Our house is small. Not Tiny House small, but substantially less floor space than the suburban houses Chris or I grew up in. While having a small house has its advantages, adding a third person to our family highlighted the need for more space. Fortunately, after years of saving and months of work, it’s now substantially bigger than it was. With the remodeling of our basement, we expanded from 950 sq ft to about 1400! Of course, like any construction project, it was not without its quirks.
Remodeling the basement was in the cards since we bought our house four years ago. Our entire house had been remodeled right before we bought it, so the main living area didn’t require any work. But we knew once we had kids, three tiny bedrooms and a single bathroom weren’t going to be enough. Even though the family before us raised ten kids in it, I don’t have the constitution to handle either that many kids or that little space. But we also knew we couldn’t buy a “starter house” and then move up. If nothing else, we wouldn’t be able to afford enough additional house that met our demanding requirements (single family, at least a bit of yard, close to Metro, walkable/bikable, good school) to justify moving. For those who aren’t familar with the D.C. market, it’s perfectly normal for an upper-middle class family to live in a house that costs half a million dollars or more.
Although we always planned on remodeling, we also knew we weren’t doing it ourselves. My interest and experience doesn’t extend further than painting, so there was no way in hell we were touching drywall installation, plumbing or electricity.
In fact, if I was in charge of the project, it probably wouldn’t have happened. I’m usually the planner in our house, but Chris really stepped up. He figured out the layout, modeled it on the computer, measured everything out, and taped the floor to indicate the locations of the new walls. He even stacked everything in the basement Tetris-style into the 5 square feet that was neither being remodeled nor already occupied by the washer, dryer, or hot water heater. As it took us half a year to pick a rug for the living room, I was very impressed by his level of focus and commitment. The layout was so accurate that except for a few tweaks, the contractor based his plans right off of Chris’s.
So far, so good. Of course, everything is good until you actually start construction. Our first major barrier came when we found out that unlike almost every other municipality, our town requires that you have an outside exit if you remodel the basement at all. (Most places only require it if you have a bedroom.) We had originally wanted to put in a door but put it off because it was too expensive. Now, despite the extra $10,000 cost (a third of our total budget), it was add in a door or cancel the project.
The situation changed once again when the construction crew tried to dig out the door and tested where the natural gas line runs through our yard. Of course, the line is at exactly the wrong depth. In the end, we were able to save the project by expanding the bedroom window instead of the door. Unfortunately, it still ended up being $5,000 more than our original budget without the functionality of the door.
On top of that detour, we also had picky plumbing inspectors, quirky permitting systems, forgetful plumbers, and over-scheduled duct-work specialists. None of them were show-stoppers, but they added up to a hell of a headache.
In particular, we were afraid that the construction wouldn’t be finished by Thanksgiving, as both my parents and in-laws were staying with us. If the basement wasn’t done, everyone was sleeping in our living room.
I was surprisingly unshaken by all of this. I had great confidence in Chris and the luxury of ignoring the problems. For once, I didn’t have a strong opinion and enjoyed it. Unfortunately, this was the opposite of what Chris needed from me. Between the high expense, the delayed schedule, the construction noises interrupting Sprout’s naps, and the nuisance of having people in the house, he was stressing out in a way that he rarely does. Responding with “meh” when he asked me for input aggravated the crap out of him. Meanwhile, I was having my own unrelated mini-meltdown. Both of us were pissed at each other, wanting the other person to drop their worries to deal with what we felt was a higher priority.
Fortunately, by getting some of the toxic thoughts out of my head, I had space to think about the remodeling project. In the past few weeks, I’ve tried to be much more interested, especially as our vision became more tangible. When it was just lines of tape, I found it difficult to imagine what it would look like. But once the walls were up and we needed to pick wall colors, I was able to care more.
With us working mostly in tune, we made the best of a frustrating situation. Chris was particularly annoyed at the switch from a door to a window. The lack of a door left an awkwardly-shaped spot where we were going to put a mud room. Instead, I realized we could use it to fulfill a lifelong dream – having a library. Sure, it’s tiny. But a “room” (albeit one without a door) devoted to books? Heaven.
Once we actually started talking, choosing the wall colors and accessories also fell into place. The color wheel’s absurd names (Palisade?) provided some needed levity. We chose an orange-tinged white and tan carpet for the main area and light blue paint with sandstone tiles for the bathroom. While I’m far from an interior designer, everything looks pretty nice together.
Like a reality TV show, the construction team finished right on the deadline. With my parents arriving Wednesday morning, the contractors left at 5 PM Tuesday night.
Like any design show, the big reveal topped it off. While Chris and I saw it every day, Sprout hadn’t. That night, we brought him down our newly carpeted stairs. At first, he gave us a look that said, “Was this always here? I don’t remember this.” After standing in the middle of the floor for a while, he walked from room to room, investigating each one. He was particularly interested in our huge storage closet, touching all of the shelves and pointing at the light fixture. To finish off, he ran in circles, enjoying the squishiness of the carpet that he doesn’t get from the hardwood upstairs.
In the end, the whole project turned out beautifully. Everyone had somewhere comfortable to sleep, Sprout has way more space to play, and we have a lot more storage. All of the delays were just little bumps on the way to our destination.