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Living in Your Home Renovation Project

July 17, 2015 | By

Preparation. Communication. Expectation.

All key concepts in any well-executed endeavor — including living through a renovation.

“You have to do your research, and you have to have good communication with your contractor. Then figure out what you are willing to endure,” says Leslie Mansour, 31, who with her husband Kareem, 32, bought a fixer-upper in 2012 in Kingman Park in northeast Washington, D.C.

During the past few years, the Mansours remodeled their kitchen and basement, added a bathroom, replaced windows and doors, installed closets and built-in shelves, and pulled up carpets to refinish original 1920s wood floors.

The Mansours stayed put through the chaos of it all.

“It was dusty, noisy, and messy, but I think it was probably the hardest on our kitty,” says Leslie Mansour. “He was stressed out,” she says about Mr. Kibs who is normally a “regal cat with a sense of humor.”

Pets are a major concern for homeowners who are getting ready for major renovations, says Jennifer Fowler, a Washington, D.C.-based architect.

“There is the dust, fumes, and workers coming and going throughout the day,” Fowler says.

Dust, fumes, and possible lead (D.C. is full of homes built before lead paint was banned in 1978) are also a huge concern for pregnant women and babies.

“These are definitely considerations and are some of the reasons some people choose to move out,” Fowler says.

Other reasons: Not having a basement to temporarily camp out in or adding a top floor addition, which exposes the entire house to nature’s elements.

For some people, though, the wish to move out goes unfulfilled. Agniezska Paczynska and Terrence Lyons and their tween daughter Nell were looking to possibly move out during their extensive nine-month remodeling project where everything but the basement of their three-bedroom Capitol Hill house was renovated. But they were unable to find a place that allowed their three cats — Sophie, Zoe, and Emme.

So down to the basement they all went — three humans and three cats — exchanging 2,000-plus square feet for maybe 500 square feet at best. It was crowded, and sometimes they all ended up sleeping in the same bed.

“We called it the big mammal pile,” says Paczynska, who laughs.

But it wasn’t all laughs at the time. Nell couldn’t invite friends over and often did homework in bed. In addition, the eating situation was complicated. The family had envisioned cooking at home and had a microwave, slow cooker, and fridge. But the tiny 18-inch by 14-inch basement bathroom sink turned out to be a nonstarter.

“I think we ended up eating out five to six days a week,” Paczynska says. “We basically had breakfast at home, and that was it.”

Eating out that much was tough on the budget, as were certain discoveries once walls and ceilings came down. For example, a rotting 100-year-plus joist.

“We didn’t have a choice; we had to replace it,” Paczynska says. It prolonged their basement living.

The type of discovery the Paczynska-Lyons family had is the only kind of surprise (because no one can know what’s behind a wall) that is acceptable, says Robert Criner, chairman of the Remodelers Group for the National Association of Home Builders.

“If you are smart upfront, your renovation should not go over budget or take longer than expected,” says Criner, owner of Virginia-based Criner Remodeling, which has remodeled homes for 40 years.

Being “smart upfront” means checking on everything from licensing to getting clear drawings and asking lots of questions, says Criner, whose company uses air scrubbers to minimize air pollution and helps set up makeshift kitchens for clients who want to stay put in their homes.

The questions-communications part is one of the main reasons both Mansour and Paczynska are happy they lived in their homes during the renovations. They were present for discussions about everything from crooked tiles to kitchen cabinet styles.

Looking back, Pacsynska wouldn’t change a thing except maybe paying for a portable toilet so workers didn’t have to use their one and only, and possibly making better provisions for cooking.

Mansour has no regrets: “I wouldn’t do it any other way,” she says. “Living in the space and being there helped me develop that relationship [with the contractors] that is pretty priceless to me.”

In the end, she even had the workers sign their names underneath the basement steps.

“They were a little surprised, but I told them, ‘You are artists, and you created a masterpiece.’”

Gabriella Boston is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and other publications.

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