Ask anyone who’s lived through a major home renovation, and they’ll tell you: It’s stressful.
It’s messy. Loud. Disruptive.
Contractors traipse through your house at 7 a.m., circular saws whir at 90 deafening decibels in the next room, and everything is coated in so much plaster and dust it can feel like you moved downwind from a gypsum quarry.
It can be dangerous, too: When your home turns into a construction site, it can expose you and your family to a wide range of potential hazards — from inhaling lead dust and mold spores to electric shocks and fire.
So why not just get the heck out of there?
In the age of smartphones and 24/7 connectivity, it’s an increasingly viable option, and it’s one Julie Palmer, president of Charlie Allen Renovations, often recommends to homeowners. The Cambridge-based contractor has been perfecting the art of the absentee remodel.
“It’s pretty standard for us,” says Palmer. “I was just on the phone with a client, and we’re going to paint two rooms and do some insulation work for them while they’re away over school vacation.”
Palmer says some of her clients, like Philip Ruedi, almost always schedule work over school breaks. Ruedi has hired Charlie Allen for several remodeling projects at two homes since 2007 and says his two children, ages 6 and 9, are a big reason the family leaves town during a renovation. “Beyond paint fumes and dust,” he says, the disruption is too much — especially for their son with special needs. “Having contractors working about the house while he’s around creates substantial anxiety for him.”
Painting a pair of rooms while the owners are away is one thing, but last winter, Palmer’s team completely remodeled an 1,100-square-foot apartment in Arlington for a retired couple who left town. “They spent the entire renovation in Florida,” Palmer says.
Those snowbirds, Jim and Deb Miller, own a condo in Naples, Fla. After they sold their Belmont home in 2014, they bought a two-family with their son to keep a pied-à-terre in Boston, but the downstairs unit hadn’t seen an upgrade in at least 30 years. “It was a big fixer-upper,” Jim Miller says. “It had a kitchen that you wouldn’t have believed.”
After closing on the home that November, the Millers worked with an architect and made all of their design choices, big and small, in just a few weeks. Then they headed for Florida, leaving their home in the contractor’s hands.
Palmer says the clients choose all the finishes and fixtures before a project starts, from tiles and lighting to cabinets and countertops. “That enables you to go away, because we know what we’re doing,” Palmer says.
“But, of course, things happen,” she adds, laughing.
“There were several hiccups along the way,” says Deb Miller. A wall they’d begun to knock down turned out to have a crucial heating pipe inside, so it had to stay. They had to adjust their plans for a recessed mirror. They wound up putting in two as well as a flat mirror.
In these situations, there’s one tool Palmer says is indispensable during a long-distance renovation, and it isn’t sold at The Home Depot: a video conferencing app.
“We did a lot of Skyping or FaceTime,” Palmer says. She could point her phone at the problem, showing the homeowners exactly what the issue was, and explain their options.
Melissa McGaughey of Cambridge escaped to her parents’ house in New York with her two children during a kitchen renovation and says technology made it possible.
“We used FaceTime to kind of walk through the house, and we were able to answer questions right away: ‘Should this go here or there? Do you like this trim?’ ” she says. “And we’d just turn the phone around and see it live.”
When the crew discovered exterior rot and needed her to make a judgment call, McGaughey says, “I distinctly remember sitting at my parents’ house and looking at my iPhone, seeing this rotten sill, and him pointing out where the joists needed to be replaced. And I just said, ‘Go for it.’ ”
One tricky issue to sort out from afar, however, is paint color. It’s not always a decision you can make ahead of time, and electronic displays can be fickle when it comes to color. “How do you choose paint color if you’re not in the space?” Palmer says. “It’s not a choice to make in a vacuum.”
Deb Miller had selected paint colors before the project, she says, “and some of them Julie liked when the time came — and some of them she really recommended changing.” Palmer thought the yellow in the kitchen, in particular, looked too bright with the new cabinets. Miller was able to go to a Sherwin-Williams store in Florida and view Palmer’s suggested replacements in person. But still, Miller says, “I had to rely on her taste.”
Trust, it turns out, trumps even technology.
“Trust is really the key to the whole thing when you’re working in this way,” Jim Miller says. The Millers had worked with Charlie Allen before and held them in high regard, but the project was still in some ways a leap of faith: They paid for almost the entire renovation before viewing the results in person.
But when the Millers describe their first look at their home after returning from Florida, it sounds like the dramatic ending of an HGTV reality show.
“We were blown away,” Deb Miller says of the moment they stepped foot in their remodeled home. “We had seen it in pictures but . . . it’s hard to put it all together, the whole space, in the picture. So we were really thrilled with it when we got back and saw it.”
A far cry from the usual post-vacation deflation, coming back to a newly remodeled house can definitely be a perk of the process. “There is no greater joy than sort of flipping the switch, re-entering a room that has a completely different look than when you left, and seeing your vision become reality,” Ruedi says.
Homeowners who skip town during construction might dodge some unwanted action back home as well. Dermot McElligott of Dedham-based Royal Contracting was replacing a water-damaged bedroom ceiling for a family when he discovered more than soggy plaster.
“We started demoing the ceiling and . . . we saw four or five little mice running around the place,” McElligott says. After shooing them out the door, he called the homeowner — who, vacationing in Maine, avoided the mouse mayhem entirely.
Vacation remodeling isn’t an entirely new concept, nor is it impossible to do it the old-fashioned way — without an iPhone. Dee Condon of Quincy remembers getting her floors refinished while on vacation in 1999, long before we carried tiny supercomputers in our purses and pockets.
“I was a little nervous having it done,” Condon says. “I was afraid I’d come home to a mess.”
Condon didn’t have the luxury of a smartphone, but she did have her father-in-law. He checked on the house daily while she and her family relaxed at Hampton Beach in New Hampshire, and the project went off without a hitch. “We came home to bright, shiny, gorgeous floors with no mess, fuss, or disruption to our lives,” she says.
What about those who would love to escape the chaos of a kitchen renovation but don’t have the excess vacation time or money? After all, people often save up for a big remodeling project or a vacation — but doing both simultaneously can be tough to swing financially.
You have to get creative, says Allison Guido, general manager at Almar Construction in Hanover, particularly when it’s a kitchen or a home’s only bathroom being remodeled: “Some people stay and we reset the toilet every night. . . . Then they go to a neighbor’s, friend’s, or the gym to shower.” Guido says they’ve also set up temporary showers.
“We like to try and make it as easy as possible for our clients to live in their home while we remodel,” Guido says, “but there are times when it’s easier for everyone involved if they’re out of the house.”
In the end, the decision to move out during a remodel might hinge on the type of work being done, your budget — and your demeanor. Can you surrender on-site control?
“The majority of the people want to be around, because they want to have their input in it,” McElligott says.
The Millers concede that they gave up the opportunity to make more on-the-fly changes and tweaks as the project evolved, but they have no regrets. After all, instead of being trapped inside a gutted, semifunctional apartment during the snowiest winter on record, they had a full kitchen, working plumbing, and plenty of Florida sunshine all winter long.