On the House | Renovation frustration and how to survive it

Interesting e-mail, born of a frustration familiar to anyone who has bought a fixer-upper:

I note that you have restored two homes and are working on your third. While you are obviously a person who loves restoring homes, perhaps you would like to share with me just how you keep yourself inspired, and your sanity intact, while facing time constraints, as well as unforeseen financial surprises.

My husband and I are restoring a 137-year-old brownstone, and it is taking a very long time, since my husband and I are perfectionists. So, how do you keep your sanity and your professional demeanor while doing such much-needed inspirational restoration?

Perhaps the reason it is taking us so long is that my husband is an attorney and not a journalist. Am I correct?

Personally, I have never met anyone who enjoyed renovating a house, except for the occasional contractor - and at least he or she could go home at 4:30 and have a couple of beers without the glass filling with plaster dust.

Whether you hire someone to do a renovation or do it yourself, you're glad when the project finally comes to an end. You may reach a point down the road when you don't remember all the bad things, but that usually takes a long time.

I've never met anyone who wished that a renovation would go on forever; even one of my neighbors, whose experience with her contractor was so exceptional that the project made it into my first book, summed it up thusly: "I told them I loved them, but I never wanted to see them again."

What you need, dear reader, is to find others who are doing, or have done, what you and your husband are attempting. Misery loves company, truly.

Matt Schultz, who has spent 18 years lovingly restoring his Queen Anne-style house in Lansdowne, acknowledges that the process can be frustrating. He and his wife, Judie, "kept a photo diary listing everything we had done each month, with before-and-after photos," from the start, in December 1989.

"The book keeps getting bigger and gives you the opportunity to look back and see how far you've come," Schultz said.

Jim Colberg, who has been working on his Society Hill home since 1972, suggests "giving it a rest after a while."

"There is always so much to do that you've got to be able to take a break, to turn it on and off when you need to - otherwise, you'll go nuts," Colberg said.

"Start with the basics, make the house livable, or almost livable, and then stop, take some time, and figure out what to do next," he said.

A piece of advice from the three of us: Get over the perfectionism! I know people who have bought steel dental picks and have used them to remove every tiny little bit of old paint in a newel post just so they could repaint it. In the meantime, of course, other and potentially important issues aren't being addressed.

As a boss once told me, "Pick your battles." Make a list of what is absolutely important, and try whittling it down.

I wasn't kidding about support groups for home restorers. One group I hear from frequently is the Proud Neighbors of Collingswood, which offers workshops and programs for borough residents.

In March, the group is presenting three full-day workshops on wood window repair, porch preservation, and exterior-wood repairs - each featuring a nationally known expert and costing $20. More information is available from Marlene Granitz, the president, at 856- 858-1766 or info@ProudNeighborsOfCollingswood.org.

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia is presenting the return engagement of its Old House Fair on March 17 at Germantown Friends School, 31 W. Coulter St. When it was an annual event in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Old House Fair was my best local source of product and service information.

The 9 a.m.-to-5 p.m. event will feature 50 vendors, demonstrations and lectures, and free 15-minute consultations with professionals. Information: 215- 546-1146.

The Preservation Alliance will inaugurate its Awards of Recognition to homeowners who have "shown exemplary stewardship in historic preservation through renovation and maintenance of their property."

None will be a perfectionist. I'm sure, however, that all of them will look tired.


"On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.

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