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The first time I saw the exterior of my historic fixer-upper in the heart of San Francisco, I was hooked. That was in spite of the dramatic disrepair we were faced with when walking through the front door. That should have been the first clue I was in trouble. But thanks to my naivete and endless optimism, all I really saw was potential. I felt up to the challenge, though. Confidence (even if misplaced) is everything. While I’d been a homeowner for nearly 15 years, I’d never taken the plunge into significant renos. I was excited to take on this beast and turn her back into a beauty. 

My husband and I embarked on a five-year journey that I later came to realize was both a restoration and renovation. That’s a lot of work to tackle all at once. The learning curve was steep. Did I forget to mention I had a newborn at the time? I’m a little surprised we made it through to the end. Yet here we are. I am now the proud owner of my dream home. Through trial and error, I picked up every tip and trick in the book, from construction processes to design know-how. Here’s what I learned. 

Photography by Seth Smoot; Styling by Rosy Fridman

Don’t go at it alone. The architect we hired to help us reconfigure our floor plans typically acts as the general contractor on his projects, but he was not available for ours. So we decided to brave it alone. While it saved us in billable hours, I don’t know that it was the wisest choice from both an efficiency and a sanity standpoint. Managing a 20-month gut job required hours upon hours of research, sourcing vendors, managing schedules, and working as the communication go-between across multiple trades. 

Hire early. If you have the luxury of hiring an interior designer, do it at the very start so you have plans well in advance of demolition. The investment up front could save you in the long run. Design decisions can be very tough to make on the fly when you’re dealing with thousands of big and tiny choices that come to you often all at once.

Have a budget, then add 20 percent. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Opening up walls can reveal a ton of unforeseen issues and mishaps happen. Building in an emergency fund can keep you from running out of money before you reach the finish line.

Know your materials. What is the difference between marble and quartz? How will oak look and perform compared to walnut? How does cement tile differ from porcelain? These little choices will have a dramatic effect on both the performance and the cost of your materials. 

Double-check everything. From amounts to measurements and pricing, don’t assume the experts will get things right.


Order things well in advance. That way you’re not left waiting around when things ship late. Trades only like to work when they have all materials on-site (think: tile, plumbing fixtures, appliances), so take steps to ensure it’s all delivered early. 

Cabinets always take twice as long as the pros say they will. Schedule accordingly.

Order extras. Keep backups of things like door or cabinet hardware in case your favorite knob is discontinued.

Open boxes when things arrive. They might not always contain what you thought you ordered.

Design things much earlier than you think you need to. Lighting choices have to be finalized before your walls are closed up. That means you have to have every little detail figured out very early on.

There are 5,000 versions of white paint. Test at least five to eight shades before you pick one. I selected Benjamin Moore’s White Wisp. And test paint colors on-site in multiple rooms to see what they’re going to look like in the different lights in your space.

Contrary to what TV tells us, renovating is not a quick-and-easy process. But really it isn’t supposed to be. Building a home that reflects who you are takes time, resources, commitment, and a whole lot of perseverance. I wanted a place my family and I would love for years to come. That was worth the wait.

See more reno tips: For a Reno With Staying Power, Rethink These Tempting Trends This Kitchen Reno Relied on a Hardware Store Staple For a Reno With Maximum Resale Value, Focus on These 7 Details