It seems like a very Adult thing to do, a renovation. And yet here I am, writing in a diary and living at my mom’s down the street from the A&W I worked at all through high school, feeling like a teenager all over again. I wake up with disorienting panic that always takes a minute to place: am I anxious because I’m not sure if I ordered enough tiles for the bathroom floor… or is it that I’m late for a shift that started in October 2003?

Our “new” condo is 40 kilometres away in this moment, but somehow, when Max (my husband) and I were literally standing in it this weekend, picking up the keys, it felt even further from our grasp. After packing up the rest of our life into UHaul crates for temporary storage, walking into our fixer-upper felt like less of an “inspiring next chapter” and more of a “terrible burden oh god what have you done.”

The Before Pics (Well, Present-Day Pics)

On paper, we know this is a great idea.

We found a diamond in the rough — all smoke-damaged, 850 square feet of it — and nabbed the best per-square-foot price on a Kitsilano condo that anyone has gotten in the past five years. (Shout out to our realtor, Kristy Masaro!) It sort of snuck up on us, in a way. On our house tour this past winter, hunting for a two-bedroom, we spent all of eight seconds actually viewing it — the cigarette smell drove us out almost immediately, and we referred to it for the rest of the day as “Stink Haus.”

But then, that night, we were still talking about Stink Haus. In those eight seconds we spent in its worn front hall (where all the closet doors had been torn out for reasons unknown), a little seed of potential had planted itself in our brains. What if this was our chance to make a place our own? What if we could finagle a home improvement mortgage and some sweat equity to actually build something that fit us just right?

Bids were due that night. We threw one in on a whim, and then accidentally won. We drank margaritas, cackling, terrified, reeling: did we just… buy a Stink Haus? Oops?

You would think that working at this design magazine for 10 years, with dozens upon dozens of renovation stories under my belt (here’s one! here’s another!), I would’ve had at least an inkling of an idea for where to begin. Or what things cost. Or what permits are. But I knew nothing. Because ultimately, my training is more about looking at beautiful pictures and having opinions about them. So I started a Pinterest board, drank some more margaritas and called in the experts.

We put Ben Leavitt from PlaidFox Studio to work, translating our chaotic vision into something liveable, and the man delivered. (Scenes from a design meeting: “So I think we can all agree, the vibe for the bathroom is Funky Minimalist 1992 Japanese Night Club?”) He understood implicitly that we weren’t in this to create blank-slate resale value: we wanted Pure Joy All the Time. (No pressure.)

And so: yes to a blue faucet! Yes to trippy PoMo tiles that look like they have a Rorschach test on them! Yes, green bathroom floor with little colourful specks like a fun confetti party! Yes, Japanese-inspired millwork on the wall!

Renderings of a Beautiful Future (Courtesy of PlaidFox Studio)

Now, we have the renderings and construction plans in hand.The design is officially done. We have a shopping list and a whole directory of tradespeople listed in my phone, everyone from “Alex Demolition Guy” to “Alex Tile Guy.”

It’s time to make Stink Haus into a Stink Palace.

WEEK 1: Tear It Down

This is either the very best thing to do during a pandemic or the worst.

On the one hand, it’s great to have something to look forward to, and a project to keep our conversations and minds occupied for hours on end.

On the other hand: we’ve catapulted ourselves to the ‘burbs for the foreseeable future and it’s really not safe to ask too many people to get sweaty and help us. Also, we are soft, white-collar workers who don’t know what we’re doing. (Did I mention that part?) Either way: it’s too late to turn back now.

We had assumed initially that we would get a demolition team to gut the place, but when we got the quote, Max’s dad made us an intriguing counter-offer of: do it yourself, you Millennial goons. (Not literally, but this was inarguably the subtext.)

So, this week, we have become both Surrey residents and our own Wrecking Crew.

Max started with the floors. (I stayed home to do the important work of harassing cabinetmakers for quotes by phone in an attempt to pretend I have any control over my life.) He and his retired parents (wearing VERY SERIOUS MASKS) tore out sticky laminate and carpets that can only be described as “haunted.” They refused to take breaks so I am really hoping the labour board does not come for us.

Down came the crooked blinds, and off came the dated trim. Later this week we’ll attempt to scrub 30 years of cigarette stench out of the walls, and dismantle the cabinets and plumbing fixtures without flooding the place and/or killing each other, and see if anyone out there on the internet wants some questionable appliances. (DM me if you’re in the market for a 1994 washer-dryer combo!)

The tiles are cemented to the floor, and we keep finding bulkheads in new and surprising places. We know we’re supposed to “cap” the plumbing once we take the fixtures out, but don’t actually know what a “cap” is: a noun or a verb or both? All in all, it’s going to be a busy next few weeks. (For example, here’s what’s on my to do list: 1. Figure out how to rent a jackhammer. 2. Figure out how to use a jackhammer. 3. Quickly research jackhammer injury first aid, just in case.)

But once we’ve got a blank slate, in will come something new — hopefully a fresh, fun condo that at least looks something like the dream house in the renderings. We’re putting one foot in front of the other and I’m calling Designer Ben crying a lot, but things are in motion, which is more than you can say for a lot of life right now.

Follow along on Instagram and come back next week for more Renovation Diary updates!

NEXT: Weeks and weeks and weeks more of this >>