For the Glue to Dry on Our New Creation

“Are you moved in yet?” It’s a common question I get these days — and no wonder since I ran around excitedly at the end of 2011 telling everyone who’d listen that we were buying a place. The simple answer is no, we haven’t moved in. Instead, we’ve opted to start some of the work on our new place before moving in.

It sounded so sensible at the time. We’d work on the bathroom and kitchen before we lived there and avoid the dust, the noise and the sheer inconvenience of living without access to these all-important rooms. But I didn’t realize at the time what a big project it was; I didn’t think about the timing of it, about how we’d just finished the crazy process of buying a home and that starting a remodel would mean launching into another crazy process. I was in such denial about how much work the remodel entailed that I signed up for two classes — a weekly copyediting class and a monthly gardening class — to keep me busy while I waited (!) to move in.

The idea that I would be sitting around waiting for the house to be done now seems laughable, but that’s how clueless I was. I thought Mr. WholeHog and I had done our homework. We’d pored through countless kitchens and baths in books and magazines, we’d read Consumer Reports and gone to look at appliances. Mr. WholeHog, reliving childhood dreams of being an architect, taped down a piece of paper on our dining room table and drew the bathroom and kitchen to scale. He cut out little squares of paper so we could see how much space the stove would take or how many feet there was between the sink and the refrigerator. I thought that we were prepared, that we’d just hand over our work to a professional who would put our plans into action.

But I was not prepared.

I wasn’t prepared for the costs. I’d been focused on the components of the project — the appliances, the flooring — not the cost of the people involved, like the contractor, the plumber, or the electrician. I didn’t think about the cost of permits or plans or the port-a-potty we’d need to rent while the bathroom was out of commission.

I wasn’t prepared for the enormous time suck either. Mr. WholeHog and I have spent the last few months going to warehouses, salvage yards and showrooms all over the Bay Area. I should have kept notes so I could say definitively how many visits we’ve made to appliance stores like Pacific Sales, Standards of Excellence, Sears and Airport Appliance, or to salvage yards like Building Resources, Ohmega Salvage and Urban Ore. We’ve been to Global Tile, Import Tile, Dal Tile, Italics — even Mr. WholeHog’s dad’s former tile shop. We now know the people who work the Saturday afternoon shift at Heath Ceramics (and when they see us come in, I have to assume that they sigh deeply and shake their heads as they go get the keys to the tile room.)

We spent part of the Tuesday I took off for our anniversary at a counter-top showroom in San Leandro. When a planned camping trip was rained out, we ended up in Marin, visiting yet another appliance showroom and scoring second-quality Heath tile for the bathroom.

After all of our efforts to try to nail down decisions on flooring and fixtures, I wasn’t prepared for how often these “decisions” would need to be revisited as the work got underway. We focused on counter-depth refrigerators, but once the framing went up, we learned there was room for a regular-sized fridge. When our contractor was able to make the bathroom vanity a little bigger, that IKEA sink and counter-top option was suddenly too small for the space.

I wasn’t prepared for the design setbacks either, like when it seemed like the wooden post in the middle of the eat-in area of the kitchen that no one initially thought was structural might be the one thing holding together all three of the units in our building (two engineers later, we finally got the OK to remove the post); or that some of the old plastered walls contained asbestos that needed to be handled and disposed of properly (which, I learned, meant putting it in special “DANGER” bags and taking them to an apparently asbestos-friendly dump in Livermore.)

The deeper we get into the project, the more I realize how little I knew what we were getting into, back when we were reading Consumer Reports and moving little paper cut-outs of appliances around our to-scale drawing of the kitchen. I’ve thought a lot about the E.L. Doctorow quote on novel writing that I initially heard from Anne Lamott these days: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” With our remodel, I still feel very much in the dark, feeling my way forward one step at a time, unsure exactly where we are in the process.

After I tell people that we haven’t moved in to our new place yet, the natural follow-up question is when do we think we’ll move in — and that question is much harder to answer. I used to throw out possibilities — as if I had any idea what I was talking about. Initially I’d say, “If we get our permits this week, then we could move in six weeks,” or “If the bathroom work goes as planned, we’ll move in next month.” But these days, I’m more realistic. “I don’t know,” I say. “We’ll see.”


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