Live In or Move Out: The Remodeling Dilemma

You’re about to sign the contract for a major home renovation. When the construction crew arrives, is it time to go? Experts and homeowners weigh the pros and cons of staying put or moving out.

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If there’s one thing that can mar the excitement of a home remodeling project it’s the nightmare of living through it. Just ask the Gargers of Hicksville, NY. A planned 16-week renovation of their three-bedroom Cape Cod–style home turned into a 14-month ordeal.

The low point? Pick one. It could have been when the entire family — husband Tom, wife Dolores, two children, and two dogs — was forced to sleep in a single room for nearly four months. Or when Tom became trapped behind a cascading pile of boxes in a storage shed for 20 minutes before managing to crawl out. “It was moments like that I had to keep a good humor about things,” he says.

Deciding whether to live at home or move out during a renovation is a tough call. The disruption of relocating to new surroundings, coupled with the added expense, is enough to make many homeowners put up with the challenges. Others, however, can’t wait to get as far away as possible from the dust, drilling, and distractions. “Despite the inconvenience of living through a remodeling, the one huge advantage is that you’re able to monitor the contractor’s progress every day,” says interior designer Linda Bettencourt, owner of Centerstage, in San Francisco. Bettencourt has lived through two renovations of her own and says that being on site to address issues as they arise can save time and money. “Requests come up,” she says. “Things happen. It’s good to communicate with the contractor on a regular basis. Homeowners get into the most trouble when they’re not there. That’s when the time frame and budget can go out the window.”

Live-In Strategies
The Gargers briefly considered renting a house during their massive renovation. After all, they were increasing the size of their home by 75 percent. In the end, they say it was lucky they didn’t move. The renovation was scheduled to take 16 to 18 weeks. It took 14 months. “We’d be bankrupt,” Tom says about the prospect of paying rent on a second residence. Homeowners who decide to move into temporary digs need to factor in additional housing expenses above and beyond the cost of remodeling.

And think worst-case scenarios, advises Dolores. “The rule of thumb is to double what the contractor says,” she says. “But having lived through it, I’d say quadruple it and then double it again.”

If you decide to stay put, to preserve your sanity have your contractor set up at least one sealed-off, construction-free zone and make it your go-to place to escape the chaos. Having workers swarming your home feels very invasive. Set ground rules on crew access so you know when the house is your own and when the workers take over. “Nothing is worse than emerging from the shower to see a contractor on the roof through your skylight,” says Bettencourt.

Debbie Weiner, of My Design Solutions, in Silver Spring, MD, just completed two large remodeling projects in which her clients had no choice but to live through what she describes as “the early-morning noise, the Dumpsters tearing up the lawn, the dust, the inconvenience, the lack of privacy, and the general hell that goes with major remodeling while living at home.”

Weiner says to minimize health-related problems, pack up clothing and bedding that you won’t be using in space-saving, vacuum-sealed bags to keep them clean and dust-free. Cover ducts with plastic. And “turn off air conditioning and heating systems during the day, if possible, to keep air from circulating through the house,” she says.

Insist that your crew conduct daily cleanups. Linda Minde, co-owner of Tri-Lite Builders, a residential remodeling company in Chandler, AZ, says that her crews not only put up plastic barriers between rooms and lay runners on the floor but also use portable scrubbers that purify the air of dust and chemical fumes.

Exit Strategies
The reality is that living day in and day out in a construction zone is grueling. It’s loud and dirty. Your quality of life suffers, and, sometimes so does your ability to function as a family. “If that’s more than people can handle,” Bettencourt says, “they’re going to have to move out.”

Some make their great escape to a relative’s home or an extended-stay residence hotel. Others seek out long-term house-sitting arrangements or RV rentals. At a minimum, timing a vacation to coincide with the demolition —the messiest part of a remodeling —is a smart idea.

Create a checklist if you do opt for alternative quarters. There are a lot of issues to consider, big and small: How will a new address affect commuting distances to work and school? Will you need to forward your mail and phone calls? Stop your newspapers? Put a hold on your cable and find a new Internet service provider, or go wireless?

From Minde’s perspective as a builder, working in an unoccupied home is a lot more productive for her crews. “We can tell a homeowner we’ll make it as easy and painless as possible, but the first few weeks are really bad,” she says. “We can get it done quicker if you’re out. We get in and we get moving.” She says it can also be more economical for the homeowner. The cost of paying for temporary lodging can sometimes be offset by a stepped-up construction schedule. And, she adds, there’s an emotional benefit to “not having to listen to it, see it, hear it or smell it.”

Professionals say that if you decide to move out, keep close tabs on the progress. Visit the property regularly to monitor the pace and quality of the work. Make sure you’re easily reachable in case there are any decision that have to be made quickly to avoid holding up any part of the process. And visit your home during off hours to make sure it’s properly secured.

“Treat the experience as an adventure and know that one day soon it will end,” says Bettencourt. “Once everyone leaves, you’ll have the beautiful home you always wanted. There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”