We bought a cosmetic fixer for our first renovation.  Since we were living in the house while working on it, it had to be functional and not too, errr, disgusting.  This house really fit the bill; it was a tri-level and, theoretically at least, I could work on up to two levels at once while keeping one level a construction-free zone.  My husband had basic remodeling experience, but I had just learned the difference between 60 and 220 grit sandpaper.  Needless to say, we didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew!

The Exterior

The house badly needed a new roof and we scheduled this the day after closing.  I don’t remember the total cost, but three days in and $10-15,000 later, our renovation cash was pretty much gone, HA HA HA.

I don’t have a stellar history with plants, so we made landscaping a priority to give us ample time to recover from a black thumb.  I’m a big proponent of evergreens, and a huge critic of builders who don’t use them.  I see it all the time.  WHY??  So we planted some evergreens and then planted them again when they died.   We tilled up the entire side lawn where the weeds had choked out the grass, and it came back beautifully.  We hadn’t planned on removing a beautiful, yet split, Aspen tree from the front yard, but now that I’ve owned two homes since, tree removal seems to be a constant cost!  We tried to save money by burning the stump instead of grinding it out, and this took foreverrrrrrrrr.  I have to admit though, it was pretty cool watching the fiery hell take place once the flames got underground!

One of the last projects we tackled was painting the exterior.  The paint was so faded, the house almost looked pink, and the cedar siding was THIRSTY.  After experimenting with a spray gun, we painted nearly the entire house by hand, including the garage door and back shed, and hired the neighbor kid to get those hard-to-reach places.

house renovation
I wish I had a “before” picture, but this is how the house looked when we were finished.

The Lower Level

The lower level was a daylight basement on slab concrete, which had sunk below the footer.  The previous owner attempted to hide this with cheap “wood” laminate, and the floors were pulling away from themselves around the perimeter of the entire downstairs.  We ripped out all the flooring and poured buckets and buckets of self-leveling concrete.  Maybe 20 bags worth, and that stuff is not cheap!   The two bedrooms in the downstairs got coooooold on that concrete slab, so I laid down cork underlayment before installing the padding and carpet.  And because we were on a budget, we laid the carpet ourselves using glue and tape.

Arrows pointing to broken flooring.
Before: See where the flooring is breaking away from the footer?
rooms recently renovated
After: That bedroom looks a lot cozier, doesn’t it?

The rest of the downstairs consisted of a hallway, den, and bathroom that had already been somewhat updated.  We glued down engineered hardwoods in the hall and den.  We replaced an out-of-code Man door, turned a plant shelf into a bookshelf, replaced barely functional bifold doors with barn doors, and updated the light fixture.

before and after of a bookshelf wall
This improvement involved re-framing the plant shelf to extend its depth enough to hold books.

The Mid-Level

The mid-level was simply the entry and the living room.  Not pictured is me; sanding, staining, and poly-ing the stairs and every. single. side. of. every. single. rail.  Looking back, it probably didn’t need it more than I needed my sanity.

before and after of entry
We replaced the ugly door and light fixture, and exchanged the laminate landing pad for slate. Using 1″ tile for the border helped avoid us from having to rent a tile saw.

We noticed a neighbor replacing some old siding on his house, and asked if he wanted the sawn cedar planks on our living room ceiling – he happily took it all down for us!  With the ceiling open, we installed recessed lights and had new sheetrock put up.

Before and after of fireplace.
Look how much brighter the room looks with the rough sawn cedar ceiling gone.

And get this: all that carpet in the living room?  Reused it in those bedrooms downstairs!  Then I put the hardwood floors in its place.

before and after of living room
Trimming out those triangle windows… caulk stepped in where my geometry failed!

The Upper Level

The upper level was the master bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and dining room.  We changed out a window in the master and bathroom; they were both old, leaky, and ill-sized.  The master bedroom window was too tall and did not allow any room for upper trim on the exterior.  The bathroom window was in the shower, and placed too low for comfort.  We resized both window holes and patched the sawn cedar siding with some from the living room ceiling.

removing a window
This window needed to come out anyway!

The master bedroom had absolutely no lighting.  I guess in the 80s it was commonplace to connect the outlets to light switches because everyone loved floor lamps or swagging their lights on ceiling hooks and chains.  A bit counter-intuitive, but I think the bedroom looked better with the smaller window.  We didn’t do much more to it other than add the can lights and paint.

before and after of bedroom
We built the bed, too – thanks, Ana White!

The kitchen had awkwardly placed cabinets and was clad in sheet vinyl that was surprisingly very difficult to remove.  The OSB underneath the vinyl also had to come up in order to install the hardwoods, and some laborer was obviously very trigger happy with the nail gun.  A nail every 4 inches!

badly placed cabinets
These are the kind of things we were dealing with in this house. Ugh, some builders are the worst!

The morning the countertop people were scheduled to measure, I woke up with a start, thinking, “I need a fridge surround.”  Thank goodness Home Depot opens early!  With Ana White as my constant inspiration, I built a very simple fridge surround with sanded plywood, iron-on veneer, a new stock cabinet, and some trim.  I had already performed a little carpentry work on the other cabinets to eliminate a 3” gap and make the counters snug around the range; you can see where I added some wine niches on the upper and book slots on the lower cabinets.

before and after fridge and pantry
We converted an ill-placed coat closet into a pantry, and my curved drywall turned out beautifully. I think this was when my husband started to take me seriously!

We moved the island away from the wall and installed hardwoods in the hall, kitchen, and dining room.

before and after kitchen
That heinous, floating pantry cabinet was sent to the garage where it should have been all along.

As a side note, I would say a “must” in every home, whether you plan to sell it soon or not, is a pull-out trash cabinet.  The logical location in this instance was in the island since we were moving those cabinets anyway, but we had size constraints since we wanted it in the middle of the room.  Not being able to find a cabinet that was sized both skinny and tall (probably for good reason), we ended up building it from scratch and installing it in the middle of the other two base cabinets.  It functioned okay, but after the countertops were installed, we realized the trash bin would never, ever come out.  Oops.

before and after kitchen island
It looked great, but the trash cabinet? Not our crowning achievement.

And here’s something more I learned: if it fits the style of the house at all, try to embrace the rustic farmhouse trend. This will open up a slew of things you can build with cheap stock lumber!  Stain makes 2x8s look wonderful (have I mentioned Ana White yet?).  We had exposed beams running throughout the house so this was easy to pull off.

corner open shelving
We solved that awkward corner cabinet problem with open shelving built from stock lumber.

The master bathroom turned out to be an expensive mess and we weren’t thrilled with how it turned out.  We found some quartz tile we liked and started envisioning a spa bathroom, forgetting this was not our forever home.  I ended up taking out the old tile floors with a masonry chisel; looking back I should have Grout Renew’d or painted them and been done with it.

Like the cabinets in the kitchen, we reused the vanity cabinet and painted it black.  We built the wood countertop from some solid maple flooring we got at the ReStore.  I never liked vessel sinks, but it was the only way to get double sinks out of that vanity and keep the top drawers functional.

before and after bathroom
The shower actually turned out pretty nice! but tastes change, especially when you’re discovering your style as you go.

Major Lessons Learned

  1. Don’t rip out a cast iron tub unless you absolutely have to.  You may have plans for a beautiful tile shower with an elegant glass enclosure, but if you have a typical middle-class house, you won’t get your money back.  Even if you break it down with a sledgehammer, it is sooooo heavy to move, and we regretted sending a perfectly good piece of cast iron to the landfill.  Clean the tub, tile the walls, and buy a nice shower curtain.
  2. This is embarrassing, but I can’t pretended it didn’t happen!  Unless you’ve got popcorn ceilings, don’t try to change the texture.  It can be expensive, messy, and/or labor intensive, especially if you don’t have the professional tools.  We had truly awful 80s texture on every surface in the house, and I had the bright idea to flatten the walls by troweling joint compound by hand.  1700 square feet later, I had to sand flat every inch of those stinking walls, and then I had to PAINT every inch of those stinking walls.  Do you know how many layers of primer a thick skimcoat of joint compound absorbs before it can hold a layer of paint?  About four.  I had tendonitis in both wrists by the time I looked up at the ceilings and thought, “You’re not so bad after all, Texture.”

Overall, the renovation was successful.  Considering the arsenal of tools we bought, our profit wasn’t incredible, but it was still worth it.  When we sold this house, we weren’t sure we would renovate another, but then we found a cottage on five acres that deserved some love…