You've got to love it to renovate it
By Leah Margolis

In the spring of 2009, shortly after we married, my husband Ben and I decided it was time to move out of New York City.

Having lived there since graduating from Skidmore College in 2004, we were tired of apartment living and were ready to own a home of our own. Because we were both in the business, Ben a construction project manager, and me, an interior designer, we had a very specific idea of what we wanted our “starter” home to be.

We were looking for a total “fixer-upper,” something we could absolutely make our own. We loved the idea of being able to add on to a house, instead of growing into it, so we opted to go small and very manageable, though coming from a 600-square-foot apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side meant that anything small in Saratoga Springs was actually still quite roomy for us.

Finally, we hoped we would be able to do all, or most, of the work ourselves. We were eager to move but were convinced we’d be patient with the house and the rehabilitation process once we got there.
So after two visits to look at houses, we settled on a property that had been sitting on the market for years. It was terribly neglected, needed to be gutted on the inside, renewed on the outside and was the exact project we were looking for.

We closed in September of that year with the understanding that we would tackle our home in two phases. Phase one would be a total overhaul of the existing house, including a brand new kitchen, since there really wasn’t one to begin with, re-doing the bathroom and fresh floors, walls and moldings throughout.

Phase two would be a large addition that would double the size of our home — a master suite with an upstairs office for me, complete with a laundry room and a third bathroom. With the completion of phase two, we would also re-side the entire house and work on the overall curb appeal.

To some, it sounded like quite a job, to us, having turned a countless number of apartments and houses into homes for so many others over the years, it was, and still is, an absolute dream.

Now it’s important to mention that while Ben and I have a lot of experience in the business and design end of construction, when it came to the actual labor, we were both seriously lacking. I knew how things should look, Ben knew what they should cost and we both knew who to call to get it done. But when we closed, we agreed we’d do what we could ourselves, and we were up for the challenge.

I’ll admit, much of the first few months was trial and error. It seemed like every week Ben came up with a new tool he thought we needed — I didn’t know most of them existed. I always tried to put up a fight before our weekend trips to Allerdice and Curtis Lumber because, while he saw the purchase as an investment into our home, I saw it as eating up my decorating budget. As expected, Ben always won those arguments and, much like the cobbler’s children, many of our windows are still without proper draperies.

After two years of working on phase one, we opted to take the plunge and move onto phase two. It’s true, we weren’t 100 percent done with the existing house, but we were constantly experimenting with new details and finishes and had finally come to the conclusion that our project would always be evolving. So last spring we decided to start thinking about the addition and, by early summer, we were ready to put phase one aside and start upping our square footage.

The second time around we left the majority of the work to the professionals. While our construction skills have drastically improved, we were certainly not going to frame a two-story addition. We approached a local architect with our vision and, as soon as he made it a reality on paper, the subcontractors started piling in — very slowly. The existing garage that had become a storage room for all of the furniture I had collected over the years was torn down, and in its place, we planned to build up and out.

We broke ground in August with the original finish date of early December. But like most construction jobs, the timeline has taken on a life of its own. We’ve added things along the way and opted to do some more time-consuming finish work by ourselves, all with the understanding that it wasn’t the completion date that was important to us anymore, but the end result. And even with the mess of a house that this project has created, it’s amazing to me that, in just 2 1/2 short years, the vision we had for our overgrown, modest home is becoming a reality. Though perhaps even more astonishing, we knew when we closed on the house that we’d enjoy every part of the renovation process. While we still have a ways to go, I can safely say, we absolutely have.

Read about Ben and Leah’s progress on Leah’s blog, “Building Bensonhurst” at

DIY Tips:
• Construction and home renovations are not for the weak. They are always more stressful and take longer than anticipated. If taking on a project with a partner, sit down beforehand and discuss how you’ll handle the stress. Compromise and, most importantly, agree to always let the disagreements go by the end of the day.
• Patience is of the essence. In many cases, it’s safe to say you should double your timeline and still expect that a punch list will remain at the end of the project. While this can be frustrating, just remind yourself that once a job is completed and you’re enjoying the benefits of your new space, you’ll hardly even remember the delays.
• Doing it yourself is not always the best way to go. Unless you’re a skilled carpenter, expect wasted time and materials if you decide to tackle a job on your own. Instead, perhaps pick and choose the projects that you are best suited for and call the professionals if you think your skill-set will fall short.
• Don’t add to the delays. Picking out finishes is often left to the last minute. While many feel like they have all the time in the world to pick out tile or paint colors, these selections can hold up a job. Instead of causing more delays, settle on your selections before they’re needed — it will save not only time, but in some cases money, too.