One year in: a look back and ahead

Somehow an entire year has passed since we closed on the house and started the most challenging, rewarding, and time-consuming undertaking of our lives. We haven’t posted on the blog in a while because frankly, we are just too busy working on the house! But the good news is we see the end in sight. We finished our master bathroom (a reveal post is coming up shortly), and we’ve started doing a TON of work on the basement. But today I’m going to pause and think about all that we’ve learned in case anyone reading this is thinking about doing a similar DIY home renovation.

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Protective gear, a positive attitude, and google are crucial to a successful DIY home renovation

So what have we learned? In no particular order:

Nothing is a simple or fast as we think it will be. But things do get easier over time as we apply new skills over and over. For example, I remember the first time we installed drywall, I was so intimidated that it would be hard, or it would look bad, or we wouldn’t figure out how to do it. Fast forward, after installing it in many, many, many rooms, we can now install drywall in our sleep. We estimate how long a new task will take after googling it and watching a bunch of how-to videos. I usually over-estimate the amount of time it’ll take and Jeremy usually under-estimates it. We faced so many time-consuming delays that we’ve learned to roll with the punches and have a flexible timeline.

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One of the first pieces of drywall we installed.

Buy all the tools. We started this project with just a few hammers and one lil baby drill. Every time we started on a new task or room, we ended up buying a new tool. Some tools can be rented, but everything is so cheap that buying just made more sense. Keeping the tools organized has been a struggle so we make time about once a month to go around the house, gather all the tools, and organize them into boxes by category. We bought:

  • A miter saw, a reciprocating saw, an oscillating saw, and a circular saw
  • A random orbital sander
  • A nail gun compressor with two different types of guns
  • A gun powder actuated nail gun (to drive nails into concrete floors)
  • A drill-driver, a hammer drill, and an impact driver drill (all for different uses)
  • A ton of drywall tools
  • A ton of painting tools like brushes, rollers, poles, drop clothes, etc.

And so much more! The point is, don’t be afraid to buy a new tool and learn how to use it.

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Youtube and google are everything. We have learned how to do 95% of our home renovation tasks by googling it. We literally watch videos and read how-to instructions online before buying the tools and taking it on ourselves. A lot of people assume because Jeremy is an engineer and a male that he has done this type of work before. But the truth is, neither of us have done any sort of home renovation work before. Jeremy has always been handy and confident with tools (he could always fix any broken appliance), but we are BOTH learning as we go. Jeremy has a natural inclination for learning how stuff works and why certain methods are best. And I have a natural inclination for reading the instructions. So if you think you can’t do something to fix up your house, just tell yourself that you don’t know how to do it yet, google it, and then try it out. We figure that materials cost 1/3 of a traditional home renovation, while labor costs about 2/3 the total price. We have saved close to $100,000 by doing almost all the work ourselves. Which brings me to my next point.

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I learned how to finish the corners of a room by watching a youtube DIYer do it first

 

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Jeremy has learned so much about installing electric outlets, he’s a pro now!

Always get a ton of quotes!! We hired professional help for several aspects of the renovation that we just couldn’t do ourselves. Namely: replacing the roof; installing a brand new HVAC system for the first time; updating the electric box; moving the pluming around in our kitchen; removing and replacing the original gas line in the basement; installing the glass wall in our shower; adding rough-in plumbing and electrical for two new bathrooms; and removing a load-bearing wall. The range of prices that we get quoted are truly mind-boggling. For example, quotes for the glass wall in our shower ranged from $1,900 to $5,500!! For the exact same product! The basement gas line also got an insane range of quotes–from $950 to $10,000!! How is that even legal? It always pays to get at least three quotes, but five is better.

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We went with the lowest quote for the glass shower door and we made the right decision!

Taking on a full gut renovation is a LOT OF WORK. We did not realize when we committed to this project just how much work we were taking on ourselves. It has really changed our lives in a profound way–we have way less free time to socialize or travel, and we feel that we should be working on the house every evening and weekend. After a year of living like this, we are ready for our lives to go back to normal soon. We always have the option to hire help, but every time we consider the costs and benefits of hiring someone, we decide to keep slugging along at our own pace. This home is a huge investment for us, and we are trying to keep as much money in our pockets as possible to make it worthwhile. A single day of work by a handymen costs around $500! One potential benefit from doing it all ourselves  is we can start investing in properties that need more work–because now we can do the work on our own. This past year has been one long apprenticeship in home renovation/construction, and we will NEVER need to hire a handyman again.

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Preparing the floor for new hardwood took several grueling days of work
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Scraping the carpet off the original hardwoods
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Tiling the floor in our bathroom took 4 days

Historic homes deserve love. Our home is 100 years old and luckily had many gorgeous original features intact. We were very careful to keep as many of them as possible, even though restoring them has proven to be incredibly time consuming. For example, all the window and door trim and the staircase banister and railing are original gorgeous solid wood. It took a long time to strip, sand, and paint or stain them back to their glory, but it was so worth it. I’m currently in the midst of restoring all our interior solid wood doors (including removing layers of paint from the hinges and knobs) and let me tell you–its a TON of work. But they are going to last for another 100 years and hopefully bring joy to many people who will live in this house.

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We literally slow-cooked the paint off our door hardware to reveal gorgeous brass!
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Stripping the nasty finish off the original trim
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Restoring the gorgeous staircase

Home renovations are dirty, unorganized, and chaotic. Our house still doesn’t feel like our dream home, because it’s full of piles of tools and old doors, an ugly work table and dirty chairs that the previous owner left behind. And honestly, it is always filling with more dust no matter how much I vacuum. Home renovations produce insane amounts of dust and dirt–especially when you demolish plaster walls. The one piece of advice I wish I had known to follow was to cover all our possessions being stored in the basement  in huge plastic sheets. We did not, and as a result we had to dust and vacuum every single thing we owned before moving it upstairs as the bedrooms and kitchen were ready to be moved into. Also we haven’t had time to fully unpack and move into our master closet, even though it’s been done for months! There just hasn’t been time to get organized and decide where we want things to permanently live in our house, so for now it’s just an unorganized mess. You have to be able to embrace the chaos during a DIY home renovation. For example, we had to remove and re-paint 4 cabinet doors in the kitchen due to a shitty paint job, but then the summer was too hot and humid to spray them outside. So we just didn’t have cabinet doors for about 3 months. In conclusion, your house will not look like the big reveal at the end of an HGTV show for a looooooong time. But it’s a process and each day we see progress.

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If living like this doesn’t seem fun to you, then you are right!
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This is what our living room and dining room looked like for a long time

The most work goes into planning and prepping, which is not satisfying at all. The planning part is mental, and includes looking at the existing space and thinking about what the new room will look like, what we will use the space for, and any structural things currently in place like pipes, wires, supporting walls, etc. The prepping part is physical–it includes removing or demolishing any old materials, pipes, wires, and cleaning off or prepping any surfaces for new building materials. Actually installing and finishing floors, walls, ceilings is quite easy once you get the hang of it. The planning and prepping don’t come with the satisfying feeling of making progress, but they are both vital steps!

 

 

There are a TON more that I could add but I’ll stop here.

It has been a whirlwind of a year. When I go back and read some of our earliest posts, I genuinely can’t remember everything we’ve already put into this house. It almost feels like childbirth–I’ve just blocked out the difficult parts so that I can keep on going.

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Without a doubt, the worst day so far was moving this pile of 45 pieces of extra-long and heavy drywall into the house. NEVER AGAIN

Up next, we plan to finish our basement. It was a scary mess when we bought the house, but we plan to add a ceiling and some walls, paint some of the brick walls, and add a floor. Jeremy has spent so many hours removing or moving the pipes and electric wires so that we can close up the ceiling, and we are almost ready to do it!

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The ‘before’ photo of the basement
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This is what the basement looked like one year ago

But we hope to be finished with the basement by November, and then we can start the fun part–decorating!! We don’t have much furniture of our own in the house besides Jeremy’s loved and hated couch, but we are very pleased to announce that we have found it’s replacement! Once we get the couch, I’m ready to furnish the rest of the living room. I already have a master plan in my heart, but it’ll take a while to make it a reality. Like I said, this is not like an HGTV show with a hard deadline and a big reveal, but rather a slow evolution. In any case, we are ready to take on the last interior space in the basement, and then we will move on to the exterior!

Rage and tears on move-in day

We interrupt your regularly scheduled and curated DIY content to give you some real talk about home renovations: it is hard and stressful and anxiety-ridden. Today I’m going to be honest about some of the harder aspects of our renovation, especially in light of the fact that we moved out of Liz and Harry’s house before Christmas and have settled into our half-finished home.

We decided to move into our house after one bedroom and the guest bathroom were fully finished and our kitchen was almost fully installed. We moved in the week of Christmas and spent two nights in our home before traveling for 5 days to visit friends and go to a wedding in other states. When we arrived back to our house after 5 days away, I immediately lost my shit and burst into tears.  You see, we have worked on our house almost every day since August 15th, but we always had Liz and Harry’s warm and welcoming home as a safe-haven to retreat to each night. I feel like we have pushed ourselves out of the nest and barely know how to fly . But we wanted to move into our home when it became livable so now was the time.

In addition to feeling scared to live in a half-finished construction zone, I’m extremely upset with a major purchase we made that is impossible to un-do. I am fully unsatisfied with our new hardwood floors. I cannot believe how easily they dent and scratch. I feel rage pumping through my body every time I notice a new dent (which is constant), yet we are stuck with the floors now that they’ve been installed and our kitchen was placed on top of them.  The hard learned lesson that I impress upon all of you is NEVER to buy Birch floors. We had told the salesman our two priorities when selecting our new flooring were price and durability. He sold us garbage and I will never forgive him! But now I need to learn to embrace the “distressed” and scratched look, because it will be that way for the rest of time.

Finally, I am realizing that my beloved blue kitchen cabinets that I hand painted are very susceptible to dings and scratches. Cue more rage flowing through my body. I thought the expensive Benjamin Moore Advance paint (which is specifically marketed for painting cabinetry) would be durable enough but it is obviously not. So now I need to remove all the doors and hardware, and cover with a polyurethane seal. I’d prefer to wait until spring when the weather is warmer but then I run the risk of many more dings and scratches that would need to be painted over. UGH UGH UGH!! All I can say it thank GOD Jeremy has such a positive attitude, because if we were both miserable about these issues, our household would not be a happy place.

Besides being scared to live in an unfinished home and feeling frustrated at the floor and cabinets, I’m proud to say that our house looks pretty incredible. It’s only half done, but we have really brought it such a long way since we purchased it in the summer. We have a ton of work to accomplish this month, including installing the baseboard trim around the first level of the house, installing the toilet, sink, walls, and paint the soon-to-be new powder room, and put up walls and a ceiling in the back bonus room. Every week there is progress, and I have to keep reminding myself to control the tears and rage and look on the positive side.

Vacation highlights

We spent a week in Iceland and Germany with our good friends David and Catherine. It was a much needed break from the house, which was honestly starting to kill me.

Iceland was fabulous. I felt like an animal that had finally been let out of a cage after 2 months of being locked in our construction site. Iceland is a place to enjoy the wonder of mother nature.

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We drove all around the southern part of the country and took in some of the most incredible views I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. The cold air was refreshing and we actually got to see the northern lights!

In Germany, we spent three days partying it up at Oktoberfest in Munich.

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Oktoberfest is similar to a state fair except LOTS of beer and sausages. We made friends with some delightful people and came away with these incredible outfits to wear on Halloween for the rest of our lives.

We ended our trip in Berlin, where we learned so much about the fascinating history of this city. We also had a drink at one of the best bars in Europe. All in all, it was a great, restful, fun, and adventurous week that we sorely needed to remember what life can be like without construction looming in the background. Our next big trip will probably be our honeymoon in April, so please send any recommendations our way! I’d like to go glamping in the Amazon but I could be convinced otherwise.

Where to start?

signing papers

Today we closed on the house. It was not an easy process because the family that lived there for the last 65 years was still there down to the last minute trying to get all their stuff out. But after several frenzied and confusing hours, we were able to close the deal and get the keys. The house is still a mess but its our mess now.

The junk will be removed from the house and it’ll get the deep clean it so deserves early next week. Then…we get to work.

Where to start? A little real estate lesson for you first time home-buyers out there: it’s impossible to get a mortgage on a home that is not livable. So in order to buy this home, we were required to include a bunch of renovations on top of the loan for the house. So this month, our goal is to achieve the following:

1. Install a new roof to replace the old one! The old roof is…not doing so hot. See exhibit A in the upstairs stairway landing. The beam in the attic gave up on life and cracked in half, which I’ve been told is not ideal.

Big old hole in the ceiling

2. Bring the home into the 21st century with an electrical Heavy Up. This basically means updating the electric panel so the home has greater capacity to power things that didn’t exist 100 years ago (like dish washers, washer/dryer, AC systems, hot water heaters, etc.). Gone will be the days of the power outages when you dry your hair while someone is using the microwave.

3. Replace broken boiler system with a brand new HVAC system, including for the first time in it’s illustrious 100-year history, AIR CONDITIONING! I know a lot of people have a lot of opinions about the benefits of radiator heat over pushed air but this is my blog so I don’t wanna hear about it. We decided to remove the boiler and radiators for several reasons that were right for us, and that’s all that matters.

On top of all that, we were required to rent out our current home in order to get the mortgage for a new one (because we decided not to sell our current home). So we must.be.out. of our current place by September first. Where will we go? Only time will tell.