Design & DIY

Should I enlist my friends to help with cottage renovations?

People renovating the house with paint all over the floor

Q: “We have decided to embark on a major addition to our tiny cottage, but I’m worried that we might have bitten off too much given the cost of building materials. My husband thinks we could save by asking friends to provide labour in exchange for use of the new cottage. Some of our friends are quite handy and have helped out with projects in the past. He’s convinced it’s a great idea, but it doesn’t feel right to me. Am I just being a Nervous Nellie?”

A: Just reading your question and briefly considering some of the possible consequences is very much like watching a slow-motion crash sequence where a tractor-trailer laden with rolls of sheet steel jackknifes across three lanes of a busy highway. You don’t know for sure what’s going to happen next, but you can say with absolute certainty that it will end badly for everyone involved. Granted, that is a dark simile, but if you are already working on cockamamie schemes to save money before you’ve even pulled a permit, I’d say there are some Godzilla-sized holes in your master plan. Nervous Nellie? More like Sensible Sally.

In these troubled, inflationary plague years, major cottage construction is a lot like that old chestnut about buying your first luxury yacht: if you have to ask how much extra it will cost to build a pickleball court on the helipad of your 71-metre Feadship, you probably can’t afford to buy a luxury yacht. My point is that if you are already concerned about costs, you might already be in over your head. Especially if you haven’t amassed a sizeable buffer against increases caused by volatile material prices, labour shortages, and supply chain foul-ups ad infinitum. When concrete prices double—if you can get any—some free weekend labour will save you diddly squat. But there is a bright side. The fact that you have not yet begun your voyage into Construction Land means you can choose to cancel the project before everything goes pear-shaped.

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Just for fun, let’s say you pull the trigger on this venture, predicated on a supply of help from your handy friends. First off, has your hubby bothered to ask if they are willing and able? And even if your pals are keen to help, how would that work exactly? It takes a lot of person-hours to construct a big addition. How many friends do you have? Will they just show up on weekends or will they cash in holidays and sick time to help you out? In an ideal world, your homies would include a mason, a carpenter, an electrician, a plumber, and a couple of labourers, all of whom are otherwise unemployed. But what are the odds of that rare blessing?

Still, let’s say this scheme is so crazy that it actually works and your besties drop whatever they are doing to help realize your cottage dreams. Are you sure they would all get along? Also, someone has to be the boss who tells others what to do and when to do it. That person should probably be you or your husband. But Carol is a way better carpenter and has more building experience than either of you. Will she be cool with that pecking order? The biggest hurdle in this imaginary construction project will be apportioning value to different forms of labour and then converting that figure into a specific amount of time at the future new cottage. Jared built forms and poured the concrete footings, foundation walls, and floor to make the basement. Jenny spent the same number of hours cleaning up the job site and staining the deck. At the end of the project, is their labour worth the same amount of happy time at the new cottage? Keep in mind that this ain’t the Soviet Union: if I was Jared, I’d be expecting many weeks of prime-time summer at the new place, and I might be a little put out if Jenny got the same. You can put a price on plywood and insulation, but you can’t put a price on friends. And this plan seems like a purpose-built vehicle for losing all of them over a short and unpleasant period of time.

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If you absolutely must follow through with the build, maybe it would be better to employ a more simplified approach that avoids all the labour valuations, skillset discrepancies, and hurt feelings you are sure to get with your volunteer crew, never mind the very real likelihood of slipshod, unprofessional work. Instead of asking your friends for their time and brow sweat, ask them for money. Yes, it would be a bold manoeuvre. And, yes, you would have to make your plea on bended knee with hat in hand, but it might be worth a try. You’d be looking for a series of small loans at a fair and agreeable rate of return to see the project through. You would then pay the loans back according to a set timetable or—and this is the good part—the lenders could choose to accept periods of occupation at the newly renovated cottage, with the “rent” being deducted from the amount of their initial loan. Of course, to make it worth their while you’d have to make the offer so appealing that they’d be fools to pass on the opportunity (which means a special “lender friends” rate that is a fraction of the rental rates in your area). Ultimately, it could prove to be an impossible sell, especially if your friends don’t have any money. In fact, you’d probably make more money just renting the cottage to strangers and paying back your friends (who will no longer be able to use the place) with the proceeds.

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I’d say you are in a bit of a pickle. Never mind the fact that using your friends as un-hired hands is bound to have negative outcomes, no matter who does the build, your neighbours will be ticked off by the noise and disruption of construction. And if they are anything like the cottagers in my area, they’ll immediately go bananas when they learn you’ll be renting out the new place to finance the construction. How long will that take? Expect angry looks and petitions to your lake association. Sure, a big new cottage would be great, but in your case, staying small could keep you out of serious debt, save multiple friendships, and spare you the hostility of your cottage neighbours. 

Maybe it’s time to take a breather and give your project a rethink. Often, when you’re saddled with a bad idea, retreat is the best way forward. Think of it as a tactical withdrawal.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2022/2023 issue of Cottage Life.

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