Right now my husband and I are trying to figure out whether we can afford to take on a major remodel project in the next year or so. We need more space. Our house is 810 square feet, with only one small bedroom, a tiny kitchen, and a three-quarter bath. We consciously chose from the get-go to sleep with our son in our bed, so this helps out with the lack of a space for a crib much less a proper “nursery,” but we don’t want to sleep with him forever (obviously). He’ll need his own room.
We live in a cedar cabin in the midst of Meadowbrook, a residential neighborhood in Northeast Seattle. The cabin has one large ‘great room’ with an A-frame ceiling which houses our dining area on one side, living area in the middle, and desks, shelves, dresser, changing table, and piles of laundry on the other side. Lots of built-in shelving helps us utilize our space, but nevertheless, space is tight. Cedar’s outgrown clothes, along with sleeping bags, Christmas ornaments, bedding, and all kinds of artifacts from Els and Frank are stored up in the attic. We have more storage space in an unfinished basement area too, but only for things that won’t grow moldy from the dampness.
Ideally, we’d like to add on two more bedrooms—one for Cedar and one which I could use as my office or a guest room. We’d like a large bedroom for us, along with a master bath, and we’d love a nice big kitchen with an island and shiny new appliances (our current appliances all date to the seventies). We’d love to put in a couple skylights in the living room which is always so dark due to all the tall cedars and maples surrounding our property. We’d also love a nice deck, and a two-car garage or carport.
What we want isn’t exactly extravagant, but it also isn’t going to be cheap. And we are not exactly rich. But eventually, whether we do it now or five years from now, we are going to need more room—at very least an extra bedroom for Cedar. But since it wouldn’t be architecturally that feasible or practical to just tack on one room, we might as well do more while we’re tearing down walls. So the question is, do we take the plunge, commit to a tight budget and do it now, or do we wait until we feel a little more financially sound?
Over the last couple months we’ve been doing the preliminary research. We went to our credit union and learned about interest rates for a variable rate line of credit versus a fixed rate loan. We got an estimate of what our monthly payments might be for a $100,000 loan versus a $150,000 one. We talked to a couple architects and a contractor about our ideas, and got a better sense of our possibilities. Namely, we surmised that we were not going to be able to come close to doing what we want for $100,000, and even $150,000 on the low end. Better to shoot for the $150,000-$200,000 range, because remodeling always costs more than you think, and because we’d better have some wiggle room or else we will end up very very stressed out or very very screwed—or both.
The only problem is, we are not sure we can afford even the monthly payment for the $150,000 loan. On paper, perhaps, we can make it work. But in reality, we are not very good at sticking to a budget. Do we eat beans and rice when there’s no more money in checking to buy groceries at the end of the month? Of course not! We transfer money over from savings (or we overdraft, and our bank kindly transfers it for us, yet with no fees so we are never ‘punished’ for our carelessness). And we are not talking about a very big savings to begin with. So do we really want to take such a plunge where we will be so tight every month that there is no money to go on trips, to spend on treats, to hire a babysitter, or to stray at all from our budget?
It’s not as if we live lavishly right now by any means. Do we really want to be slaves to a monthly payment for the next 20 or 30 years? We have been blessed by the huge gift of owning a house, but not having a mortgage. I’m not sure we quite realize yet how huge this gift is. I think we might miss the freedom it affords us very quickly once this is no longer our reality. I think we might no longer care so much about the extra bedroom, the bathtub, the counter space, or even a basement free of mold. After all, I reminded my husband, we used to live not long ago in a cabin with a woodstove for heat, a compostible toilet on the porch, and no shower to speak of. When we first moved to our house (also a cabin) in Seattle, it felt like a luxury just to have instant hot water flowing from the faucets and heat to turn on with the flick of a knob.
But of course, we quickly adapted. And of course, the older we get, the more we want, and the less tolerant we are of shitty cars and outdoor toilets. Backpacking for weeks on end in primitive conditions sounds less and less appealing, whereas having things like a nice garden, energy efficient appliances, good sharp knives, and soft down comforters become more important.
I’m pretty sure we will eventually build an addition; it seems unavoidable. And yet… if I had to choose between the freedom to still be able to write and care for Cedar versus working full-time to help us meet our payments, I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe if we wait a couple years we’ll get some of our other debt paid off and maybe Matthew will be making a bit more then and a big loan will feel more feasible and comfortable. But then, maybe by then interest rates will shoot up, Matthew’s job security will be on shaky ground, and Cedar’s school costs will start to kick in.
I know at some point we will just have to decide to do it, take the plunge and commit. I’m just not sure that time is now. I’m starting to wonder if sticking a bed in the corner of our living room for a couple years—or else just continuing to co-sleep with Cedar—might be preferable to being stuck with a huge payment that we are stretched each month to pay.
I’d love to hear from those of you who have embarked on big remodeling projects—what you’ve learned, what you’d do differently, how having the new space has improved your life, or not. What kind of stresses has the process put on your relationships?
Matthew and I have had some tense conversations just trying to get ourselves this far in the process—and we haven’t even decided to do it yet! I can only imagine how the pressure of being displaced from our home for several months, closely tracking expenses and bills, and basically living and breathing the remodel project from start to finish (which will no doubt squeeze out time for writing, for fun, for anything else)—how all of this will tax us.
It will be worth it, I think, if we can stay on a budget we are comfortable with and if we are happy with the end result-- in particular, a vision that doesn't quash the character of the cabin. But we need to really think this through first and know what we’re doing before we start. There's a time for trusting in the Universe and there’s a time for trusting in your own detailed planning. In this case, I vote for the latter.