The (Renovation) Honeymoon Is Over

“The honeymoon is over,” said Dan, our contractor, as he walked through the front door at 7:30 a.m. on the first day of our kitchen renovation. I figured it was a statement about—how can I say this delicately?—ripping the bodice off my modest budget and having his way with not just my house but my bank account, too, after which he would lay there satiated, smoking a cigarette and talking crown molding. After all, he is a contractor, and that’s what contractors do.

But no. Dan’s not a brute. He’s actually a true-blue gentleman. I now realize that he was referring, instead, to my already tenuous grasp on sanity. Decades of experience had warned him that each day would bring me a little closer to the heavily medicated yet still-shrieking lunatic that I now am. (And no, that’s not normal for me.)

No matter what anyone says to you, a kitchen renovation is the most disorienting, discombobulating, disquieting, disenthralling, and just about every other word that begins with “dis” event that you can ever live through. Well, that or trying to explain to The One why a pair of women’s panties were in my underwear drawer.

The makeover started off auspiciously enough. The entire demo of the kitchen was done during the first day, which ended with a thorough vacuuming of the room. (What contractor cleans up after himself every night?! How gallant, I thought. This is going to be a cinch.)

Kitchen Construction
Click me to see the full extent of the devastation

Day two saw the electric, plumbing, and taping dispatched. By day four the entire room was prepped for the flooring guy to put a spiffy new shine on things, which he did at the end of the week.

But it’s the unexpected that tests your mettle—and your propensity for YouTube-worthy outbursts. Like the cabinets being delivered a week late. Or a 33 percent discount on the sink and faucet that still rung in at more than two grand. Or an innocent chat in the basement about a funky smell—oh, what evil foul smells portend. (While we waited patiently for the kitchen construction to resume, we variously discovered that 1. we have a mold problem, 2. there are leaks in our basement walls, 3. the entire backyard and its 600-square-foot flagstone patio that are pitched to drain water into—not away from—the basement, and 4. every single penny that The One dropped into having the ceiling of the garage insulated and plastered, so that the family room above would be warmer, was wasted because the reno is not up to code and it has to be ripped out and done all over again. [Insert YouTube video of me rending my clothes and banging my forehead against the sawdust-covered dining room table.]

All this would have been tolerable had I not been born with an aversion to people in my personal space. Blame it on being an only child, overmothering, boundary issues, whatever. Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn. To have three, four, six, eight people in your space at any one time, touching your things, using your bathroom, discovering you never make your bed? It’s intolerable.

Kitchen Reovation
No surface, no table, no cabinet–no bathroom–has been left untouched during the Great Renovation of 2013.

And it was about here that I began to call into question my mental soundness. At first, it was just little things, like snapping at Devil Cat when he insisted on bringing his dinner into the family room. Or catching myself drawing cuss words on the sawdust-covered windows. Or, last night, eating almost a half gallon of ice cream alone on the couch while sobbing through the ridiculously melodramatic season finale of Revenge and muttering over and over again, “Declan is dead? Declan is dead?”

Looking back, I think I’d have rather been bent over Dan’s knee and taken like a wench in a Shakespeare play than be violated like this in the name of home improvement.

If, like me, you’re insane enough to choose to live though any kind of renovation rather than high-tailing it out of town for a month or two, even after friends and neighbors have warned you, proceed with caution. After my experience, I’ve created my own 12 Steps to Renovation Recovery. Take heed, my friends, take heed.

1. Admit that you are powerless over the renovation—that your life and home have become unmanageable.

2. Come to believe that a power greater than yourself can restore you to sanity—namely a good shrink, a black American Express card, or (sorry, AA) a superb bottle of vodka.

3. Make a decision to turn your will and punch list over to the care of a good contractor—if you can find one.

4. Make a searching inventory of the contents of your soon-to-be-renovated rooms. (Things disappear on construction sites. Just sayin’.)

5. Admit to God, to yourself, and to another human being the exact nature of your wrongheadedness in having wanted to renovate.

6. Be entirely ready to have your contractor remove the mess and dumpster that are making it impossible to leave your home.

7. Humbly ask your contractor to remove the nail that you accidentally shot through your hand while you were showing him the “right” way to install new studs—as if you ever paid attention in high school shop class.

8. Make a list of all the persons you have 1. harmed, 2. harassed, 3. screamed at, 4. belittled, 5. wept uncontrollably in front of, 6. stolen medication from, and 7. alienated because of said renovation, and be willing to make amends to them all.

9. Send direct, handwritten invitations to such persons, if they’re still speaking you, to your first dinner in your new space—except in cases where to do so would injure them or yourself.

10. Continue to take inventory and, when you’ve wrongly accused the plumber of stealing your highly valued red Fiesta teapot, promptly admit it. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Oh, brother (buries face in hands).]

11. Seek out therapy and anger-management classes to improve your conscious contact with your contractor and his crew members. (As in AA, doughnuts and coffee help.)

12. Having had a home-improvement awakening as a result of these steps, try to carry business cards from your contractor to other desperate homeowners, and to practice these principles in all future renovations.

If you’re looking for a sponsor, I’m available.

The word "David" written in script.

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. Am so sorry that you are having such a hard time of it. I live in a quite small apartment in Manhattan. The best advice I got during my fairly painless kitchen renovation was to rent bookcases on wheels from a commercial mover. It is called something, but I don’t remember what. Everything fit on the shelves which I then covered with plastic sheets. Being a caterer I have a LOT of stuff. I was also lucky that the whole thing only took 3 weeks including granite counters. When it was all over I invited the contractor, his workmen and their wives for a Swedish dinner. My way of saying thank you for a gorgeous kitchen.


    1. nywoman, you are so lucky! While the kitchen part is a pain, it’s the addition of all the other work (basement, mold removal, garage work, insulation, etc.) that got tacked on that makes it such an imposition. Jeesh.

  2. David – have counter tops come in and how long until you get your privacy back? I planned to do mine last year but then was forced to spend 80,000 of my budget on a car after the accident…… so still no new kitchen. After reading your story we are talking about having ours done while we are at our vacation home — good or bad idea in your eyes? We have a complete kitchen in our basement (dishwasher, stove, oven, full refrigerator and full freezer….) but I hate having no privacy. Better to be around for problems? Any advice is greatly appreciated! I would love to see pictures of the process.

    1. Hey, Lori. I still don’t know when the countertops will come in. I’m guessing within the next two weeks. All that’s left to do is put in the countertops, tile the back splash, and paint. I’m counting on being stand facing the stove by June 15th.

      Having a full kitchen in the basement is great because you’ll never have to eat takeout or prepared foods for weeks on end. Even though I’m climbing the walls because I have no privacy, there have been some very important changes made on the spot. So I’m happy about that. If you’re able to visit two or three times during the renovation, that would be ideal. It gives you privacy while keeping you connected. Best of luck and don’t forget to send before and after pictures!

      1. Is that your old kitchen? The white cabinets dark counter tops in the photo? It looks nice….but I guess looks can be deceiving….mine doesn’t look as bad as it functions. I can’t wait to hear where you splurged, what your favorite new appliances and special features are in your new space.
        The loss of privacy will be good for me….help me break those bad habits by refusing to suffer the pure embarrassment of having to admit I sometimes eat cake for breakfast or have way too much whipped cream on berries to be an adult.

        1. Lori, my old kitchen was the equivalent of a fading but still lovely movie star who has to be filmed through a 1/4-schmear of Vaseline to look good.

          Um, and cake for breakfast and too much whipped cream on berries? I would applaud such behavior if I were to see it.

          1. Laughed out loud at your kitchen description! I am starting to feel the same pains personally – the farther I stand from the mirror the better I look! I knew I would like hanging out with you, I love those friends that accept my vices and join in on the sugar fest. I know the no carb diets are popular but sometimes I think my diet should be called the all carb diet — maybe it will catch on?

          2. lori, darlin’, I accept you, your vices, and your cake-for-breakfast philosophy. Hell, who am I to judge?!

  3. The single best piece of architectural advice I’ve ever given:

    “You know, for the amount of money you’re going to spend on this renovation…..well, you could probably rent a summer place in France for the next 5 or 6 years. I really think you should think about it….”