Home renovations don’t have to be super expensive, especially for the DIY families willing to put their children to work.

Be forewarned, though. Many children start out as lousy workers. They can be slow, sloppy, and sometimes whiny. On the positive side, they are cheap labor willing to work for candy, ice cream, and toys. As they grow, their demands increase, as with the case of my teen who recently agreed to cut firewood so she could have her first taste of beer (that I knew of).

Here are some simple tips to exploit your children:

  • Promise not to yell at them unless they do something incredibly stupid.
  • Know they will do something incredibly stupid and be ready to apologize for yelling at them.
  • Create a list of bribes you know will motivate.
  • Involve them in projects they have a stake in.
  • Make it fun by turning tasks into a game.
  • Create a schedule to complete a job, then triple it. You may have do-overs because the first attempt came out comically bad.
  • Gather supplies ahead of time. Proper prep is key to keeping the peace.
  • Reward with double the amount of candy you promised. (They will feel more appreciated and they will be more forgiving of your yelling.)
  • Give clear safety instructions, such as wearing eye protection.
  • Supervise, supervise, supervise!
The original 350-foot cabin at Lake Harmony in 2009. It had a hole in a deck and numerous other code violations that needed to be corrected.
Barbara Boyer
The original 350-foot cabin at Lake Harmony in 2009. It had a hole in a deck and numerous other code violations that needed to be corrected.
The cottage was converted to a two-story house on a tight budget with a DIY plan for much of the work. Here, the front steps are under construction for a second time after the original work had to be redone in 2014.
Barbara Boyer
The cottage was converted to a two-story house on a tight budget with a DIY plan for much of the work. Here, the front steps are under construction for a second time after the original work had to be redone in 2014.

In 2009, my husband and I bought a cottage in the Poconos that provided a glimpse of Lake Harmony through towering pines.

“I love it!” I told my husband, who was more reserved.

The house, which is about two hours from our home in Haddonfield, came with a list of code violations that included a sagging main beam, an inadequate electrical system, leaky roof, and a gaping hole in the deck where a tree sprouted.

We had a two-phase plan: First, bring it up to code. Next, expand.

In 2010, work stopped when my husband became ill with cancer. After he died, the girls and I decided not to sell because, as Dorothy remarked, “Our cabin is a special place.”

A 2013 Facebook post picturing Bella, then 6, and Dorothy, 10, building a sand castle at the lake now seems like an omen. I had joked that day that their skills could be better used on cottage renovations.

In 2013, Barbara Boyer posted on Facebook a picture of her daughters, Bella, 6, (left) and Dorothy, 10, building a sandcastle at Lake Harmony. The memory served as an omen after the girls moved on to bigger and more complicated building projects in the Poconos.
Barbara Boyer
In 2013, Barbara Boyer posted on Facebook a picture of her daughters, Bella, 6, (left) and Dorothy, 10, building a sandcastle at Lake Harmony. The memory served as an omen after the girls moved on to bigger and more complicated building projects in the Poconos.

We became The Pink Squad — a DIY team on a limited budget.

I designed a two-story addition and hired professional contractors. We salvaged whatever materials we could, including wood from the old 20-by-14-foot deck and the cedar tongue-and-groove ceiling after a demolition crew cut off the roof.

Contractors built around the remaining structure, which neighbors referred to as the house on top of a house. It was studded on the outside and then wrapped with rough-cut pine. They also built the second-floor decks.

Inside, the top story was left with bare studs and rough plumbing.

The Pink Squad’s first job was to remove the wood and cinder blocks that served as front steps.

“Cinder block races!” I announced to get my petite, naive workers to move the blocks out of the way. Bella, in her pink nightgown, was all in, rolling with all her might to beat Dorothy.

Dorothy Ware, 12, secures the steps on a deck she and her family constructed in 2016.
Barbara Boyer
Dorothy Ware, 12, secures the steps on a deck she and her family constructed in 2016.

Then Dorothy and I, over the course of many weekends, built the front steps and a small side deck. It was a gallant attempt, but the local, no-nonsense code inspector dubbed our steps Old Smokey, a reference to the former comic strip Smokey Stover that often featured Seussical-type household items. The steps had to come down.

“What is this supposed to be?” he asked about the shoddy side deck and then he helped remove it immediately.

After I studied DIY instructions online, we started over, this time with a level, carpenter square to calculate angles, and clamps — very important — to hold the wood secure while bolting in place.

The front steps turned out well, the side steps even better.

With the help of two friends who had their own home-improvement experience, we learned how to drywall and do basic plumbing. Dorothy and I did as much drywall as we could, but hired a pro to finish some tough spots. We painted, trimmed, and installed carpet. I tiled the bathroom floor and had help installing the toilet and sink.

Barbara Boyer (left) and daughter Dorothy Ware do touch-up work on the drywall they installed in 2017 to finish the second-floor renovations at a Lake Harmony cottage in the Poconos.
Bella Ware
Barbara Boyer (left) and daughter Dorothy Ware do touch-up work on the drywall they installed in 2017 to finish the second-floor renovations at a Lake Harmony cottage in the Poconos.

The girls were growing weary of “another project?!”

I reignited their ambition by pointing out that the second-floor vaulted ceiling had space for each of them to have a reading loft. They got to work designing the opposite sides of the room.

We started with Dorothy’s. A railing would attach to the ceiling, and she had to figure out the angles, a skill she learned when we rebuilt Old Smokey.

Installing one of the joists proved tricky. Both girls straddled six-foot ladders and supported the wood on top of their heads, grasping it with both hands while I attached the board to the studs.

“Hold it steady,” I yelled numerous times at my work crew, barely tall enough for amusement park rides.

We also worked on the gigantic mosaic behind the wood-burning stove on the first floor. One of the main features is our family tree made of recycled bathroom tile. Above the tree is the Latin phrase, Post Nubila Phoebus, meaning “after clouds, sun.”

Barbara Boyer and her daughters, Dorothy, 16, (center), and Bella, 13, constructed the mosaic behind the stove as part of a large renovation project. They call themselves the Pink Squad.
Barbara Boyer
Barbara Boyer and her daughters, Dorothy, 16, (center), and Bella, 13, constructed the mosaic behind the stove as part of a large renovation project. They call themselves the Pink Squad.

By 2016, I wanted a back deck. By then, Dorothy, 13, had become quite good at using a drill and miter saw. I summoned her to pull the best of the heavy 16-foot boards from the wood pile — a job she hated — especially because Bella was inside coloring and dancing. We planed the decking to give it a fresh look, and I cut the framing to size.

We started building it that November. We sawed, hammered, and bolted the frame in one day, ending at sunset as a light rain and temperatures fell.

If we finished the deck, I promised (bribed) that we could have fun with Poconos neighbors who were expected to arrive in a few days. It was the Mountain Miracle. We finished in under three days — in time for our friends’ visit. Later, when the code inspector came to study our work, he was pleased with our progress. There were a few minor errors we easily fixed.

I’d like to say the lake house is done. But last spring we enlarged the deck, and now I’m thinking some built-in seating would be nice. We also have the mosaic to finish.

Dorothy, now 16, and Bella, 13, are more savvy, negotiating better compensation, such as dinner at a restaurant or cash. They also question my project list.

“Mom, do we really need a wood shed?” Bella asks.

Barbara Boyer (bboyer000022@gmail.com) is a former Inquirer reporter.

Have you solved a decorating, remodeling, or renovation challenge in your home? Tell us your story by email (and send a few digital photographs) to properties@inquirer.com.

Dorothy Ware, 13, learns how to use a miter saw in 2017 as she constructs a second-floor loft at her family's Lake Harmony vacation home in the Poconos.
Barbara Boyer
Dorothy Ware, 13, learns how to use a miter saw in 2017 as she constructs a second-floor loft at her family's Lake Harmony vacation home in the Poconos.