Adding On--Without Breaking Up


You watch the amazingly quick demolition phase of your home remodeling project with a mix of awe and satisfaction. This is your world those strangers are tearing down so dispassionately and efficiently, and you’re surprised to feel elated.

But, you remind yourself, your family outgrew this space long ago, and you’re ready to see these walls come down so new ones that expand your borders can go up.

Unfortunately, the excitement of seeing construction begin often gives way to the fear that it will never end.

In place of that initial thrill, you find a lump in your stomach that feels more and more like an ulcer as you start having nightmares about which will go first--your marriage or your money.


Couples who have survived the stresses of remodeling--and contractors and interior designers who’ve been caught in the middle of the domestic squabbles--say home renovation is one of the most rigorous tests you can put a relationship through.

Even the strongest marriages must be constantly reinforced if they are to remain intact in the midst of the chaos, clutter, cost and clamor that come with construction.

The many decisions that must be made along the way often become the flash points where tensions erupt. Couples fight over everything from such minor details as which way a door should swing or what color fringes a pillow should have to such major issues as how much to spend or where to put the new family room.

Dave Fowler, a general contractor and owner of Bacchus Design in Costa Mesa, recalls one couple who came close to divorce during a remodeling project involving the entire house.


Their lives were disrupted more than most, he says, because they had to move repeatedly from one part of the house to another as the work progressed. While they tried to adjust to this nomadic lifestyle, the husband kept expanding the scale of the project--in spite of his wife’s fear that he was jeopardizing their financial security. Sometimes she was in tears when the workers arrived, and often they’d come across angry notes the couple had left for each other.

“At one point,” the contractor recalls, “the husband was sleeping at one end of the house and his wife was sleeping at the other.”

Elaine Hankin, a Huntington Beach interior designer and general contractor, urges her clients to take a vacation or move out while construction is under way.

“Even though it’s expensive to move out, it’s a lot cheaper in the long run than divorce lawyers. And if it’s going to preserve the marriage, it’s well worth it,” she says.


But moving may not be enough. One couple for whom she worked consulted with divorce attorneys after the husband, who had refused to participate in the decision-making, let his wife know he hated the interior design choices she had made.

“When I realized the situation, I suggested redoing it because that’s a lot easier than divorce,” Hankin says, noting that the couple ended up taking her advice instead of going to court.

She says she’s seen angry clients make design choices they knew their spouse would hate--or buy outrageously expensive items just to get even. Hankin tries to prevent the inevitable argument by making sure couples are in agreement before she places an order.

“Sometimes I feel like a marriage counselor,” she says.


John Garcia, a Corona del Mar interior designer, also has worked for couples who seemed to need a referee more than a decorator.

“The most successful projects are the ones where the couple has the most sensitivity to each other,” he says.

That’s what he and his wife, LeAnn, have been trying to build in their relationship since they started remodeling their 30-year-old home in Santa Ana five years ago.

By the time they finish--within six months, they hope--they will have almost doubled the size of their living area. They’ve already added a large playroom for daughter Alex and renovated the existing home, and they’re now completing a 2,000-square-foot addition that will give them a family room, a home office and a spacious upstairs master bedroom suite.


When they started working on the house about a year after they married--John designed the project and his father, a retired general contractor, is helping him oversee the construction--they planned to spend about $100,000 and add only a master bedroom. Now they expect the entire job to cost as much as $350,000.

John and LeAnn, both 30, agree that their investment of time and money will pay off when they have their dream house, and they try to focus on that when they feel most frustrated by unexpected problems. But, they admit, the tension has tested their relationship.

They’ve argued over--and sometimes reversed--decisions made by one in the other’s absence, and there have been heated discussions over who was to blame for workers’ mistakes. But they say they’ve emerged from those conflicts with better communication skills.

“John’s learned to listen better and not interrupt until I’m finished,” LeAnn says.


“And LeAnn has learned to tell me more instead of giving me the ‘Reader’s Digest’ version of things,” John adds.

“Face it, you’re going to have conflict,” he continues. “Accepting compromise gracefully is the best thing you can do. Understanding and respecting how the other person thinks is the hardest thing. We’re getting closer.”

Dave Fowler and his wife, Ellen, who handles the administrative side of his general contracting business, admit they have had a hard time compromising on their own remodeling job.

Dave, who designed the 1,800-square-foot addition to his 70-year-old Costa Mesa home and is doing most of the work himself, says he has insisted on slowing down when they couldn’t afford to buy the best. Ellen, on the other hand, says she often would have settled for less expensive materials so they could keep the job moving--and the cost down.


They’ve been renovating the existing home since they bought it in 1981, and they’ve been working on the addition--which includes a family room, master bedroom, two bathrooms and a home office--since 1989. They expect to spend about $210,000 and hope to be finished within about six months.

After many lengthy discussions that failed to lead to compromise, Ellen says she finally decided to do things Dave’s way--with quality taking precedence over speed and economy.

“You can make yourself crazy and fight it or you can make the best of it. You make concessions to keep your relationship intact,” she says.

For about a year after they started the addition, Ellen spent most weekends looking for ways to keep the two children occupied--and out of danger--while Dave worked on the house.


She admits she became impatient during those long stretches when Dave was working around the clock. At the same time, he was feeling burned out and worrying about not spending enough time with his kids.

“I justified it by telling myself I was doing it for the family, but it was stressful,” Dave says.

Both Dave and Ellen, who are in their 30s and have been married for nine years, were committed to finishing the project, however, so they learned to talk when tensions mounted--and never to stay mad long.

“You have to be rational and not selfish and childish like you want to be,” Ellen says. “We’ve had to grow up with each other and get past the pettiness. It has helped that we’re good friends. You have to support each other.”


She believes that only couples with strong relationships should consider remodeling.

“If you don’t, this could finish it,” she says. “Make sure you both have the same goals and you’re both willing to make sacrifices.”

John, a former stockbroker and entrepreneur who asked not to be identified, also has some advice for others now that he has moved into his completely renovated Laguna Beach home: “Try to visualize and anticipate the ramifications of the whole job. Mentally, a lot of people aren’t prepared to go through a remodel. We’re used to instant gratification, and this takes a long time.”

For John and his wife, Carol, it took about three years to complete a job that started with plans for an $80,000 master bedroom addition and ended up “snowballing” until it involved the entire house at a cost of about $250,000.


John and Carol, who are in their 50s and were married 17 years ago, are amazed they survived the ordeal because both are strong-headed, take-charge types, and that combination could have been lethal with all the decisions that must be made on such a major project.

Having bolstered this second marriage for both through counseling before the remodeling began, they recognized the importance of structuring the project in a way that would minimize conflict.

First, they established a family trust and clarified who would get what in case of death or divorce. That freed them to use proceeds from the sale of formerly separate properties to finance the project.

Then, they decided that one person had to take charge of the day-to-day decisions. John was elected because he was between jobs and had the freedom to travel back and forth from their home in Los Angeles to Laguna Beach. Carol came down every week or so, but didn’t move in until last summer, when the oceanfront home--once a weekend getaway--was ready to be lived in.


Carol says it was difficult to let John take full control, but “I decided one person should do it or we wouldn’t survive. I told him what I liked, and he followed through.”

She was careful not to second-guess John’s decisions. If she felt strongly enough about having something changed, she’d ask her sister-in-law to drop by the Laguna home and make some casual observations. “He’d listen more to someone else than he would to me, so I’d use her as a mediator.”

Their biggest conflicts, she says, were over which pieces of furniture to remove to create a contemporary home.

“He wanted to keep all his old possessions, and I wanted to keep mine,” Carol says. “I dealt with that by throwing out my stuff first. Then he followed suit.”


John says the fact that his wife placed so much trust in him made him want to please her.

“Carol’s not a procrastinator. She wants to see results, so I felt an obligation to push things along,” he says, noting that her frequent compliments also spurred him on.

He feels the marriage was strengthened as a result of the give and take that went on while they were remodeling.

“We’ve been more careful in our discussions and considerate to each other since rebuilding this house,” he says.


However, he cautions, if you don’t have the patience for a long-term project filled with surprises, the time and money to see it through and a marriage strong enough to withstand the stress, think carefully about whether remodeling is best for you.

You may be better off buying another house.