Ever since Karen Laine and Mina Starsiak Hawk, the mother-daughter duo behind HGTV's Good Bones, started renovating houses 11 years ago with their business Two Chicks and a Hammer, they've been learning a lot of lessons — and sometimes, getting there the hard way. (Oh, and dealing with some wild animals in the process, but I'll get back to that in a sec.)
Making mistakes and running into unforeseen problems in the renovation process is pretty common, though, and while Karen and Mina have had their fair of hiccups, they've also become experts at rehabbing homes because of it. You know, the same expertise that’s led to Good Bones, which has been airing since 2016, as well as brand partnerships, like the two of them teaming up with the HVAC pros at Trane.
Not to mention, they've got a fantastic sense of humor about it all — their ability to laugh at their mistakes has gotten them through everything from minor injuries and shady contractors to those aforementioned wild animals. Seriously. Karen told me they find all sorts of animals in the houses they renovate — raccoons, cats, squirrels, snakes, opossums, and bats, to name a few outside of the usual rats, mice, and bugs. "We recently found a tarantula," she said. Shudder.
The point is, if you've made mistakes while doing any sort of home renovations, you're not alone. And if you haven't yet taken on a renovation project, you can now go into it more confidently, knowing the important takeaways Mina and Karen have learned over the years.
Mistake #1: Underestimating time and money.
Sure, you have a vision for what you want your home to look like when everything's said and done, but it's likely that the first two things you think about when you start a project are your budget and how much time the renovation is going to take. And those also happen to be the two things people are most likely to make mistakes with.
"Everyone underestimates time and money," Karen told me, and this applies whether you're doing your project yourself or working with a contractor.
"Contractors are the most optimistic people in the world, and they really believe they can get something done in two weeks and they can't," Karen said. "They just can't. And it's just an optimism getting in the way. And then when they start digging in, they find problems that no one knew were there, so that's going to be more money."
And of course, it's your house — if you do face setbacks that cost you more than you anticipated spending, you're going to keep paying anyway to finish the job. That's why giving yourself a "time and money buffer," as Mina calls it, is important.
Mistake #2: Under (or over!) estimating what you can do.
One thing to keep in mind? Not everything needs to be sub-contracted out unless you want it to be done for you, but there are some things you definitely shouldn't take on yourself.
"I think sometimes people either over-estimate or under-estimate their ability about what they can really handle, and what they should really leave up to professionals," Mina said.
So, what should you leave up to the professionals? If you're determined to DIY as much as possible, that's great, but Mina and Karen suggest avoiding anything that can have "the potential for dramatically dangerous outcomes."
"I think if it's something that can burn the house down or create serious water damage, those are all things that we leave to professionals, so mainly, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, anything that involves gas lines," Mina said, adding that some people can do these things themselves — it's just a matter of recognizing whether or not you actually know what you're doing, or having someone with you who does.
"Mom will tell you that she ran a lot of her own wiring," she said. "Unless you have someone with you that knows what they're doing, if you mess it up, really seriously bad things can happen, whereas if you try to tile something and you mess it up, you just scrape it off the wall and it's not the end of the world."
And as for any furry friends you might encounter in the renovation process, Karen pointed out that hiring professionals to take care of pests is also a good option.
Mistake #3: Not doing thorough inspections.
Karen and Mina have worked with a lot of contractors over the years, and one of the biggest headaches they faced was working with a contractor who disappeared without finishing the job — and it left them with a very important lesson: always do thorough inspections.
"We had a general contractor that we started three houses with, and it was a big chunk at once, but we felt we had contracted really well, and kind of covered all our bases for pay schedule and time structure, to where, although it was a new relationship, we were safe contractually," Mina told me, explaining that for these jobs, they tied payments to certain work being completed.
"So, finally the windows get installed, I go by to check whether they’re installed, we give them the payment," Mina said. "And they had done several things. The roof was installed — okay, we see the roof, we give them the payment. And then they just disappeared."
As it turned out, Mina said, they hadn't actually completed the work — it just looked that way. (If you're reading this thinking, "Yikes!" — SAME.) "They had only installed shingles, not any of the other steps to create a roof, which, there are a lot," she explained. "And they installed the windows all completely wrong — pretty much just shoved in place with one nail."
Mina told me that it was an experience she'd never had before.
"I thought, 'Okay, I have eyes, the windows are installed, yes, I believe you.' So that was a whole new level of disappointment, but now we learned that lesson and we’re much more thorough with our walkthroughs before we allocate payments."
Mistake #4: Not doing DIY projects the right way.
This mistake has two parts — the first is simply not paying attention to all the little details you need to to make sure a project is done right, and the second is being too stingy with your budget over the things you need to get the project done. This is a lesson Karen and Mina learned the hard way during their first renovation, and the story behind it? Definitely one to remember. (Warning: Pee-your-pants-worthy laughter ahead!)
"We were installing flooring — bamboo flooring, it was so pretty — and we had that foam underlayment, and we laid that all down first, and then we started installing the flooring," Mina said. "And we didn't cut out openings for the HVAC return and vents, we just covered them. So, we're installing this flooring — this is the first time I'm installing them, and we're very cheap, so we got the manual nail gun, not the air-powered pneumatic guy."
Manual nail guns, she explained, are basically "a rubber sledgehammer that you have to smack onto a strike plate," in case you're unfamiliar.
"So at one point, I missed the strike plate, and I hit myself in the ankle," Mina recalled. "Mom did not run to save me. She peed her pants laughing, and like stumbled backwards — and because the hole for the HVAC return wasn't cut out, she fell about five feet down the return hole and bruised her whole leg up. So she's peeing her pants, half crying, half laughing. I'm peeing my pants laughing at her, because she's down in the hole and it was immediate karma, and it was just...it was just a sh*t show."
Of course, the pair got the project done regardless. "We kept on going, but lesson learned," Mina said.
When I asked Karen and Mina what they wish they'd known when they started renovating houses more than a decade ago, Mina told me that they're still learning as they go, making every contract better and more specific, and just in general, thinking through the way they do things differently. But mostly, Karen told me her answer to my question was simply, "everything" — and, I mean, who among us would disagree?
"It's like law school," she said. "When I finished law school, I wanted to do law school all over again, starting it knowing everything I knew at the end. So I would say everything. I wish I knew everything."
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