Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Refurbishing a house aka: A shortcut to insanity

I just saw this new painting by Andrea Kowch in a Sag Harbor gallery and I fell in love with it. It doesn't require any complex analysis – simply put it sums up my present state of mind. Only if it were to absolutely sum up my present state of mind, the barn behind her (containing about 200 boxes with her household possessions) would be on fire, and she'd be holding the still smoking match in her hand as she headed toward saner, simpler, dust free pastures.

This is what eight months of refurbishing a house, combined with a traumatic house move experience will do to a person, and did I mention with two small children in tow who I wanted to give some semblance of normality and stability throughout the process? And moving into a dust ridden house that still had builders in it and no working kitchen, and via a hotel which eventually kicked us out because they were fully booked? Either that or the femme de chambre got fed up with fishing out sticky unidentifiable objects from the bidet and between the sofa cushions, and wondering why the hell the face clothes were so very brown.

All of it was self inflicted; No one told us to take on a major refurbishment project and move in when our house wasn't quite finished, or to choose an unrecommended moving company from the internet without them actually coming and assessing how much stuff we had. Which doesn't make it any easier, but it also means you don't get people's full sympathy. You sit there bitching about the kitchen company that screws up all the time, or the fact that the taps aren't symmetrically aligned with the shower attachment, or the plug sockets in the house that are askew thanks to a depressive electrician who has absolutely no sense of symmetry or alignment, none. Or how some of your stuff got broken in the move. And their faces glaze over and you think: “God dammit, this is my life here, and you don't care, you just don't care!” What I haven't mentioned is that they've had to listen to this diatribe or a variation of it for several months every time they risk asking you how you are, and they are quite frankly sick of it.

Those who still listen to me bitch, (after all, good friends are nothing if not long suffering) repeatedly assure me: "In three months you will be enjoying your new house so much you will have forgotten about all of this." Which is why I am writing this blog, because a lot like childbirth, I don't want to stupidly forget how painful the process is lest I be re-tempted into such foolishness in the future.

The process of taking a house back to the brick and being introduced to and working with an ever increasing cast of characters takes its toll. When you are project managing something of this size and juggling so many balls, so many balls that often go astray, it does things to you. The stress of it, the endless and often unexpected problems that arise, the frightening escalation at which you haemorrhage money, the fact that you increasingly wake up at 4am with terrible worry about what could potentially go wrong, and that you are ultimately responsible for it all. And that you are trying to do this all the while still being a nannyless mother to small children, while having stupidly agreed to be the class rep, and trying to keep your home life ticking by in a normal sort of fashion, and not be a complete bitch to your husband who is not there to share the load because he is working to pay for it all, and he travels a lot. And... and... and well, it sucks the life out of you and drives you a little bit crazy. And eventually it makes you mean, and short tempered and intolerant. And in need of botox and psychotherapy.

I realised I had a real problem, apart from the fact that I was becoming that crazy bitch (something I'm convinced my builders referred to me as and probably still do), when I started having panic attacks in the middle of the night. It started earlier this year; I woke up gagging, my heart pounding out of my chest, with a terrifying conviction that I was about to die. Sometimes a residual dream fragment would remain – I had accidentally swallowed the wrong combination of tablets and now the irreversible inevitability was upon me, or I had accidentally fallen into a noose. Ditto. And then, of course, despite being exhausted after a day of site visits and motherhood combined with multiple school runs, I was exhausted, but now genuinely scared to go to sleep. And so I chucked insomnia onto the pile of stuff I was struggling with.

In my waking hours I'd find myself feeling dizzy and exhausted, and just plain ill and not myself. I became convinced that if it wasn't cancer (once you approach 40 your starting point for everything is cancer) and ruling out anything else via a myriad of blood tests, I thought it had to be an allergy or plural. Either that or I was going mad. Although I kind of knew I was a bit mad anyway, but this felt different. So I sought out a well regarded allergist who immediately spotted Hyperventilation Syndrome – never mind any allergies. Me: “Hyperventilation? But isn't that people breathing into brown paper bags in the midst of a panic attack?” And then he took me through a questionnaire which I scored really high on, and gave me some literature, and it was all there. (My husband has just read this blog entry and told me it is far too long, so I deleted all the stuff about Hyperventilation Syndrome – but google it if you are interested. It really does exist. Promise. And it was also responsible for the panic attacks at night.)

*Breathe in …. and breathe out....Breathe in …. and breathe out*

I recently likened the process of refurbishing a house to spending an entire day cooking a meal that you are too knackered and fed up to enjoy at the end of it. Which makes me sound terribly spoilt and ungrateful and rubbish; I hail from South Africa originally and many people there live in tin shacks and would only be too pleased to have a house to renovate - stress and all. But I am starting to see why people get into the process of fixing up places and selling them on. It's because they are too fed up to enjoy them and actually live in them having gone through the horribly stressful process of making them perfect. That and the fact that you spend all your time spotting tiny imperfections like smeared sealant on the tiles while sitting on the loo and it drives you CRAZY. (Having read this back a few times to edit I see that I use the word crazy a lot – this is obviously an ongoing theme.)

Because of when our rental lease ran out, and when the school holidays started etc, we had to move into the house while the builders were still there. My two usual moving companies (yes we move a lot, which is why we stopped renting, bought a place, and got into this craziness in the first place) couldn't move me at such short notice. And I blame it on the fact that I had so much on my plate, that I stupidly didn't even think to ask friends for another recommendation and instead went online to one of those sites that you fill in how much stuff you have and then local moving companies send in quotes and you choose from one of them. To my credit they were all reviewed, as per an Amazon type system, and I did ask what I thought were relevant questions, but it was a huge mistake in retrospect. Actually, forget retrospect, on the day the two guys arrived, woefully ill equipped to deal with such a large move, I knew I had blown it, but by that point it was too late. It was like being stuck in a really bad acid trip and we just had to ride it out.

The movers from hell, as I fondly like to refer to them, managed to break a few items, damage some others, and there are a couple that remain MIA. I'm thinking they got broken and hidden in some dumpster. But until I get through all my boxes I cannot in all sincerity accuse them of the last. And believe me I've accused them of pretty much everything else. So much so that a lawyer friend of mine warned me about posting on FB and websites reviews, what she far too kindly referred to as 'hyperbolic references'. I have no idea why saying in an online review: “I would rather chew off my arm than recommend this moving company' is a problem given it's true?

Here are a few things I have learnt from managing a house refurbishment and moving house while trying to keep all of your marbles:

When your architect tells you at the outset that you can be as involved or as uninvolved in the project as you like, do not nod your head in a naïve agreeable fashion, smile and say: “Gee that's perfect, given I have two small kids with different school runs, and no nanny help and cannot really be on site all that much.”

Instead laugh cynically, get out your phone, and get yourself a project manager pronto who sports an A type personality and a healthy dose of OCD that can be on site every day. Unless of course you genuinely and insanely decide you do want to do it yourself. In which case quit your job, or if you are already at home, ensure the the kids are at school full time, or employ a full time nanny. But understand this, jokes aside, it is a full time extremely stressful job and you need to be available at the drop of a hat to be there to oversee stuff or make decisions. And you are going to be on the phone a lot, and online, and you have be organised and have your admin hat on. I wish someone had told me this at the outset, genuinely.

Choose a builder the same way you would a future husband that you will land up hating and arguing with all the time. Essentially he is a good man and he's giving it his all, but the nature of the business means your relationship is ultimately doomed. There is lots of blaming, and bringing up of the past - Him: “Remember I told you those wooden floors would set us back two weeks, but did you want to listen to me? Noooo... you just heard what you wanted to hear!” Me: God dammit, then why didn't you get another company in to do it and assign your guys to another part of the house?!? Him: (Making throttling gestures with his large hands) “I told you, it doesn't work that way, Jesus God!”

I genuinely had no idea just how emotional men in the trade could be, seriously.

Sanding floors and finding the right colour filler for the gaps and the right colour stain is a bitch. If you have the cash, replace the floors completely.

Keep receipts all together in one place. Not some in the bread cupboard, some with the kids artworks from school, some on the side table in the lounge, some at the bottom of shopping bags that get thrown away by your cleaner. The alternative is having a bunch of stuff you changed your mind about and will now need to eBay. And by 'you' I mean 'me'.

Correspond via email and following meetings, write everything down and email those concerned. Having stuff recorded will save your ass repeatedly. Trust me on this one.

Never accept something unless you are 100% happy with it. You would be amazed the amount of shyte people will try and fob you off with, all with very rational sounding explanations as to why you should accept something that is blatantly wrong. Pretty much everything is changeable, but the earlier you do it, the less it's going to cost you – both financially and stress wise.

Plan your house room by room. And BEFORE the electrician starts hacking into the walls to place the switches and plug sockets, and even the radiators (although this is the plumber), have them use a pencil or marker and actually draw on the walls where these are going to go. I'd go further and ask the same for the light fixtures – even though they will look at you as though you are completely insane. Looking at plans (which becomes akin to deciphering hieroglyphics after a while because there is so much information layered on there) does not give you the same idea of where stuff actually goes as it does when you are physically standing inside of a room and looking at it.

DO NOT EVER, EVER EVER book movers over the internet – EVEN IF THEY HAVE A 98% THUMBS UP in their reviews. Always go by personal recommendation, and always insist that someone comes and sees your house and how much stuff you have before you get a quote. And never, ever, answer over the phone how many boxes you think you will need. That is not something you will know, it is a moving company's responsibility to know given it is their line of business. I was asked if 40 boxes would be OK. Me: “Well I don't know, I think you should come and see our house and tell me.” Moving company: “No, it won't be necessary I think that should about cover it.”

It just about covered our books – just about. And then they didn't have any more of the tiny boxes they had arrived with, and my husband who was fortunately not travelling for once, and fortunately not at work for once, had to empty out three nearby Argos shops of their moving box stock while the moving guys stood around looking awkward and embarrassed. Apparently this was not their first experience of such a thing. Oh, and we had to hire a babysitter so we could help them pack up our house – something we thought we were paying them to do, but it was painfully obvious there was no way in hell they were going to do it in the one day they had allocated to the task. Yes yes I know, I'm an idiot. Given how many times we have moved in the last five years you'd think I'd know better. 

On the plus side (this is my husband talking because I am just about out of plus sides at this point) I did learn how to dismantle and re-mantle my children's beds, because it would appear that our moving company – five men strong (they sent in more guys for the heavy lifting day), were incapable of such an incredibly complex feat of engineering. Although they did manage to remove our dining room legs before unceremoniously dumping it in what will be our dining room once the builders are finished painting in there – some legs nearby, others in a completely different room. Likewise the spare bedroom bed.

Our furniture was not wrapped in carpet but chucked into the back of a dusty van along with our mattresses and duvets (likewise not covered in plastic) – so a lot of it has been scratched. Sets of drawers were carried on and off with the drawers jiggling about in them, lamps were teetering on top of furniture – not wrapped in bubble wrap, not in a box – teetering. Do you know the painting 'The Scream' by Edvard Munch? Well that's pretty much what I looked like during my two day move with these people.

What's the current status? Well apart from the chronic residual tick in my left eye, and what amounts to post traumatic stress syndrome, I did what any sanity searching person (in possession of air miles) would do whose house is full of dust, builders, and approx 200 moving boxes with quite possibly dozens of broken items inside - I left the country. Not like I kidnaped the kids and left the country, but we all got on a plane and left for a holiday which was planned anyway. I'm treating it as a much needed rest in a sanatorium or would do had my son not recently got a nasty virus which means he coughs so much he is vomiting and has had really high temperatures for the last three days. 

The builders remain, I am hoping and praying that the unbroken things we did manage to unpack are being protected from the dust, but to be honest I don't really care at this point. I've come to the conclusion that we move through life with far too much stuff – both physically and emotionally and the more you have the more stress it causes you having to worry about all of it. On my return I'm doing some serious chucking and giving away.

I'm enjoying being present and focused on the time I spend with my children, instead of putting them in front of the TV at every given opportunity so I can sort out house stuff. And I'm actually listening and interested in what my husband has to say rather than looking at him but actually thinking about plumbing fixtures or the right shade of grey or having to bollock our kitchen company for their latest screw up. And I'm gathering my strength and sanity to deal with all that bullshit (because it really amounts to that in the greater scheme of things) on my return.

Some final bits of unasked for advice: The most important thing in life is the people that you love and their wellbeing and the rest is just stuff. Sometimes you've got to know when to shut the door on the barn and walk away – even if it's only for a while to gather your strength. And playing with matches is generally a bad idea.