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The Remodeling Balancing Act

Home renovations can take a toll on relationships. Some advice for surviving yours.


Architects, general contractors and divorce attorneys agree: Remodeling is a major cause of relationship stress.

Therapists rank it somewhere between infidelity and meddling mother-in-laws.

Symptoms of remodeling stress range from the occasional argument to lonely nights on the couch. And in extreme cases, the stress caused by construction can even lead to divorce.

Lorna Riff, a forensic accountant, was already in a difficult marriage when she began a remodel of a 1927 La Brea/Melrose-area home with her husband. The couple's finances did not permit them to move out during construction, so for several months, the couple, their three teenage children, two dogs and a cat lived without a functioning kitchen or a usable master bathroom. Meals were cooked in a microwave oven that had been moved to the living room, which was covered with construction dust.

When it seemed that things could not get any worse, the 1994 Northridge earthquake struck. The combination of the earthquake and the inevitable surprises that arise during the renovation of an old home drove costs through the roof.

In the midst of the chaos, Riff received a telephone call from her husband that foretold the end of both the remodel and their marriage: "We need to stop construction immediately. We are out of money, and I don't know where ... money to continue the remodel will come from."

"The house came to represent the final decay of the marriage," Riff recalled. "My marriage couldn't withstand the pressure of a remodel, because my husband was a free spender and would not consult with me about new expenses. I knew that if I stayed in the marriage ... I would live in eternal construction."

Therapists are all too familiar with stories like Riff's. Walter A. Brakkelmans, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, is also an adult and child psychiatrist who specializes in couples therapy. He says that remodeling stress is a fairly common issue for people to raise during marital therapy because it frequently causes existing relationship problems to get worse.

"The remodel changes the couple's physical space and routine," Brakkelmans explains. "On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the death of a child and 1 a fender-bender, a remodel rates a 6 in terms of stress on a relationship."

Construction anxiety frequently begins during design work, long before the framer's hammer meets its first nail.

Michael Chait, an architect based in Van Nuys, recalled the time a client who had been happily married for 45 years called him crying because her husband was aggravated that she was holding up the design process with her indecisiveness.

"Individuals tend to harbor a sweet memory of a house that they want to re-create. Perhaps it was the house they grew up in, a relative's house or even a hotel," Chait said. "During the design phase, one spouse will frequently look at the other and say, 'Where did that come from?' "

Design is just the beginning. The dirt, delays and expenses of actual construction push many homeowners to the edge.

Bill Snell, a Bell Canyon-based general contractor who has been building and remodeling houses for 15 years, believes that construction anxiety is exacerbated by the fact that the average person does not understand the building process.

"Constructing a house is similar to constructing a large puzzle," he said. When a piece of the puzzle is missing--either because the homeowner needs extra time to make a decision or because a subcontractor has failed to complete his part of the project in a timely manner--the project comes to a standstill.

"Construction surprises are frequent and cause their own share of stress," Snell said. Snell was the general contractor on a job on which one of his subcontractors unearthed a nest containing huge rats. The rodents apparently had their own ideas about the remodel and proceeded to eat through the walls and floors.

"Needless to say, that job site was not a relaxed one," Snell noted.

Ojai-based Bill Gordon, a general contractor with 19 years of experience, has also witnessed the emotional toll remodeling can take on homeowners. Gordon estimates that more than three-quarters of the couples he has worked with have had difficulties ranging from frequent arguing to eventual divorce.

Gordon blames the stress on three factors.

First, the homeowner is expected to make a sometimes overwhelming number of decisions ranging from style of door hinges to color of paint in a very short period of time.

Second, most homeowners are unfamiliar with construction. Words such as "trusses," "joists" and "studs" are common parlance among contractors but unknown in that context by the average homeowner.

Blueprints can make the process even more confusing.

"Most homeowners lack the experience to visualize a three-dimensional structure from a two-dimensional set of blueprints," Gordon said.

Finally, the high and frequently unpredictable cost of the remodel puts a huge strain on couples.

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