The Remodeling Balancing Act

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Architects, general contractors and divorce attorneys agree: Remodeling is a major cause of relationship stress.

Therapists rank it somewhere between infidelity and meddling mother-in-laws.

Symptoms of remodeling stress range from the occasional argument to lonely nights on the couch. And in extreme cases, the stress caused by construction can even lead to divorce.

Lorna Riff, a forensic accountant, was already in a difficult marriage when she began a remodel of a 1927 La Brea/Melrose-area home with her husband. The couple’s finances did not permit them to move out during construction, so for several months, the couple, their three teenage children, two dogs and a cat lived without a functioning kitchen or a usable master bathroom. Meals were cooked in a microwave oven that had been moved to the living room, which was covered with construction dust.


When it seemed that things could not get any worse, the 1994 Northridge earthquake struck. The combination of the earthquake and the inevitable surprises that arise during the renovation of an old home drove costs through the roof.

In the midst of the chaos, Riff received a telephone call from her husband that foretold the end of both the remodel and their marriage: “We need to stop construction immediately. We are out of money, and I don’t know where ... money to continue the remodel will come from.”

“The house came to represent the final decay of the marriage,” Riff recalled. “My marriage couldn’t withstand the pressure of a remodel, because my husband was a free spender and would not consult with me about new expenses. I knew that if I stayed in the marriage ... I would live in eternal construction.”

Therapists are all too familiar with stories like Riff’s. Walter A. Brakkelmans, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, is also an adult and child psychiatrist who specializes in couples therapy. He says that remodeling stress is a fairly common issue for people to raise during marital therapy because it frequently causes existing relationship problems to get worse.

“The remodel changes the couple’s physical space and routine,” Brakkelmans explains. “On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the death of a child and 1 a fender-bender, a remodel rates a 6 in terms of stress on a relationship.”

Construction anxiety frequently begins during design work, long before the framer’s hammer meets its first nail.


Michael Chait, an architect based in Van Nuys, recalled the time a client who had been happily married for 45 years called him crying because her husband was aggravated that she was holding up the design process with her indecisiveness.

“Individuals tend to harbor a sweet memory of a house that they want to re-create. Perhaps it was the house they grew up in, a relative’s house or even a hotel,” Chait said. “During the design phase, one spouse will frequently look at the other and say, ‘Where did that come from?’ ”

Design is just the beginning. The dirt, delays and expenses of actual construction push many homeowners to the edge.

Bill Snell, a Bell Canyon-based general contractor who has been building and remodeling houses for 15 years, believes that construction anxiety is exacerbated by the fact that the average person does not understand the building process.

“Constructing a house is similar to constructing a large puzzle,” he said. When a piece of the puzzle is missing--either because the homeowner needs extra time to make a decision or because a subcontractor has failed to complete his part of the project in a timely manner--the project comes to a standstill.

“Construction surprises are frequent and cause their own share of stress,” Snell said. Snell was the general contractor on a job on which one of his subcontractors unearthed a nest containing huge rats. The rodents apparently had their own ideas about the remodel and proceeded to eat through the walls and floors.


“Needless to say, that job site was not a relaxed one,” Snell noted.

Ojai-based Bill Gordon, a general contractor with 19 years of experience, has also witnessed the emotional toll remodeling can take on homeowners. Gordon estimates that more than three-quarters of the couples he has worked with have had difficulties ranging from frequent arguing to eventual divorce.

Gordon blames the stress on three factors.

First, the homeowner is expected to make a sometimes overwhelming number of decisions ranging from style of door hinges to color of paint in a very short period of time.

Second, most homeowners are unfamiliar with construction. Words such as “trusses,” “joists” and “studs” are common parlance among contractors but unknown in that context by the average homeowner.

Blueprints can make the process even more confusing.

“Most homeowners lack the experience to visualize a three-dimensional structure from a two-dimensional set of blueprints,” Gordon said.

Finally, the high and frequently unpredictable cost of the remodel puts a huge strain on couples.

Gordon said remodeling projects nearly always go over budget because the homeowner is unaware that the builder’s bid includes an allowance for finishing touches that may be far below the cost of the ones the homeowner ultimately chooses.


For example, it is not uncommon for a contractor to budget $5 a foot for tile, a product that can run more than $30 a foot in stores frequented by designers. Doors and windows can also range dramatically in price. High-end faucets, drawer pulls and cabinetry are other common budget busters.

These types of problems caused one of Gordon’s client-couples to separate in the middle of a job and ultimately to divorce.

“The husband and wife fought throughout the project about every single one of the hundreds of decisions that must be made on every job,” he said. “Shortly after construction was completed, they filed for divorce and put the house--which had caused so much of the damage to their relationship--up for sale.”

Gordon’s construction experience did not immunize his own marriage from trouble when he built a home for his family. Gordon readily concedes that he took charge of the project and made all of the decisions himself. After the house was completed, his wife questioned many of his choices.

He learned his lesson, and when it was time to build the next family home, his wife became the primary decision-maker, and his kids followed his suggestion that they design their own bedrooms. The result: All family members were happy with the new house, and construction anxiety was minimal.

Architects and contractors are not the only witnesses to the emotional cost of remodeling. Divorce attorneys are also privy to the damage caused by construction-related stress.


Bruce A. Clemens, a Beverly Hills divorce attorney for nearly 30 years, is no longer surprised when a home in the midst of construction is fought over during a subsequent divorce.

“Relationships that are already troubled can rarely withstand the stress of remodeling,” Clemens said.

Clemens recounted a case in which the marriage fell apart in the middle of a remodel. The wife refused to retain a contractor to finish the house, and the contractor would not enter the premises without a signed agreement.

The husband went to court to resolve the dilemma, and the judge ordered the wife to consult with her husband on wallpaper and paint, and to finish the house. When the wife still wouldn’t consult, the husband hired a decorator to complete the project.

“Coincidently, every time wallpaper went up, ‘someone’ broke into the house and tore it down,” Clemens said.

“And of course there is the case where the wife fell in love with the general contractor in the middle of a remodel and left her husband. The last I heard they were still remodeling the house,” he said.



Wendy Jaffe is a freelance writer who lives in Bell Canyon. She can be reached at