If you want to have a successful bungalow restoration, you need to take a hard look at your own goals, your own tolerances, your own proclivities, way before you even start looking for your dream house. Too often people fall in love with a house & as much as it is true that love is blind in human relationships, so it is with old houses. The wraparound porch, those beautiful old, wavy glass windows, those stone columns- they will hypnotize you as quickly & as thoroughly as any handsome, smoothing talkin’ man, who turns out to have wives & kids in 3 states.
I tend to be a starry-eyed idealist, tempered by 40 years of running a construction business & restoring 5 old houses in different stages of disrepair. What this means is that I dream big, but I always have a plan. That doesn’t mean that I never jump off a cliff & build my wings on the way down (Ray Bradberry gets credit for that one) but in the main, I protect my heart by carefully evaluating what I want & what I need to have to get it. Especially when it comes to money & believe you me, old houses love money!
Following my advice will mean that you may choose to walk away from many projects into which you would have blithely leaped. So, some houses might not get saved. On the other hand, if you do follow my quaint words of wisdom, you are more likely to succeed & maybe do 2 or 3 more down the road. (Though you will feel like a horrible person for turning your back on a house that is crying out for help. Just know that upfront.)
Many of you are in the middle of bungalow restorations now. I have some ideas in my article, WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF RESTORING AN OLD HOUSE? that might help. I am not a construction consultant, just an old lady who knows some stuff, so evaluate my words & see if they apply to you.
This is a large subject & I’m going to break it down as much as possible. Off we go!
TO HAVE A SUCCESSFUL BUNGALOW RESTORATION, Know Thyself
1. I beg you to consider whether restoring old houses is the passion you most want to stoke. Make sure that restoring a historic bungalow aligns with your basic life goals before it takes over your life- because it will. There is every chance that it will cause you to skip getting your teeth cleaned “just this once,” forget your husband’s birthday, miss a ballet recital or 2, & run up that credit card that you stashed 5 years ago for emergencies only & it will cause you to lose many nights of sleep. Guaranteed.
So why would you decide to do it anyway? Because like the singer who must sing, the artist who must paint or the musician who must play- you HAVE TO. Restoring & advocating for old houses is how I communicate with the world. If I were to have to swear off the reno’s, or step off my soapbox, my soul would be muted. I would wither & & die. Not really. I’d probably just gain 50 lbs. & whine a lot! No one within miles of me would be happy.
Do you have this crazy passion like I do?
2. Will you enjoy the process? Kurt Vonnegut, in a letter to high school students, wrote, “Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, [including restoring old houses] no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”
Depending on the condition of the house that you buy & what your dreams are for it, the tunnel may stretch for several miles before you see even a flicker of light, any money or fame, or even a room in which you can sit & read a book without having to wear PPE. If you cannot love the journey, every step can be painful. It’s hard to be a good cook if you don’t enjoy chopping the veggies. (I hate it.) You might as well skip the garden if you don’t enjoy the weeding. (I love it.)
I enjoy most everything about the construction process. Rolling out the plans with the architect, trotting down to City Planning to submit them for approval makes my soul grow. There’s something to me that feels right about looking at a pile of materials in the garage & anticipating the arrival of the carpenter
No, I don’t like having no kitchen for a couple months or walking in after a brief absence to see that the tile was installed in a very weird pattern around the sink, but all in all, I enjoy the process as much as I enjoy the final product. And it’s a good test of what’s inside of me.
3. How much mental stress do you want/tolerate? Do you like to live a quiet life with few surprises? I personally don’t recommend it, but I know that I have a certain tolerance for random crap & try not to invite much more than I feel I can deal with. There’s always more than anticipated. These bungalows are o-o-o-old houses. Surprises are part of their very nature.
How mentally nimble are you? If black suddenly becomes white, can you quickly rearrange your thinking? Can you look at what is really there in front of you without flinching (Taking the afternoon off to get used to it is ok!)
4. Can you tolerate having to tell people what to do? Can you correct them & tell them to do it again? Can you admit to yourself & someone else when you’re wrong? The care & handling of tradespeople is a vital skill. Sign up for my newsletter & you’ll get a guide to hiring, but like all other human relationships, it can be bliss & it can be torture.
5. Can you tolerate the scarcities & delays in receiving materials? (Who knows when it will get any better?) Every timetable that you have worked out is probably going to crumble.
6. How well organized & intelligently planned do you tend to be? Can you keep order when on any one day, you may be speaking with 5 tradespeople on the jobsite, 3 on the phone while sorting out a jumble of 20 receipts.
Strangely enough, planning & being nimble go together. The better planned you are the more easily you can hop from Plan A to Plan B because its already sitting there for you. You don’t have to scramble for it. For example: Do you have a place to live if a sudden situation requires it? Can you round up the clan & get everyone out of there with no notice because you have gotten your evacuation ducks in a row?
7. Do you have the physical strength to trot around a jobsite in the pounding rain, brutal heat or freezing snow? Can you tolerate the chemicals that you might encounter on the site? How about the dust, the mold, the toxic materials used in old houses? Are you willing to research what you need to do to keep yourself & your family safe? (Here are some helpful videos if the answer is yes.)
Can you navigate around work & materials? If you’re living in the house, can you deal physically with the noise & fumes & the constant messes? Can you keep yourself & your family safe?
8. Some people see money as it is, something that you can exchange for something that you want to have. Some see it as a scarce commodity, anxiously monitoring every penny in, every penny out.
Money is going to be flying around like leaves in the wind in any restoration. There are so many unpredictable factors in any project that you need to have a bit of a casual viewpoint about money, or develop one fast.
9. The neighborhood. Many old houses are in old urban neighborhoods that have seen better days & may have more than their fair share of crack houses. I am in awe & admiration of the intrepid pioneers who come in despite the blight, despite the crime & bit by bit, turn it into a real neighborhood. Are you ready to be a pioneer?
HERE’S THE DEAL ON HAVING A SUCCESSFUL BUNGALOW RESTORATION
I am not suggesting that you limit yourself. You are capable of more than you know. You can develop these tolerances as you go.
Learning more about the bungalow, about construction, improving your health- all these things are your feathers with which you can build your wings as you figure out how to soar. And that’s why I’m typing away at this merry blog.
Meanwhile, search your soul. Take honest measure of your passions & your pitfalls. Hearing the grateful thank you of a house saved from neglect or remuddling is a wondrous thing.
I think it might be like holding the baby after 36 hours of delivery. OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And then she looks into your eyes & grabs hold of your finger with her tiny hand. Definitely worth it! But it is imperative to truly know thyself, before you can have a smooth & successful bungalow restoration.
But wait, there’s more to having a successful bungalow restoration! If you have a significant other who will be impacted by your project, read Part 2.
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