In remodeling, couples need to keep respect, communication in their toolbox

The kitchen and dining area in the home of Paul Keifrider and Victoria Elizabeth Barnes, still under construction.
The kitchen and dining area in the home of Paul Keifrider and Victoria Elizabeth Barnes, still under construction.
Posted: February 15, 2014

Building a life together as a couple often means building - or rebuilding - a home together.

But nothing can test a relationship or pull at its foundation more, according to a 2013 remodeling and relationships survey conducted by Houzz, a home improvement and interior design website. The survey reports that 12 percent of couples acknowledge considering separation or divorce mid-remodel. Now that's a reason to keep those avocado kitchen appliances for another year.

Issues arise when she likes French country and he likes contemporary. He wants to keep his old album covers framed on the wall, but she's already visualizing their move to the trash bin. Maybe one spouse makes a decision, or many decisions, without the other. Even couples who agree on everything could be driven to tears - and take it out on each other - just by the fact that their home, in its current state, is hardly a haven.

Onetime Queen Village resident Julie Davis, director of content and marketing for TotalHousehold, a Connecticut-based website for people looking for home improvement professionals, recently completed her own kitchen remodel. Even for someone whose work life is dedicated to the subject, she said, it wasn't easy.

Like many couples, she and her husband's design tastes differed. But things heated up when she immediately took the project into her own hands.

"My M.O. was to start a bit on the clandestine side," said Davis. She changed 45 cabinet knobs without her husband's knowledge. Once the shock of spending $300 for a box of knobs wore off, her husband agreed to go along with the project as long as she agreed to replace their old refrigerator with one that he wanted.

As the remodeling progressed, they learned to negotiate - or at least try.

"You have to go very gingerly with someone. You have to find the middle ground," said Davis. "The problem with any compromise is it's not really a compromise. It's who's going to win the argument."

Ruthy Kaiser, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says challenges during a project don't necessarily cause marital problems but rather unearth the ones that are hiding.

Kaiser, of the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia, has witnessed renovating couples struggle with two main issues: money and the spouses' degree of involvement. But they fall into the broader categories of decision-making, control, and respect for each other's processes.

Before contractor Harry Hansell starts a job, he makes sure that the homeowners and his staff have the same expectations about the design plans and budget - and that both sides try to live up to those expectations.

"The only time I notice conflict is when there is a basic conflict between the [couple] to begin with," said Hansell, who owns Hansell Contractors in Erdenheim. "The key is to be attentive and always be up front."

Or, there's this tactic: "I always try to think that I am working for my wife."

Davis advises hiring a qualified contractor like Hansel - decide by recommendations, not just low bids - to be on-site, managing the job.

Because even if a couple has the same taste, the same expectations, the same budget in mind, the stress of a renovation can take its toll.

For more than four years, Victoria Elizabeth Barnes and her husband, Paul Keifrider, have been enduring, and living in, an ongoing renovation of their 10-room Victorian home in Camden County - what she called "a very nice Dumpster with a wraparound porch." Still, when they first saw it, she looked past the crumbling walls to the carved ornate door hinges and instantly fell in love. But as the would-be sole contractor/demolition crew/plumber/electrician/roofer, Keifrider saw only its problems. Still, they bought it.

"There's nothing Paul cannot fix," noted Barnes. "He can Sheetrock a ceiling by himself."

But heads butt when her obsession over details clashes with his need to keep things moving; he does, after all, spend every free moment on the house.

"I need to know everything about my options to make the best decisions, and you can get so wrapped up into it," Barnes said. "At one point I was agonizing over polished chrome or polished nickel door hinges."

In fact, this labor of love has given birth to her own blog (victoriaelizabethbarnes.com) called "Restoring Our 1890 Victorian." Where others see insanity, Barnes sees fodder for a comical new entry. Her response after reading the Houzz survey: "There is no way 12 percent is accurate. Unless the other 88 percent are considering something more extreme than divorce."

And that's a major reason why their marriage is still very much intact - humor.

"Whatever your relationship is already like is exactly what your project will be like, except that you will be on fire," said Barnes.

So as the drywall goes up, the couple may argue, but at the end of the day, they've put out the flames with a good dose of laughter.

Keifrider's (very serious) advice: "Have all the decisions made before you start the project so you're not in the middle deciding which color paint and which color tile. And make sure what you choose is something available. Show me what you want. Don't tell me what you like."

Kaiser counsels couples to check in with each other during renovating, not just about the project, but about the emotional issues.

"Ask, 'How are we doing?' Keep talking on a regular basis," she said. Schedule a meeting with each other - not just with the contractor.

Of course when things go right, you've got more reasons to stay married. According to Houzz, 84 percent of partners want to spend more time together after the renovation's over.

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