Two years ago my husband and I gutted and rebuilt our kitchen, living room, and foyer while staying in the house with our three small children. Less than a year later, we sold that house and bought a fixer-upper that we’re currently in the process of overhauling. In other words, I know from experience that renovating with kids won’t kill you (although living with my parents for two months almost did).
After you decide to renovate, the next decision is whether you should stay or go. This will depend on which rooms you’re losing, the scope of your project, and how big the rest of your house is.
“Taking the kitchen out of play is the biggest hurdle when you have kids,” says Curtis Melillo, a dad of two, who runs Melillo Construction, in Vero Beach, Florida. If you have the space to set up a temporary eating and living area and can seal off the work zones, you could stay. (Two out of three renovators do stay put, according to the 2019 Houzz Kitchen Trends Study.) But if you have family nearby with room for you or you have the budget for a rental, consider even a small stint away.
“It often causes more stress for families when they live through a renovation. I see it with all my customers,” says Melillo. “Job sites are dangerous and dusty, and parents spin their wheels trying to clean things that really can’t be cleaned yet.” It’s also harder on the contractors if they have to work around you.
Just like childbirth, you’ll almost forget how painful it was once you see that shiny new countertop. Use the best advice I’ve gathered along the way to help you and your kids keep calm during the chaos.
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I polled parents around the country who’ve renovated, and they all concur that spring and summer are the best seasons to remodel. Your kid’s routine is already shaken up, vacations are easier to take, it’s warm enough for al fresco grilling and dining, rinsing off after the pool can count as a shower, and there are no big holidays to work around.
If you’re redoing spaces for your children, think about the future. “Don’t design anything to be mini, like a tiny built-in desk or bed,” says Melanie Rosen, a mother of three in Charleston, South Carolina, who has renovated three homes. She made this mistake when she redid her boys’ bathroom: “It has a slanted roof, so we put in a little shower stall under the low ceiling. Our boys are on the shorter side, so I thought it’d be okay, but our oldest already has to bend down to shower—whoops!”
“It’s important to give kids a room that reflects their personality,” says Mark Clayton, who runs Harbor Paint & Fine Finishes, on Long Island, New York. I let my 8-year-old have a super-subtle glitter finish on her bedroom walls, which went a long way to make up for the fact that I didn’t approve hot pink. Rosen swears by the rule of three: “Narrow it down to three wall colors, three rug options, or three duvet covers, then let them pick their favorite so you’re not opening the door to an entire PJ Masks–themed bedroom for the next few years.”
Hand your kids markers or crayons and tell them they can color all over the walls that will be demoed. Big kids can even take a whack at a wall with a hammer.
Kids also do better with change when they know what to expect. The books Tap Tap Bang Bang; Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site; Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night?; and The Construction Alphabet Book are approved by renovating parents everywhere. Take it one step farther and have them draw “plans” for the renovation (tack up the sketches; the contractors will get a kick out it), and get them toy tools so they can play builder. Acting out what’s going on around them will help them process the fact that their world is being, well, gutted.
You’ll spend a lot of time telling your kids where they can’t walk, touch, or be, so designate an area just for them. Maybe it’s a tepee in a corner of the living room where they keep a few toys and a beanbag chair.
You know when your kid is obsessed with a toy and wants it right now, and you go tearing through the house trying desperately to find it? Imagine if that something is stored in a box deep in the bowels of your basement. Make sure the stuff he’s currently attached to—books, pj’s, loveys—is very handy. Plastic storage bins with labels and secure tops are a great way to keep things close by but dust-free, says Thayer Orelli, owner of Thayer Woods Home + Style, in Centerport, New York.
Box up the dollhouse, your kids’ special collections, and the baby photos. No matter how careful your contractors are, and no matter how far away the room is from the reno action, things will get damaged. You will also not believe where the dust goes—even if the work is in another room or on another floor. “Dust is the biggest issue for parents,” says Melillo, who tells his clients to roll up rugs, bag up stuffed animals, and pack away clothes before the work begins. Anything your kids are going to sleep with, roll around on, or wear should be protected.
Let the teacher, the coach—anyone in your kids’ lives—know what’s going on so they’ll cut you and your kid some slack. (I sent many “I’m a hot mess, sorry I forgot to send in the permission slip” notes during our renovation.) And when your friends offer to help—with a pickup or a meal, or to watch your kid so you can go choose tiles, say yes! Play the “we’re renovating” card whenever it feels right.
Have kids use another one—you’ll see why!
“Have your kids learn the names of the people working in your home and say hello whenever you bring the kids by,” says Kerry Sweeney, a mom of two in Fairfield, Connecticut. “It creates a friendlier environment and helps kids understand that there are people behind the hard work going into their home.” Sweeney and her girls brought everyone treats, too, which I second. We also kept our garage fridge stocked with cold drinks. “Everyone likes working for someone who hands them a bottle of water or a donut,” says Melillo. Plus, you’re going to have to speak up about things you don’t like, and it’s so much easier to do that when there’s a cute kid standing next to you with a box of Munchkins.
There are mommy-and-me classes, older kids can do homework there, and they have Wi-Fi. Parks, playgrounds, and local museums are also huge during renovations. “We had great quality family time when we were waiting for our house to be ready because we had to stay out and keep ourselves occupied,” says Meredith Shanley, a mom of two in Baltimore. Also, don’t underestimate the entertainment power of a hardware-store run (there will be many). “My kids still beg me to go there!” says Shanley.
You will make more decisions than you ever could have anticipated, and it’s only human to snap. “If my girls felt my unhappiness and frustration level rise, so would theirs,” says Sweeney, who would wait until they went to bed, then vent to her husband.
It’s always important to get out without the kids. It’s even more important when you’re spending your days debating shades of white. Set a ten-minute timer to talk about the house stuff, then move on.
It’ll also be your dining room, dressing room, and garbage can on some days. My friend Anila kept a plastic tub in her trunk filled with sports gear, dance shoes, school supplies, and blankets for each kid. Speaking of blankets, yes, naps are better when a child is in her bed, but if your kids doze in the car, that means you can pull over and sleep when they sleep. Just kidding: You can order more cabinet hardware, make a work call, and email the architect while they snooze. If only Home Depot had a drive-through!
Prep freezer-friendly dinners. Anytime you can get your hands on a home-cooked meal during a reno will feel downright homey. “I stocked our freezer with dishes I could microwave,” says Lauren Love. “Just when we couldn’t take another trip through a drive-through, I’d heat up some chicken soup, and we’d have a moment of normalcy.”
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Set up a temporary kitchen. If you’re staying during a kitchen reno, you’re going to need a place to make meals. Love stashed a toaster, microwave, and Keurig in her dining room and used an old bookshelf as a pantry. My friend Elissa swears by a single Waring electric burner to boil water, heat soup, and scramble eggs. (She’s loaned it to three different renovating friends since!) She also rented a doctor’s office watercooler for instant hot and cold water. “The kids thought it was so fun, and making oatmeal was really easy; maybe too easy. They had it for dinner a few nights!” she says. Just keep the space neat, adds Thayer Orelli. It will help your kids (and you) feel a sense of order and calm.
Invest in disposable goods. Desperate times call for paper plates and plastic forks. “There are only so many times you can wash dishes in your bathroom sink before you lose it,” says Love. Just remind your kids that once you’re back to the real silverware, they should put them in the sink, not the garbage. Before Elissa realized it, her 3-year-old had thrown out seven teaspoons!
Whether you’re living through the renovation or camping out elsewhere, at some point you may need some distance from it all. “It’s a great time to visit family or friends you’ve been meaning to see,” says Lauren Love, a mom of two in Knoxville, Tennessee, who recently redid her kitchen and went to Spokane to stay with her in-laws. But you don’t have to see family. My husband and I were in full kitchen gut mode when we headed to Hawaii for his previously planned business trip. Just be sure your contractor is comfortable with FaceTime convos before you hit the road.
As the reno comes to a close, don’t expect an HGTV-style unveiling where everything is perfect and you cry tears of joy. There will still be loose ends and things for you to do.
Full disclosure: The dust and crap that gets kicked up by the contractors is unreal. They will clean before they leave, of course, but that will only scratch the surface. Spring for a professional cleaning crew.
Do not consider this a fail. Also: Champagne pairs really nicely with a slice. Cheers to the new digs!
Before your renovation begins, grill the contractor on the following:
Dust: “Sealing off the work areas is a dust must,” says Curtis Melillo, who uses temporary walls instead. (He likes a product called ZipWall.)
Lead Paint: If your home was built before 1978, contractors are supposed to test for it, by law. If you’re living through the reno, a reminder can’t hurt. Look up the laws for your state, and if you discover you have lead paint, make sure it’s dealt with properly. “Don’t get scared, but don’t underestimate the issues with lead and small children,” says Mark Clayton.
Nontoxic Paint: Make sure your painter is using low- or no-VOC base paint and double-check that the tint (the colorant) is also low in VOCs, says Clayton. (VOC means volatile organic compound, which becomes gaseous as paint dries, causing that new-paint smell.) Clayton swears by Benjamin Moore’s Aura, but most lines have eco options now.
Ventilation: Another reason summer is a good season: You can keep windows and doors open. Clayton uses a HEPA air scrubber to pull the dust and fumes from the air. Ask your contractor about bringing something similar.
Air Ducts: Close the air-conditioning vents and shut down the system before the dust starts. At the end of the job, have the air ducts cleaned. It’s not a huge expense, and it will help you all breathe easier.