How to Tackle a Fixer-Upper

This is the second time I’ve done it- purchased a home denying the reality that it was a fixer-upper. I always look in all the wrong places for advice on how to tackle a fixer-upper. Visions of Chip and Joanna Gaines dance in my head. I get carried away with fantasies of a bathroom remodel fully equipped with a dog shower and foot-soak tub. Then, reality hits and our budget holds us back from creating MTV’s next episode of Cribs.

We moved into our house the first week in April and knew we had a laundry list of projects to tackle. Our inspection showed tons of issues and thankfully our incredible realtor was able to negotiate well on our behalf. We didn’t ask the sellers to fix anything. To be frank, we didn’t trust them to safely fix the electrical issues.

The History of Our House

After living here for a few months, we have been able to learn a tiny bit about the history of our house. About a decade ago, it was owned by a man who did tons of renovations and work on the house himself. We saw old pictures, and it was clear that he took great pride in his home. As we started to work on things, we could see evidence of what once was. (Beautiful landscape lighting, a lawn irrigation system, a well-constructed cedar fence, Belgian block driveway, etc) His daughter actually reached out to me on Instagram, and it was cool to talk to someone who grew up in this house. Her father has since passed, and I like to think he would be happy to know the house is being cared for again. Since it was built in 1919, there is still so much more for us to discover.

What Was “Wrong”

Where do I begin? Let’s start with the exterior. It hadn’t been painted in nearly a decade and about 1/2 of the windowsills were completely rotten underneath. Thankfully there were no termites or mold issues from the rot. The shutters were completely crooked and missing from some windows. The yard was also a disaster as it hadn’t been cleaned up in over a year. The beautiful garden beds throughout the yard were full of leaves, dead branches, exposed wires, and a broken irrigation system. There were also exposed wires and pipes in the side and back yard from where a pool and hot tub had been once been. The people we bought the house from had removed both the pool and hot-tub, but they never finished safely removing the electrical wires. The lattice around the deck was completely rotten and broken. The crawl spaces on the sides of the house were covered with rotting plywood boards. It was evident that some creatures had been making a home underneath our porch. Also, the gutters were hanging by a thread.

Our inspection report suggested that the furnace was “operating well beyond its expected life” and our oil tank was rotten and held up by cinderblocks. The basement was covered in mouse droppings, and there was a mess of wires leading to the outside through a basement window. The kitchen had been renovated in 2010, but it was so brown and some of the cabinets were starting to peel and crack. All of the appliances were nearly a decade old, too. The living room housed a custom dry bar that took up about 50 sq. feet of space. It still baffles my mind as to why it was put there in the first place. Entertaining vision gone wrong?

I always roll my eyes when people cite paint colors as a reason for not liking a house. One thing that house-hunting has taught me is this- paint is an easy fix. The paint colors in the house ranged from yellow and green on the exterior to turquoise, pea green, and purple on the inside. For two people who are big fans of a neutral color palate, it was too much for us.

Some “Before” Pictures

What We’ve Done

Many people have commented about the amount of projects we have tackled in the last three months. Having lived in a fixer-upper condo, we knew what a great feeling it is to enjoy the fixed-up parts. With our condo, we did many projects little-by-little. We only had two months to enjoy a fully- renovated home before listing it for sale. (Obviously selling the condo was our choice, but still. We felt like we didn’t have time to enjoy all the things we worked so hard to fix.)

Here is what we have accomplished so far at the house:

  • Replaced the HVAC system (added central air and a new oil tank)
  • Cleaned up the basement and replaced the washer/drier
  • Painted the exterior
  • Replaced the rotting windowsills, removed the shutters, and replaced a few pieces of bad siding
  • Replaced the lattice around our porch, sealed up the crawl spaces, and installed protective mesh fencing to keep critters away
  • Full yard clean-up (moved some plantings, mulched around the perimeter of the yard, placed landscaping paper to stop weeds from growing)
  • Added raised beds for herbs and veggies and cleaned up the side yard (installed a walk way and added some plants)
  • Outdoor electrical clean up (this was a mess- removed exposed live wires from the yard and under the house. Major fire hazard!, rewired some of the landscape lighting)
  • Total kitchen renovation (replaced cabinets, counters, backsplash, 2/3 of our appliances. Demo revealed that the stove was hardwired to the wall with exposed wires- fire hazard!)
  • Removed the dry bar from the living room
  • Painted the interior and hung window treatments on the main level and in the bedrooms (every room is Decorator’s White- keeping it simple)
  • Refreshed the bannisters
  • Replaced sections of fencing where there were gaps
  • Installed security cameras on the exterior and entrances of the house (You can never be too safe!)
  • Spruced up the outside with some great new furniture finds
no products

Some After Pictures

What We Have Left To Do

In short- so much! Our full bathroom upstairs needs to be updated, and we would love to finish the hardwood floors. We still have some original plumbing that needs to be replaced and plan to tackle that in the fall before it becomes a huge issue. We also found out that the irrigation system mainline was cut, and repairing it would be a huge expense. For now, I will continue watering the lawn and plants each day with our hose.

This spring and summer, we were able to see that many of the plants in our yard are dead. On a positive note, I was able to revive several boxwoods and four hydrangea bushes in the front. Our driveway is lined with arborvitaes, so we will need to replace the dead ones at some point.

The “Five-Year” Plan

I was never one for a “five-year” plan, but here I am using those words. After being here for only three months, we have fallen in love with the neighborhood. We are getting to know all of our neighbors and genuinely enjoy going for our nightly walks that often turn into social hour. We can’t imagine leaving this neighborhood. Our “less-than-five-year plan” is to add a large-scale addition to the house connecting it to the garage. We want to add a bedroom, full bath, half bath, office, and main entrance to the house. Finally, the siding and roof will most likely need to be replaced then, too. Since I’m slightly Type A, we already got a rough quote for this project, and started saving for it.

My Biggest Piece of Advice on Tackling a Fixer-Upper

My biggest piece of advice for those looking to buy a fixer-upper: Only look at houses way under your budget! (I wish I had followed this when I purchased our condo years ago as a single lady.)

Ben and I both loved the idea of fixing up a house and making it our own. We looked at a few houses in Ben’s hometown, where we both teach. The only houses in our budget were basically unlivable. The reality was this- if we bought one of those houses, we would need to live in it- as-is- for years until we could afford to make it what we wanted. We knew that if we wanted a fixer-upper, we would have to look way under our budget. I didn’t want to make the same mistake I did with the condo. In our case, we knew this would take Ben’s hometown off our location list. We also knew that we could potentially get more space if we expanded our search to a bordering city. We honestly could not be happier in our neighborhood, and this community just feels like home.

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