How to Fix Up a House Without Ruining Your Life

Lawrence LaRose's renovated house in Sag Harbor.
Photo: Lawrence LaRose

Lawrence LaRose, author of Gutted: Down to the Studs in My House, My Marriage, My Entire Life, had never picked up a hammer before he decided to renovate a Sag Harbor eyesore with his pregnant wife. Their marriage barely survived, and LaRose’s advice to the Everyman handyman is to have someone else do the job. For the overconfident amateurs who will forge ahead anyway, he offers some take-home repair lessons.

What should you do before you start?
Bribe your neighbors mercilessly. It’s something people don’t think about enough. The guy who used to own our house was on our town zoning board, and he still couldn’t get his plans approved because his neighbor hated him so much.

How do you avoid constantly worrying about the expense?
Come up with the largest budget and double it. And then, to be safe, double that. At certain times, my wife and I were held together simply by mutual debt. But we found some economical solutions, like buying things from out of state. We got our cabinets from New Hampshire, our stove from New Jersey.

What’s the No. 1 essential tool?
A cordless drill. You can’t say enough good things about a cordless drill.

What was your biggest mistake?
Not hiring an architect. They’re overpriced but worth it. Also, send your wife to the lumber yard. When we went together, they talked like French waiters to us. But when she went alone, they carried the wood to the car.

Are there a few key words of lingo that novices should know so they don’t sound like idiots at Home Depot?
Know your measurements. A two-by-four is actually one-and-a-half inches by three-and-a-half. If you want an inch-thick board, you say, “Can I get a five-quarter-inch-thick board?” It’s preposterous.

How can you keep your project from affecting your relationship?
You can’t. Everything comes out. The way we date is perverse. We should be asking, “What sink do you like? Do you prefer your floors stained?” When you renovate, those things become you — your personality, your ego. Picking tiles comes down to a power struggle and not a lot about tile.

How to Fix Up a House Without Ruining Your Life