Sanity Among the Ruins of Home Renovation, Part One

Photo by immo RENOVATION on Unsplash

This article discusses the first three steps to take when doing your home renovation…sanely.

It is not focused on the WHY or WHAT of home renovation. It is focused on the HOW we get the project done.

Eventually everything comes down to DOING.

After you have decided upon a project…

Step 1: Ask, “What do I care about most?”

It is critical that you reach a shared understanding with your partners, among your family, and with any contractors around what is most important about the proposed renovation project.

The General Contractor I chose for my summer 2021 bathroom project energetically said to me, “I’m twenty years in this business. Quality is the number one thing I care about.”

I should have been more thoughtful about what their idea of “quality” meant.

The work hasn’t been all bad. But the timing (still…not…done…7 months after Day 1 of demo) and the execution was very different than what my family had in mind!

“Quality” is a tough word to define. In my professional field of product and system development, we are constantly refining what we mean by “quality” work. Every organization crafts a different meaning. Departments in the same organization can have varying standards.

Some see quality as “baseline functionality at a minimum price”: a particle-board bathroom vanity, sink, faucet, and fifteen-cent tile sufficient for a quick flip home.

Others see quality as “high-end” design: sixty-dollar-per-square-foot statuary marble installed perfectly behind a custom-built vanity.

Quality can even be most defined by “time”: “We are expecting a baby in three months. What can we do to update the kitchen and outfit a baby room before then?”

Agree upon your goal.

Ultimately, virtually no goal is wrong. It is also not wrong to declare multiple goals. But it is important to be able to prioritize them, to identify what is most important.

Step 2: Ask, “Can we do this work ourselves?”

Once we’ve agreed upon what is most important to us, we then ask, “Can we do this work ourselves?”

Everyone reading this article can do a lot of home renovation projects, more than many think. A 2020 Nerdwallet analysis observed that homeowners DIY’d 37% of their projects. (DIY = Do It Yourself)

It makes sense for most of us to do as much as we can, pushing ourselves with each project to do a little more.


  1. The satisfaction incurred from completing a project, especially one we did ourselves, is enormous. Satisfaction = Sanity.
  2. The cost savings can be quite real. In Ohio, the labor for an expert carpenter charging $50/hour approaches $1000 for a 2.5 day job. Even if you have to buy $250 of tools, the project savings is $750 plus non-marked-up materials. A thousand dollars in saved cost can equate to a thousand dollar gain in the value of our home equity. Savings = Sanity.
  3. It can be especially hard today to find contractors motivated to meet our needs, in our time frame. Getting It Done = Sanity.

If possible, do some DIY.

All of us can benefit from a DIY project here and there. Start small. Trust me.

Should some people not DIY?

Sure, if you desperately dislike the work…if you have absolutely no free time…if you earn hundreds of dollars an hour for your time and are already over-booked, these are good reasons not to DIY.

Step 3: If we cannot readily do this work, ask, “Can we break the project down into smaller pieces?”

First, identify digestible chunks.

If you attempt repairing the broken brick steps (chip away the broken bricks and mortar, create a solid base, and mortar in the new bricks) in the spring, you may become comfortable creating your new brick patio in the summer.

We all build confidence and know-how along the way. (And there are lifetimes of YouTube videos out there and rental equipment, too.)

Second, identify the parts that you will bring in experts for. There is no shame in needing an electrician or plumber or finish carpenter!

Second, contract chunks of work as needed.

A general contractor might offer a deal on installing an outdoor lamp post at the foot of your driveway. For just under $4,000 they’ll do everything. It’ll take them a day of site prep and another half-day for the electrician.

Instead, you realize that you can pick out the lamp post, dig the hole, pour the concrete, prepare the trench, and hire an electrician to install the circuit and run the wire. With much of the prep done, the electrician charges just $1,000 for their labor, wire (surprisingly expensive), conduit, and a breaker.

After the costs of a fancy post, concrete, your DIY efforts, and an electrician, you enjoy a savings of over $2k to you.

My family’s most-satisfying home project involved remodeling a small kitchen. We were expecting our second child and had finally given up on the ancient kitchen that had almost stopped working.

By contracting directly with a plumber, electrician, tiler, and a carpenter/installer, we saved almost $20k. Finished in 35 days, the result was fabulous.

This project, four times as large, finished in 150 fewer days than our recent bathroom remodel. (In full disclosure, we remodeled the kitchen in 2009. Times were better for buyers in the eighteen months after the 2008 Great Financial Crisis. See this article for how things have changed.)

Photo by author. Kitchen remodel managed by homeowner.

A little bit more about the magic in steps 1 through 3

Step 1: “What do we care about most?” is esoteric. It is the easiest to skip.

Believe me, though, there are wildly different realities of quality out there. If you need shaker quality in premium cherry wood, you need to hire someone unless you’ve worked a good bit with wood before.

As much as *every* general contractor insists they provide quality, believe me when I say that there are wildly different visions of “quality” in every neighborhood and every house in the world.

There are many reasons why home renovation ranks as the 2nd-worst industry for disappointing consumers.

Step 3: “Can we break the project down” helps us right-size our efforts so we can get the critical parts done first, so we can do-and-learn from the smaller projects first, and so we can identify the parts that we’ll need help on.

There is no shame in getting help!

If you are still committed to your home renovation, please click here to continue on to the final three steps of achieving Sanity Among the Ruins.

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In addition to years in product and people management, I am a veteran of decades of apartment/old condo/old house renovations in one of America’s toughest regions for construction. My family has worked for generations in the building trades.

Today I am spending most of my time writing. I would love to share insights with you!

Even better to begin a conversation.

Until then, be well!



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J. Andrew Shelley

J. Andrew Shelley

People working with people. Sure, it’s business but it’s also personal. About you and me. Book: American Butterfly on Amazon.