It’s been two years since the paint dried on Victoria Barnes and Paul Kiefrider’s top-to-bottom renovation of a Victorian home outside Philadelphia — but the angst of the process still feels a bit new.
How home renovations threaten marriage
“It’s a strange miracle we didn’t get divorced.”
“I could be working on something and I’m 35 percent done, and then Victoria will come into the room and (like) ‘Let’s do it this way now,’” Kiffrider laments. “And I’m back to only 10 percent done.”
There was a time when work on the bathroom stopped because Barnes insisted on a custom-made medicine cabinet built into the wall. Her plans for the kitchen changed because she found a free piano on Craigslist and wanted to turn it into an island.
“He would be angry at me, incredibly angry,” she says. “He fully believed that I was constantly key to the plan.”
“Going back and redoing things makes my brain bleed,” Kivrider responds.
“The only reason (we) returned anything was because Paul moved forward without consulting me, and then acted surprised when I had an opinion,” Barnes claims.
One thing they are Can I agree: “There were so many times — maybe all the time — that we were miserable with each other,” she says. “And yeah, it’s a weird miracle we didn’t get divorced.”
“We didn’t have time,” Keifrider offers.
Carrying out a renovation on your own, while living in a construction zone and balancing other jobs (Barnes manages the couple’s rental properties; Keifrider repairs machinery full-time), is particularly extreme. But even couples who have the ability to hire designers and contractors, and get out on the job, don’t always emerge from remodeling unscathed: “I’ve been involved in three projects that were part of divorces,” says Seth Ballard, the school’s principal. At the upscale DC architectural firm Ballard and Mensua.
In a 2018 survey conducted by online home building resource Houzz, a third of more than 1,300 respondents said they found renovating with a significant other “frustrating.” Seven percent said they considered filing for separation or divorce during this process. Interviews conducted for this story with homeowners, couples therapists, divorce attorneys, and renovation professionals made one overarching message clear: Before embarking on a remodel with a romantic partner, you’d better make sure your relationship is as strong as your quartz countertops. I’ve been looking forward to the new kitchen.
According to therapists, all types of personal baggage are packed into our homes, including but not limited to our relationships with money; How we want the outside world to perceive us; And the experiences we had in the homes we grew up in; And our demands for happiness.
So, yeah, just a few simple things.
“We put a lot of pressure on the home in terms of what we bring to it emotionally,” says Ginger Sullivan, a couples therapist in D.C. “It’s like the third part of your marriage — this home that’s taking the life out of its own.”
Now add in the thousands of decisions and value judgments made during the redesign process, and you have a minefield of potential conflicts.
“I have one[couple]now — these people bought a house and changed things, and it started costing a lot of money,” says Irina Fairstein, a psychotherapist in New York City. “There’s a debate about what’s essential and what’s not essential. … Maybe one person is coming from a more emotional place. This idea is that if everything was perfect we’d be happy, (as in) ‘I’m thinking more about our comfort and happiness, and you’re thinking Always in the money.”
In such cases, Fairstein says she tries to determine the root cause of the disagreement, because although the home may have sparked it, there is usually a deeper reason. “We probably lived in a hole-in-one growing up, and it was terrible and I wanted this perfect thing,” she says. “These are all decisions driven by underlying feelings, needs and longings.”
Their different upbringings may have contributed to the friction during the renovation process, Barnes and Kiffrieder say. “I grew up in a household where if something broke, it couldn’t be fixed,” Barnes says. “It was bound with duct tape.”
By contrast, Kevrider comes from a long line of doers. His father was handy. Additionally, “I had a grandfather who had every tool you can think of. …He even built his own table saw.” This history, he says, helps explain his impatience with his wife’s hesitation: “If I had a project hanging over my head, I want to move forward with it.”
But at least he and Barnes can now enjoy the fruits of their labor together. Not every couple can say the same thing.
Cheryl New, a partner at the divorce firm New & Lowinger in Bethesda, Maryland, represents a client whose split was a direct result of a renovation going sour. “I won’t say who one party is, let the designer go and didn’t provide any budget,” says New. “The other party was not privy to this until the contracts were signed.” According to the lawyer, ninety-five percent of the marital assets have since been buried in the house.
“Grease on the fire — there’s a mold problem,” she adds. “As we sit here today, there is no one in this house.”
Dealing with relationship drama is common for those in the home renovation industry, with many professionals saying they try to weed out clients who appear to be a problem.
After more than two decades in the industry, Ballard, the D.C.-based architect, says he’s learned to watch for some red flags. Including: If one partner tries to schedule a meeting without the other, and if one of the spouses routinely speaks to or for the benefit of the other.
“There are ways so I don’t have to tell them I’m not going to take it,” he says. “Sometimes I talk them out of the project just because I explain to them how difficult it is.”
However, the doomed duo still escapes every now and then.
The three divorces Ballard witnessed were somewhat varied in their causes. He says he suspected one might be imminent when he noticed the pair’s clothes were in the guest bedroom while taking measurements at the couple’s home. The pair (both, according to the architect, are bold names) were planning a project worth up to $2.5 million, with an HGTV crew on hand to document it. But one day, the wife called Ballard in tears to tell him the phone had died.
“They had money, but putting money into something when their relationship was already strained, that was the turning point,” he says.
Another couple subjected him to constant arguments during meetings—“It was all sore,” Ballard recalls—but they managed to get through the construction process nonetheless. He wasn’t too surprised when he found out a month later that they had moved into their final house.
In the third scenario, the husband “came full of money and the most luxurious things” and pushed the budget to the limits against his wife’s wishes. When he lost his job, about a year after moving into the completed house, and the wife was “bearing the lion’s share,” Ballard was under the impression that the stress caused by the “house poor” led to the breakdown of the marriage. “He pushed to add a floor to the project,” he recalls. “She would have been happy with less.”
Once they’re in the middle of a renovation with an unhappy couple, the pros say they have to tread lightly. “I use a slightly different tone of voice to try to defuse situations,” Ballard says. “I can usually reconvene. I’ve guided ships through a lot of rough waters this way.
Stuart Bombili, team leader at Four Brothers Design and Build in D.C., stresses the importance of staying neutral. “Most of the time, it’s just giving advice that’s helpful to both sides,” he says. “You’re just trying to give them the pros and cons of the decision they’re trying to make.”
So, what’s the secret to surviving the renovation process with your relationship intact? Communications of course.
Before you get started, New, the divorce attorney, advises talking openly “about the emotional toll it’s taking on your marriage, and the financial toll it’s taking on your bank account.”
Once you’re in the thick of it, don’t let disagreements fester, says Christine Harrison, founder of Bungalow 10 Interiors in Virginia: “What happens is that (clients) let things go well for the first couple of months and then suddenly something happens and they explode. That’s why I try I always tell people: “Be very open with your feelings every day.”
Barnes and Kevrider would agree to some extent. Sometimes, they say, the best solution was to walk away from the argument and revisit it once they had calmed down. Other fights might have been avoided with clearer communication: “Because I talk about apples and Victoria talks about oranges, and we both think we’re talking about the same thing,” Kiffrider recalls.
However, some of the outbursts had more to do with being considerate of each other. The couple’s worst fight during the entire renovation — which took a decade, by the way — stemmed over a pile of old rags that, in Barnes’ telling, “couldn’t have been dirtier if they had gone to a nuclear waste site.”
Keifrider used it while doing a type of work that involved an old sewer pipe and replacing a toilet — and he and Barnes are still disputing the details, though they can at least agree that the job was distasteful. Instead of throwing them away, Keifrider put the rags through a cycle in his brand-new washing machine.
“I’ve never been so angry in my entire life that the person I married didn’t stop and think to himself, ‘Is this going to affect Victoria’s enjoyment of her new washer and dryer?'” Barnes says. “My brain melted because it couldn’t calculate. It was just smoking and short circuiting, like, why are you doing that?
However, now that they are on the other side of all this misery, they say they are stronger because of it. Put them on “The Amazing Race,” and they’ll win blindfolded, says Barnes. “No other couple would come close.”
In fact, not long ago, she sent Keifrider a listing for another fixer-upper — a cabin she describes as something of a “dirty dance.”
Does this mean they would be willing to go through the entire painful process again?
“We’d do it again because we’re stupid,” Barnes says. “Or I’m an idiot and Paul has a short memory.”
Echoes Kiefrieder: “We like to suffer.”