Babci on Remodeling: Do 1 Room per Year

by Sandy L on February 1, 2012

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 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.

Our Bathroom Before Remodel

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.)

Our Intimidating Kitchen


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?

Babci's old bathroom

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 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.


{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

growingmygirls February 1, 2012 at 11:38 AM

We just finished last year a remodel and addition of two bedrooms for the children. It was an enormous and draining job that my husband oversaw, partly because he couldn’t sit by the sidelines and partly to save money. The main contractor was flexible and some things we bought through him, but most we bought ourselves, also from Craigslist,(18-foot long pine beams for rafters, old Mexican doors with frames), and the Restore (beautiful green ceramic sink for one of the bathrooms.) We spent a lot, but we saved a lot too and came in well under the average square footage costs for our area. There are plenty of things I’d do over, but I’m glad it’s done — I don’t do well with half finished projects lying around and we have plenty, and it looks great.
Your kitchen looks wonderful too!


Sandy L February 1, 2012 at 5:03 PM

GMGirls – Yeah, another restore you get to help habitat for humanity and be a little greener by reusing stuff. Wow..that’s a big remodel. We never added onto our home. That just seems like a ton to worry about. If we ever go bigger, we’re moving.


Money Beagle February 1, 2012 at 12:17 PM

I like that idea a lot. Focus on one room at a time. You’ll never have a house that’s completely ‘new’ nor will you have one where everything is out of date. Somewhere in between is fine and dandy for most!


Sandy L February 1, 2012 at 5:05 PM

Money Beagle – yes, I have family who bought a gorgeous house that was only a few years old, but they never did a thing to it and 10 years later, it was starting to look really dumpy. It didn’t need a lot. Paint would have gone a long way there, even if they just painted a room at a time.


Crystal February 1, 2012 at 3:39 PM

You are inspiring me to start renovating our second floor finally. We painted the great room, kitchen, and downstairs bathroom about a year after we bought our house. We also had the carpet down there replaced with wood laminate the week after. And finally, we replaced the downstairs bathroom fixtures about a month after that. So our bottom floor looks like us. But then we got super lazy and have left the top floor all builder’s grade since no one sees it and we didn’t feel like moving furniture and painting anymore. Maybe one room at a time…


Sandy L February 1, 2012 at 5:06 PM

Crystal – I think like budgeting, you have to plan for a little maintenance every year so it doesn’t all sneak up on you all at once. We also have a paint one side of the house a year rule too which worked great, but then we had kids and ignored it for a few years and suddenly the whole house needed painting and it was overwhelming.


Jeff @ Sustainable Life Blog February 1, 2012 at 5:55 PM

The kitchen looks great sandy and those are some nice tips on remodeling – my parents did things exactly the same way. The largest, most inefficient windows got replaced first, then the ones int he rooms used the most, and finally a 5 piece bay window was replaced last.


Sandy L February 3, 2012 at 5:21 AM

Jeff – yes. slow and steady wins the race when it comes to remodeling..otherwise your house just becomes a big money pit.


eemusings February 1, 2012 at 9:09 PM

“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?”

I couldn’t agree more!

That said there are certain small things I could certainly understand letting slide on a day to day basis that don’t fuss you, but should be tackled in order to present a better look when selling.

I move, on average, almost every year (but hoping to stay put here for a few years) and am not into decorating at all, so I guess you could call me the ultimate home minimalist. I just don’t care about it. All my furniture was free or cheap, is mismatched, and my walls are bare. I like it that way.


Sandy L February 3, 2012 at 5:23 AM

eemusings – well I suppose you would prefer to play music or travel vs decorating, so you’re in the better things to do camp. Yes, I suppose you’re right, that some things are minor enough that they don’t affect your day to day enjoyment of a place.


Jacq February 1, 2012 at 11:10 PM

Sandy – I do the “spruce up before I sell” thing – but it bugs me that I do that. Why? Procrastination, a big job that I don’t want to tackle on my own until pushed to, seeing a house as an investment more than a place to live, and generally being quite oblivious of my surroundings. Also this fear that kids and pets and living will wreck all of the improvements. 😉 You don’t want to know what my dogs nails did to my hardwood floors. 😛


Sandy L February 3, 2012 at 5:26 AM

Jacq – yes, I don’t have any dogs with big dognails to scratch the floor with. I can see how you’d want to de-dog it prior to selling. I know when I was looking at houses, I was immediately turned off my any that had a real strong animal smell to them. One house the hallway smelled so strongly of cat pee, I didn’t even walk into the house. I think there is a difference between staging and totally remodeling. My next door neighbors put in a beautiful kitchen similar to mine across the street, right before they sold the house. I just didn’t get why they didn’t do it sooner so they could enjoy the money they spent on it. I guess they assumed that they’d get the capital back when they sold it. She was a realtor and everything.


Nicoleandmaggie February 2, 2012 at 7:24 AM

We haven’t been in our house 10 years. We bought it almost perfect so we wouldn’t have to spend any time doing anything. (Though it turns out the kitchen is actually not as workable as we thought, even though it *looks* like a workable kitchen.)

The things we will need to do before we sell are mainly cosmetic and not the things we would be doing if we were staying, as the things we would be doing if we were staying would lower rather than increase our property values. Because our preferences are not the market preferences.


Sandy L February 3, 2012 at 5:27 AM

Grumpies – I could see why you wouldn’t make the changes then…and my gut tells me that someday you will end up back in a blue state that also has some culture to it. I just can’t see you in blighted town long term.


Molly (Mike and Molly's House) February 2, 2012 at 9:35 AM

I love your last point, “Love your home no matter what it looks like”.
We had remodeled a few rooms in our double-wide. When we decided to sell it and move into town we feverishly worked to finish all the rooms and paint the outside (exactly what you say not to do). It was strange to live in a house that was not in construction mode. After finishing it we decided not to sell. It’s been great to have it complete- I don’t think we would have done it otherwise!
Your kitchen looks fabulous!


Sandy L February 3, 2012 at 5:31 AM

Molly – I love my kitchen. It was the first thing I wanted to do in my house and it ended up being the very last project we tackled after 10 years of being there. I decided that if I had to wait that long to have a nice kitchen, I was going to do it right. I love everything about it. The layout is just perfect. I guess the benefit of waiting is that you can really spend the time designing it just right. We took down a wall and reconfigured a lot of stuff and it’s just so great now. I love your house’s open floor plan. It just seems so homey.


Little House February 2, 2012 at 10:20 AM

I’ve been a renter for years and in our last rental house we did a TON of work and spent way too much money on that dump. We wanted to make it nice for ourselves to live in and were able to turn two of the main rooms into much nicer habitats, but the rest of the house was so yucky. Eventually we lost steam on fixing it up (much more expensive than we could have ever guessed) and moved to a much newer apartment. I don’t miss painting or fixing up stuff. 🙂


Sandy L February 3, 2012 at 5:31 AM

Little House – now that you’re in a nicer place, you have more time to ride your bike.


retirebyforty February 2, 2012 at 4:09 PM

Nice kitchen! We remodeled the kitchen a couple of years ago. It was painful, but we got through it. I don’t want to do anything else though. The rest of the condo is good enough. Oh yeah, we need to get a new toilet. 🙂


Sandy L February 3, 2012 at 5:32 AM

Rb40 – I hate those non cosmetic repairs like toilets and clogged sewers. You’ll have to throw up a picture of yours.


laura February 3, 2012 at 1:50 AM

We did a lot of work when we first moved in just to make it liveable – no working kitchen and three kids but since then we’ve slowed down. Now I will take each room one by one to get it just right, but I have to be careful – home design is my passion and I could easily go overboard but as we plan on renting the house out it’s not worth it. Getting the basics right is the main thing.
Love you kitchen!


Sandy L February 3, 2012 at 5:34 AM

Laura – I know. I wish I could just pluck you out of the UK and transport you to the Berkshires to help me decorate. I love your eye for design. I’m very utilitarian when it comes to my house. I really want to do over my home office and turn it back into the guest room but it needs some decluttering first.


Thomas - Ways to Invest Money February 3, 2012 at 12:18 PM

Sounds like a really good idea. One room per year not only keeps you from spending so much at once it allows you time to think about how you truly want that particular room. Just one focus. Wished you had a before and after photo of the bathroom.


Financial God February 6, 2012 at 4:35 PM

We haven’t even bothered to paint the place (the new paint was good enough), so I guess we are not any type of remodeller, yet. 😉


Simple Rich Living February 12, 2012 at 8:19 PM

Once I buy a place I intend to stay forever and ever, I will do what you did/do, a little bit at a time (base on what I can afford). I have a friend who saved up a separate reno budget when she bought her house. She did all the reno (such as updated the kitchen and built a deck…she did most of the work herself with the help of some friends…super handy lady) upfront so she could enjoy the house while she lives in it. I thought this was a fantastic idea. I would prefer to do this however money would be the obstacle. Beautiful kitchen!!!


Squirrelers February 14, 2012 at 4:44 PM

I have thought about the one room per year approach before, and think it’s a logical way to get things done. There’s a sense of finite accomplishment about doing one room per year, and it makes it manageable to do financially. Nice kitchen, by the way.


Denise @ The Single Saver February 17, 2012 at 4:53 PM

I absolutely love this idea. A small yearly update to part of the house will prevent it from getting dated looking in the long run. My only problem is that my first floor is pretty much open plan, so I guess maybe there I need to count that space as “5 years” and plan accordingly.


Cincinnati Window Company February 21, 2013 at 2:41 PM

Thanks for the advice on the home remodeling budget. It was very detailed, thank you!


CaGreenRemodeling April 2, 2013 at 3:25 PM

Yea! This is the main thing that everyone wants when remodeling his house


Jennifer October 30, 2013 at 1:13 PM

My husband and I have a house under contract right now and have started planning our attack.. The home was built in the mid 50’s and has been relatively unchanged since it was built. Mostly, it just needs paint but there are a few rooms that need some updating. We are (as most other people) on a pretty tight budget so we have decided to start with the main bath. My husband wants to get this done before we move in (mainly because of the lovely blue floral irredescent wallpaper…lol). We have decided to budget for what ever else we need when we do the rooms.. new bedding, curtains, rugs, furniture… it all falls in the budget so we do a lot of bargain shopping. We are also planning to pay cash for the most of it…. Thanks so much for this article… I feel way better about our plan 🙂


Shavon June 9, 2015 at 8:59 AM

Me and my boyfriend recently bought a house and we’ve started with the renovation plan. The bathroom should be done from scratch and the kitchen need a lot of work! Thanks for the post! I really appreciate the ideas! Greets!


Bink Realtyfl June 25, 2015 at 6:46 AM

I like that idea a lot. Focus on one room at a time. You’ll never have a house that’s completely ‘new’ nor will you have one where everything is out of date. Somewhere in between is fine and dandy for most!


read more February 23, 2016 at 4:32 AM

One year ago we did a basic renovation of our bathroom and we have never looked back. Our house was constructed in 1990 and the bathroom had never been restructured. It was pretty disgusting. Now each morning when I get into the shower, I feel like I am in a hotel. It makes me happy.


experienced carpenter Parsippany NJ December 20, 2017 at 12:51 AM

Don’t put yourself at risk of sustaining injury in an effort to save a few dollars. Hire someone who has the training necessary to complete the job without significant risk.


roof installations Hudson County New Jersey January 31, 2018 at 4:50 AM

That really looks like a lot of work? Why not hire some people to do the repairs? Contact us we might help!


Portella February 26, 2019 at 12:10 PM

We’re considering renovating the house this spring. What order should it be done?


ELTEC August 2, 2019 at 1:52 PM

It seems to be quite a reasonable way of handling the remodeling!


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