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Don’t Fear the Reno Man?Taking apart your house is one thing. Putting it back together—as one couple discovered—can be a whole other heartache. David Leach describes his family’s reno from hell.

Photogtaph of David Leach's family's home before renovation.

It all started with a simple piece of graph paper. Every building project looks easy when sketched across the innocent white boxes of a drafting pad. How many naive couples have succumbed to that tease and turned their peaceful abodes head-over-hallways in the pursuit of a dream home? One, at least.

Jenny and I had already survived the minor reno of our first house, so we harboured no illusions about the risks: eccentric contractors, missed deadlines, mutual meltdowns in Home Depot. Been there, reno’d that. But in this new era of home-improvement propaganda, the small hiccups of our first fixer-upper hardly seemed worth mentioning…or remembering, for that matter.

Two years later, we had moved into a 1,200-square-foot bungalow that had the curb appeal of a refrigerator box. If Hollywood ever needed a beige backdrop for the pilot of That ’80s Show, we had the pad. Still, we resisted the urge to sex it up.

Soon though, we had a toddler, a much-harassed dog, bruises from bumping into each other and baby No. 2 on the way. We needed padded walls or more space. Our budget could be stretched to afford a reno, but we couldn’t extend the house outwards because of city bylaws and we couldn’t dig a basement because of flooding concerns. Our only option was to crack off the roof and go up.

I thought we could wait—at least until our kids could help with the drywalling—but Jenny wanted the reno done before her nine months were up. That’s when The Other Man swaggered into our lives.

Let’s call him “Tom” for short (and to keep the lawyers at bay). I learned a hard lesson at our first meeting with Tom: When a renovator talks in his gravelly voice about textured ceilings, tufted broadloom and quartz countertops, your better half can’t resist. And so another reno crush is born.

Tom had a solid reputation. He had built an addition for friends of ours. He gave a reasonable estimate. He even seemed excited about our project. He liked us! He really liked us! (Or at least the huge stack of money we’d be giving him.) Then Tom pulled out the graph paper and doodled a plan—an extra bathroom, a walk-in closet, a skylight! And then he zeroed in for the kill: He could begin in a month.

There was a pretense of democracy after that, but I knew the deal had been sealed. Jenny was already imagining the joys of our redone home. Even I felt seduced by the vision of 800 extra square feet.

“What’s your man say?” Tom asked Jenny about our deliberations.

“Tom,” my wife announced, “you’re my man now!”

“We need to get started by October,” Tom told us, “so we can get your roof off and the framing all buttoned up before the November rains.” (“Buttoned up” was a phrase of his we would regard first with amusement, then with exasperation and finally with dread.)

With the contract signed, our family relocated to a rental for the duration of the two-and-a-half-month project. (We also made sure it was available beyond the deadline; we weren’t complete suckers.) Our renovator, alas, was no meteorologist. Tom’s crew had barely stripped the shingles off when the monsoon season arrived early on the West Coast. It started raining the first week of October and continued through Halloween.

The blue tarp latched over our missing roof was about as effective as Saran Wrap. Inside, it looked like a water-bomber had dropped wet insulation through our ceiling and across our kitchen appliances. Everything had to go. I snapped photos of the carnage in case we ever felt the urge to renovate again.

Tom couldn’t be blamed for bad luck or climate change. For the next month, I joined Jenny in her slightly dampened reno crush. Tom chaperoned us through lighting, plumbing, flooring and cabinet stores. He suggested subtle touches: pendant lights over a breakfast bar, stencils on the kids’ walls, a walk-in shower for two that would make visitors give us the old nudge-nudge-wink-wink. Jenny and I giggled like tweens every time Tom asked, “Do you want a three-way in the master bedroom?” (He was talking about a type of light switch.)

The gap between what we ordered, however, and what we got grew daily. By mid-November, the second storey had been framed and the new roof erected. But the overall look was less Dwell magazine and more Treehouse Monthly. And we were supposed to move home in a month. “Don’t worry,” Tom assured us, “we’ll get it all buttoned up!”

In his recent book House Lust, American author Daniel McGinn says that our obsession with real estate warped our sense of reality in the boom-and-bust frenzy phase of the past five years. “How did home renovations come to routinely turn families’ lives upside down?” he wonders. “How did house lust become so contagious?”

Mr. McGinn, let me tell you. A full-blown reno crush can make the Ebola virus seem like a common cold. It turned an otherwise cautious, conservative couple (we’re too cheap to own a car!) into the Bonnie and Clyde of financial mismanagement.

Case in point: Tom had convinced us to store our furniture and other belongings in a spare bedroom where the roof wasn’t going to be removed. He would secure the room from the elements and other intruders. (In other words: Button it up.) The arrangement would spare us the hassle of an all-out move.

Unfortunately, our contractor’s idea of securing our valuables meant throwing a tarp over them and then leaving a house key in the mailbox for whoever might show up the next morning: wreckers, roofers, plumbers, pirates. We were so lost in our reno fantasies that we didn’t even notice this security lapse…until I visited the site (on Christmas Eve, no less) and wondered why the spare room felt so empty.

The answer was elementary: Someone had walked off with a mountain bike, a TV, a stereo, a scanner and various other keepsakes and gadgets. It had all the makings of an inside job—one that any idiot homeowner should have seen coming. The constable who took the incident report didn’t exactly call us the world’s most gullible couple, but let’s just say there was a definite tone.

And yet we still wanted to believe our reno would turn out all right. Our faith might bend but it would never break. We trusted Tom when he assured us his insurance would pay for our stolen belongings or he’d cut a cheque himself. (It didn’t happen.) When he missed the first deadline, he promised to be done by February. (Didn’t happen either). And then March. (Nope.)

Finally, after our daughter was born a “reno refugee,” we had to move home again—even if the kitchen wasn’t finished, nor the exterior painted, nor the insulation blown in. Even if we were missing light fixtures and shower doors and a chimney pipe. All of these would be “buttoned up” soon—or so we were told. A few were. Many weren’t. Tom stopped answering our calls and emails as he moved on to other projects. He just wasn’t into our house anymore. And so we went from reno lust to reno limbo.

One thing that needed to stay buttoned up was my mouth. Yes, in the beginning, I’d suggested to Jenny that we ought to cool our heels before knocking the top off our house. Now I had to bite my tongue until it bled rather than say the four words that would doom our relationship: “I told you so!”

The only thing that sustained our sanity during these dark months was home-improvement schadenfreude: the guilty pleasure derived from the reno woes of others. A pair of home flippers had bought a house down our street. They’d watched a little HGTV, applied a few cosmetic fix-ups and then put the property back up for sale—just as the real-estate market tanked. Suckers!

We felt more virtuous than the flippers, of course. We were trying to improve our street rather than turn a quick buck. Never mind that our neighbours had to put up with tradesmen cranking classic rock all day and that our half-painted facade looked like crack house chic. At least we supplied ample schadenfreude for everyone who walked past our contractor’s sign—now a permanent fixture on our lawn—and thought: Thank god, we didn’t hire that guy!

Eventually, we kicked down his free advertisement. Small satisfaction perhaps, but we took our pleasure wherever we could get it.

Couples never imagine their journey toward a dream home will dead-end in a lawyer’s office. But realty, like reality, sometimes bites. Our low point came a month after moving home, when we’d finally accepted our nearly done house (temporary countertops, insulation spilling down the chimney) as the “new normal.” Out of nowhere, we got a phone call and a legal notice from the flooring company. They hadn’t been paid and had placed a lien on our property. Soon, the electrician, insulators and stucco guys all came knocking with the same complaint.

We’d paid our bills. But our contractor had spent our money elsewhere. We went ballistic. And when we calmed down, we went to a lawyer.

Tom still didn’t return our calls, but with more pressure and the phrase “our lawyer” added to every message, he started to cover his—and our—debts. Slowly, we learned a bit more about why he had shanked our reno. Tom was suffering through an ugly and expensive divorce and his money was tied up in a dispute with an ex-partner over a big development. Our contractor wasn’t a bad guy. In fact, his crew’s work (when they did it) was exceptional (except for what got stolen). He had merely made some bad decisions, just as we had.

Photograph of David Leach's family's home after the renovation.

A year after it began, our renovation still isn’t finished. Instead, our house—like so much else in life—remains a slightly messy work in progress. Jenny and I now have a love-hate relationship with the whole experience. We love the new space and how our two kids fill it with laughter. We hate how 12 months of unrelenting stress nearly drove a wedge between us. We love returning to a neighbourhood and a house that feels fit for a family. We hate that by the time the reno finally gets done, we will have dented and scratched it so much that it won’t feel like a new home, not even for a day.

One lesson we’ve learned is unambiguous and irreversible: We will never move again. We will also never renovate again. We intend to grow old and out of date along with our household decor—and do it all within the same four walls and area code. Then, decades from now, if we’re lucky, our kids can pry the remote controls from our cold, stiff fingers and carry us out the front door atop our La-Z-Boys. (Maybe the stucco will be painted by then.)

And what if our children don’t like the house they inherit? Well then, they can reno it.