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Renovation Regrets: My 5 Lessons Learned from 10+ Years of Remodeling

When my husband was a young single guy, my father-in-law suggested to him that it might be time to start filling his evenings and weekends with something other than pub-crawls and kick ball. Heeding this advice, he took the little money he had saved and purchased his first (very run down) house. One YouTube video at a time, he began his home renovation journey, and by the time I entered the picture he was on his third flip. Over ten years later, home renovations have been a continuous part of my life. Beginning with a near tear-down bungalow in Seattle, followed by a 100-year old hunting lodge on Vashon Island, and now onto our dilapidated guest cottage, it seems to never end.

When showing various friends and family our remodels over the years, nearly everyone asks what we’d do differently if we could start all over. Remodel regrets, yes, I’ve had a few. Here’s a little peak behind the curtain of five remodel decisions I’d do-over if given the chance:

  1. Live (in it) a Little. I know, I know it makes so much sense to do a remodel before you move into a home, but I promise, you will not truly understand how your house does and does not work for you until you’ve lived in a bit, ideally for a full year so you can experience all seasons in your space. We were nearly finished with our architectural plans for our current rural island home renovation when it dawned on me that we might need a mudroom. We only had one child at the time, who was still a baby, so the sports/school/general kid-explosions that now happen on the daily hadn’t become a part of our life. We also hadn’t spent a winter in the house when a place to contain muddy shoes and rain gear would prove crucial. We did squeeze in a tiny mudroom (not a total fail), but if I could do it over, I would make the mudroom AT LEAST twice as big, even if it meant stealing a little space from the (gasp) kitchen, which is arguably bigger than we need. Luckily, we did spend a summer in our home before renovating, alerting us to the fact that the second floor, which houses all our bedrooms, got unbearably hot. This led us to purchase a heat pump, which now both cools and heats our home in an environmentally friendly way.
  2. Focus on Family Functionality. For almost half a century now, home design has shifted to focus on the kitchen as the center of the home, with a preference for open floor plans⁠—2 concepts I whole-heartedly stand behind. But, if you have a family, or even pets, your mudroom and laundry room will be some of the hardest working rooms in your home. If I could do it over again, I would make my laundry room, and, as noted above, mudroom bigger, more functional, and even more beautiful, because although they will never be show pieces for guests, we spend a lot of time in them. The hours spend toiling over the bathroom…meh, fine. But if I’m going to do laundry nearly every day, why not have a view, some pretty wallpaper, or maybe even a flat screen to catch up on what the Real Housewives are doing (which I’m going to guess isn’t laundry).
  3. Opt for Consistency Over Sales. Remember that crazy conversation you keep having with various people about how that renovation they did went under budget? Yeah, me neither. Your remodel is going to go over budget my friends, and then you will start to find ways to cut costs. One thing that we’ve done in the past that I most definitely regret is hitting up warehouse sales for home fixtures and finishes. Yes, Rejuvenation was having a killer sale on close-out lighting, so we snatched up several sconces, pendants, and a chandelier for a steal. But because quantities were limited, we ended up with slightly different lighting styles and finishes throughout the house, and it drives me nuts. While I’m certainly keen to save money, one of the keys to quality interior decorating is using cohesive finishes. So please, pick out your lighting, flooring, tile, bath and kitchen fixtures, paint, etc. and use the same finishes repeatedly throughout the whole home. If your choice finishes go on sale, excellent! If not, leave the bargain shopping for less permanent items such as pillows, curtains, and tabletop décor.
  4. Invest in the Things you Use Every Day. You’ve probably heard the sage advice that when shopping for clothes, it’s wise to spend money on your daily staples (purses, shoes, jeans, coats), and bargain shop for more trendy seasonal items. I feel similarly about homes. Sure, you might not think you care what kitchen faucet you purchase, but after picking a somewhat budget brand, I wish I had spent a little bit more for a high-quality fixture when I’m turning it on and off several times a day. The powder room faucet was a bit high-end on the other hand and typically only gets used when guests stop by. So, when you’re thinking about a save versus a splurge, I suggest asking yourself how often you will use each purchase on a daily basis, and budget accordingly.
  5. Skip the Synthetic. I am a sucker for natural materials. I almost always prefer how they look and feel to the touch. If designing your forever home, I suggest skipping synthetic materials. Yes, the natural route can be more spendy and wear quicker, but to me it’s worth it (if renovating a rental house, however, durability is the name of the game, but that’s a post for another day). We put synthetic tile in our Seattle bungalow and it never felt true to the house. I always wished we had put in the money and effort to thread in new or reclaimed hardwoods to attempt to match the rest of the home’s original flooring. At our Vashon house, we choose an engineered “wood” product for our front porch, the main focal feature of our home, and I regret it every single day. It looks synthetic, and feels unnatural, is scalding hot in the summer, and icy in the winter. Luckily, I didn’t budge on the cast iron-soaking tub when everyone tried to convince me acrylic is where it’s at (and conveniently would have saved the contractor from renting a lift to get it to our second-floor bath). And, the trouble was worth ever grain of bath salt. So, if it’s a home I’m going to live in, I’m a (mostly) natural woman.

Despite what you see through the rose-colored lenses of renovation shows, remodeling is often a brutal, soul-crushing process. Securing permits, construction delays, price overruns, the unexpected troubles potentially lurking behind every wall…I can go on and on. But to this day, there is little that gets me more excited than restoring old homes to their former glory, all the while updating them for modern life and family functionality.

Enjoy my remodel regrets and advice? This is just the tip of the iceberg my friends (because who can cram 10-years of reno-lessons into one post!). Stay tuned for more tips, lessons learned, and even a few upcoming tours of my house.

All photos by Marla Smith Photography