How to Survive a Renovation

House*Tweaking blogger Dana Miller shares her strategies for weathering a home makeover with a smile.

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When it comes to home makeovers, Dana Miller is equal parts realist and optimist. When the professional blogger and her husband decided to downsize from a large, builder-designed home to a small ranch in need of serious updating, they knew they were getting into a big job.

“It was unlivable!” Miller says of the space, which needed everything from flooring to mold removal. But they saw incredible potential in the tattered home, and eagerly dove into the process of taking apart, reimagining, and rebuilding the space for their family of five.  Inspired, we asked the House*Tweaking author, whose Keep it Simple collection launched January 4 on Joss & Main, to share her insights on staying sane during a renovation.


Prepare to be unprepared.

“Everything you’ve read about renovation is true,” Miller laughs. “It’s always going to take longer and cost more than you originally planned for.” Seeing a project gradually expand in scope can be difficult at times, she says, especially if your natural tendency is toward order. “My husband is an engineer, and I was a pharmacist, so we’re both type A, organized personalities,” Miller admits. “A renovation will test that every step of the way.” If you expect the unexpected, you’ll be better off, she explains, and keeping the end point in mind will keep you from getting discouraged along the way.

Beware of before-and-afters. 

In this age of Pinterest and home-makeover shows, it’s easy to fantasize about a quick weekend do-over of your bedroom or bath. But before-and-after photos only give you a partial look at what a renovation entails, cautions Miller. “You might see that the walls went from wood paneled to painted, but not everything that might have had to be done behind it,” she notes–and that can include costly electrical, plumbing, and structural upgrades. Next time you see a makeover you like, resist the urge to pull out a sledgehammer until you’ve thoroughly assessed the project plan.

Spend time in the unrenovated space.
“There were about three months between when we bought the house and when we sold the one we were living in,” recalls Miller. “During that time, we would come and walk around the new house and feel it out.” That gave the couple time to get a strong sense of how they wanted the house to flow. “There’s a room off the garage that was set up as a den and had a laundry closet, and that felt really off to us,” she said. “We realized we were going to be coming in and out of the garage most of the time, and we needed it to be a workroom or mudroom–a really functional space.”

Create truly transformable rooms.

For the Millers’ growing family, that former den space now plays many roles: landing pad for coats and gear, informal gathering and dining space, laundry room, and even an entertaining area. They key to such multifunctionality, Miller explains, was making design choices that let the space change based on occasion or need. “We took the doors off the laundry closet and knocked out the front wall so it became more of a nook,” she says. “My husband built a counter above the washing machine and hung a curtain below it so you don’t always have to look at the washer and dryer. We can actually put a tray with wine and glasses on the space above, and we use it at a bar!”

Save up until you can do it right.

When you have a huge project on your hands, it’s tempting to seek cheaper solutions to problems just to get them checked off the to-do list. The Millers resisted: “If there are things we can’t afford or can’t take on right now, we’re not doing them rather than doing them halfway,” she says. “We’re waiting until we can do it the way we want.” The warped front door that needs to be replaced? It’s locked up and is generally left that way, patiently awaiting its  proper restoration at a later date.

Have a safe haven.
Replacing a kitchen, bathrooms, flooring, and more can be even more stressful if you have to live amid the mess. “If you can, find a nice place to live during extensive renovations,” Miller advises. It’s not just about avoiding construction dust and other hazards, but about maintaning a sense of normalcy, she says, describing how they rented a humble, small apartment where the family could retreat from the chaos. “After spending the day renovating, it seemed like a dream to come home to!”

Remember to have fun.

Home improvements can be anxiety-inducing and tedious, especially for a family with kids. Finding ways to bring laughs to the process can make a big difference, Miller says. “There was a wall that needed to come down, so we gave our boys hammers and said, ‘Start swinging!’ They loved that.” If you approach your renovation journey with clear end goals in mind and embrace the occasional chaos, you’ll be able to enjoy the process as well as the gorgeous results.