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To flee or not to flee

Special to The Times

BY all accounts, Peter Kisich is no thrill seeker. The marketing executive from Pasadena is a family guy with a stable lifestyle and no interest in bungee jumping or other risky endeavors.

A few years ago, however, he and his wife did what others might deem chancy as they prepared to remodel their 1930 Mediterranean home for a roughly $60,000 face-lift.

First, they appointed themselves general contractors. Then they decided their family would stay put for three months of construction bedlam rather than pack up for a rental. Horror stories about burly construction men walking in on intimate moments or inch-thick dust everywhere didn’t scare them away.

Although it was the punk group the Clash that first sang “Should I Stay or Should I Go?,” it’s remodeling homeowners who have to face the music.

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“People were intrigued by our decision to stay,” Kisich said. “At the beginning, when we were scheduling everything, it was a little bit crazy. But it’s expensive moving out, and I’m a hands-on type of guy. We also have two kids, and we didn’t want the remodel to destroy our daily lives.”

So they remained, sealing off the part of the 3,100-square-foot house where subcontractors framed a new family room, updated the kitchen and rejiggered the service porch. The Kisiches could still use their bedrooms, and a microwave and refrigerator moved into the dining room became a makeshift kitchen. The vamping worked -- the construction was on the backside of the house the family could avoid, yet Kisich was on hand to keep an eye on things.

Facing a similar situation, Matthew and Mariana Dalany took the opposite tack. They fled the chaos for temporary digs while their house in southwest Pasadena underwent refurbishing and expansion. Their 1913 California bungalow lacked enough bedrooms, and the family craved a better kitchen, a dedicated office, a new powder room and a master bedroom suite.

Mariana Dalany said her family moved out so they could maintain their morning routine of getting the kids off to school before she and her husband dashed off to work -- an idea that would seem farfetched with a brigade of strangers cradling nail guns and circular saws in their midst.

After the fact, she stands by her decision.

“We could see by the amount of work that we couldn’t have lived through it,” Dalany said. “I was sad because I wasn’t in my house, but I don’t think we missed anything by not staying.”

The Dalanys rented a furnished two-bedroom condo across town that no one would mistake for the Ritz-Carlton for about $2,500 per month.

Cooking smells from other apartments wafted into their unit. False fire alarms frightened the children. The common-area Jacuzzi that seemed so cool at first lost its novelty. Homesick at Christmas, they decided to skip buying a tree and instead decorated a fake ficus.

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The family missed being in their own home, a place they valued for its “peace and history,” Dalany said. “But I do think it went faster because we weren’t there. The contractor would really have had to work around us.”

The family bankrolled the estimated $300,000 update by refinancing their longtime home. The costs of temporarily relocating from the home for six months seemed paltry to Dalany in light of its appreciation.

The rule of thumb, experts say, is that if it’s a large, disruptive project and you can afford to leave, grab your suitcases. With an uninhabited residence, crews typically can start earlier, work later, crank up noisy equipment without worrying about residents’ eardrums and don’t have to devote time to daily debris cleanups.

There are other benefits to leaving it all behind, as well: no anguishing when laborers inadvertently knock out the utilities and no need to safeguard against open trenches, dropped nails and other yellow-tape hazards.

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Big trade organizations don’t compile statistics on whether it’s cheaper to leave or stick it out in a building zone, partly because there are so many variables.

However, Scott Sterling, a Northridge-based general contractor whose family has been in the business since the 1920s, knows what experience has taught him. Remodeling an occupied home can tack on as much as 10% to 15% to the total cost compared to a vacated one.

He wishes all his clients would leave, even if it’s a hassle for people with kids, pets and an otherwise full life to relocate.

“Looking back on my career, there were times when I should have told people they had to go,” Sterling said.

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“Another problem: When the owner is there, they see every tile that goes in, every stroke of paint, and they have this perception that the job isn’t moving as fast as it really is.”

Recently, Sterling said Valley clients insisted that there could be no jackhammers or other loud sounds during the midmorning because it was naptime for their toddler.

Until the family packs up, which it plans to do during the heaviest construction, demolition and waste hauling are sporadic.

“What am I supposed to do?” Sterling asked. “Get Nerf shovels?”

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Westlake Village-based real estate expert and author Robert Irwin -- who writes on investing, buying, selling, renovating and financing residential property -- advises people to temporarily relocate unless it’s a small, one-room remodel or special circumstances demand the owner’s regular attention.

He acknowledged that counsel is more easily dispensed than accepted when homeowners are getting hand cramps from house-related check writing and now must add in rent.

By staying, the Kisiches didn’t have that problem.

Subcontractors cleaned up daily, worked a set schedule and regularly checked the heavy plastic and blue tape partitioning the construction zone from the living areas. To manage the job, Kisich kept plans on a computer spreadsheet and carried around his subcontractors’ contact numbers.

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The family ate in the makeshift kitchen, often barbecuing or ordering takeout. When that was a no go, the kids campaigned for hamburger joints and other eateries.

“We could have been restaurant critics,” Kisich said. “At the end of the three months, we felt it was enough and couldn’t wait to open up the house.”

The Dalanys appreciate that sentiment. Today they are considering a second remodel as their family grows and this time will probably remain in the house.

“We don’t want to go back to the condo,” Mariana Dalany said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Weighing the pros and cons

Reasons to leave:

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* It’s more efficient for contractors. This may translate into fewer expenses for daily cleanup, debris removal or partitioning the house.

* Construction dangers such as open trenches.

* Utility disruptions. If you aren’t there, it doesn’t matter as much if your power or cable TV is disabled for a few days.

* You can sleep in without having a jackhammer serve as your 7 a.m. alarm clock.

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* You are better able to see the big picture, instead of micromanaging the contractor and focusing too much on minor problems.

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Reasons to stay:

* You don’t have to pay rent or other temporary living expenses as well as a mortgage and remodeling bill.

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* You avoid the hassles of moving, redirecting your mail to your temporary residence and boarding a pet for a long time. In short, you maintain some of your old lifestyle.

* You can track the work as it progresses and help your contractor troubleshoot or modify the plans more swiftly.

* Neighbors can find you easily if they have concerns about the construction.

-- Chip Jacobs

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