When we started renovating our house last August, the basement was the last thing on our minds. We knew we wanted to eventually finish the basement and make it part of our living space, but it felt very unimportant in light of the massive undertaking the rest of the house required.
All this junk was waiting for us on day 1
In the first month of home-ownership, we needed to accomplish two things in the basement: remove the junk and get a new hot water heater. The previous owner left a lot of ‘stuff’ in the basement (including 8 mattresses and a bathtub full of expired and unused condoms), so a junk hauling company removed it all the day after we closed on the house.
We needed to replace the broken hot water heater in the first month of owning the house. At the time, we told the plumber to place the hot water heater in the same place as the old, one. THIS WAS OUR FIRST MISTAKE! We were overwhelmed by all the house-related decisions we were making in that first month and we didn’t think critically about the type or location of the hot water heater. In hindsight, we should have selected a tankless gas heater instead of the gigantic electric tank we went with, and we would have put it along the exterior wall instead of plop in the middle of the living space! At the time it felt like a huge feat just to get hot water working in the house so we patted ourselves on the back…and then we stopped thinking about the basement for many months.
Then…in January, a general contractor added plumbing for our two new bathrooms upstairs and connected it to the sewer line that’s accessible in our basement. They dug a huge hole in the floor, connected the pipe, and then covered the hole with cement. We started thinking a little be more about how we wanted to use the basement: where should the washer and dryer go? How big do we want the basement bathroom? When we removed the load bearing wall upstairs, we had to put two additional support columns in the basement which presented new challenges for the layout of the basement. We did some thinking and then continued to ignore this space while we finished the kitchen, the bonus room, and the master bathroom.
By the time summer rolled around, it was time to get serious about finishing the basement. It seemed like a huge undertaking since it’s about 600 square feet, including a staircase, the laundry, and a full bathroom. Before we could start making it look livable, we had to fix one huge glaring problem:
All the pipes and electric wires that feed up into the rest of the house were hanging below the ceiling joists. This prevented us from installing a ceiling in the basement because the pipes and wires ran across them. So Jeremy did something I didn’t think a homeowner could DIY: he moved all of the pipes and plumbing himself (except the gas line….for which we hired a plumber).
The old cast iron radiator pipes were hanging reaaaaal low
Jeremy diligently spent the better part of three weeks tinkering away in the basement while I provided emotional support. Well, I did help to remove the old cast iron boiler pipes, but that was it.
To remove the cast iron pipes from the now-defunct boiler system, we first tried to smash the elbows with a hammer and mallet, at the suggestion of our plumber. It was basically impossible, so then we used our reciprocating saw with a metal blade. It worked MUCH easier, but it was LOUD.
Then Jeremy cut the copper plumbing lines that were hanging below the joists and connected them to modern plumbing connections using the Shark Bite brand of plumbing materials. This man learned how to cut, move, and re-establish all the plumbing lines in our entire house by googling it and watching YouTube videos!
He was able to move all the plumbing up into the beam, and run it around the house along the beam in the basement. There was only one or two major hiccups when he forgot to glue two of the connectors together…which we discovered when we turned the water on and it sprayed all over the place. Ahhhh the joys of DIY remodeling.
After Jeremy moved all the plumbing around, we decided it was worth it to move the hot water heater from it’s unfortunate location in the middle of the living space to underneath the stairs. We emptied the hot water tank by hooking up a hose and sending the water outside to an outdoor drain. Then we cut the connection and literally swiveled and danced the hot water heater across the room until it was in place under the stairs. Jeremy hooked it back up to the water lines and voila–we had successfully hidden the hot water heater and reclaimed a large portion of the basement for ourselves!
In my next post, I’ll share how we framed out several walls in the basement and installed electric outlets and ceiling lights, and how we insulated the basement to protect from the cold and sounds from upstairs!
Today we reveal our master bathroom. It took over 8 months, but we finally made it. And It. Is. Glorious. All of our hard work paid off in a huge way, and I am proud to share the work that went into finishing the bathroom.
In June, we were finally ready to install the vanity and linen closet! We ordered ours from Ferguson Showrooms instead of buying a pre-fab one because we wanted it to fit the entire room from wall to wall. Basically we ended up placing three separate cabinets next to each other and then installing a countertop over it–just like you’d do in a kitchen. We went back and forth about the linen cabinet because it was not cheap but we wanted it to match the vanity and maximize as much space as possible for storage. We decided to go for it and purchased the linen closet and I REGRET NOTHING. Just look at it! It even has a pull-put laundry basket at the bottom. Form and function never looked better.
The vanity came in four pieces. We had to drill holes in the two sink cabinets for the hot and cold water lines, plus the drain. It took a lot of measuring, a few mistakes (which luckily will be hidden in the bottom of the back of the cabinet under the sink), and these drill bits to cut perfect holes in wood, but we did it!
To install the vanity, we had to address the challenge of the floor being slightly sloped in one direction. We thought we’d be able to shim them but it was proving too difficult. So our friend Chris came over and helped us to screw all three of the vanity cabinets together to create one long piece, then we lifted it over the hot and cold water pipes into place. Pure genius! Then we shimmed it to make it more level, and secured it in place by screwing the vanity to some studs
We hired a handyman cut some filler pieces to fill the gaps on the left edge of the linen cabinet and right edge of the vanity — it was just a few inches of blank space. When designing and installing kitchens and bathrooms, filler is your friend! It’s way better to fill an empty inch of space then for your cabinets to be too large to fit!
We went to countertop heaven in Maryland and selected a remnant of an all-white quartz counter. Hot tip: you can buy leftover pieces at great prices from other people’s countertop projects at marble and granite yards. And they are really fun to walk around! They installed the counter the next week, including these undermount sinks.
Ok, back to the shower. Jeremy installed this shower system by Delta. Technically the color is called Champagne Bronze but it’s a brushed brass look. I don’t love this product. Our kitchen faucet is also Champagne Bronze by Delta and they both suffer from showing very obvious water spots. I brush them clean about once a week with my towel but it’s still mildly annoying. Unfortunately there are not many affordable options for ANY fixtures in brushed brass, which is why I stuck with Delta. The pictures below show the fixtures how they normally appear with water spots, and after I cleaned them with a towel.
When we tiled the shower walls, we cut holes for the plumbing so Jeremy could attach the fixtures. Our general contractor had to come back to fix one of the roughed-in pipes but luckily we hadn’t closed up the wall behind the bathroom yet so it was easy enough. Then we tested both shower heads in a moment of truth and luckily the shower heads functioned just fine! I was sort of expecting a pipe to burst and flood our entire house, but thankfully we don’t live in a movie and that didn’t happen.
For the glass shower door, we got five quotes from glass companies that ranged from $1900 to $5000. The range of quotes we get is proof that it ALWAYS pays to get at least three quotes. We didn’t want to blow up our budget so we selected the cheapest option (they had many good reviews so we hoped for the best). And they did an EXCELLENT job! We ordered all the shower hardware in satin brass, to match all the hardware in the room.
Here’s a close-up shot of our perfect shower niche
Months earlier, Jeremy had the foresight to plan where the electric wires for the lights should go, so now that he was ready to install the lights, all he had to do was cut a hole and pull the wire through. It worked perfectly for three of them, but the fourth wire was stuck behind a stud (blarg! so close!). He did some adjusting and cut a few holes in the drywall and the stud, but eventually he pulled it through and installed all four lights.
We purchased our wall sconces from Amazon and they are beautiful. I actually bought 4 different styles and brands of light, and this one by far was the best in terms of quality, and at such a great price. I won’t go over the inner struggle on selecting a style, but suffice it to say that picking one light from an infinite pool of possibilities is difficult. I didn’t want everything to be too ‘matchy-matchy’ but I also wanted it to look a designer who knew what she was doing was involved. I think this one is juuuuuust right.
The mirrors are actually medicine cabinets! They are huge, so they fit tons of stuff, and they are pretty! The faucets are also from Amazon, by a lesser known brand called Symmons. Again, finding ANY faucet in brushed/satin brass was proving to be a small fortune, to the point where I was going to give up and get one in black. Until I stumbled upon this brand. They sell several brushed brass faucets at a fraction of the price of the established brands.
We decided not to install any window treatments, but rather frosted the bottom half of the window for privacy. And we luckily don’t have back-door neighbors! We painted the walls the same color as our hall bath, Sleigh Bells by BM, and it brings some much needed color to an otherwise black, white, and gray room.
Our bathroom is everything I hoped it would be. It was so difficult making all of the design choices. I was nervous that it would look wrong, or things wouldn’t match, or it would look like someone who didn’t know how to design a bathroom obviously did this one. But it looks amazing and I couldn’t be happier. Jeremy did so much work to do all the final tasks and finishing touches. I am so lucky that he knows how to AND enjoys doing both plumbing and electric work!
For reference, this bathroom cost us just over $11,000 in materials, and we easily saved over $20,000 in labor costs by doing it ourselves. Purchasing slowly over the course of eight months definitely helped to soften the blow of such expensive materials. We are hoping that the quality of the materials plus the addition of a new sweet-ass, baller master bathroom will increase the value of our home to make it worth it. But even if it doesn’t, my love for this room and the amount of happiness I feel when I’m in it is worth every penny.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
My measurements were PERFECT
open column framing with newly wired switches and outlets
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.