ALTERED ESTATES : Fixing Up the House May Wreck the Psyche

Renovating a home can be one of life's most stressful experiences.

According to Los Angeles psychologist Jerry Margol, who recently lived through a major remodeling (new fireplaces, new hardwood floors, wooden windows, new staircase), the pressure can come from the dirt, from plaster dust and wood scraps everywhere, and from the total disorganization of a semi-packed-up household. For many homeowners, just having strangers working in the house, using the bathroom and the refrigerator, and arriving early in the morning, can be stressful. Workers sometimes fail to show up when promised, creating frustration and a sense that the project is unnecessarily delayed.

The need to make many last-minute and costly decisions about the design and construction of the project can be difficult, Margol said. A remodeling project can unearth previously unknown problems--termite destruction, faulty wiring--that can involve an unforeseen loss of time and money.

Marriages can suffer from a remodeling project. "The main thing for me," Margol said, "is communication. A lot has to do with your relationship, how you compromise and how you resolve problems in the marriage."

Margol said he has seen one spouse want one thing and the other want something else, each believing that in the end they'll get their way. "Once the final decision on the sink--or whatever--is made, one of them is bound to be upset."

He has also seen marital difficulties that are a result of differences in the level of commitment to a project. "I know of one case where the wife really wanted to move, and the husband was anxious to remodel," Margol said. When serious contract problems arose with the general contractor/decorator, the stress in the relationship was immense. "The wife was constantly yelling at her husband, and he was running around trying to deal with the attorneys, attempting to solve the problem."

Margol suggests that homeowners try to schedule a remodeling project when the rest of their life is relatively unstressed. "If your work life is in chaos, and you come home to chaos, the experience will be doubly stressful."

Margol offers three suggestions to people who are thinking of remodeling their homes.

Talk to other homeowners who have remodeled. Learn from their mistakes and find out how to budget expenses. Always allow 10% to 15% more for expenses than you expect. "People always upgrade."

Immerse yourself in the process and try to create an image of what the finished project will look like. Just learning the building process, sweeping up after a day's work and taking photographs to document the project can help relieve the tension caused by the chaos and disruption.

Don't forget the little pleasures--special takeout food, a weekend away--whatever it takes to feel pampered amid boxes and dust.

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