This week, Grace sits down with Lucinda Wong, homeowner and seasoned DIYer, to discover tips on managing your remodel, choosing pros, and designing for your family. Lucinda has some great tips on staying sane during home projects, making confident decisions, and working together as a family for your dream home.

*Header image credit: Lucinda Wong

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Full Podcast Transcript

Grace Mase  00:08

Hello, and welcome to the Revivify Podcast. I'm your host, Grace Mase. Today we're speaking with Lucinda Wong. She is a homeowner who's going through massive renovation projects and has a lot of great tips and I'm dying to get to start the conversation with her. Welcome, Lucinda.

Lucinda Wong  00:26

Thank you so much Grace for having me.

Grace Mase  00:28

Well, I know you've gone through a lot of exciting parts of the project, but also there were some challenges. And I'd love for you to share some of your perspectives, and your experiences, for other homeowners to understand as they're navigating through their project. So how did you get started? And at what point did you decide, we need to renovate our home?

Lucinda Wong  00:47

Well, we bought a house after we had our first daughter, and at that time, I think she was probably about 18 months old. So we bought a house and it was one story, and it was not exactly the layout that we wanted. We knew that as the kids grew older, and also with our aging parents, we wanted a house that had the right number of bedrooms, to be able to grow within that house. And we started to look within our city to see if we could purchase a house that was slightly bigger. However, we knew that whatever house we buy, we would need to remodel it. So that's when we just embarked on the journey to start thinking about the process of remodeling, and that was back in 2018.

Grace Mase  01:31

So what was your first step?

Lucinda Wong  01:32

Actually, before that time, I think five years before that, we actually met with our financial advisor, and we created a trust at that point in time. And I was still working as well, and we both started saving money in that trust for the house. But that's all we did in the beginning, and then I think around 2018, that's when we started to engage the process of looking for an architect.

Grace Mase  01:58

And how do you even define who to select for architects? Obviously, various architects have different styles and specialties. How do you make those kind of trade-off during this thought process?

Lucinda Wong 02:09

That was tough, I think finding an architect, not exactly knowing your style and what you wanted, and there are so many architects out there ranging in price and cost. I think the first place I went to was just starting to talk to friends, people in the neighborhood. In the city that we live in the process, from what I've heard, is quite intense. I just heard it takes a long time to get things approved. But yet, I did not quite know what that meant. So when I did speak with one of my neighbors who said that they had a house that they remodeled, and it was like a heritage house, so I knew that it was quite a lengthy process. And that he went through that process well and the city loved what he did with the house and going from sort of more of the traditional architecture of the city that we live in, and then transitioning that to a very modern house in the back. So he got a lot of praise for that. So I think that's what kind of led me in the direction of hiring the architect that we did. But of course, with any interviewing process, it's important, what I've been told is to at least interview three different architects, just to get an idea. So that's what we did. All the other architects that we hired, were also referrals from neighbors. So I think that's the process we went through. Of course, I think at that point in time, I didn't know there was a such thing as design-build firms. So I think I've learned a little bit after the fact. But I think you just have to be able to explain to the person what you want, in terms of the layout of your house. I think that was the most important. Being able to not get too caught up with what looks pretty on paper, and pictures. But how does your family live? What do you really need? So I think that that was helpful in the process.

Grace Mase  04:02

I love that you actually think about what lifestyle your family would operate on, and what it means to you, what's important to you. And I think that's the key point that you mentioned, it's so valuable is, not to focus on what's on paper or what's beautiful eye candy. That's really how you plan to live, and how do you want your house reflecting your lifestyle.

Lucinda Wong  04:22

One thing that I'm so thankful that we did after we hired our architect was, we did hire an interior designer who served as a space planner. So I think that really helped us be comfortable with the decisions that we made in terms of the layout that we wanted. A lot of times what I had noticed, with our architect is they weren't thinking about how a family operates. I remember there were things that I didn't even realize, having a door from the garage going straight into the dining room. To me, it sounded fine, but then to the interior designer with the knowledge that she had, she said, "What I picture is you want walking in that door, throwing all the things that you have onto the dining room." And I said, "Oh, yes, that would be what happens." So I think that that was key to feeling comfortable with signing off on the floor plan was having someone upfront to help with the space planning aspect of it.

Grace Mase  05:17

Just even to have someone to bounce ideas off, knowing that our garage is situated here, and here's the door into the rest of the living space, living quarter. And how do you then navigate physically going through the space? And that space planning is so critical. Often architects focus on the structure of the house. And it's good to complement with interior designers, they think about the interior space of the traffic flow, how does that work with each other?

Lucinda Wong  05:42

I never even knew that existed. So I was thankful that I did have that I would have been sad if I realized after the fact.

Grace Mase  05:51

But just like anything, especially the design phase, I think it's like riding an emotional roller coaster, there are ups and downs, and so forth, and they're definitely highs. What were your highs you experienced during the design phase?

Lucinda Wong  06:05

I think money plays a big part in the design phase, I think there's a lot that we wanted upfront. And starting off the process, we had sort of a set amount of money we wanted to spend on the house remodel. What that led to was a design based on square footage that didn't quite meet our needs. We wanted a space upstairs, a loft area for kids to be able to do their homework, but I think because of the square footage that we were sort of had parameters around it based on how much it would cost to build. We were kind of stuck in between what we wanted and what we were comfortable paying. So I think with a lot of that pull, over time, we realized well, spending money on your house, you're adding value, whatever it is, how about we wait a little bit to really save the money that we need and be able to get the house that we want. So we're going to be uprooted from where we live anyways, we might as well try to get our most important items, and wait a little bit before we actually embark on the process.

Grace Mase  07:09

And it sounds like you had your priority set, and that helps you in negotiating those discussions.

Lucinda Wong  07:15

Right. So, you should always have the top things in your mind what you want, right? So for me it was we want more light. So we want to make sure that the house has enough light. We want direct entry into the house, that was super important. Having, you know, Master downstairs, for aging parents, these are three things that we couldn't compromise on. So knowing exactly what you're trying to achieve in the remodel, not just that you want more space in general, but how is it going to serve you?

Grace Mase  07:46

It sounds like is more emotional priorities and make sure you when your parents come visit or elderly family member come visit, you have a comfortable place for them to stay at the first floor. So they don't they do not have to climb up the stairs, and just even have a place for kids to enjoy their time growing up and having their childhood. And saving, almost holding a space for them is very important for you as well.

Lucinda Wong  08:08

That's definitely true and, and for the parents’ aspect, but what's funny is my parents, they always say I never want to live with you. They want to give us our space. But then at the same time, you never know what life will hand you. So you want to be prepared for it ahead of time, in case there comes a situation where parents are living with you. Or if you break an ankle or something you can't climb the stairs, I think as always is a good layout to have some sort of master on the first floor.

Grace Mase  08:35

That's true, and we talked about the highs. Now let's talk about any lows during your design phase, besides the budget portion that you mentioned earlier.

Lucinda Wong  08:43

I guess lows in terms of I think a lot of times there could be some friction between an architect and a contractor. I think that's natural. What I've noticed and what I've learned from talking to other people, and I know a lot of times, you might pick someone that is a design-build firm, which has its benefits. I feel like if you do go that route, there's a benefit of being able to possibly complete the project earlier because you're doing both with the same person or the same firm is doing both. However, I've noticed that it actually had some positive aspects as well. Because even though there were times where there's a different pool, and they're not quite getting along and being in the middle of it can be difficult. At the same time, there have been incidences where they were able to come together with different sets of opinions and meet and actually come up with something that maybe the other person did not think of. And in the end, that benefits the homeowner because you end up with different minds coming together and solving a problem. And there were two incidences, I can think of which I won't elaborate on during this call, but they came out with a better outcome in the end. So I think sometimes there's a benefit there even though it might feel like people aren't getting along, and might be a low point, but I see a benefit in it.

Grace Mase  10:05

That's great, and I think that's a valid point to know that at times, whether it's a design professional and building professional, they may have a different perspective. But as the owner, you ultimately bring that conversation back and help them to focus on why they're there, their purpose of being there, not only to design something that they're proud of but also, more importantly, design something you want to live in, as well as for the construction or building professional for them to understand. They're building something for you, for your family, and make it work for you not just something good on paper as well. So kudos to you to recognize that the challenges at times and the low points, but really bring them together and really convert into a better outcome for everyone.

Lucinda Wong  10:47

Yeah, I know, I didn't think that type of dynamic works. But in my eyes, now that I look back in retrospect, I think it kind of, it did help us.

Grace Mase  10:56

As you mentioned, some homeowners may not realize these kinds of build or design professionals and so forth, the different specialties and how they contribute to overall projects. And let's talk about some of the common things that you also heard from other homeowners, their concerns before or during your project? And what were the ones that you heard so far, and how have you experienced them yourself?

Lucinda Wong  11:20

Well, I think what's interesting when you mentioned the concerns and challenges when you speak with other people. This brings me to some quote, that I still remember from my neighbor who said, "I would rather chop off my leg than to do another remodel." And that will always stand out in my head because I think it's so funny. Because I think the consensus is, "I can't believe we're doing this, I would never do it again." And that is scary for anybody to hear, of course, they're happy. In the end, I think what you always hear is it's going to be twice the cost that you've budgeted for, it'll take twice as long, and you kind of know that going into it. But then at the same time, you think and you hope that you're not going to be that statistic. But I think you just have to not let it get you down, realize that sometimes with projects, things are going to happen that are unexpected. I think going into the project, I kept on saying to myself, "I need to start this before it starts raining." You have all these expectations up front. But in the end, I talked to my cousin who lives in Toronto, and she said it's gonna rain during a remodel, don't worry about it so much. Worry about things that you can control. So and a lot of times, you can't control a lot of it. But I think being able to stay in the loop with your contractor is most important. So you understand why things are happening the way they are. And if you don't know that, why then try to figure it out somehow.

Grace Mase  12:49

You brought up two key points. One is to understand why things happen. Projects are bound to have delays, just there are things that you have no control over. But at the same time, there's also the thing that you have control over is your mindset. Expect the unexpected, versus get overwhelmed when things come up. And I think that's why your project is going relatively smoothly, mainly tributed to your attitude about the project and your willingness to learn about why, and then discovering how, then figure out the details of what. That is key for any successful projects, really attributed to those two elements of mindset, positive mindset, and also to constantly willing to learn versus having attitudes should be done a certain way.

Lucinda Wong  13:36

Right? Because a lot of times, I mean, it may fall on the contractor in your mind. And if you don't ask why, there are other variables that may be the contractor is not expressing to you. And of course, with every project, there are other people that they're relying on to and you might not know that going into it, it might just seem like getting caught up in hearing your neighbors passing by, "Why isn't there any work on your house?" Things like that, that you hear, but then they don't know what's going on. I think it's important to not let it affect you and do a little more digging and then you'll find out and you have to be patient.

Grace Mase  14:12

And truthfully, just because just in general professionals, who decided to pursue in construction or tend to be in their mind, they're clear, because they know exactly how things are playing out. But sometimes they may not be as effective at communicating outward to share the insights with you or how their plans are mapping out. So that's where the miscommunication could happen, this expectation will be misaligned. And so one of the good advice you offer is always asking questions and learn and figure out why and then figure out how if that they can't provide that information to you.

Lucinda Wong  14:46

Right, and I think that's also an area that could get stressful is because in your head there are all these open items in your head and you're not sure when they need to be solved. You're not sure the order of when they need to be solved. So I think what helped me was I started putting it all down on paper, and making sure to have a meeting high, medium, and low, and having the architect and the contractor help to figure out what is high, medium, & low, which one is in which items are, the decision is in the homeowners’ court, versus which items are in the contractor's court or the architects, and which ones are most important? And I think seeing it on paper and being able to pinpoint what needs to be solved first helped me not get so stressed out, I think that was pretty important as well.

Grace Mase  15:38

That's a great tip about actually, your training as a project manager. So you understand the concept of managing a project. No matter the complexity, you break things down into chunks where you can digest even at the task level, you're now able to break it down to the next level, the high, medium, and low to understand what this what's the impact, and what's involved and what decision you need to make, for the team to move forward. And so having that control or almost like a dashboard of how your projects operating and continue to take control of it is key to be able to know everything, all the pieces, how they come together, even though you may not need to know how to use a hammer to nail the walls, but you actually do need to know the overall arching of the progression of the project.

Lucinda Wong  16:25

Right? Because I mean, a lot of them you can't, as a homeowner going through this for the first time you don't know which items which decisions have dependencies and which ones don't, and which ones can kind of live out on their own. And you make a decision when you want and which ones are tied to other downstream things that might delay your project if you don't make that decision. And sometimes it's not communicated clearly to you. So I think it's important to try to ask those questions to be able to figure out if you are the one that's causing the delays because I think that was my biggest worry was, what do I need to do? And what do I need to make decisions on, and also being able to have ample time to make those decisions? With every decision for the house, it's we don't know very much about it. We did a remodel a while ago and everything's constantly changing. So I wanted to make sure that we had enough time to do the research and not make a hasty decision because every decision that you're making is so permanent, it feels, so just to be able to have the time to make it and not delay things.

Grace Mase  17:30

And now let's shift a little bit, you're a mom, you have two adorable kids. They require a lot of attention, and managing projects requires a lot of effort. How did you go through that running through the project and while taking care of kids during this COVID period?

Lucinda Wong  17:47

Well, thankfully, I'm not working right now. So I think that helps. But I think with the knowledge that I've had working within project management lifecycle, I think it has helped me, which is interesting, it has definitely helped me in this realm of helping to manage this project from a homeowner's perspective. Because of COVID, there was a lot that we couldn't do, which sometimes is a good thing. For example, we couldn't go to tile stores and look at tile. So I think sometimes when you're given a lot of time, you waste more time looking at tile, and going to 100 different stores. But when you don't have that time, sometimes it serves you, but you're able to make decisions quicker. With the kids, thankfully, we're so blessed that we have a place to live during this time. I think what's tough was not knowing when we're going to move back into our house because of COVID, and wanting to have our own space away from our in-laws, in the sense that we don't want to bring, we want to keep them safe. That was the main concern, but having kids and everything I think if it is stressful, I think anybody going through it, I've gone through it before. And I don't quite remember what decisions were made. I think we picked carpet by just googling what's the top carpet of the year. So I think you could do it. If you have not that much time or more time. It just depends on maybe hiring the right professionals to help you through it. If you don't have the time. And if you have more time then and you like doing this, then you just have to be able to do some research on your own and have the communication with the folks working with you on the house.

Grace Mase  19:29

So with your kids, were they involved during the design phase, or were they part of these kinds of discussions with the renovation of their rooms particular?

Lucinda Wong  19:37

Well, they did pick they wanted teal tile and they got it. They actually really loved this process of, we've driven them by so many times and they've actually seen everything from the ground up and actually, I've learned a lot about the process. I mean we all have as a family and they've seen the design in the beginning. They knew how their room was going to be. I think they really enjoyed this process and to be able to have their own space later on.

Grace Mase  20:08

And what about during this design process or construction phase? I assume there will be some discussions that you have to have with your husband or partner deciding what is the right thing you want to pursue or just buy. Were there situations where you feel like you have to compromise and how did you reach that? And how did you navigate through those discussions?

Lucinda Wong  20:28

Well, thankfully, we have similar tastes. So there was, I've heard that it is hard when husband and wife have completely different views on what's important. We're similar in some things, I think, there were certain items, such as my husband's toilet that he wanted, and there was no compromise. So you definitely have to pick and choose what's important. And I think we did have those discussions in terms of one of our rooms was going to be an office, but then we didn't quite need that as an office space, yet we both, especially after COVID, we both value, the ability to have space, a quiet space to work out. So we've had to kind of alter how we were going to use the space that we're going to have. I mean, there's certain things he cares about more than I do. And I just let him make those decisions on his own. And he will do a good job polling people asking, and I just leave those things that he values more to make decisions on. We haven’t involved in everything together with some things I don't even know what appliances we have, honestly, I'll see you when we move in.

Grace Mase  21:34

I think it's great that you guys figure out your strengths and what your preferences or what things that you value most, and then divide and conquer and focus on and get things or finish these tasks together in parallel pathing effectively. Love hearing how your girls were involved from the ground up and able to see this coming together. And I mean, what a phenomenal opportunity for them to recognize this is their childhood homes can be built from the ground up. And they were part of the discussion. They were part of this decision-making process. I'm sure it gives them a lot of confidence to know that it's like, I got this. I know how, they may not know everything, but they understand the general concept, and it's fantastic. They're engaged at that level.

Lucinda Wong  22:14

Yeah, no, definitely. It's a class on remodeling, and we add to what we've learned during COVID.

Grace Mase  22:22

Now, looking back, if you were to go back a year ago, what would you tell yourself?

Lucinda Wong  22:27

If I had a time travel back, I think it's about making sure to understand the bids that you're getting, I think and also getting multiple bids is important. Now that I look back at, you know, some of the bids that we've gotten, don't get wowed by maybe a contractor that comes in flashy cars and, and is able to produce a 3d image of your house and what its gonna look like. I think that we were almost wowed by all of these bells and whistles up front. And the contract that we got now that I've reviewed it again, with a new set of eyes, that contract, we could have really paid a lot more money, because a lot of the allowances, what I didn't understand before what I understand now, it was written in a way where later on, we would have had to pay a lot more money on tile work, woodwork, things that were not included. Where the other contractors were supposed to include those in the bid. I think what was helpful is we had the architect, have a file so that we were able to try to compare contractors bids apples to apples, I know it's not quite, you can't, it's hard to do that. But I think it's essential to at least try to have contractors compare it that way. So you get a good sense of who's going to overcharge you on certain items. And if you don't have that document, then there's a chance that once you sign that contract, you may not know what you're paying for and where that money is allocating. So if you wanted to go off and buy your own garage versus the one that's in the contract with the allowance, you may not know how much money in that contract is allocated for a garage, for example. So I think being able to have a contractor that is willing to put all that on paper so that you can refer back to it, I think is very important. So it helps with your comfort level throughout the process of the project as well.

Grace Mase  24:27

That's really good advice, as you're finishing up. What are the top three things that are you looking forward to when you move back to your new home?

Lucinda Wong  24:34

Well definitely the office, that turned into a gym, like I know it has to feel very zen so it could be yoga and cycling. I think now, as we bring a new world where working out at home is important, just like working from home is important. I think having that space is going to be great. And then also I think having a good backyard space, once that's done. I think a lot of people when they do their remodel, leave landscaping for maybe a year or two later, but in this new world that we live in, where backyard space is so essential to be able to even hang out with family and friends, we value that. And that's what's hard is we know that we need to spend that money right away versus being able to have the opportunity to wait a year or two if we ever want anybody to visit us. I think having the loft area upstairs, an ability to see the kids while they're doing their homework, while we're cooking downstairs, having that direct view is something we're also looking forward to, and just more lights in the house. And having a smart home, I'm not exactly sure, that's my husband's area. I know he's trying to learn and make the house smart. So I think that I'm going to look forward to all those things.

Grace Mase  25:53

Well, I'm super excited about your new home. I can't wait for you to move in, and I can't wait to see everything come together. I'm very excited for you and thank you so much for sharing so much wisdom with all of our homeowners and this is where, as a community, we got help each other and your wisdom definitely would transcend for many projects forward. So, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Lucinda Wong  26:18

Oh, of course anytime. Thank you so much, Grace.

Grace Mase  26:22

Thanks for listening to this episode of Revivify Podcast, where we spoke with Lucinda Wong, and hope you enjoyed listening to her about her experience of renovating her home. We're committed to supporting you through the home improvement projects. Thanks again for listening, and we'll see you next time.