Your remodel should not be a surprise.

21 min read A surprise reveal is a mainstay of remodeling TV shows and it’s basically a jumpscare. Your ideal remodel should include few to no surprises.

Nothing about the final outcome of your remodel should surprise you.

Read that twice.

Now, I do hope that as you live in your transformed home that it is a delight for you and your family. Maybe the changes will have an even greater effect on your life than you expected. That’s great. But the remodel itself … should not be a surprise. 

Why HGTV loves the “surprise reveal.”

Surprise reveals are a mainstay of home and garden media like HGTV because they create drama and suspense.

They allow the designers to build to a big conclusion and show a happy client. Surprises are not good for MCM homeowners in the same way trends are not our friends. 

Why this won’t work for you!

Most of us are not working with a design team and a TV production crew. It’s just you and your contractor, maybe a kitchen or bath designer.

Sure, some people have the means to hire a full service architecture firm and outsource all the decisions, but that can cost in excess of $100,000 not including any construction costs.  

As far as the rest of us, we don’t have the process or budget to deal with surprises once we’re in construction.  

Avoiding surprises is one of the BIGGEST benefits of your Master Plan

That is the reason the master plan method exists!  Because traditional residential architectural services are great and unaffordably expensive and I wanted to come up with another way to get the same results for people like you and me.

Once you begin remodeling, I want you to feel confident. You need to know that what you’re doing is the thing you have directed all your willpower towards.

And as much as you may like and appreciate the work of your contractor, they don’t necessarily share your taste. And their role is not to define your style, it’s to get your remodel completed. 

The contractor – given no other input – is going to make decisions based on expediency. Which door handles are available? What do they usually source? What’s the current trend?

If you get surprised … it might be your fault

And, depending on how your contract has been written, it might be your fault if your contractor picks the wrong thing. Many contracts are written such that they read “owner will specify, and if not contractor will select.”

So … take a little time right now to avoid living with an (unpleasant) surprise forever!

It’s important to take the time you need to plan out the details of your remodel and choose the right materials, fixtures and finishes for your project. You’ll experience many pleasant (and some unpleasant) surprises along the planning journey. There will be room for you to be delighted or disappointed in the beginning and middle of your planning phase. Surprise yourself with a new take on your kitchen layout or by exploring handmade tile brands as you work through the Master Planning process.  

Don’t race to the finish line only to dislike where you find yourself.  Take your time. Check in with yourself your partner and your priorities at every step.  And then to be really clear with the team that’s making your remodel happen (up front and at every step) to make sure everyone is grounded in what matters most to you about the project!

In Today’s Episode You’ll Hear:

  • Why a surprise remodel reveal is worse than your average jumpscare. 
  • When remodeling related surprises are a GOOD thing (hint, it’s way before construction begins)!
  • How to avoid remodeling surprises and love everything about your remodel.  

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Read the Full Episode Transcript

The surprise reveal is the mainstay of any remodeling TV show. To me though, it’s basically a jumpscare. This baked-in part of the format is the second most agonizing part. After the host gleefully taking a sledgehammer to my favorite feature of the original house. In your ideal remodel process, there should be very little place for surprise. 

I guess the exception is that I’d like you to feel continuously surprised by how much more of a difference to your life, the home improvement choices you’ve made have made even than you expected. Other than that, though, you really want to plan for and see every part of your remodel coming from as long a distance down the road as you can. 

Hey there, welcome back to mid mod remodel. This is the show about updating MCM homes, helping you match a mid-century home to your modern life. I’m your host Della Hansmann architect and mid-century ranch enthusiast, you’re listening to Episode 1607. 

Now, before we go any further, are you signed up for Saturday’s surprise avoidance masterclass, I’m kidding. The master class on Saturday is actually called Planning a mid-century remodel to fit your life and budget. But if you listen closely, those two things are the same. Go and save your seat for the free live workshop and start jotting down the questions you’d like to ask me at the end while you listen to today’s episode. 

Planning out your remodel well means avoiding surprises. And there should be as little surprise as possible in your remodel. Actually, remodels are a place for foresight and planning and letting everyone know things in advance. 

For example, the city does not want to be surprised by what you do to your home. And if they are they will make their displeasure felt. Your contractors, subs do not want to be surprised by what they’re going to do when they show up for work in the morning. And your general contractor doesn’t want to be surprised by what they find their subs have gotten through during the course of the day. Your contractor doesn’t want to be surprised by you, when you pop to the site and say I’ve got a great idea. What about?

Those kinds of surprises can mean expense, delay, frustration, last night’s of sleep. And perhaps most of all, or at least the one I care about the most on your behalf, you do not want to be surprised by your contractor. Because what is the outcome there? Now it might not actually be as expensive in dollars as if you surprise your contractor. 

That’s because as professionals, they’re unlikely to surprise you with something wildly more expensive than the default. And if you get surprised by something, even if you don’t love it, you’re likely going to be in the middle of a process where you don’t want to say Pause, Stop, I don’t care how long it takes, you go back and you do it again. 

In more common situations, you’re gonna set aside to simply live with it and move along. But here’s where the non-dollar cost comes in. And it is a very real expense, you’re going to be just a little unhappy with that part of the remodel that feeling like the small or large, but it can last a very long time and it can grow over time. Last week, we talked about what you can do if you are dissatisfied with some previous part of your own remodel or you know if someone else’s remodel has dissatisfied you. But the goal is to be unsurprised by things that happen in your remodel, so that we can avoid that experience. 

Now, one quick caveat. I like to surprise my clients. And in fact, I try to surprise them in every single master plan with a truly unexpected designs game, sometimes two of them. And here’s how that works. 

When I’m working with clients, after we’ve assembled all of our information about the house about their style, their taste, and really gotten a detailed list of what are the ways they need their home to change in order for them to live their best life in it. My team and I go away, we put our heads together and come up with a bunch of schemes that we then boiled down to three options to propose for each of the major areas of the house to do all of the things the client asked us to accomplish, but in different ways. I typically arranged them from least intervention to most intervention, which is a polite way of saying least expensive and effort to most expense and effort. 

Now, sometimes when they’ve told me that time, or cost is their highest priority, the scheme one or scheme, two might get most of their desires filled in, but not all of them. Other times we take that checklist as gospel and we make sure all the schemes accomplish all those goals, because those are what are most important. But my goal is to come up with something that is a bit of a surprise. I often get that response in our workshop meeting when I present the options that Oh, we didn’t realize we could even do that. Oh, that’s exciting. I never saw it that way. This is going to change the way I think about the potential for an addition. This isn’t what we were asking for. But I love it. 

So why is it okay for me to surprise my clients but not for their contractor to do that later? Well, because I’m surprising them with an option, a possibility. At the moment when they smile at me in the meeting and say they never saw that coming. It’s a pretty sketch, looking like something that triggers them to have a new vision for the way they want to live in their house. A concept an idea has the freedom to lean into it, to price it to plan it to modify it to meld in some of the cool ideas that were included in scheme one or scheme two to budget for it, hire contractors to show them how exactly it’s going to work and make it happen. 

There are so many fail-safes left in that system between the moment of surprise and the moment of actually living in your house for the rest of your life, that it’s all still completely optional. What I want to avoid the surprise we’re talking about today, is that you never want to be surprised by the conclusion of your remodeling outcome. That type of surprise is just like the reveal in a horror show. It’s a jumpscare it’s just as likely to contain the mutilated body of a dead friend, my former beloved mid-century house, we don’t want that to happen to your home. 

And the very best way to avoid it is to show up live on Saturday for the planning of mid-century remodel to fit your life and budget masterclass. You can do that at mid mod dash midwest.com/masterclass. I will see you there show up live to feel the energy with a room full of fellow mid mod remodelers in the zoom and get yourself fired up to learn the right process for planning a surprise-free remodel. 

Or if you can’t make it live. That’s fine. Sign up anyway, I’ll send you a link to the replay recording as soon as it’s available. And you could watch it on your own time. Show your spouse or partner to remove surprise from that part of the relationship. And still reinforce your logistical toolkit to avoid the expensive, emotionally exhausting experience of surprise in your remodel. 

As always, you’ll find that link as well plus the show notes the transcript of everything we’re talking about today at my website at mid mod dash midwest.com/ 1607. 

Okay, let’s talk about HGTV for a second or you know, the remodeling show in general. The surprise reveal makes sense. In the context of a TV show, the viewer is going to be surprised by her it turns out because they haven’t been following along the whole way. And it’s a fun way to tease it between commercial breaks. Sometimes the homeowner even has a hands over the eyes reveal so that they can be surprised as well. I find this horrific frankly. 

But you as the homeowner should hope to be surprised and delighted or disappointed only by the planning phase of your remodel, nothing about the final outcome should surprise you not the layout, not the spacing, not the scale, not the lighting, not the materials. If you’re surprised, that means you’ve been doing it wrong, the stakes are too high. So it’s one of my goals to surprise my clients but only with the the idea phase because ideas are cheap. 

Ideas are flexible ideas are easy to change. Ideas are your testing ground for what might happen. But when you’re finishing a remodel, you should be beyond that phase. And you should be into the place of confident planning and being able to predict what you’re going to want to do. So I’ve been talking all season about the power that there is in creating a big distance between making decisions, thinking about what you want, weighing your possibilities. 

Looking at the options, finding compromises with your partner to avoid disagreement, sifting and winnowing your final choices and then sitting with them for a little while to make sure you still feel great about them. Before the contractors pull the trigger. Start having things happen. Because not only do you want want to be surprised, you want to feel like you don’t want to feel like you’re still settling into your choices. 

You want to feel competent, you want to know that what you’re doing is the thing you have directed all your willpower towards, you want to be all in on your remodel, this isn’t the place to be whimsical. It’s not the place to flip a coin and see what a little uncertainty might bring you in your life. Like you might if you were setting out to spend a day in a strange city and see where your feet take you, you’re going to live in this house. So you don’t want to leave it up to chance. 

And as we’ve talked about before, you don’t want to leave it up to your contractor however great that person might be. And however excellent they are at organizing, executing and making your vision a reality, they likely don’t perfectly share your taste, so don’t leave your taste decisions up to them. A contractor when left to make a default decision is going to make it based on expediency, not based on what will even secretly tickle them the most let alone what will please you the most. 

So let’s talk about real world examples. A couple of places where this is left up to a default decision and it ends up being a surprise the homeowner comes up very commonly, in my own experience on behalf of my clients is that whenever anything’s not specified, you’re gonna get the Home Depot standard, you’ll get a big box efficiency, little vanity cabinet that is going to fit the minimum measurements and will either not be in a wood that matches your woodgrain or not be made of wood at all. It’s the whatever the guy picking up stuff for his boss at Home Depot will pick is probably the lowest cost option. 

The other thing you’ll end up with as a default choice for some incomprehensible to me reason is fake six panel doors throughout the house. This is my greatest nemesis in a mid-century remodel. And when I see it and Zillow listing photos, I just want to pull out my own hair because it happens again and again and again. Again, it’s a contractor mistake made from the best of places the most part didn’t have an intention. They feel that a six panel door seems fancier than a slab door. Most people have a negative connotation to the Home Depot, base grade primed, hollow corridor. And so a contractor wants to make their clients feel better, they’re going to opt for something else, they’re going to opt for a six panel door. 

But that six panel door is a fake. It’s not actually a constructed wood panel door like you’d find an authentically historic Victorian or craftsman house. And even if it were, it’s absolutely the wrong choice for a mid-century house. But it’s the choice that a contractor will make apparently, every single time, they will also specify Shaker Cabinet Doors for your kitchen and bathroom every single time because they assume that it’s what you actually want. It’s the trendy choice right now. And what did we just learned about trends last week, it’s the default choice that you’ll find unless you specify otherwise. 

The other choice a contractor will make every single time is the slightly ornate brushed nickel lever handle for the entire house. When everything else in the house that you’ve chosen yourself is rubbed bronze, literally every other piece of hardware, the light fixtures, the handles the plumbing fixtures, you’ll still find that the door handles turn up as brushed nickel. And that’s the kind of choice that you then have to go back and say, No, dear contractor, I need you to remove this. I can’t live with this mismatch of metals and brush nickel, it’s not a mid-century material for us. 

So then the contractor is going to need to decide whether they’re going to bill you for it, eat the labor cost and be able to return it to their installer, or perhaps they have tossed all of the installation material materials and the packaging. So it just has to be dropped off at restore, someone is going to pay the cost of that mistake. And I’ve seen it go either way, who does, but it’s a loss of time. It’s a loss of energy. It’s demoralizing. And I have seen this happen on behalf of multiple clients before we got really firm with the style guide method. 

Again, I cannot emphasize enough how much surprises in a remodel are always an unpleasant experience for a mid-century homeowner in particular, if you just want your house to be new, fresh, whatever trendy, par excellence, let your contractor surprise you with their builder grade default choices as much as possible. But even in the best case scenario, even if you could arrange to be surprised by someone who has all your taste or more. If you could, for example, choose me to surprise you with everything that’s going to happen your house. This style might not have the outcome you desire. And I as the designer you might hypothetically choose would hate this. 

If I was told by someone that it’s your birthday, we’re remodeling your house for you and not telling you about it, you’re going to I don’t know, go on a vacation to Europe. I mean, that sounds nice. And when you come back, I would have remodeled your house for you as a surprise. No, I wouldn’t, I would refuse to do it. Because I hate the idea of having to make remodeling choices on behalf of someone else’s taste. Unless I know very deeply what their taste is. I wouldn’t do this for my own sister. And I probably know her tastes better than anyone else. But it’s not mine. 

And in those areas where we disagree the most, I would have a really hard time judging exactly what she would want to do on her behalf instead of just letting her pick for herself. I would lose sleep at night over this every night until I saw her face looked when she experienced the results. Believe me that’s unhealthy behavior. And your contractor or certified kitchen designer, who maybe working their tail off for you is probably not going to put in that level of anxiety. They shouldn’t it’s not healthy. But they also don’t need to because it’s not their job, it’s your job to make those selections, and to make those selections based on your own taste in advance enough such that you’re not surprised by any of the default elements. 

This is just a place to remember that we live in reality, not on a remodeling TV show. And here’s the other unfortunate piece of reality, which is that if you are surprised if it does go wrong, it will be your fault. When you’re working with a professional a team there to execute their part of the vision that you have imparted to them. You’ve shown them floor plans. You’ve shown them your style guide, you’ve told them what you want done. And they said yes, yes. Okay, got it. That’s a cool detail. I like it, you assume you’re on the same page. But there are always a few little things that if they’re not planned out well in advance can end up surprising you. 

And this is where you get the kind of frustration that’s just small enough that you decide you can live with it, even though it ends up frustrating you on a daily basis for the rest of your time in the remodel. And this is going to depend on the way that you behave in your selection meetings. It’s going to depend on the way that your contract has been written. It might very well be your fault if the contractor picked the wrong thing. 

Sure, they should have checked with you. But you want to make sure because the contract might be written in such a way that it says owner will specify and if not specified, the contractor will select so this is particularly again whereas mid-century homeowners we have to watch out for those default choices. Let’s have a wild old timey movie reference, I’m going to go full Zoolander on you and say words can only hurt you, if you try to read them don’t play their game, the opposite actually, the contract can hurt you if you don’t read it. So I want you to figure out where in your contract you’re supposed to have your final choices, your specifications listed, find out in advance. 

And if your building team is going to let you pick pretty light fixtures, switch plates, tile you love from anywhere, any source or if they need you to source them from their in house shop, their in house cabinet maker, their local Tile Shop, and The Tile Shop being a company that both sells tiles and installs it. So if you don’t go with The Tile Shop tile, who’s going to do the installation for you? 

These are things that are going to show up at the contract phase and that you want to have hammered out and again, not be surprised by when the time comes. So let’s come back to architecture to the mid-century design era to your experience as a homeowner planning and leading a paying for a remodel that you will then live in every day. It may feel like a burdensome thing to have to make a lot of these decisions. And it certainly will when they are made in a compressed timeline really close to the execution of construction. 

That’s why the style guide is your friend. And that’s why when we’re thinking about layouts, you want to make sure you haven’t just looked at a floor plan and said, Yeah, that seems right. But you’ve played like a six year old. You’ve gotten the refrigerator boxes or your dining chairs and arrange them in the exact with the floorplan says will be between the island and the counter, you’ve made sure you understand the difference between a three foot wide hallway and a 42 inch one. 

Because you never want to have your reaction of surprise to the finished space, or even to the space in rough in construction, because that’s still an expensive moment to change your mind about the layout. And you always want to make sure that you’ve seen all the little details. What are the switch plate covers going to be? What are your options for tile selection? The soonest you have an opportunity to make a design choice to make some finished choice to lock in your decisions. Do it. ASAP. Rather than leaving until the moment when you may be surprised by a deadline in the remodel. 

So there is a perfect way to avoid any surprise whatsoever in a remodel. And we’ve talked about this before on the podcast. The very best way to avoid surprise is to hire a high end residential architecture firm to hold your hand collectively as they walk you through all of the possibilities of what could come with your house at any budget and lovingly shepherd you through the process of schematic design design development, vet multiple contractors on your behalf to select every finish and get your approval on it to create and coordinate a set of written specifications, shop drawings, and built in and construction documentation, the detailed placement of every foundation peer and light fixture to the inch. 

And then who will visit the site on your behalf weekly or perhaps daily supervising checking, approving making sure that your house is constructed to the line and letter of the plans. It’s so relaxing to have someone like that working on your behalf. Sure. 

It’s also not cheap. The average cost of working with a residential architecture firm in the last few years was $47,000. It hasn’t gone down since then. And if that sounds unaffordable to you, it sounds unaffordable to me too. But I want these results for people. And that’s why I looked for a way to extract many of those same results, the same pre visualization time, the same care in selection, the same good communication and coordination with contractors from that labor intensive hourly architecture design process and meld it into the master plan method.

That’s the reason the masterplan method exists. Because traditional residential architecture services are great and done affordably expensive. And I wanted to come up with a way to get the same results for people like you and like me. So if you’re curious about the exact step by step methods, here on the podcast, we often talk about philosophy theory, why, but the actual how to have a master plan. That’s what I’m going to be doing on Saturday at the live design class planning a mid-century remodel to fit your life and budget. 

Now I’ve given this masterclass a couple of times. It’s always an absolute joy to give it again live and I think the last time we did was in the summer so it’s been about half a year. I would love to go through this again with you. Now that it’s been a few months, bringing the latest examples, the fresh enthusiasm, talk about current events, answer your right now questions in the q&a at the end and talk about how to bring another cohort of ready to remodel students excited together ready to plan great remodels. 

Whether or not you want to join us and ready to remodel coming to the free masterclass is a great way to get the step by step methods to bring yourself together. I hope I’m going to see you there live. But again, remember, if you’re not free at 11am on Saturday on February 24, then there’ll be recording and I’m not trying to keep that experience from you. So sign up in advance. And you can submit your questions by email or in my Instagram DMS and I’ll answer them for you in the q&a. So you can watch them in the recording whether you’re there or not. 

I encourage you if you’re not signed up right now to go right now to mid mod dash midwest.com/masterclass. And sign yourself up for a reminder email that I will send you, asking you your questions, and giving you some more encouraging advice. 

Now, let’s come back one more time to the idea that surprise is what we want to avoid, particularly as mid-century homeowners, it’s not a good thing. Because again, the default choices that are floating around in the ether right now are pretty disconnected from the mid-century era we love even though the term mid-century is so popular, but what contractors doing is very much not mid-century in their daily experience, what’s available in the supply houses where they pick up and drop off the builder basic default. 

And what they’ve been asked to do by their last several clients is not going to give you the timeless, the timeless effect that’s really well matched your mid-century home. So what you’re going to need to do is not leave the room choices of your remodel up to the roll of the dice, do not leave it up to the taste of the contractor or the contractors assistant who gets sent to pick something up at the last minute. 

And make sure that you’ve specified things like your door handles before the week that they’re picked up. Because they will come back and brushed nickel, they’ll come back either in lever or knob depending on the preference of the guy that’s picking them up, not your accessibility preference or the way you want it to match what’s going on in the rest of the house. 

And they’ll come back in whatever style they have the most up in stock that day. This is not a great way to choose what you’re going to put your hand on multiple times a day every day in your own home for the rest of your life. 

The pep talk for today comes from a lazy genius principle. Kendra Adichie, the lazy genius podcast, if you’re not familiar with it, Google it, check it out, you will enjoy her kind of big sister energy if you enjoy my remodeling advice. 

But one of the things she advises is that staying grounded is always better than staying on task. To put that into a remodel planning way, staying connected to what really matters to you. And to your remodel is more important than getting the process underway as quickly as possible. Whatever happens, try not to let the pressure of time prevent you from thinking about what’s most important to you. 

Or hurry you through the process of prioritizing and considering possibilities before you decide what you’re going to do. Once you finish your remodel, it’s forever, I hope. But until it’s finished you control at least to a certain extent, the pace, the level of chaos. And the way that all these choices come together. By having a clearly fleshed out plan. You control the ultimate outcome by having chosen to put your attention to devote your resources to put your preferences into the choices, the details of the parts of changing your home that matter the most to you and to your household. 

So please don’t race to the finish line only to dislike where you find yourself. One of the best ways to avoid unpleasant surprises that we spent this whole episode discussing is to take your time to check in with yourself and your partner your priorities at every step. And then to be really clear with the team that’s making your remodel happen upfront. And at every step to make sure that everyone is grounded in what matters the most to your project. 

The thing I think you should do the most to make a difference to your house this weekend. Just show up for the live class. But let’s pair that let’s pair sitting in a Zoom meeting and hearing me talk and ask you questions. And it’ll be participatory, but yeah, that’s sort of a sit and listen and think activity was something really active, really transformative. And one of the fastest most transformative things you can do in and around your house is to paint something. 

Here’s the caveat. Please do not paint your original brick, or your unpainted original woodwork. Or you know anything else that is hard to unpainted. Once it’s painted paint, some walls paint a piece of pre painted furniture, paint. I don’t know fabric furniture, if it needs an upgrade, there are a lot of things you can apply a coat of paint to. 

And when I think about choosing paint, there’s two ways to go about it. There’s the way I lay out in my free color guide, which you can grab at mid mod dash midwest.com/colors You go to the paint store, get 10 to 20 paint chips that might work, test them around the house to pick your favorite three, get CT samples and paint swatches onto the house on each side of the exterior on multiple phases of the room to see how they look in sun versus shade and different times of the day. Or you can pick them on tag board so you can move it around and see the same effect. And then pick your favorite and put it into the place where it’s going to permanently be. That’s one way to go about it. 

Or you can choose the more level one way and just know that paint is a changeable surface. So it’s in the nature of painting to be able to repaint, feel free to take a little bit of a risk and just paint a color you think you might be right as long as you’re then willing to consider it potential temporary.

My neighbor across the street painted her front door five times in about three weeks a few years ago.

She cycled through For a number of shades teal, Aqua purple, landed on eggplant. That’s her final choice. It’s the one that pleased her the most. And painting her door took her, I don’t know, maybe two hours at a pop, she really got the fun of the painting experience. And she got to test the actual paint color in real time and the place where it went perfect example of a satisfying transformative level one project. 

So think about what fun active project like painting, like any of the other level one projects I’ve mentioned in the end of the episodes this past quarter, or maybe just going to the antique mall and finding some fun vintage piece to bring into your house and how you can pair that with sitting down and taking in the mid-century masterclass. 

As always, you can find the signup links, and also the transcript of the episode with all the resources I may have mentioned today at mid mod dash midwest.com/ 1607. Now, next week on the podcast, I’ll be talking about a totally free way to make your house bigger. And that’s to think about maybe decluttering a bit. No judgment, but maybe you need more house for your stuff. But maybe you just need less stuff for your house. We’ll think about that next week. 

This weekend though, if you want to think bigger, brighter, better about your house and generally make your remodel as unsurprising as possible. Show up on Saturday to get all my best advice about how to tailor this home, this house you live in as timelessly as possible into a space that will hold your family for another generation and suit you best right now. 

Do not miss the free master planning class on Saturday, February 24. Go ahead right now and sign up at midmod-midwest.com/masterclass to save your seat and I’ll send you a couple of handy email reminders. So you don’t forget. See you there.