January-February 2010 | Bethesda HOME

The Good, The Bad and The Costly

Renovations teach homeowners a thing or two.

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On HGTV, they make it look so easy. Television crews transform a house from drab and dated to fresh and fabulous, seemingly in the space of an hour. But anyone who has remodeled a kitchen or built an addition knows the roller-coaster ride of renovation. What starts as a simple bathroom face-lift or basement redo can mushroom into a project months past deadline and tens of thousands of dollars over budget.

If homeowners had known then what they know now, they probably could have saved time, money and a few sleepless nights. In the Bethesda area, several homeowners who have survived the process stand ready to share the lessons learned along the way.

Do surf for bargains

When Joey Stechshulte, an eBay business owner, decided to redo the main living space of his four-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath townhouse three years ago, he thought he knew where to cut costs and where to splurge. And he knew the Internet could help. “We have expensive taste, but not always the budget to support it,” says Stechshulte, who lives near downtown Bethesda with his wife, Kim, and young son. The couple splurged on a new, built-in, stainless steel refrigerator, but turned to the Internet for other appliances, paying just $600 for a high-end wall oven and $450 for a faucet that normally retails for $1,250. They also purchased a warming drawer and microwave on eBay, and found their sleek, contemporary bar stools on craigslist. After a little Internet research, Stechshulte located the East Coast showrooms of several upscale lighting and furnishing companies. They rented a U-Haul and purchased fixtures and furniture from them for a fraction of the retail price.

Don’t be your own contractor…

To save money, Stechshulte acted as his own general contractor, a role he now regrets. Working from home gave him the flexibility to oversee the project, but he was tied to the house all day. And he was accountable for everything. “I needed to be on the ball and pay close attention to all of the subcontractors,” he says. He found at one point that he’d overpaid a contractor from northern Maryland who had charged for travel time—something they had not agreed to in the beginning. There was no one to blame but himself. And when a flooring subcontractor ran out of material, Stechshulte had to call him every other day to get him to return to the job. Stechshulte thinks his decision not to hire a general contractor and having to research his own decisions stretched a six-month renovation into two years. “In the end,” he says, “you really have to weigh the costs and benefits and ask yourself how much stress and agony you are willing to put up with.”

Cindy Oliver can attest to that. Six years ago, she and her husband, John, bought an 1895 farmhouse in Chevy Chase, D.C., that needed a major renovation. Having watched several friends successfully manage their own renovations, Cindy felt confident she could handle the role of general contractor. In retrospect, she wouldn’t do it again. Managing workers was time-consuming and stressful. In addition, renovating a more than 100-year-old structure was daunting. She felt stymied by rotting beams, ancient pipes and original floor joists that couldn’t support the weight of the marble and other construction materials she wanted.

Recently the Olivers renovated their third-floor attic, creating two bedrooms and a bathroom. This time, they hired a general contractor—one with experience in very old structures. Cindy says he was worth every penny.

… but do show up at the site every day

When John and Cheray Bowis married and created a blended family with five children ages 10 to 16, a six-bedroom house became a necessity. The house they purchased in Potomac last year had the space, but needed some work. The Bowises started by renovating three of the home’s bathrooms. They also had lockers built for coats and backpacks in the mudroom, had the foyer tiled and the entire house painted.

John says many people think a contractor just needs a little guidance to make the homeowner’s vision a reality. But “it’s the thousand little decisions that make the project complete,” he says, and that means being on-site every day to oversee progress and make on-the-spot decisions. “Those few times when I wasn’t there and the contractor guessed, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted,” John says.

Choose a partner

In 2005, when Bob and Lynn Gottshalk bought a 1940s center-hall colonial in Bethesda, they knew a major renovation was in their future. With three small bedrooms and a kitchen with original cabinets, the house would never meet the needs of the family they planned. Four years later, with a 2-year-old daughter and Lynn five months’ pregnant, construction of their 1,000-square-foot addition began. As the renovation progressed, Lynn says she and her husband realized a lot about the type of relationship they wanted with the architect and contractor. “We needed to be partners,” she says. Expecting the builder and his crew to be responsible and on time meant she needed to be responsible and on time, as well. When the builder or architect wanted the Gottshalks to select tile or fixtures, Lynn made sure they met the deadline. “It’s the only way to keep the project on schedule and on budget,” she says. “You have to treat your role in the renovation like you do your job: meeting expectations and treating people right.” 

You’ve got style. Work it.

Choosing a contractor can bewilder any renovation newbie. Andrea Witt says the first step is to know your working style. Two years ago, Andrea and her husband, Michael, decided to enclose a side porch on their 1940s Bethesda home to create a family room and a master suite above. They hired a contractor from a large company. When the job started, the contractor “wore his own hammer,” Andrea says, meaning he worked alongside the laborers. But as his business grew, he took on more of a supervisory role, coming to the site daily just to check on progress. Although the project turned out beautifully, the Witts knew that having the contractor there all day was important to them. So for their second project—building a new porch and enlarging the kitchen—they chose a contractor from a smaller company. He’s at the job site with the crew every day. “It’s a question of working style,” Andrea says, “and this style suits us.”

Get the picture?

When the Bowises began their renovation, they knew what they didn’t like, but had trouble articulating what they did like. John thinks it’s crucial to have a complete vision of a project before it begins. Because most homeowners aren’t familiar with construction jargon and can’t foresee all the possibilities, they may have difficulty conveying their vision to a contractor. To address this issue, the couple spent hours flipping through magazines such as Architectural Digest, tearing out pictures of rooms that spoke to them—something John highly recommends. By reviewing their portfolio of photos with their architect, they established a general design style, then moved on to specific choices for fixtures and finishes. Having a comprehensive picture really made the daily decisions easier, John says. 

Find another place to live…

In the renovation of their 1936 Bethesda colonial, Amy Cevario and her husband, Norman Lester, bumped out the 9-foot-by-13-foot kitchen, enclosed a side porch and broke through a wall between the kitchen and living room to facilitate flow. Amy, Norman and their two daughters lived in the house during the renovation—something Amy doesn’t recommend. With the kitchen construction site off limits and new kitchen cabinets filling other rooms, the family room became the foursome’s living and dining area. “There was not a clean space to be had,” Amy says. She recalls a day she went to do laundry in the basement. The washing machine, located directly beneath the kitchen, was full of construction rubble. “I don’t think we would do that again,” she says.

Joey Stechshulte similarly recalls the frustration of being confined to the upper floor of his house during construction. They didn’t have a full kitchen, so “we ate takeout for months and months,” he says. At Thanksgiving, the kitchen was nearly complete—but lacked plumbing. The couple cooked dinner downstairs, then lugged the dishes upstairs to wash in the bathtub. “It wasn’t worth it,” Stechshulte says.

…or embrace the adventure

When Jon and Karen Dubrow decided to renovate the kitchen and family room of their Bethesda home, they wanted to keep their three sons’ lives as normal as possible. They scheduled the majority of the renovation for the summer months, when the boys spent their time at the pool, friends’ houses and sleep-away camps. Once school started, daily life became more difficult, but the Dubrows treated it as an adventure. They made sure the family ate dinner together every night—whether on a card table in the upstairs office, as a picnic in front of the basement television or at a local Chinese restaurant. Their most memorable meal occurred the day workers sealed the downstairs floors and forbade walking on them for 24 hours. The entire family climbed a ladder and crawled in through a second-story bedroom window, Chipotle burritos in hand. Karen says the trick to surviving a renovation is to plan ahead and prepare for the worst. “Then, when it’s horribly inconvenient but manageable,” she says, “it seems like a success.” 

Gabriele McCormick is a frequent contributor to Bethesda Magazine.