The Fix: Six Renovation Revelations from Serious Rehabbers


On the renovation continuum, there’s upgrading the appliances and putting in some new carpet, there’s taking the kitchen and bathrooms down to the studs to correct an unfortunate encounter with a previous decade, and then there’s what Jennie and Dennis Chacón did.

“Our house was built in the 1890s and had been abandoned for seven years,” Jennie says. “The windows were missing on the back of the house, so water had been pouring in. It needed all new HVAC, electrical, everything. There wasn’t a single light fixture in the house. This was a major remodel.”

Obviously, this wasn’t an undertaking for the faint of heart. But the Chacóns were inspired by the Walnut Hills Queen Anne Victorian, marveling at the strength of its materials and the fact that it was still standing after years of abuse.

It was nearly four years before all three floors were entirely habitable, and there’s still minor work to do outside. But this regal beauty is now officially cleared to reign for another hundred years.

Easy? It wasn’t. But the Chacóns say it was doable. Here’s what they learned along the way:

1. “Seal the Envelope” First
There’s no point in repairing anything on the inside of the house until you stop the deterioration. The Chacóns spent the first year of the renovation stabilizing the house—fixing the roof and gutter system, repairing the brick, and replacing windows.

2. Take a Top-Down Approach
With the envelope sealed, the goal became finding a way to live in the home as quickly as possible while the renovations continued. The Chacóns accomplished this by starting at the top of the house and working their way down. Before moving in, they finished the third floor of the house and sealed it off as livable, clean space.

“This saved us,” Jennie says. “We had a place where we could go to get away from the dust of construction, a small haven carved out so that we could survive the next several years of renovation.”

Gradually they worked their way down and increased their livable space—a strategy that Jennie credits with helping them sustain over the long haul. They did jump ahead to do the kitchen when the couple got tired of washing dishes in the bathroom. Two baby daughters born during the renovation also increased the sense of urgency. The second floor bedrooms where completed just before baby Esmè arrived. The first floor renovations were done in time for baby Zoë, which was also when Esmè was ready to be on the move.

3. Be Your Own General Contractor
If you have the time and organization skills to manage a renovation project, you can save 20 percent right off the top by acting as your own general contractor. It’s no small task: You’re not just hiring subcontractors, you’re also ordering their materials, picking up lumber, and filling in all the gaps between each phase of the project.

“If you don’t have time for this, you should not do it,” Jennie notes. “For us it really worked because we had a huge project and that 20 percent really added up.”

4. Triple Bid
The Chacóns made it a policy to get three bids on every job, which proved to be an excellent strategy from both educational and economical standpoints.

“Triple bidding helped me compare and contrast what three intelligent and experienced people said about my project,” Jennie says. “I then knew what was a matter of opinion and what everybody agreed needed to be done.”

Contractors were always notified that the Chacóns were triple bidding. This encouraged everyone to sharpen their pencils and come to the table with their best estimates.

5. Negotiate a Discount
Comparing coupons from Home Depot and Lowe’s is fine when you’re painting the family room on a three-day weekend. When you’re in the midst of a whole-home renovation, it’s a waste of time. Explaining the scope of their work, the Chacóns negotiated a standard 20 percent discount at the big-box vendor of their choice, and it remained valid for a designated period of time.

“It gave me huge peace of mind so that I wasn’t having to shop sales or spend time finding the best price,” Jennie says. “That would be something worth asking of any vendor you want to work with.”

6. Invest in Quality Tools
While every penny counts when you’re trying to work within a budget, the Chacóns learned that more expensive tools are often cheaper in the long run. Paintbrushes are a good example.
“I spent a lot of money on things that didn’t last,” Jennie recalls.
The higher-end paintbrushes not only lasted longer, but they were easier to use and produced better results.
“That was really money well spent and a good lesson learned.”


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