Slugging it out over home renovations

Buying a house is easier than renovating it, but how happy one is in it is more important than how it looks

We were only five minutes into the discussion, but it was already going badly.

"And what type of sofa do you want?" our prospective interior designer asked, pen artistically poised over a floor plan of the home we had just bought.

"L-shaped," I said instantly, picturing myself stretched out lazily like a couch french fry, watching TV without having to find a footstool or turn my head.

My husband shot me a look.

"An L-shaped sofa will take up more space," was all he said, but I could tell he wasn't happy that this unilateral decision was now being enshrined in ink on our floor plan.

But I wasn't the only one who didn't see the need for consultation.

"What about your dining table?" inquired the designer, clearly intent on driving a wedge in our marriage.

Without hesitation, my husband whipped out his iPhone and showed the designer a photo of the exact dining table he wanted.

"Where is that table from?" I asked - quite courteously, I thought, considering he had never mentioned it before.

"I found it online," my husband replied blithely.

"It's... oval," I said, raising my eyebrows eloquently to convey the warning that the designer would charge more if he had to source for unusual furniture.

Unfortunately, my husband didn't speak Eloquent Eyebrow.

"Yes, it would be safer for our kids next time than a table with sharp corners," he said, a self-righteous future dad.

I wouldn't have expected it, but imagining our dream home was turning into a nightmare.

In many ways, buying a home is considerably easier than trying to renovate it.

Home purchases, after all, can be distilled into a fairly universal equation: location - taking into account distance from the city centre, an MRT station, schools, restaurants, shops and other amenities - plus the condition of the property plus the tenure of the land plus the size of the home plus any other personally desired factor.

Renovations, on the other hand, are more of an art than a science.

Everyone sort of has an idea of what he wants his house to look like, but no one knows exactly how to achieve it - or even whether it will look as good in real life as in his mind.

For our previous apartment, for instance, our contractor had talked my husband and me into installing a wall-hung mirrored display case that he said would add "oomph" to our dining room.

But its awkward position meant that it kept getting in the way of our dining chairs and I was the one who ended up saying "oomph" every time I walked into it.

Yet most home owners would agree that renovations are as important as the property purchase itself - they can turn a cookie-cutter flat, apartment or house into a personalised home.

Of course, the problems arise when you have more than one person living in a home.

Having been married for six complacent years, my husband and I thought we had a similar vision of what we wanted our home to look like.

We were both sold on the idea of a minimalist, functional, Zen-like style, filled with air and light and pale wood furniture straight out of a Muji catalogue. Together, we leafed through decor magazines, bookmarked our favourite designs and nodded approvingly at each other's choices.

But when we sat down to discuss our renovation with a bunch of interior designers last weekend, we realised we hadn't thought through all the details.

For one thing, neither of us has a particular talent for minimalism.

My husband collects transforming toys - two of each, so he can display one in car mode and one in robot mode. I, on the other hand, could probably dress all 17 seasons of Project Runway using just my summer wardrobe.

To store all our junk, my husband was keen on building enough floor-to-ceiling cupboards to rival a warehouse.

But I wanted to keep our common spaces and clean white walls as uncluttered as possible, so as to allow more air and light into our home.

"Fine," my husband said. "Then I'll turn part of the bedroom into a boys' den."

"What on earth is a boys' den?" I asked incredulously.

"You know," he replied. "For me to put my Transformer toys and PlayStation and other boys' things."

"Why can't you just put them in the living room?" was my response.

"Because a boys' den is cooler," he insisted. I couldn't argue with that because I couldn't really understand it.

For some couples, disagreements can help improve their relationships. For us, arguing over renovation works improved our relationships with the interior designers and contractors we were auditioning - just that we never liked the same ones.

One suggested converting our unusually high ceiling into an attic for storage, a proposal I had qualms about but that my husband immediately loved.

Another recommended keeping the ugly but sturdy dark parquet flooring, which I thought was a great idea but which my husband flat out rejected as "not sufficiently Muji-like".

And on it went. Like marriage counsellors, the designers gently but unerringly exposed our underlying differences and poked at our relationship sore spots.

But, as with marriage counselling, my husband and I soon found that exhaustively talking over about our differences led to better mutual understanding.

He explained that the mysterious "boys' den" would allow him to invite his friends over so he could spend more time at home, while the attic could let him keep his toy collection neatly without obstructing the air and light flow I was obsessed about.

And after I clarified that I only wanted to keep the ugly floors so he could save the money for his attic and den, we were on good terms once again.

The sad truth is that - based on past experiences - no matter what renovation plans we agree on, they will probably fall short of our expectations and somehow still exceed our budget.

What is key to remember, and what we almost forgot, is that it's not how good a place looks that makes it a home but how happy you are in it.

We still have a long way to go in our renovation process, but with any luck we'll both get what we want: a home that our spouse loves.

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