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DIY Dreams vs. Renovation Realities (Or, why we didn’t redo our kitchen ourselves.)

We finally have a kitchen!

Well, we have most of it. The electric and plumbing are in place and up to code, most of the sparkly new appliances and lower cabinets are in, and there’s a sink with a functional garbage disposal once again.

On the other hand, we’re walking on subfloor, the microwave is still in my office, the upper cabinets aren’t yet hung, half of the cabinets are missing doors, and none of the cabinets or drawers are sporting hardware yet..but we’ve definitely made some progress.

But is it fair to say “we” have made progress? After all, when we first bought this house I imagined that we would be doing a lot of the fixing up all by ourselves. And yes, we (with heavy help from friends and family) have ripped up floors, painted rooms and stained fences, so I figured there was nothing we couldn’t do with enough time, patience, and know-how.

But despite our DIY dreams, we wound up contracting out almost our entire kitchen remodel.

Why?

our old kitchen. We had this narrow doorway opened.

As it turns out, when you’ve got five kids, two working parents – one who works from home without much childcare and the other who commutes to a city 2 hours away, several times a week – time and patience can be in even shorter supply than money (and that’s not exactly raining down from the heavens around here either, just sayin’).

And as for know-how? Well, there’s a reason electricians, plumbers, and contractors of all kinds need all that training. Even stuff “anyone” could do, like painting or demo, is better when done right…and to do it right, you have to know what you’re doing.

That’s not to say we couldn’t have taken on some of the jobs that we wound up hiring out. But when it came right down to it, I had a hard enough time just living without a functional kitchen and a dining room and office area stuffed full of random kitchen items. Shopping for fixtures, making decisions about flooring and cabinetry…all those tasks ended up being so overwhelming and time-consuming that I could barely keep up with my regular work and keep the kids out of the drywall dust.

That corner closet, which used to be closed off to the kitchen, will now become a pantry.

If we’d tried to organize the project, or even perform most of the physical work, ourselves, the renovation could have stretched on for months…or longer. And honestly, by the time we got to the last few days, thinking about carting our dishes upstairs to be washed, flushing soggy cereal down the toilet, and eating convenience food for just one more day sounded like one day too many.

Old kitchen again. We moved the sink under the window on the opposite wall, and this wall now houses the stove.

When the project is 100% done, we will have handled exactly six jobs ourselves: the planning and shopping (which was quite time-consuming and stressful in itself), assembling the IKEA cabinets, sanding/finishing the butcher block countertops (still in progress), installing shelving in the new pantry, putting up the backsplash (whenever I get around to it) and laying the cork flooring, which we plan to do this weekend. It’s a lot, but only a small portion of the entire job.

So does it count as a “DIY” reno? Maybe to some extent, but it’s definitely not the goggles-wearing, sledgehammer-wielding image I once envisioned for us. I guess that’s because I’ve learned a few things about renovations and DIY:

  • One, it was arrogant of me to assume we’d be able to move into a house and, just like that, without any training or prior knowledge, be able to handle complicated renovations. Or maybe not arrogant, but just ignorant, with a side dish of over-sweetened optimism. That’s what too much home-remodel-blog-reading and DIY-Network-watching will get you.
  • Two, the cost savings of DIY can be exaggerated. After ruling out jobs for which we were clearly, dangerously unqualified, like running the electric and fixing the plumbing, we figured we could still rip out flooring, knock down walls, and paint, at least. But all those jobs would have required us to find child care and purchase supplies, not to mention taking time away from our other paying work – and I was surprised at the reasonably low costs of having it professionally done. In her book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, author Laura Vanderkam talks about the ‘opportunity cost’ of doing time-consuming things that you could purchase at the store or pay a specialist to do instead, and her arguments came to mind more than once while we were weighing whether it or not it really made sense to try to tackle a job ourselves.
  • Three, I’m rethinking my romantic view of “self-reliance.” As a self-motivated, self-employed person who likes to think I could do anything I set my mind to, I admit I sometimes put a lot of stock in the idea of doing something just to know that I can. But the truth is that “doing it yourself” – whether it’s raising kids, running a blog, or renovating a kitchen – isn’t necessarily the most effective strategy.Working together with people who have a different set of strengths and experiences is a great way to get a big job done efficiently and well. And in the end, it helps more people than just yourself: I’m very glad, for example, that the publishers who hire me to write for them don’t try to “do it themselves.”

Even though we kept the paint color the same, getting the new drywall and re-touching to blend in perfectly with the old paint was a job for a pro.

Last Saturday, my kitchen went from an empty cube to something that looked like a kitchen in a matter of hours. It was really impressive, and a bit humbling, to see a group of knowledgeable people working together and communicating to make the kitchen come together. Having worked on so many projects before, they all knew what must be done, in which order to do each task, and how to do it all right. There’s just no way we could have pulled it off nearly as well.

When we first started planning, I hardly gave lighting any thought...but thanks to our electrician, it's turned out to be one of the most dramatic changes.

I still have dreams of donning goggles and swinging a sledgehammer, and I’d love to do one home project from start to finish, all by myself, just for the sense of personal satisfaction. But now, I’m aiming for a project that’s a little smaller.

You know, like hanging a painting.

Have you ever tried to “DIY” a home project, but realized you were better off hiring it out?

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