When the shelter-in-place orders started rolling out, my 1970s avocado-green kitchen was already half ripped out, in anticipation of our contractor beginning work—with my DIY-enthusiast husband eager to assist. We’ve spent close to a year planning this project.
But everything’s changed now.
Our contractor lives with someone who works at a long-term care facility, where hundreds of residents and staff—a group, sadly, at high risk for COVID-19—mingle every day. The thought of our contractor and my husband sweating it out side by side to pull down a ceiling, lay down flooring, and drag an island into place is worrisome, to say the least.
So we’ve slammed on the brakes, and I’m pretty sure we’re not alone.
We’re lucky, because we just walked away and will go back to this project in several months, or whenever it’s safe. But what if the renovation of your family home came to a screeching halt just when you need it to be done so you can work and home-school your kids in (relative) peace? Or what if the work on your home is deemed urgent—to repair major plumbing or electrical issues, or a leaky roof, for example?
We asked homeowners how they’re navigating their renovation projects in the middle of a pandemic, and a professional contractor offers tips to help you figure out what’s safe and what isn’t.
When to forge ahead and when to pause
There are many factors to consider when evaluating your renovation project, says Tom Ashley, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders’ Remodelers and president of Expand Inc., a home remodeling contractor in Denham Springs, LA.
“For projects already started before these current challenges, some of our clients are asking to hold off until this blows over,” Ashley says. “Others are requesting that we finish as fast as possible. For example, they may have a bathroom out of service and need it to function.”
Most crews have been trained to practice physical distancing while working on someone’s home to protect themselves and their clients, adds Ashley, and the NAHB offers a guide on how to maintain job site safety.
“Some workers may wear personal protective equipment, and some may partition an area of the home and make it off-limits,” says Ashley.
However, Ashley suggests older homeowners or ones with underlying health conditions may want to wait until it’s deemed safe to have workers in your house doing renovations.
Experienced DIYers forge ahead
Laura and Mike Thomason gutted their recently purchased fixer-upper in Dayton, KY, in mid-March, tearing off the back of the building to add a new kitchen. Their original plan was to stay in their old house in nearby Fort Thomas during the rehab, list it on May 1, and move into their newly done property.
While their timeline has shifted, they’re not giving up.
Nothing has halted their project, but with the COVID-19 crisis, they might have to delay thoughts of selling to later this summer, the couple say.
The couple have one mortgage for both homes, plus a blanket loan covering the renovations, and since they’re both still working, they feel financially stable. They’re doing the bulk of the renovations themselves and blogging about their progress, but did hire contractors to do electrical work and exterior siding.
All are working safely, Laura adds. “We’ve been lucky so far. Mike has a wide variety of tradesmen he has worked with for years, who are all following the social distancing guidelines,” she says. “Mike has to have his temperature taken every morning before starting at his job.”
So far, they haven’t had difficulty getting lumber, drywall, and other supplies, although they still need to purchase vanities and lighting.
“We can order online, but I would prefer to see things in person, which might not be possible with reduced hours and limited access to stores,” Laura says.
For some, repairs must go on
On Feb. 6, a tornado blew through Spartanburg, NC, cutting a 10-mile swath of destruction that included Candy Arrington’s 94-year-old aunt’s house.
By the time COVID-19 diagnoses began popping up in the U.S., a restoration team had cut out ceilings, removed carpet and drywall, and dried up water damage in her aunt’s home, says Arrington.
“Several times, the [general contractor] has said, ‘I hope they don’t shut us down,’ but for now, we’re continuing to move forward,” says Arrington. “Being out of her normal surroundings and routine has been very hard for my aunt emotionally. She has been staying with us or with my daughter and her family. My aunt’s house still isn’t safe to live in, since rafters are broken and her living area is open to the attic.”
Most importantly, Arrington says, her aunt isn’t on-site while work is being done.
“My advice to homeowners is to continue with exterior work or work in parts of the house you aren’t occupying, but I would suspend work temporarily if multiple tradesmen are coming in your house daily,” she says.
Loft renovation continues with small crew
For the past 24 years, Keith Lanpher has lived in an 850-square-foot, fourth-floor loft condo in a 100-year-old converted warehouse in Norfolk, VA. Lanpher’s commercial photography studio is on the first floor.
“I’d been putting off renovating my living residence for quite some time and finally signed the contract to get it done in February,” says Lanpher, who had decided to temporarily move in to his studio, which has a kitchen and bathroom.
“The virus hadn’t really hit the U.S. real hard at that point, and didn’t have anywhere near this urgency, so they went ahead and started demolishing the property on March 9. The plan required the place to get turned into rubble,” he continues.
As soon as the walls came down, though, the pandemic took a serious turn across the country.
“I realized we’re going to have a real problem here, and I could even get shut down if we were ordered to shelter in place,” he recalls. “I started to think in terms of ‘Is it safe?’—regardless of what the authorities were talking about.”
Lanpher decided to go ahead with the renovation, partly because his contractor would be working with a small crew.
“They’re taking everything, including safety, into consideration, so I feel pretty confident,” he says. “That doesn’t mean at some point I might not say, ‘We have to shut this down,’ but this guy’s a small business, so I’m going to try to keep him working as long as I can feel safe, and get this done.”
Now’s the time to start thinking about renovating
If you’re thinking about renovating your home this year, this might actually be the perfect time to take the first steps, says Ashley.
“Most renovations require a couple of weeks to a few months to develop plans, determine a budget, and make selections. Most companies can offer some type of virtual meeting to help make the process safer,” he explains.
Homeowners can take photos and send them to contractors to evaluate the project.
“This will end, and those who are already in the process will get to skip most of the wait and move forward to the construction part when the dust settles.”
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