchtop and extraction fan have all been replaced, and three of the wall sections replaced with caesar stone.

Four weeks into the process, we've made a lot of progress, but it would be fair to say, not quite as much as we'd hoped by this stage. We have our cabinetry, stone and oven / microwave installed and working, and, excitingly, as of yesterday we also have a kitchen sink again. (Washing dishes in the tiny, low-set bathroom sink was getting pretty old, not to mention hard on the back).

The extraction unit is installed and working, including the external wall vent. We have all required new power points (a lot of them) and a new isolation switches and circuit boards to support them. We're using the cupboards / pantry fully, with everything tucked away into its place (and a lot less junk among it, as we did a thorough clear-out when we unloaded the old kitchen).

That's all terrific, but we're not quite there yet - the cooktop has yet to be installed, and the final finishes need to be done. There are three fairly sizeable areas that need to be sealed properly in the walls, plus the floor sealant needs to be applied, a few adjustments made, and so forth. I'm not entirely sure when we will be all done and dusted - I'd love to say by the weekend, but I just don't know if that's going to come off.

The kitchen we've put in is a great improvement on what we had, which was a very old vinyl and timber-clad set-up, original from when the house was built in 1988. In particular, replacing dark wood-look with antique white has lifted and lightened the whole space, and choosing caesar-stone has already shown benefits on both benchtops and splashbacks. (It is a hella *lot* of stone, which wasn't cheap, but it's superbly easy to clean and maintain). We have more useful cupboard space now, a better bench layout, and a kitchen that is going to be much easier and more pleasant to both bake in and cook for large groups in. (This theory will be put to the test Saturday week, when I host my Dad's birthday dinner party for fifteen here!)

Although I have no regrets at all about doing it, there are some lessons we've learned along the way and pitfalls we just hadn't prepared for. It's been both more expensive and more disruptive than we'd anticipated, and I have found the process moderately stressful. Here are the particular take-away points that have occurred to me.

1. When budgeting for the kitchen, don't under-budget the trades.

Our cabinetry and benchtops have come in for the quoted price. Similarly, we budgeted a set amount for appliances all up and that is what we spent - we got a double oven, microwave, induction stovetop, sink & tap, and extraction unit for our price. (It would have been possible to spend so much more, but not really possible to spend less given that we have no gas-line in the kitchen so are restricted to electric appliances).

However, what we did not allow nearly enough tolerance for was the cost of tradies - electrician and plumber. We knew we would have to get both in to do the disconnects and reconnects, and we knew we needed extra powerpoints. We significantly underestimated how much time / labour would be involved, and we also didn't know we would need add-ons like a new circuit board (extra $650), new isolation switches (extra $300), off-market fittings (extra $500) and a pressure valve for the tap (extra $250). Our costs have blown out by 25% overall from our preliminary optimistic budget, and almost all of that has been in unanticipated trade costs.

2. Don't under-estimate the amount of stress and disruption that living in a partial building site incurs.

Not being able to use all or part of your food preparation area for significant amounts of time is quite stressful, but what I have found even more stressful is the parade of workers through the house and the noise, dust and disruption this causes.

From cabinetmakers to stonemasons, electricians to plumbers, barring one hiatus week while we waited for the stone, there haven't been more than a handful of days since 24 October when we've had no-one at all in the house. I've had days when I've been working at home, at my desk which adjoins the kitchen, with headphones and a face mask on, trying to screen out the power tools and dust. I've also lost work time to periods of power down so that installations could occur.

It gets messy and dirty and uncomfortable, especially if you are an asthmatic. I have a new appreciation for why people move out while their houses are being renovated, and if we ever did it again, I'd probably pool two or three rooms and do it that way myself if we could afford to.

3. Being your own project manager is time-consuming and hard

There has been a marked variability in the reliability of service providers throughout this process. Our main contractor, the cabinetmaker, has been by far the best, turning up when he said he would, doing meticulous work we're super happy with, and being easy to deal with.

Every one of the others, though, has presented challenges of one kind of another, whether it be delivering the wrong appliances (the warehouse), not being able to come for ages (the plumber), not showing up or communicating at all (the electrician), or mis-measuring and needing to recut (the stonemason).

There have been several times across the course of this project when, if my partner and I had not had a detailed and firm understanding of what needed to be done and in what order, things may have gone very badly. There has also been a lot of frustration with trying to co-ordinate people's attendance to actually do their bits of the work. My partner and I have had semi-regular check-in discussions to make sure we are both in command of all the facts and can present a united front, given that it is sometimes one of us and sometimes the other who is actually here during works.

So unless you have the money to hire a building contract manager (we didn't) or go with a full-service kitchen outfit who do everything (again, too exxy for us), you need to allow a substantial amount of time and be prepared to put in a lot of effort to make sure the project runs smoothly (or runs at all). This part was probably less of a shock to my partner than to me, as he's managed renovation and fit-out projects for work, but I was a pure novice at it.

4. Be really clear about where the money is coming from

We actually did OK on this front - we'd already decided that we would fund the kitchen from a combination of draw-back on the mortgage and the first two-thirds of my payments from my just-concluded big freelance project, and even with the cost overrun, that has proven sufficient. However, I have heard many horror stories about people who tried to wing it with juggling payments between cards and accounts, and ended up in horrible strife, owing money to service providers or deeply in debt. No renovation is worth that, it really isn't. If there isn't a clear path to paying for it all - one with a generous toleration for overrun - I would say, don't start.

Overall, was it worth it? Yes it was, and I think this is going to be even clearer as end-of-year baking and festivities really kick off. Would I do another room again soon? Crap no. Both my head and my bank account need significant time to recover before I'd even consider it.

This is post 17 in NaBloPoMo. 17 down, 13 to go!

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