The 3 family house my parents bought in the 1970’s was $10,000. They paid cash for it and it was near condemned. The 3rd floor apartment had a toilet right smack in the middle of the kitchen where the sink was supposed to be and it had a ladder to access the 3rd floor stairway. My parents never had a lot of money, but they always had this falling apart fixer upper house..so what to do?
For as long as I could remember, Babci had the fix up one room/year rule. And by fix up, I don’t mean the kind of remodeling we do now at her new house, where we gut something to the studs and start from scratch. I mean every year, a room was painted, possibly wallpapered, and generally spruced up. My dad smoked, so our house got pretty dingy. When a tenant moved, we also repainted the whole place. And so, we trucked along this way for nearly 25 years. Eventually my mom had all new replacement windows throughout her house. She couldn’t afford the $11,000 expense to do the whole house full of 33 windows, so we did it one window at a time. After about 5 years of buying windows every time my mom squirreled away an extra $250, it was done. The pay as you go model also helps you from being overwhelmed by the enormity of what needs to be done in a home. Saving for 1 window is a lot less intimidating than saving to fix up your entire house.
When I bought my house it was much the same way. Rather than live in our brady bunch house forever, we did one room at a time. For 11 years, our house had at least one room always under construction. We implemented a modified babci technique. We had more money for home improvements than she did, so rather than doing what they call a lipstick job, we did each room properly. So along with the paint, we replaced doors and windows and light fixtures. We paid cash for it all and now it looks great. We even pimped out the kitchen with granite and stainless. It’s funny because a colleague’s wife came over who was new to town and now she intimidated by our nice house and is embarrassed to have us over hers because it’s not as nice. We laughed when her husband told us because trust me, no one was intimidated by our house when we first bought it. In fact some people were struggling to say something positive about it. Instead of being ashamed, we threw a disco ball in our 70’s foil bathroom and had a theme party complete with guests dressed like John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever. We were proud of our ugly little house. (Okay, maybe I was too cheap to buy a disco ball, but I did make giant construction paper flower power decorations for the party.)
One thing I’ll never understand is why people live in a place for 10 or more years, do nothing and then fix it up to look nice when it’s time to sell. Wouldn’t it have been nicer to just live in a spruced up house all along?
Advice on Remodeling on a Budget
- You don’t have to have a lot of money to improve the look of your home or apartment. For my mom’s current 120 year old fixer that we bought at the peak of the market we need to be careful what we spend because it’s worth less than we paid. I’ve gotten light fixtures, towel racks, hardwood flooring, tile, paint, molding, shelving and even her bathtub second hand. I use Craigslist,my local Restore and of course, tag sales. You can also look in the free section of Craigslist or Freecycle for things like wood for framing, molding, etc.
- A patch job is better than doing nothing – If you have peeling paint, or wallpaper, or stained walls, it still looks nicer to have ugly wallpaper that’s stuck to the walls properly vs curling up at the corners.
- Paint goes a long way – paint’s getting expensive but I’ve bought gallons of paint for $4 or less at Restore, the mistake isle at Home Depot and at tag sales. Even when babci was living in her little log cabin in Poland, she whitewashed the soot off her walls every spring to make the house look clean and cheery.
- Don’t remodel more than one room at a time unless it’s necessary – This is the rule I have a hard time with, especially at my mom’s current house. We had 5 rooms gutted at her house at one point but there were literally hunks of plaster falling off the walls everywhere. I was pregnant with my 2nd at the time and thank god because otherwise I think my husband would’ve killed me for doing it. Luckily they are all mostly rebuilt now. We just need to do some finishing touches.
- Break Down Your projects into manageable Chunks – like the replacement window example, don’t stress if you can’t afford to remodel a whole room at once. Save for bits of it. Break down a kitchen remodel into chunks..buy one appliance at a time if you need to. Who cares if they all don’t match all at once. Eventually they will.
- Love your home no matter what it looks like – Perhaps it was because I had vision, but I never saw my house as the ugly duckling it was. I instead always pictured it in it’s “after” state. When I looked in my yard, I saw the places where I wanted our flower bed to be and where grass would someday grow instead of weeds. Love your house because of it’s potential and because many people don’t have the luxury to have one. Since I always grew up in apartments my whole life, it had special meaning to me to live in a place where I didn’t have to worry about disturbing the neighbors.
Tell me, what kind of homeowner or renter are you? Do you ever paint just for the heck of it because you want a nice abode, or are you in the opposite camp that has better things to do with their time? Before we moved to our current home, we actually painted the entire apartment we lived in.