1. Do all of the foundational and exterior work first.

It’s natural to want to move on to the next phase of your project, but ensure the house is sound before you begin interior work. That means replacing windows and putting on a new roof if needed.

This happened to us: On our most recent project, we added two decks to the back of the house. They were complete and sealed, but then water started to leak in: Water is a constant headache of old house life. We had to add a step as a water barrier and have the decks sealed again, and then again, before we were good to go inside.

Lesson learned: You need a solid shell—and it doesn’t make sense to rush the work or to skimp.


2. No construction detail is too obvious.

When you’re functioning as the general contractor—or even working with a general contractor—you have to spell out every part of the plan, and never assume everyone is up to speed. Someone we know had a contractor demo the wrong bathroom.

This happened to us: On our last project we decided to add polished marble tile in a classic Greek Key pattern in the entry. We ordered the border pieces, the corner pieces, and the mosaic sheets to round out the center: Carrara Bianco Greek Key Nero, Carrara Bianco Greek Key Corners, and Carrara Bianco Honed Mosaic Tile from the Builder Depot. It all seemed so obvious. When we stopped by to check on the progress, we found the floor almost complete: a crisp border around tiny marble squares…but on closer inspection, we realized the border pattern wasn’t aligned properly. We had to order new tile and redo the edges. Of course for the second attempt we printed out several examples of the pattern along with close-up detail images. And while the redo was in progress, texts with photos helped to clarify the tough-to-communicate elements.


3. Your prized possessions are another person’s trash: Label what stays and what goes where.

What you consider charming—a stained glass transom, original wallpaper, an old hall light—your crew may assume is being replaced. So make sure you are clear about what’s staying put. And take the time to spell out what goes where.

This happened to us: When renovating a 1915 South Philly row house, despite being crystal clear with our contractor that we wanted to keep all the amazing old details, we walked in on Day One of demo to find half of the tin ceilings crushed and thrown away. Luckily the crew hadn’t gotten to the kitchen and we were able to keep that ceiling. We realized that when you’re tackling a whole house, the GC isn’t necessarily talking to every person in the trenches. We also learned that in addition to communicating clearly, it’s wise to create physical reminders: Use spray paint to show where something is to go, and mark Do Not Remove in painter’s tape on everything you want to keep.


4. Create a spreadsheet of all your materials, fixtures, paint colors, and furnishings.

You’ll need to revisit these selections over and over again, to share and reshare with your GC and/or subcontractors. Start keeping a list of all the details from the get-go.

This happened to us: On our first project, we didn’t create a master and found ourselves searching through emails over and over again for the same specs.

Bottom line: To avoid future hassles, collect all your project information in one place.