Fixing up a fixer-upper
Behind-the-scenes on a hands-on home renovation.
Franco Faraudo is a man of many talents. He can whip up bolognese sauce as easily as he can draft a powerful personal essay. But one area where he excels, and I struggle, is building things with his hands. Growing up on his dad’s auto recycling lot (i.e. junkyard), he learned how to fix things and could never quite get the grease out from under his fingernails. So when my wife and I moved into our house in 2013, Franco was our go-to guy for advice on home improvement and maintenance.
Not too long after that, Franco bought a house of his own in San Diego, America’s Finest City. It needed work. And I don’t mean slapping on a new coat of paint and installing granite countertops. I mean REAL WORK. I had the pleasure of visiting the house at various stages throughout the project and was simultaneously awed and terrified by the scale of what Franco had gotten himself into. Now that the house is finally complete, Franco was kind enough to answer a few questions about how he went about fixing up his fixer-upper. The following interview is a deep-dive into the creative process of home renovation.
What inspired you to remodel your house? Why did you decide to pull the trigger? Did you have a mental starting point? How did that evolve into a full design?
I knew I wanted to remodel before I even chose the house. I would love to say that my motivation was creative, but the fact is that it was mostly economic. The areas I wanted to live were all out of my price range. Except, of course, for the ugly houses no one else was interested in buying.
Immediately, I started putting together photos of things I like. This seems easy, but when you dive in you quickly realize how many options there are for every detail. Houzz is a really great resource, at least for looking up photos. Having a strong personal opinion is the central to the process. That was never a problem for me, but I knew I had to listen to other people. There are tricks to making things look universally appealing. I had to talk with my designers to get their opinions on the best ways to make things look stylish and professional. There are also tricks to building things that will last. I had to weigh the advice from my builders on the best ways to build things. Somewhere in the middle of the two is the best bang for the build, I just had to constantly take stock of which voice to listen to.
What did the house look like before you began work? How did you figure out where to start and which problems to tackle in what order?
The house was a complete mess. The hoarders that owned it previously seemed to be too busy finding space for their stacks of boxes than taking care of the house they lived in. Everything was original from 1969 including the shag carpets, mustard colored linoleum, and avocado green appliances. The first step was obvious, the place needed to be made livable. I started with the bedrooms so I could move in and stop paying rent. Living in a house under construction is difficult, I really helped me prioritize and plan. For some reason, ideas that looks great in a floor plan can be awkward in person. It wasn’t until I started living in the space and interacting with it did my plans really solidify.
I opted to start with the exterior. There were major improvements like windows and doors that needed to be done first, because if I would have started on the interior, I would have had to destroy what I had built in order to replace them later. The harder part of doing a piece by piece remodel is knowing where to stop. After retexturing and painting my bedroom the original condition bathroom looked even more dirty and dated. It took quite a bit of willpower to stop and change focus. The bathroom was functioning, so it had to wait for later, even though its proximity to the remodeled bedroom made its imperfections stand out even more.
How did you balance your initial design goals with the costs and constraints of actual construction?
When you get into the world of construction, you realize quickly that anything custom build is 4–10 times more expensive. So, unless you are working without a budget, you have to find ways to incorporate existing materials. I was set on a custom front door, but after looking at price tags from $6–10k I pumped the brakes and started looking for pre-made one in the style I liked. Ultimately, I found a great one for less than half of the price for a cheap custom door and designed the rest of my entry around it.
What did a typical day of renovation work look like?
Before the contractors would arrive I would walk around with my notes and leave blue masking tape on what needed to get done. Sometimes I number the piece to give the contractor a sense of the correct order. Soon after work started we would inevitably need something from the hardware store. I would start a list and walk around trying to think of any possible pieces of hardware that we might need for the day. I would push all my workers to pick their brains for anything they could think of that we needed. Even with these precautions, I found myself taking the familiar trip to the store multiple times a day.
When I would get back to the job site (that is the term I still use for my house) I usually ended up cleaning up. I learned the meditative qualities of vacuuming. Construction workers want to work the whole time and then clean up right before they leave. While this is the most efficient use of their time, it is also a great way to spread dust and dirt into the furthest regions of a home. I learned to cover my coffee cup when I wasn’t drinking it to prevent a congealed sheet of drywall dust from forming on the surface. After the contractors left I would put away the tools and rewrite my notes for the next day of work.
What unanticipated problem surprised you most?
Before I started the job I sat down with a calendar and sketched out a timeline of the different jobs. I overestimated how long each contractor’s said that there job would take by an extra 3 or 4 days. Immediately I realized how unrealistic my plans were. Between unforeseen complications, sick days, weekends, vacation days, and mis-ordered material a work week always seemed to accomplish about 25–35% less than is expected. Being realistic about timelines it important, but nearly impossible.
Who else worked on the renovation? How did you decide whether and how much to outsource? How did you find them? How did you manage or work with them?
I like to use specialized contractors for most finish jobs. It is time consuming finding experts in every field, plus every contractor tries to get sell their services for every job. But, the result is worth the effort, especially for someone like me that is really picky. No handyman will ever do texture or tile as well as someone that textures or tiles exclusively.
How did you make the cost/benefit decisions associated with choosing different materials, styles, and appliances?
Whoa, this question is hard because the decision is always so nuanced and individual. The obvious metric is price, but there are other important factors to weigh. For me, the style was important, but I also wanted quality material that would last over time. I am more willing to pay for expensive material/appliance if: the installation labor costs are high (like tile), removing the item would cause significant damage to other parts of the project (like windows or cabinets), other materials needed to be designed around it (like a refrigerator), and/or the item would be used a lot (like plumbing fixtures).
Quality seems to jump quite dramatically in the construction world from “builder grade” (aka cheapest possible) to “midrange”. I would usually opt for the midrange if possible. I was always amazed at how one cheaply made fixture can make the whole room look half assed.
Did you use any specific tools, techniques, or strategies that made the whole process easier?
Always carry a notebook, pen, and tape measure! Also, one important job for a designer is making sure all the materials look good together, so I would carry around a bag with a sample of the cabinet wood, flooring, countertop, paint swatch(s), backsplash and anything else that goes into the final design. Appliances are way cheaper online, but my advice is to buy them first, before the construction even starts. Things need to be designed around them and the online spec sheets don’t always have perfect measurements or don’t tell you little details like where the plug in the back is located. I can’t tell you how many issues we solved by going to the garage and measuring everything ourselves.
Also, don’t ever, EVER pay a contractor 100% of his bid price until the work is 100% finished. I can’t stress this enough. Once they get there money you have no bargaining leverage…a bad Yelp review means nothing (yet) in the world of construction.
Were there any people, pieces of advice, publications, books, essays, songs, or anything else that inspired you while you were working on the project?
I had a good support group to help me. My mom was a kitchen designer, so she helped draw the cabinets and I consulted her on any style decisions. She has a really great piece of advice that I found useful: “Things need to be the same or intentionally different, anything else looks like a mistake.” Colors are a good example of this. If you are trying to match a color and it is not quite identical, don’t use it, it will look terrible. Also, often trying to line two things up (like tile and cabinets or pictures on a wall) sometimes the material won’t allow perfect alignment. For some reason, two things that are out of alignment by half an inch looks horrible, but if you separate them by 3 inches, it starts to look like an intentional design feature.
What was the biggest mistake you made? What was the most counterintuitive thing you learned? What will you do differently the next time you remodel a house?
I made plenty of mistakes. Most of them were connected to who I hired. The most counterintuitive things I ran into was that the lowest bid is not usually the best bid. I got three bids to re-stucco the exterior. One bid came in at around 60% the price of the other two. The low bidder was recommended and I was looking to save money so I accepted the lowball proposal. Halfway through the project I could tell that the corners were not straight and the texture was not going to come out how I wanted. I had to fire the company and bring another company in to finish the job. It ended up costing me more than it would have if I would have accepted the original highest bid. Now, if a bid is much lower than the others I look at it as a red flag, not a good buy.
What’s the most important question I’m not asking?
How do I stay sane? The process will take about 30–45% longer and cost 20–30% more than you think. Plus, it controls your time in a very personal way. Having workers at your house is like having employees and anyone with employees will tell you that their problems become your problems. Crazy things happen: their wives get diagnosed with cancer, they lose their driver’s license do to a seizure or they pass out in their truck from a bone infection and have a missing persons report filed (all of these happened).
It becomes an internal wrestling match between compassion for other humans and frustration of increased inconvenience. I would like to say that compassion always won, but there were times when the job got the worst of me. I would suggest trying to take days away from the job whenever possible to make sure that the bigger picture of life in general can shine through the darkness of being buried under drywall dust.
Eliot Peper is a novelist and strategist who writes fast-paced, deeply-researched stories with diverse casts that explore the intersection of technology and society. He is the author of CUMULUS, NEON FEVER DREAM, and THE UNCOMMON SERIES. When he’s not writing, he works with entrepreneurs and investors to build technology businesses.