Renovations can be a foundation of sorrow

When your Saturday begins at 6am with the sound of a jackhammer and, after three weeks, you still have to shower under the cold stream of a garden hose, it's difficult to see the upside of home renovations.

Even Channel Nine's The Block – which is sponsored by hardware store Mitre 10, a company that presumably wants to encourage viewers to see home renovations as a desirable way of life – doesn't exactly paint a rosy picture. Contestants struggle to stay on budget, complete things on time and be pleasant to their partners. To renovate is to suffer.

Australians are obsessed with watching others suffer – both The Block and Seven's House Rules manage to capture over a million viewers each. Our obsession with these shows is not just a form of schadenfreude – taking joy in others' pain as they confront the Sophie's tough choice between their favourite bathroom tiles and their second favourite, less expensive, bathroom tiles.

Such shows as The Block and House Rules paradoxically inspire homeowners to renovate. Somehow the petty squabbling and financial disasters the contestants face is not a deterrent.

It's easy to see how the idea of home renovations might appeal on the surface. It seems like a good way to construct a house that's perfect for your lifestyle, your tastes, and your comfort. Plus, property is expensive and for many people, home ownership is their main form of financial security. Why not invest in that? Why not make that exorbitant mortgage fully work for you?

Because there's a catch. In order to pursue your dream home, you have to go through a nightmarish process. Your house itself becomes an unfinished project, a place to see fault and room for improvement rather than feel at home in. Parts of it become completely unusable.

When the renovators aren't working to pay off their home loan, they're working on their home itself. They are planning, budgeting, rearranging, procuring council permits, tiling, resurfacing, painting, and so on. The whole house becomes a pressure chamber of frayed nerves from the pervasive sounds of manual labour.

Even when the bulk of it is done, it can take years for those final touches to ever be attended to. Some surfaces never get painted, the wardrobe doors might not get put in. These little details niggle at you enough to induce the discomfort of unfinished business, but somehow there's never enough time or motivation to get it all done. A renovation is never really over.

My favourite DIY home show is Britain's Grand Designs (which has an Australian version). In each episode a different couple explain to the host, Kevin McCloud, how they're going to build their huge, elaborate dream home, and McCloud usually tells them it's a very nice idea but too ambitious. He does not seem to have an idealised view of DIY. He's sceptical. 

The couple insist it'll be fine and the building commences and McCloud continues to express doubt as the scaffolding mounts and the couple face unanticipated problems. The home always takes much longer to complete than expected. The couple always run over budget, in one episode by over more than £1 million. 

The dream home is built in the end (minus those niggling little details). McCloud predictably expresses some admiration of the glorious and innovative finished product but we're left wondering: was it worth it? 

 Erin Stewart is a Fairfax Media columnist.