It was late afternoon on a chilly winter’s day in New England when we received a call from our contractor in northern Michigan. I could tell by the tone of his voice that he wasn’t calling with good news. I heard phrases like “rotting foundation,” “septic issues,” and “supply-chain challenges,” then the real doozy: “double the budget.”
We were a year into the renovation of our cottage, and at this moment, things felt rather hopeless.
When we bought our 130-year-old property in northern Michigan in September 2020, we thought we’d be moving in by June 2021. Yet here we are, near the end of summer 2022, and we’re still about six months to completion. Our straightforward project turned into a massive gut renovation that has more than doubled in budget and thrown every possible twist and turn our way.
If you’ve ever wondered why your neighbor’s home renovation is taking so long, there are probably a thousand reasons. Each board pried off the wall of our home revealed a host of unexpected issues. Sudden disasters like a delivery truck driving directly into our cottage and tearing the brand-new porch from the rest of the house only added more delays.
But beyond the mishaps that have plagued home renovations since time immemorial, a perfect storm of economic problems — labor shortages, supply-chain delays, and inflation issues — have been slamming the housing market since the pandemic began.
For us, it’s been an eventful and eye-opening journey. But despite it all, I’m thrilled with our progress. A home renovation is a practice in patience — after all, good things take time.
We snuck into the housing market just before it exploded
I’ve been spending summers in northern Michigan since childhood, staying in a tiny tin-can rental cabin on the shore of Lake Michigan until my parents could afford to purchase an old stone cottage on Torch Lake in the sleepy town of Alden.
At 19 miles long, Torch Lake — a glacier-carved jewel with turquoise waters reminiscent of the Caribbean — is Michigan’s longest inland lake. Most of the 100-plus-year-old cottages along the dirt road where I spent my summers were a lot like ours: a shared space overflowing with multiple generations and a rotating cast of visitors for the summer.
My husband and I have always had the option of working remotely, and once the pandemic made that even more acceptable, we dreamt of spending two, even three months out of the year in Michigan. To make that dream a reality (and avoid pushing our luck with my parents’ hospitality), we needed a cottage of our own.
The cost of waterfront property on Michigan’s most desirable lakes has skyrocketed from prepandemic prices. (The lakefront cottage our neighbor sold for $380,000 in 2020 is now valued at just under $1 million.) But there are still affordable properties to be found just off the water.
In July 2020, just before the market truly went wild, we heard that our neighbor was selling his cottage a block from the lake in the same neighborhood as my parents. With very little effort, we secured a “for sale by owner” transaction and a low-interest mortgage from the local bank. The cottage, with its four bedrooms, one bathroom, newly built garage, and just over an acre of land, was ours.
Since the house was built around 1889, it was no surprise that the decor was dated and there were some small (or so we thought) issues to address: The kitchen was oddly broken up between two rooms, the aging furnace was on its last leg, and the stone chimney had become a thoroughfare for bats and birds.
“Very few homeowners see the value in saving these old cottages,” Chris Clore, our contractor and neighbor, told me. “And while some might be beyond repair, there are so many worth saving.”
Chris grew up coming to Alden and has lived here full time for the past few decades. He said he’d witnessed a distinct shift from a time when people expected a lake cottage to be just that — seasonal, quirky, and imperfect — to now, when summer residents want the comfort and scale of their suburban home transplanted lakeside.
We’d decided to give this quirky cottage a new lease on life. With Chris as our guide, we set about making it happen. We had no idea that over the next few years, every headline about the dire problems facing the economy would hit home in a personal way.
The great labor shortage
Much of the US has been hit hard by a lack of workers during the pandemic, but in rural areas like northern Michigan, the labor shortage hit extra hard.
During the 2008 housing crisis, many skilled craftsmen — such as carpenters, plumbers, and electricians — who had made their living working primarily on second homes and vacation homes in rural areas were forced out of their trades or had to move to areas with greater economic opportunity. This worker exodus was exacerbated by the pandemic and an aging workforce. Those who remained on the job demanded higher wages, pushing up costs. At the same time, the demand for new homes and renovations in the area soared as people adapted their homes to function as their office/school/gym. Extra cash that would have normally been spent on dining out and traveling fueled the trend.
“During the pandemic, many residents from downstate chose to ride out the lockdown at their cottages,” Chris told me. “The longer they stayed, the more they desired improvements and renovations. As soon as Michigan’s lockdown lifted, demand for construction services soared, and it has remained high ever since.”
With fewer workers available because of high demand, the delays for our own project started to add up. Though Chris and his father, a master electrician, could handle much of the demolition and construction, they were constantly waiting on workers to execute tasks such as plumbing and tile work. One delay would have a cascading effect — for example, you can’t install the molding until the kitchen cabinets are in, but the cabinets can’t go in until the floor is installed, sanded, and finished. And on and on it goes. Often a small project like ours was of low priority when there were much larger projects in the area that promised a better payday.
“One of the hardest parts has been scheduling. Everyone is so busy that if you have issues (supply-chain or otherwise) that delay a trade, it may be weeks before they return,” Chris explained. “The wood-floor installation was delayed two to three weeks due to the humidity in the house being too high. I brought in a dehumidifier, but when the humidity stabilized, the floor installer had moved on to other jobs, and he couldn’t come back for a couple of weeks.”
Supply-chain issues hit home
Where there are labor shortages, there are supply-chain issues. The National Association of Home Builders reported in June 2021 that materials shortages were “more widespread” than at “any time since NAHB began tracking the issue in the 1990s, with more than 90% of builders reporting shortages of appliances, framing lumber and OSB,” a key construction material.
During lockdown, manufacturing slowed around the world while demand for consumer goods soared. As retailers tried to meet that demand, they ran into not only manufacturing shortages but specific part shortages. All of this was exacerbated by shipping and receiving issues at ports worldwide. It gets even more complex when you bring in international trade — for example, the US more than doubled its tariffs on Canadian lumber in November, causing prices to soar higher.
“The unpredictability of the situation was the hardest part,” Chris said. “There would be weeks where lumber was impossible to find but plywood was plentiful, and a few weeks later the opposite was true.”
While windows normally take about six to eight weeks to arrive, we waited close to 20 weeks for ours. Five months after we placed our order, we’re still waiting for our back door to ship. Often, by the time supplies finally arrived, the date we’d reserved with the craftsmen needed for the installation had passed, and we’d been moved to the bottom of their waitlist. Around and around we went. Chris called in some favors with his old crew members, and two of them — retired brothers — did us a solid and beautifully tiled our bathrooms. If Chris hadn’t done that, we might still be waiting on our tile installation.
Whenever possible, we used salvaged materials, like the gorgeous cherry floors Chris bought years ago at an auction and the refurbished light fixtures we saved from the original cottage, to avoid shipping delays. As for the brass light fixtures we ordered six months ago from a boutique lighting company … well, we’re still waiting for those to arrive.
The benefit of time
Because this is our second home, we haven’t had the pressure of a deadline. We haven’t had to find different living arrangements during the renovation, and because my parents are just down the street, we’ve had the privilege of spending the summer on the lake anyway. I’ve enjoyed being near the cottage over the past month so I can pop in and make final decisions on things such as the floor finish, the lighting placement, and other small but crucial details.
I’ve taken my time choosing furnishings, hunting through local vintage shops and cruising antique shows to find the perfect pieces. In other words, I’ve been given the time and space to make thoughtful choices, to fully grasp the entirety of the project, and to never feel rushed into making a decision. It also helped that we got an extra year and a half to pay off the (unexpectedly mounting) renovation expenses.
“Not having a time push allowed us to improve the house considerably,” Chris said. “We pulled apart the house, got to know its structural weaknesses, redesigned the layout to achieve the best flow possible, all while maintaining the look and feel of the home. The house is well built, but years of quirky fixes and cheap additions left it in need of an overhaul. I’m grateful we had the time to get to know the space.”
A motto I try to adhere to, whether I’m buying clothes or a new couch, is “Buy less. Choose well. Make it last.” Our renovation, without intending to, embodied this sentiment. Though our cottage took years to complete, we hope it feels timeless and classic — and ready to hold steady for another 130 years.
Christine Chitnis is a writer and photographer based in Providence, Rhode Island.