D-I-Why Did I Do That?

10 renovation lessons I learned the hard way.
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ILLUSTRATION BY ELLICE WEAVER

How did I learn to rehab houses? Trial by fire. And that isn’t a metaphor. Doing work on a Northside house in 2016, I set it ablaze.

It was a sweaty summer afternoon, and my painter was AWOL. Well, correction: He’d stopped by to show me how to do his job for him. “Use a heat gun,” he said, demonstrating how it melted layers of paint off of a porch overhang. “Keep a water hose handy in case the old wood inside starts smoking.” From my ladder perch, I heated and scraped; it smoked; I hosed. When white puffs started issuing from the other side of the overhang, I called 911. The longest 10 minutes of my life passed while the eaves vaped in stereo, like a cartoon character about to blow its top. I was steamed, too, more at myself than the painter. Lesson No. 1: Don’t DIY if you don’t know how.

The episode typified my career pivot into the home-renovation business. My fearlessness in jumping in was matched only by my utter lack of knowledge or experience. How hard could it be? I thought blithely. The answer was written in ash as firefighters chopped open the overhang to extinguish the fire. And that wasn’t the only horrible day on that rehab, my first attempt at whole-house general contracting. Soon afterwards, I sprawled on the living room floor, crying like a teething toddler because the plumber walked off the job, cursing me as he stomped out. It can be very, very hard.

But it can be rewarding, too, in ways my previous career was not. In the two decades I spent as a Los Angeles fashion editor, I wrote about clothing and handbags and lifestyle trends that came and went with the Santa Ana winds. A house, on the other hand, is lasting. Most of the ones I’ve renovated in Cincinnati are a century old. Bringing them back to life—refinishing a hardwood floor, rebuilding a stone retaining wall, tuck-pointing brickwork—gives me concrete satisfaction and rooted connections to the neighborhood and the city. I’m as proud of the paint and caulk on my hands as other women are of their French manicures.

“I held off decorating my apartment,” said a tenant of an old, badly maintained apartment building in Spring Grove Village I bought in 2016. “I didn’t know if I was going to stay or move.” Seeing me make repairs on the place—replacing downspouts and gutters, rebuilding stairways, installing a new furnace—she decided it was worth feathering her nest. Other tenants livened up their deck with plants and, well, animal bones.

A little property TLC ripples outward and often inspires neighbors to step up their own game. That movement, in turn, gradually strengthens a neighborhood. Northside is a perfect example of an enclave of old houses rehabbed one by one starting in the 1980s, often modestly and DIY, until critical mass was reached and suddenly it became the hot neighborhood. Its biennial house tour now attracts gawkers from all over the city.

After the fire episode, you would think I’d learned about my rehab shortcomings and about poor choices in subcontractors. Nope. A few years later, on a top-to-bottom modernization of a Glendale bungalow, a fellow I hired to tile a shower spent less time in the bathroom and more time parceling out his work to a couple of his own hired hands (and smoking weed). This was unexpected (not the weed, though), but once they were all knee-deep in the project it felt too complicated to stop and re-think it. Excuses and promises were made, but in the end the job was botched. Lesson No. 2: If a project goes off the rails, don’t just pray. Stop and start over.

There are a million corners that can be cut on a revamp, both kosher and not-so-kosher. When I painted the interior of a house solo in 2017, I figured I could freehand it; my hand was steady. Yeah, no. A contractor friend who is, shall we say, not super exacting about aesthetics told me it looked terrible. I had to do the entire thing over, this time using painter’s tape. Lesson No. 3: If you want to do it once, do it right.

I take this man’s counsel more seriously these days. (Lesson No. 4: Advice is free, so get as much as you can from different people.) This past fall, a trusted handyman told me that vestigial wallpaper needs to be scraped off a wall before you can “mud” it (skim over it with joint compound) and paint it. After two days of scraping and steaming, I learned from someone else, a specialist painter, that I would have fared better using fabric softener or a wet sponge. Another pro insisted that an oil-based paint primer is sufficient over wallpaper to prep it for mudding. Why hadn’t I consulted YouTube?

Renovations, for me, are just as spread-sheet-y as they are hands-on. (Lesson No. 5: Planning and organization are as important as good materials and workmanship.) You finish electric and plumbing before you paint, and you paint before you re-do the floors. That’s just sequence.

When it comes down to math, though, I choke. On my last kitchen improvement, I configured the cabinet layout in my head incorrectly. I brushed aside an inkling that something was awry and hoped it would all magically work out—I mean, I had 12 secondhand cabinets and I needed just nine. I let the delivered materials sit in the basement for weeks without re-measuring or conferring with the installer. Said installer was then subjected to a Jenga-like task of making the items, which were originally customized for another person’s kitchen, fit congruously into mine. “Everything comes with a fight,” he mumbled as he made it look, well, acceptable.

The project will now extend an additional two months because I was short one particular cabinet, which I’ve special-ordered at full price. And, of course, it’s backlogged.

As I write this, I am slow-boiling door hinges to strip off paint. New hinges cost under $10 for a three-pack. What’s wrong with this picture? It’s my natural inclination to buy used and recycled materials, but my penny-pinching often comes back to pinch me.

On a duplex in Avondale last fall, I replaced the front door in one of the apartments. The house has tons of original character—oak floors, tile fireplaces, built-in garde mangers—so a replacement door that was “pre-loved” was a no-brainer. The first one I bought (unpainted! five panels!) swung out the wrong way. The second one (crystal doorknobs!) was too short. The third one was hollow, too flimsy for an entrance door. I now have seven used doors sitting in my basement and a brand-new one from a big-box store installed in the apartment. Lesson No. 6: Charm has its limits.

Along a similar vein is Lesson No. 7: Custom ideas come with custom challenges. A client fell in love with handcrafted cement tiles from Mexico, so we ordered them to be shipped. They arrived not only irregular in thickness but missing a protective glaze, so they absorbed anything that came in contact with them: adhesive, water, cleaning products. The discolorations would not come out, so she now has a floor that “tells the story” of its installation.

On another job, I felt clever using a linen closet as a nook for a stackable washer-dryer. I had forgotten that dryers need vents, and this dryer was nowhere near an exterior wall. So back to the drawing board and to the appliance store for a return. The search for a ventless stackable began. Lesson No. 8: Go with what’s standard.

I’m envious of friends’ kitchens with sleek cabinets, smart refrigerators, and built-in everything. I return home from dinner parties to my own 1954 kitchen, with its mismatched appliances, and contemplate yet again sprucing it up. But after four years in the only house I’ve ever bought for myself, I have barely altered it. “The cobbler’s children have no shoes,” my friends muse.

True, the last thing I want to do when I get home from work is to pick up a hammer. Realistically, though, I don’t need a six-burner range, a farmhouse sink, or a kitchen island with electrical outlets. Lesson No. 9: Less can be more.

Instead of replacing the cabinets, which would have cost thousands of dollars, I painted them and replaced the pulls. The beleaguered Formica counters got a $100 refinishing-kit treatment. It’s hardly Instagrammable, but it functions perfectly for me.

With the money saved, I bought things I value more, including a gigantic chandelier for my living room (still sitting uninstalled in my den). Glamour is a bigger priority to me than a HGTV-worthy kitchen. Lesson No. 10: To each his own!

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