A Firm Foundation—Preserving your marriage during home renovations

Request a Consultation

This past summer, the classic 1948 film, “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,” celebrated its 75th anniversary.

Cary Grant and Myrna Loy play a couple with a growing family. Feeling cramped in their New York apartment, they seek a larger home and open space in the rural Connecticut countryside. A real estate agent talks them into a rundown “historic” farmhouse on a large plot of land, for which they overpay tremendously. Their dreamy fixer-upper quickly turns into a total nightmare. The house was too dilapidated to save, so they tore it down and built a new one altogether. Then, the scope of the project balloons with their ideas and demands. They dig a new well only to discover a spring near the house’s foundation. The husband very nearly loses his job. Their marriage begins to buckle under the strain.

Of course, it’s mostly a warmhearted comedy, so everything turns out alright.

Mr. Blanding got a remake in 1986 with “The Money Pit,” starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long, and again in 2007 with “Are We Done Yet?” starring Ice Cube.

Today, cable and streaming shows and countless highly-curated “DIY” social media accounts churn out endless home renovation content, often making it look fun, easy, and picture-perfect.

The fantasy of remodeling or building the perfect home is seductive and evergreen.

But the truth is, even “minor” home renovation projects often become much more significant than couples expect. Unforeseen problems inevitably crop up along the way. Opening a wall or ceiling reveals mold or hidden cracks. Costs rise, timelines expand, tensions mount, little differences of opinion become conflicts, tempers flare, frustration and resentment grow. The feeling that things are spiraling out of control is a major stressor in a relationship— especially if you’re living in the home. It’s a construction zone that can increase the challenges and tension immeasurably.

A decade ago, HOUZZ, a leading platform for home improvement information and design inspiration, conducted a “Remodeling & Relationships Survey,” which polled couples who had gone through a home renovation together. Over 50 percent of respondents reported that the process had caused significant marital stress—12% said it had driven them to consider or pursue divorce. A third of the surveyed couples said stylistic differences caused significant conflict; 20% said they had made a major decision about the project without consulting their partner.

The remodeling process can be gutting in more ways than one—it can feel like it’s rocking the very foundation of your marriage. But marriages rarely falter for one reason only. Home renovations are stressful, but if they trigger true catastrophe in a marriage, it’s typically because the stress of the project revealed deeper, pre-existing issues. Some couples even take on a big home project because they hope it will fix up an ailing marriage—but a fresh coat of paint or more closet space isn’t generally a remedy for real problems.

Home renovation—and anything involving significant financial decisions and pressures—can be emotionally loaded at both the individual and relationship levels.

“According to therapists,” said the Washington Post in a recent feature, when renovating exposes cracks — in your marriage, “all kinds of personal baggage gets wrapped up into our homes, including but not limited to our relationships with money, how we want the outside world to perceive us, the experiences we had in the homes in which we grew up and our quests for happiness.”

Experts interviewed for the WaPo article concurred, “Before embarking on a remodel with a romantic partner, you’d better make sure your relationship is every bit as solid as the quartz countertops you’ve been eyeing for the new kitchen.”

Here are 5 top tips for preserving your marriage during home renovations from therapists, contractors, and couples who have been there:

Communicate. Throughout a home remodel process, you’ll make hundreds of decisions. So, before you proceed, have an honest conversation about why you want to renovate or build. Discuss what you’re trying to achieve. Decide together on what you truly value and align your goals. Talk about your vision for the finished project. Set clear expectations. Talk frankly about the personal and financial toll the project will take. Then, throughout, don’t make decisions without each other — even “small” ones; what may seem innocuous to one partner may be a big deal to the other. Keep the conversation going daily. Don’t let feelings simmer on the back burner until the heat gets turned up and things boil over — communicate openly, calmly, respectfully—and regularly. Be intentional about ensuring that you each feel heard.

Collaborate. There are two main aspects to this one. First, LISTEN. Respect the other person’s ideas, imagination, and point of view. Consider creating vision boards where you can each show your design ideas and pictures of what you like; seek commonality. Second, choose a qualified and reputable contractor—someone you both like and can communicate with comfortably. While one partner may lead in certain aspects of the project, ensure both people feel involved and engaged.

Create a budget together. It’s nearly impossible for the average person to judge the true scope of the home improvement project they envision and price it out. Consult experts. Decide what elements matter and are worth an investment. From there, set a realistic budget and stick to it. If you need wiggle room at a certain point, ensure you agree to an adjusted budget and its reasoning.

Compromise. Think about your true priorities and where you can be flexible. Be honest about what matters to you in creating your dream living space; let go of some things that are not deal breakers. If you give a little on the living room paint color, your partner may be much more amenable to your ideal bathroom tile. Some couples designate a space for each partner to decorate as they wish.

Cultivate a positive experience. Focus on the end game—your renovation project is about building a space you can live in and love for a long time, a home that’s just right for you and your family. It’s about realizing a shared and harmonious vision for your future. You’re busy and working hard right now to achieve it, so prioritize time to relax, restore, have fun, and focus on each other. Be patient and generous with your partner. Don’t neglect self-care; do things that recharge your own batteries as well.

And if you find that the pressures of a remodel are too much for your marriage to survive, it’s essential to work with a skilled family lawyer, as capital improvements can complicate the division of assets in a California divorce. The experienced and caring attorneys at SFLG understand how challenging, painful, and contentious the dissolution process can be when involving property renovations. We can help you navigate all aspects of your unique case.

By Debra Schoenberg

Our Awards and Memberships

Schoenberg Family Law Group, P.C., recognizes that family law matters involve complex, sensitive issues that can have a lasting impact on you, your family, your finances and your future.

More About Honors & Awards
Arrow Image
10.0 Avvo Superb Top Attorney Family Law, Divorce
Los Angeles and San Francisco Daily Journal
American Jurist Institute Top 10 Attorneys 2017
2022 Client Satisfaction American Institute of Family Law Attorneys 10 Best
100 Fastest-Growing Private Companies In the Bay Area San Francisco Business Times
10 Best Female Attorneys 2017 American Institute of Family Law Attorneys
San Francisco Bay Area's Best and Brightest Companies to Work For Winner 2021
2018 Best Lawyers Best Law Firms U.S. News & World Report
California Board of Legal Specialization (CBLS) State Bar of California
2020 Client Champion Debra R. Schoenberg
San Francisco Business Times Corporate Philanthropy Awards 2019
Expertise Best Divorce Lawyers in Concord 2020
2018 Expertise Best Divorce Lawyers in San Francisco
Fast 100
Lead Counsel Rated
Litigation Counsel of America (LCA) Fellow
National Board of Trial Advocacy
2017 Parents' Press Best of The Bay
San Francisco Business Times
Rated By Super Lawyers Debra R. Schoenberg
The Business of Pride
2021 Best Businesses Three Best Rated
San Francisco Business Times Corporate Philanthropy Awards & Summit
American Jurist Institute Top 10 Attorneys of 2018
Arrow Image