March 2016

Renovation Realities

Author: Courtney Hampson | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

I had to vacuum. And mop. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I needed to feel clean. I longed for footprints not to be marked by dust, for the dog to not have a thin coat of grit upon his fur, for the bed to not be covered in plastic. If only for a weekend. Because I knew on Monday it would be all for naught. This is how I lived for the first two months in the house, and again for the last six weeks in my new home purchased last February, peppered with mini projects in between for the eight months wedged amid the two dust bowls. A true renovation reality.

When you buy someone else’s house, you spend a lot of time asking, “What were they thinking?” But it would be unfair of me to first dis their interior design skills, when there is so much more story to tell.
Fourteen months ago, on a post-Christmas walk, I looked down the street I lived on and said, “It is time to move.” I had been in my home just shy of 10 years, the only home I’d ever known in South Carolina. I was blessed with the best neighbor on one side, you know the one who brings you vegetables from her garden and fresh baked goods for a decade and never expects you to return the favor? Yes, she was my neighbor. On the other side was the POA president and his wife, who never spoke a word to me in 10 years despite my exaggerated, “Hi, how are you?” which eventually just turned into an exaggerated stink eye, but I digress.

So, I called Allison Cobb from Charter One Realty. She came highly recommended, and it was clear why. A week later, my house was under contract. I wasn’t expecting that, and now I was about to be homeless in 60 days. So, I sent Cobb on a wild goose chase. I longed for trees and land and neighbors that I couldn’t see. And, a few days later, I was on the equestrian side of Rose Hill, looking at two homes just across the street from each other. Both had been empty for some time, and each needed a lot of work. After crawling into every nook and cranny on home number one, ignoring the bald eagle mural and the purple powder room, I had a design plan, and I was ready to make an offer.

But someone beat me to it. So now the house that I had convinced myself was the wrong choice became my only choice. A few phone calls later, and I was soon to be the proud owner of a home with a few thousand square feet of gray walls and gray floors (of the faux wood persuasion), and ugly bathrooms, a hideous kitchen, a falling down horse paddock fence, and a little building out back that I dubbed “the killing shed.”

You know when you tune into HGTV and the host tries to convince the buyer that most of the changes are “purely cosmetic”—yeah, he is lying. Of course we had a closing delay, because the seller mailed his copy of the paperwork from South Africa. Yes, he mailed the closing papers, from South Africa, via the post office, and thought they would arrive in a day.

The few-day delay in closing meant a night sleeping at my mom’s and me tearing down kitchen walls in a house I didn’t quite own yet, because I was not going to miss my timeline before I even truly got started.
I was delusional, of course. In my mind I was going to be able to get the entire interior of the house—walls and trim—painted in a weekend. Tear out a few kitchen walls, paint all of the cabinets and have all of my pots and pans in their new homes by Sunday dinner. In that same weekend, I also thought I would be able to gut the powder room, tile the floor, install a new toilet, paint the cabinetry and not be grossed out by at least one bathroom in the home. I was wrong. Really wrong.

Blue naps lazily on brand new hardwood floors.

I didn’t go barefoot in my new home for nearly a month. The grey click and lock plastic floors were easy enough to remove, but revealed a 40-year-old foundation that had enjoyed better days, you know before it became home to every bug that could squeeze through its cracks. While I waited for a short eternity (three weeks) for my new wall-to-wall rustic hardwood floors to be installed, I grimaced with every step. But, on the positive side, I could also paint without worry of ruining anything, because let’s face it: everything was crap.

So March was floors month. The hardwood was laid while I was on a business trip, and I came home to perfection. I was finally able to walk without socks or shoes on. I also managed to lay the intricate two-inch hexagon tile in the powder room, and as long as you don’t look too closely behind the toilet, you’ll think I did a fine job. Frankly, if you are that close to the floor behind my toilet, you should have some Clorox wipes in-hand.

In April, the two-ton (merely a slight exaggeration) cement kitchen countertops were removed, as was the hideous backsplash, a mishmash of leftover tiles from the atrocious bathroom projects the previous owners undertook. You know your kitchen is bad when you prefer to look at bare studs than actual walls. The saving grace was my beautiful stainless steel refrigerator that sang me to sleep at night (still does) with its unfortunately obnoxious ice maker. And, my sink. Oh, my sink. The stunning cast iron farmhouse sink cost more than anything else in the kitchen and was worth every penny. Of course, it reminds me of a new car as it was only a matter of time before the first ding. Fun fact. Cast iron does scratch. The new countertops got as far as the driveway before I informed the installers that they were the wrong countertops. Long story short, it was a result of mislabeling of the “sea salt” by the Martha Stewart retail folks at Home Depot, and it was fixed within a week, thanks to Michael at Home Depot who really made it happen. The new porcelain tile backsplash was installed, and torn right back out again when I decided I didn’t like the grout color. Round two looked much crisper: White on white created just the look I was going for and enough distraction to prevent deep study of the remaining four-by-eight concrete kitchen island, which was “value engineered” out of the original plan. (Value engineered = stuff you had to skip because you couldn’t afford it.)

Also, in April, I went old school and wallpapered the foyer. If you are going to wallpaper, a small room like the foyer is the perfect place to start. The pattern provides a great pop, and I went way out of my design comfort zone and accessorized with a mirrored table—my little ode to the ’80s. Since I always enter the house via the garage and not the front door, I never tire of the sass in the entry.

The slipcover fiasco opened the month of May. I chose a Sunbrella fabric for the living room sofa, as I knew that was where Blue (the dog) would perch himself daily, and I wanted to be able to literally toss the whole thing in the washing machine. When the sofa was delivered, I knew something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It had, after all, been weeks since I started the process. I unzipped one of the pillow covers and found the answer. The reversible fabric was inside out. Minor (read: major) detail. So, the sofa went back to be re-covered correctly. Once it was back in the living room, I created a piece of art with recycled boards from the horse paddock to hang above it.

A farm table in the dining area welcomes guests
Custom cabinets by Randy Bonner in the master bath
Southern accents complete the look in the sitting room

Later in May, on what would be one of the hottest weekends, my brother in law Jamie McMahon (JM Painting) tackled the exterior paint of the house. (Just to be clear, the initial interior painting of the house, the weekend I moved in was also courtesy of JM, and all subsequent painting for that matter.) The exterior painting phase was when I found that the entire chimney (because of course I needed a fireplace) was completely rotted. Fun fact, your home inspector cannot get up on your roof during inspection, so there was no inspection of the paper thin chimney. Good times. Nothing like a little time on the roof in 90 degree temperatures.

The summer was slow. I had lost steam on projects and was overwhelmed by the thought that this house would never be finished and never quite feel like home. In June, I had to go to Charleston for work, and I stayed at the Zero George hotel. There, the guest baths were painted a gloss white—walls, trim, everything.

I was inspired, and when I got home, did the same in my second floor guest bath. White walls, cabinets, trim—all in an effort to freshen up the tile that I wasn’t replacing, and truth be told wasn’t as bad as the other two bathrooms. Thank goodness for small miracles. I accessorized the stark white walls by repurposing tin tiles that I found in the backyard. A quick power wash and some fuchsia spray paint and I had an art piece.

Just before Labor Day weekend, I had my brother-in-law back painting the second-floor guest rooms and replacing the remaining gray click and lock floors that continued upstairs with a Berber carpet. I was able to make one guest room my office, and get my desk and shelves in place, but full disclosure, I have now been in the house a year and have yet to unpack all of the boxes of my books, so those shelves still sit empty.

It was now October and getting to the point where the projects at hand needed more manpower than friends, family and me. I was going to need to call in some major professional help. Finally, sick of the deluge of water at every corner and peak, not to mention the growing green fungus on the patio and front path, it was time for gutters. Through a friend, Palmetto Seamless Gutters was on tap (pun intended) to solve the river running through it. The owner, Rod Oates, a Bluffton firefighter, did the work himself. He showed up when he said he would, finished when he said he would, and did the job right the first time. I finally felt progress. And, call me crazy, but the first time it rained, I hustled out to the back patio just to watch the gutters work.

Also in October, I started getting quotes on the master bath, which would prove to be the largest project in the house. Two contractors, both friends (or so I thought) came out to quote the project, which basically boiled down to gutting the entire bathroom down to the studs and starting over. Neither ever sent me an estimate or returned my calls.

I went back to my friend who connected me with Oates, and wouldn’t you know it; of course he knew a contractor—a retired Hilton Head firefighter. It turns out, firefighters have a deep network. Enter Rick Peavey, of PV Construction, who became my contractor, my voice of reason, and my morning wake-up call. Peavey didn’t flinch when he walked into the bathroom, with its exposed rafters, where the fluorescent light had been removed, its seashell shaped dual sinks, the jetted tub with control knob on the wall that looked like something from the space shuttle, or its single-stall shower that required 10 months of me standing on one leg to shave the other.

And so it began. After agreeing on budget and scope of work, I tackled the task of moving myself into the guest bathroom and closets, as my master closet was adjacent to the bathroom and I wasn’t going to have access to either for six weeks. I made six trips upstairs, hanging all of my clothes in a guest room. Pleased with that task, I stepped into the hallway only to hear a loud crash. Turns out the closet shelves and racks weren’t actually anchored to the walls. (Just once more thing for the ever-growing renovation list.)

But that was nothing in the grand scheme of things. It was really the snakes who had taken up residence within the bathroom walls who stole the show. As the sheetrock came down, and the floors came up, there were plenty of surprises. Perhaps the highlight was finding that when the bathroom was last renovated (and I use that term loosely, because I can hardly fathom what it must have looked like originally) and the foundation was torn up, it was never put back together again. The bath tub was literally sitting on the dirt, making it ever so easy for snakes to access the bathroom, and making me ever so pleased by my decision to never actually take a bath in that godforsaken tub.

From there it got fun. This was the single largest investment in the house that I would make: tile selections, cabinets, light fixtures, mirrors, everything new right down to the toilet paper holder. Of course, with all the fun, came the cold sweats too. Many a night I awoke from a dream of pink and avocado tile.

With my primary bathroom down for the count, I lived a dual existence between the powder room and the second-floor guest bath. Both seemed miles away, when I was used to the convenience of my en suite, despite its 1980s flair (and failures). It also meant that I was sharing my bathroom—literally and figuratively—with the contractors, cleaning up after boys, every day, putting toilet seats down and wiping seats. Alas, it was all worth it in the end. After the demo, which included jackhammering the foundation to move the toilet, bringing all of the plumbing and electric up to code (more kudos to the former owner whose “renovation” was done without a permit or inspection), re-pouring foundation where the former tub sat in the dirt, mitigating the snakes, blowing out the four-by-four foot picture window that I had been showering in front of for nearly a year (remember, I wanted acres of land), it was amazing how quickly new sheetrock was up and a blank canvas was ready.

Dick Hayes, and his team from Dick Hayes Tile and Marble made magic happen and, in two days, had the bathroom floor complete and my spacious new shower subway tiled from floor to ceiling. And when I nixed every off-the-shelf cabinet option that both Home Depot and Lowes offered, Peavey rolled with it and called custom cabinet maker Randy Bonner of Bonner Builders, Inc. I literally teared up when the cabinets were unveiled, still on the back of their truck in my driveway. There is truly no substitute for custom work, and the contractors and artisans on this project outdid themselves. Larry Bumgardner of Bumgardner Plumbing spent plenty of time back and forth on this project, but his final visit to set the fixtures upon the gorgeous new countertops, atop the stunning cabinets, was indeed the sweetest.

They say prepare yourself, a renovation will always cost twice as much as you budgeted, and take twice as long as you planned. And both are true. Sometimes it is because your eyes are bigger than your checkbook and you go all in anyway (guilty), other times it is because you have to fix the shoddy work of the person before you (truth), and sometimes the hits (and hiccups) just keep on coming. When we learned that the wall I wanted to remove actually was a load-bearing wall, which supported the hot water heater in the attic, well, we moved the hot water heater and tore down that darn wall. And once we moved the hot water heater and realized it was at the end of its life, we replaced the hot water heater. When the torrential rains a couple weeks ago started coming right through the roof, in my bedroom, mere hours before I left for vacation, Peavey just handled it—had the roofer out the next day and problem solved. And, it wasn’t just construction projects that Peavey stepped in on. He became a pseudo dog-sitter for Blue, giving him treats, fixing the pantry door that came off the hinges every time he opened it to give Blue treats, letting Blue in the yard to soak up some winter sun, and when Blue tore through a box of Firestarter logs, Peavey had him in his truck and ready to go to the vet in a millisecond.

This afternoon, as Peavey’s right-hand guy, Jim “Dusty” Jones (a retired Bluffton firefighter) said his goodbyes, on what would be his last day of the project, I was actually sad. Dusty is the only person I’ve met in six years who successfully managed to pet my cat Belle. He created a bond with Belle and Blue; and if you know anything about me, I love my animals. So now I must love Dusty, too.

Tonight I will shower in my new “worthy of a luxury hotel” bathroom. I’ll pull a towel from the antique pie safe that I bought and refinished with the help of a friend, and I’ll blow dry my hair in front of the mirror that I had to (almost quite literally) steal out of the hands of an old lady at World Market.

In the home renovation world, I have learned that some projects are just too big to handle yourself. I’ve learned that you have to trust your contractor and that communication is key. Peavey called me every morning (sometimes before I was awake, and I thought I was a morning person) and provided an update at the end of every day, many times waiting until I got home from work so he could walk through the details with me in person.

And, like any good relationship, when someone makes you happy, you want to keep them around, so I now have a Peavey list, which includes work on such items as painting the sunroom and refinishing the floors, extending the outside patio, re-hanging those shelves in the guest room closets that tumbled six weeks ago, and of course, I wonder what he could do with that killing shed. 

Special thank you to Shana Oates, owner of All Season Clean, who came in last minute, the day before photography, cleaned the house top to bottom and made it picture perfect.

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