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You know overhauling your home can take a toll on your wallet and your patience. But it also can affect your marriage, if you let it. Our writer explains how to avoid the traps.

marriage adviceThe writer and his wife, hard at work. Photo: Charles & Hudson.

Home improvements -- even small repairs -- can provide us with a sense of achievement, pride, and the beauty or peace of a job well done.

That's the upside. Yes, there's seperate marriage advice for those going through a remodel. Here's how your marriage can survive the overhaul.

But they can also become high-pressure stress machines, especially for spouses working together.

And the higher the stakes (think full kitchen renovation versus a wallpaper border) the higher the fallout when things go wrong. Note: Things always go wrong.

Budgets get blown, timelines tank and communication is chaotic. Sometimes problems escalate into "I'm sleeping on couch" disagreements. That's why Mike Holmes of Holmes on Homes and Holmes Inspection calls the marital fallout from projects "Divorce Dust."

For example: When Ken and Melly from Tyngsboro, MA decided to re-do their bathroom, both were excited. The idea was to start by taking apart the linen closet.

Ken, who's handy, got to work on his day off while Melly headed to the office, both unaware of the problem they'd just created.

Melly figured that Ken should remove the shelves and trim. Ken (knowing the bathroom was a full gut) thought they had agreed on deleting every shred of the closet en route to the demolition eventually required. Once he got into it, he realized two things: Once you take the skin off the walls, all the bones are connected. Also, that there was no clean stopping point. And that's how the entire linen closet wound up in trash bags in the driveway.

Imagine Melly's surprise when she got home.

Though trying, projects can also be an opportunity to learn more about each other and explore new ways to get along. My wife Theresa and I have found ways within our own marriage -- and the complete remodel of hundred year old house -- to short circuit these challenges. Call it the guide to avoiding divorce dust, call it marriage advice for remodelers -- either way, I hope it helps.

1. Slow Down, Look, Listen
Both of you will approach your projects from different perspectives. Call it Mars-Venus, different life experiences, whatever. The point is slow down --both of you-- and listen to one another. And make lots of eye contact when talking. Even when you don't want to.

2. Manage Expectations
Things go wrong in projects. It's not always someone's fault either. A house is a complicated system and having respect for that going in will serve you as you roadblocks arise.

3. Plan First
Many people suffering from home improvement headaches are in trouble because they got ahead of themselves. They tear down the deck without a detailed plan for the new one. Write an outline of the steps involved. How long you think they'll take and when you'll do them. Make materials lists. (Builders call this a "critical path.") Also plan to be wrong and to improvise.

And for jobs that require them, pull permits. This is so worth it, for a zillion reasons.

4. Budget
Money is a hot-button issue and lots of couples find themselves starting angry sentences with "But you said it would cost...."

What happened is that a realistic budget wasn't written (you didn't include the $800 in tools you'd need along with the materials) or there was an unknown (rotten roof decking under the garage shingles, for example). Or both.

Or, you over-estimated your abilities thinking you could frame a wall/run wire to code. Once you realized it was harder in real life than on TV, the walls started closing in (figuratively, I hope) and you needed to hire a professional.

All this boils down to this: Make a realistic budget. Include everything you can think of, then add 10%. Then, make sure you have some cash reserves beyond that because you'll probably use that 10%. Finally, try really hard to stay on budget.

5. Establish Leadership "Islands"
Theresa and I learned that working in parallel is only effective to a point. She's better at some things, I'm better at others. We call those things our "islands" and we're captains of them. For example, if she designs something, I work out if it can be built within the constraints we have (time, budget, etc.) It's not that we don't visit each other's islands sometimes, but due deference is paid when we're visiting.

6. Get Ready for Dust, Dirt and Inconvenience
The bigger the project, the worse it'll be. Different people have different tolerances for this. Everything from doing dishes in the bathtub to piles of tools in the corner on Christmas Day to dust in a room not being worked on. It gets to you eventually. Our favorite solution to this is to put hiring a maid into the budget. Which brings us to...

7. Schedule Changes
I can't tell you how many DIYers we've seen -- both on TV and in real life -- who don't alter their daily activities to meet the demands of their project. Seriously, their houses are blown apart, they're hemorrhaging money, both parties are furious, and still they take the dog out for a leisurely stroll, start working at 10:30 in the morning, chat with neighbors, or otherwise seem completely unaware that they're burning time. And they wonder why they can't finish?

If there's one bit of advice to take above all others, it's this: You need long swaths of uninterrupted time working to get hands-on projects done. You can't hang crown molding and talk on the phone. Follow this rule and others will fall more easily into place.

Ed Sanders of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition can attest. This woodworker is building the interior doors for his home where he lives with wife and four children. He's milling hardwood using a machine called a shaper, cutting the rails, styles and raised panels. And only after all that can he hang them in the opening. When we talked with him last year, he had the first doors done and was excited to finish. Then he got busy. A year later when we asked how the project turned out he, well, answered: "Oh...yeah...those doors..."

He graciously and hysterically told the whole story about what it's like living without interior doors ("It's amazing what you can do with sheets!"). And his tale is emblematic of what home improvement is and what it really means.

See, once you start, you've begun a journey. One way or the other, whether you come to the end of it or not, you're on it. And the best way to enjoy it -- and improve your home and feel that pride and peace -- is to get along with each other. Let carpentry problems stay carpentry problems; money problems stay money problems (at least try your best to). Journeying the home improvement path together might change some things, but it doesn't change who you are.

So trust each other -- a lot. Give each other reasons to deserve the trust. And work together. It's what marriage -- and home improvement -- is all about.

Still have remodeling issues on the brain? Read about another marriage-meets-DIY situation in New Wife, New Kitchen.


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