Fred A. Bernstein

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Post-Renovation Depression

The contractors are gone. So why do I feel blue?

Published in The New York Times, February 22, 2007

AFTER finishing a renovation that nearly doubled the size of her house in Mountain View, Calif., Anne Toth should have been celebrating with Champagne from her new G.E. Monogram refrigerator.

"People said it would be a great relief when it was over," she recalled of the project that, for a while, had left a huge hole in the back wall of her house. Instead, she said, "there was a huge hole in my life."

Suddenly, there were no more decisions to make. "I wasn't rushing to the home improvement store to pick out faucets or paint or drawer pulls. And I wasn't up at 3 a.m. obsessing over backsplash tiles," Ms. Toth said. "And I felt empty." Not only that, but with the renovation complete, she said, "I was in mourning for the possibilities that were."

Ms. Toth calls her condition "post-renovation depression." And while, she said, "they haven't yet started dispensing Wellbutrin" - an anti-depressant - "at Home Depot, they might just have to."

While remodeling is often portrayed as a nightmare - with delays, cost overruns and scary contractors - some say it is more like a dream they would rather not wake up from.

Kevin White, a clinical psychologist in Providence, R.I., said that "acute depression" can follow the end of any major project. "It's like an artist finishing a painting or a writer finishing a book." Mr. White, who has renovated several houses in New England, said he could "understand the feeling of disconnection after the complete submersion" in a renovation project.

Renovating - like planning a wedding or caring for an infant - is "all-absorbing," said Jill Marquiss, who recently redid the kitchen of her 1920s bungalow in Baltimore. For months, the constant shopping was "a kind of rush, a narcotic," she said. "When I realized that I had to stop, it was a drag."

Part of the problem was "suddenly having more free time and not remembering how to fill it," she said. To her "complete and total surprise," she even began cooking in the kitchen that she and her husband, Michael Norris, had spent almost a year refurbishing.

In some cases, the reason for post-renovation depression is obvious: The renovation was a flop. In other cases, the renovation went well, but not as well as in the renovator's fantasies. "The light shines down in a way that makes clear that the backsplash tiles aren't perfectly straight," Ms. Toth said of her new kitchen. (She had chosen tiles of "taupe-colored limestone with tinges of blue-green and lots of little bits of shells and fossils.") And though that's a small problem, small problems loom large when you know you have just finished a once-in-a-lifetime project. Whatever the results, Ms. Toth said, "they're never going to be as good as what you imagined."

But the letdown may also reflect a shattering of the myth that a room is more than just a room. "There is a place where I unconsciously believed that remodeling the kitchen would remodel my life," said Ms. Marquiss of Baltimore. But it didn't. "The kitchen was done, but I was still me and Michael was still Michael."

Post-renovation depression may be particularly acute among people who don't have office jobs. If you work at home, or not at all, renovation can become a kind of dream job: employees show up every morning looking for instructions, and there's nobody to overrule you.

David Dangle, the president of Joan Rivers Worldwide Enterprises, and his partner, Sam Byrd, a former opera singer, have been renovating their Manhattan apartment almost continuously since they bought it in the early 1990s. One big reason, Mr. Dangle said, "is that I miss the process when it's over."

Mr. Dangle, who used to design jewelry with Ms. Rivers and now runs her company, said, "I've always loved construction." Mr. Byrd said he gave up a career that required frequent travel in part because he enjoyed working on the apartment. At one point, that meant doing physical labor, he said; now it means supervising workers.

Over the years, the couple have redone their loftlike apartment in the Flatiron district in stages, adding a bathroom here, a storage wall there. "We've taken it to the junkie level," Mr. Dangle said. Now their architects, Adam Weintraub and Mishi Hosono, have designed a weekend house for them in Pennsylvania. With the house under construction, they are already talking about their next apartment renovation.

"There's a walk-in closet that I'd like to do properly," Mr. Dangle said. And the master bathroom, with pedestal sinks and brass hardware, "is kind of traditional - it's not who we are anymore." As for the adjacent bedroom, also fairly traditional, "We'll probably remove the moldings."

One result - or maybe it's a cause - of all the renovating is that the two men have become "best friends" with their architects. "There's a room in the new house that we refer to as Adam and Mishi's room," Mr. Dangle said. The men have even vacationed with the architects, partners in Koko Architecture & Design, and their two children.

Mr. Weintraub said he has seen other clients become enamored of renovation. "They start out very fearful. As they get into it, they start to enjoy it. And they end up saying things like, I want to be an architect' " - in the hopes of somehow staying involved in the process.

Ms. Toth, in California, doesn't want to be an architect. She already has a full-time job, as the privacy policy manager for Yahoo. But at the office, she said, "you can spend weeks on a project and you don't see any visible progress." By contrast, with her renovation, there is tangible progress almost every day.

During her kitchen renovation Ms. Toth began blogging, partly as a way of testing the blog feature of Yahoo! 360. But as the renovation ended, she continued blogging, and her topics turned from the choice of ranges to a wide range of emotions. She said, "Blogging was a catharsis."

And she found others to help her, including an online soul mate named Irene Au, who had just finished renovating a house in Palo Alto, and was also blogging about the experience.

Ms. Toth recalled that when she wrote about feeling let down after the renovation, "Irene immediately posted a comment sharing my sentiment. We've joked that we should start building spec houses together as a form of post-renovation depression therapy."

Ms. Toth said she still fixated "on all the things I could have done differently." But now that she, her husband and their three sons are settled into the enlarged house, she knows she won't be renovating again anytime soon.

Instead, she said, she is constantly making suggestions for renovating other people's homes. "I say, If I were to redo this space, I would do this or that.' They're probably really insulted."