Published on September 30, 2019

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photography courtesy of milkshake los angeles | illustration by madeline montoya

In Renovator’s Notebook, homeowners open up about the nitty-gritty of their remodels: how long it really took, how much it actually cost, what went horribly wrong, and what went wonderfully, serendipitously, it’s-all-worth-it-in-the-end right.

When Meredith Marshall, a principal in renovation company Milkshake Los Angeles, learned about a 1,100-square-foot, Spanish-style home for sale in the West Adams neighborhood of L.A., she was eager to scope it out. But when Marshall pulled up, she discovered there wasn’t a whole lot to look at. “Even when I got up close to the house, I couldn’t truly see it,” she says, recalling two monstrous palm trees, each one around five feet in diameter, crowding the front steps. The only silver lining: The giant plants (mostly) covered up the bad black paint job. 

It took 10 people, one small bulldozer, and a few hours to dig out the stumps (the roots were causing issues with the sewer line), but the entire remodel, including interior upgrades, lasted a year and a half. Usually, when someone renovates their house, they use whatever money is left over to tackle the exterior. Maybe they’ll add a few new bushes, clean up the weeds, or patch up the roof. In this case, a coat of paint wasn’t going to cut it. Between replacing the windows, building out a back deck, landscaping, and, eventually, redoing the landscaping, Marshall spent a little over $45,000 on the Joshua Tree–meets–Mykonos facade. Here, she gets real about the hidden costs of curb appeal. 

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illustration by madeline montoya

Pick Your Landscaping Team Wisely 

I’m definitely not a landscape artist, but I knew I wanted to go really desert-y with cacti against a white house—that was my vision. I hired someone to add decomposed granite for the yard, and it was an actual disaster. It turns out, he ordered way too much. This was something that I hadn’t done before, so I thought, Oh, okay. They’re going to pack the piles down. It was so much that this guy couldn’t even work around it—he was in way over his head and he never showed up again. 

Landscaping is the last thing I usually think about during a renovation.”

I had to hire somebody to come get rid of it because the neighbors were starting to complain that there was dust all over the street. Luckily, a phenomenal real-estate broker that I know suggested someone new. He came in, cleaned it up, and added some plants. Landscaping is the last thing I usually think about during a renovation. Getting the right person for the job at the beginning would have saved me from this huge financial chore.

Prepare for Demolition Days, Plural

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photography courtesy of milkshake los angeles

Demo is one of the most expensive things—it costs money to get rid of stuff. The palm trees were the first thing that went, and we had to take out the stumps, too, because they were right next to the house. That was a substantial cost in the very beginning. I also spent thousands of dollars to get rid of that decomposed granite that I paid to have delivered. On top of that, it was late at night when the guy pulled up, and he told me that his truck was full. I had to pay him in cash to come get it!

Trust Your Gut

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photography courtesy of milkshake los angeles

The Paul Smith store on Melrose has a pink wall; it’s all over Instagram. Everybody is always getting their picture taken in front of this massive, candy-colored wall. I thought it would be cool to do something similar for the front door and the garage door. At least, if I ended up hating it, it’s only $100 to fix. But it was everybody else who hated it, including my real-estate agent, who said, ‘Are you crazy?’ The neighbors came by and told me it looked like Pepto-Bismol. I like hearing what people have to say, though, even if I don’t know them, so I decided to change it. But I loved it and wish I wouldn’t have let them sway me.

“Demo is one of the most expensive things—it costs money to get rid of stuff.

Budget for Utilitarian Upgrades 

I ended up replacing everything with the exception of the roof. All the windows are now black aluminum—they stand out against the white exterior, which was inspired by photos my brother took of the buildings in Greece. We also switched all of the plumbing, such as the water spouts, over to copper; added light switches in places where we thought people might want to put up twinkle lights; and installed a new deck out back and put up a wall around it to make it a little more private. Plus, we added electrical to the garage, painted it black, and created a door to the backyard so it could be used as opposed to being just a dirty space. I didn’t cut corners on much.

As it turns out, the saying “cheap as dirt” doesn’t hold up. Fortunately, a pink front door never fails.

graphic with five objects, tile paint, and lighting used in the spacePin It
Pinque by Behr, $30; Black Barn Light Sconce by Sylvania, $39.99; Aluminum Casement Windows by Milgard, quote upon request; Maze Labyrinth Tile by The Builder Depot, $10.95; Bit of Sugar by Behr, $25.illustration by madeline montoya

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