A good house in good repair; this is my idea of home improvement success, and if it’s also yours, then I want to explain something that rarely gets talked about.
Whether or not you’re seriously into doing renovations and maintenance yourself, or you hire a professional to do everything right up to light bulb replacement, the key to a good house isn’t fundamentally about hands-on skills. Sure, the ability to work with tools is important (either your ability or that of the pros you hire), but skills are not enough. I’ve seen more than a few skilled people spend a lot of money renovating homes badly. I’ve also seen naturally klutzy people transform ugly, run-down places into beautiful houses in great condition. So what’s the difference? The make or break issue boils down to the way you handle inevitable, unforeseen problems as they emerge, especially in relation to time.
Every human endeavor spawns problems and unpleasant surprises. Roadblocks are inevitable, but they’re especially common whenever home improvements are involved. And the older your house, the wilder and more interconnected your roadblocks are likely to be.
Take a typical flooring replacement job in an older home as an example.
You’ve got it in your mind to install that laminate flooring that’s been piled in your living room for a week, and you’ve set aside the next four days off from work to get the job done. You spend the morning tearing up the old carpet, and discover why the floor has always been so squeaky. The original subfloor is made with pine boards alone, not capped with plywood as you expected. These boards are secured with nails that have worked loose over the years. You could screw the boards down, except that the screws you have kicking around in the basement are only long enough to penetrate 1/2 inch into the underlying joists, instead of a more reliable 1 inch. The boards are also uneven here and there, and you seem to remember something about laminate flooring needing a nice flat surface underneath to support it. With the carpet gone, you also notice drafts coming up from the basement through cracks between boards. Decisions you make at stages like these that determine whether you’ll have a good house or a bad one.
The thing about home improvement disasters is that they rarely look like disasters in their embryonic state. What appears to be a little surprise about the subfloor in your living room actually holds the seeds of three different reasons your new floor could end up being a total mess. The loose, uneven and gaped subfloor boards are unforeseeable roadblocks, and the difference between success and failure of your flooring job depends entirely on resisting the common and powerful emotion of impatience.
Before you started your flooring job, you had your heart set on walking on a new floor before going back to work. That’s a good goal, but the fact that it was based on incomplete information doesn’t naturally eliminate the urge to plow ahead and “get things done” even though circumstances are different than you initially believed. So do you use those screws that are not quite long enough, or get in the car and buy the right ones? Do you go online and find out how flat a subfloor really needs to be to properly support your particular brand of laminate flooring, or do you go ahead and lay the floor as things are, hoping for the best? And when you go online and find out that the 1/8-inch ridges in the subfloor are too tall, do you track down a power planer and hog them off after setting all the old nail heads below the surface of the wood?
The route to home success in any venture is rarely a straight line path. It almost always involves backing and forthing as new information comes in, and new realizations appear. Home improvement success is often based on your ability to say no to the timeline of your initial game plan, in favour of doing things optimally. Notice I didn’t say “perfectly”. There is no such thing as absolute perfection in this world, and trying to achieve it will drive you and any hired tradesperson crazy. That said, things can be functionally perfect, and this is worth shooting for. You or your pros need to understand the need to bend and flex in the pursuit of functional perfection. This often comes down to nothing more than the ability to endure short term disappointment (no new floor before your next shift at work), in favour of better long-term results.
Show me a person’s home and you’ve shown me how they deal with roadblocks throughout their entire life. The ability to flex and optimize with wisdom and patience as reality intrudes on our plan is where quality really comes from.
Steve Maxwell is Canada’s Handiest Man. An award-winning home improvement authority and woodworking expert, he’s truly a treasure of home wisdom and the ultimate home GURU. Be sure to visit his site at SteveMaxwell.ca.