While Lacey Soslow was growing up, her mother, Audrey Soslow, sold real estate in the suburbs of Philadelphia: “She sees the character in dumps and knows a good deal,” says her daughter. A few decades later, Lacey, the former director of marketing at Terrain, bought a South Philly extreme fixer-upper and Audrey helped her get the work done. The two discovered they make a good team, so Audrey gambled on another needy row house and conferred with Lacey every step of the remodel. When that sold, they decided to officially become house flippers: they call themselves Matriarchy Build and in addition to overhauling houses themselves are currently spearheading a movement to “get tools into the hands of women.”
The two take great pride in their work: “We were seeing cookie-cutter rehabs stripped of original details and outfitted with dark wood floors and speckled granite counters: signifiers that people think spell fancy. We’re out to save the old while updating in a clean and simple fashion,” says Lacey. They’re also very hands-on. To get the work done efficiently and economically, they typically hire a builder to buy materials and oversee the crew but act as their own general contractor. Naturally they’ve learned a lot from each project. When we first met Lacey at a Terrain event, she started filling us in on their adventures—and we enlisted the duo to share their key advice. Here are the Matriarchy Build nine essentials.
Photography courtesy of Matriarchy Build, unless noted.
1. Do all of the foundational and exterior work first.
It’s natural to want to move on to the next phase of your project, but ensure the house is sound before you begin interior work. That means replacing windows and putting on a new roof if needed.
This happened to us: On a project a while back, we added two decks to the back of the house. They were complete and sealed, but then water started to leak in: water is a constant headache of old house life. We had to add a step as a water barrier and have the decks sealed again, and then again, before we were good to go inside.
Lesson learned: You need a solid shell—and it doesn’t make sense to rush the work or to skimp.
2. No construction detail is too obvious.
When you’re functioning as the general contractor—or even working with a general contractor—you have to spell out every part of the plan, and never assume everyone is up to speed. Someone we know had a contractor demo the wrong bathroom.
This happened to us: On one of our projects we decided to add polished marble tile in a classic Greek Key pattern in the entry. We ordered the border pieces, the corner pieces, and the mosaic sheets to round out the center: Carrara Bianco Greek Key Nero, Carrara Bianco Greek Key Corners, and Carrara Bianco Honed Mosaic Tile from the Builder Depot. It all seemed so clear. When we stopped by to check on the progress, we found the floor almost complete: a crisp border around tiny marble squares…but on closer inspection, we realized the border pattern wasn’t aligned properly. We had to order new tile and redo the edges. Of course for the second attempt we printed out several examples of the pattern along with close-up detail images. And while the redo was in progress, texts with photos helped to clarify the tough-to-communicate elements.
Bottom line: No one cares about the details like you do, so never hesitate to over-communicate.
3. Your prized possessions are another person’s trash: label what stays.
What you consider charming—a stained glass transom, original wallpaper, an old hall light—your crew may assume is being replaced. So make sure you are clear about what’s staying put. And take the time to spell out what goes where.
This happened to us: When renovating a 1915 South Philly row house, despite being crystal clear with our contractor that we wanted to keep all the amazing old details, we walked in on Day One of demo to find half of the tin ceilings crushed and thrown away. Luckily the crew hadn’t gotten to the kitchen and we were able to keep that ceiling. We realized that when you’re tackling a whole house, the GC isn’t necessarily talking to every person in the trenches. We also learned that in addition to communicating clearly, it’s wise to create physical reminders: use spray paint to show where something is to go, and mark Do Not Remove in painter’s tape on everything you want to keep.
Bottom line: Work orders often get spread like a game of telephone. To avoid miscommunication leave visual signs.
4. Create a spreadsheet of all your materials, fixtures, paint colors, and furnishings.
You’ll need to revisit these selections over and over again, to share and reshare with your GC and/or subcontractors. Start keeping a list of all the details from the get-go.
This happened to us: On our first project, we didn’t create a master and found ourselves searching through emails over and over again for the same specs.
Bottom line: To avoid future hassles, collect all your project information in one place.
5. Triple-check your materials on arrival.
On work sites, packages tend to pile up but they’re not always opened. It’s wise to make sure that what you’ve received is exactly what you were expecting down to the color and finish.
This happened to us: Two houses ago, we planned for all-chrome fixtures in a bathroom only to find that the installed shower handle was brushed nickel. It was pretty visible and we had ordered it in chrome, so we had to replace it. And in another bath, we put in a double vanity with exposed porcelain undermount sinks—but these arrived unfinished and in slightly different colors. At our request a third sink was sent—but it, too, wasn’t a match. To get coordinating sinks, we ended up painting the bottoms a clean, glossy white. It worked surprisingly well.
Bottom line: Inspect boxes on arrival—and avoid losing time down the line.
6. Inspect and approve all tilework before it’s grouted.
Dark grout hides dirt but it also highlights badly aligned tiles. And since you can’t make changes after grout is applied, it pays to be an eagle every step of the way.
This happened to us: The Greek key entry isn’t the only tilework we’ve had to rip out. A while back, we noticed that a half wall of grouted kitchen tile had corner edges that didn’t meet. Fixing that required pulling out the work piece by piece. Lacey has since taken an all-woman course that taught her to wield a tile saw and lay subway tiles herself.
Bottom line: If you’re going for a contrasting look, you need solid tilework.
7. Add dimmers to all the lights.
It’s far more cost-effective to install electrical wiring during the construction phase than after your walls are closed up.
This happened to us: A regret on one of our first house projects is that we only used old-fashioned flip switches.
Bottom line: Controlled lighting is a worthwhile upgrade in every remodel: pony up for dimmers.
8. Spring for a quality thermostat, fire detector, and carbon monoxide alarm.
When you’re spending a lot of time renovating, go all in and modernize the crucial monitoring and safety elements. And do it early on.
This happened to us: The thermostat on a project was at 68—but turned out to be malfunctioning and blowing an insane amount of heat into the house: Our first bill was for $1,000. We now plan to install a Nest at the start of every remodel.
Bottom line: Safety and accuracy come first.
9. Build in bonuses for completing the work on time.
If you’re working on a whole house, chances are your timeline is going to evolve, like a lot. The scope of work and deadlines should all be in writing. Ultimately, though, your timeline will slip; that’s just realistic. A tip that can keep everyone motivated is bonuses for on-time or early completion. This, of course, depends on working with a GC you trust to do the job right.
This happened to us: A recent project took a year to complete. The one before that was done in three months. True, the scopes differed, but not enough to explain such a wide range.
Bottom line: Work crews respond well to incentives. They also need to be kept happy: stopping by with sandwiches, snacks, and drinks is an easy way to keep the project positive and cranking.
We’ve got much more Expert Advice on remodeling, including:
- 11 Money-Saving Remodeling Tips from a Hollywood House Flipper
- 11 Tips for Making a Small Room Look Bigger
- The No-Cost Remodel: Carmella’s 7-Step Plan to Clutter-Free Living