Before Chip and Joanna Gaines set the world on fire with their Fixer Upper style, I had a dream. A dream to buy a neglected house and give it some shine. To create beauty in a once-loved space. I had a vision and knew exactly what I wanted in a house, but I was also keenly aware that we could not afford to have that look in a custom-built home or move-in ready place. What I needed was a foreclosure. My very own property to renovate.
The benefit of buying a property to renovate
As I saw it, the biggest benefit of buying a property to renovate and remodeling it ourselves was that we could make it our own without pricing ourselves out of the market. After remodeling our first house, I knew I was a snob about making a home feel personalized with fancy finishes. However, I had remodeled a home I paid a move-in ready premium for, effectively losing tens of thousands of dollars.
No, buying a move-in ready house wasn’t for me. No matter how nice it was, I would want to change something (my poor husband). Purchasing a house that needed work would get us the look I wanted without spending more than the house was worth. And while we’ve certainly benefitted financially from buying a property to renovate, money hasn’t been the only benefit of DIY.
Buying our fixer upper
Shortly after our first anniversary, I convinced my husband of my methodical plan. It wasn’t complicated- buy something ugly and make it pretty. I had already been window shopping on the Realtor app for a few years because I’m a nerd like that. All that browsing gave me a good idea of what homes were out there and what prices seemed fair. After deciding to sell our first home, browsing turned to active searching. On the way home from a trip to celebrate our first anniversary, I perused the app once more and found the one.
The location was perfect and the neighborhood was calm and quiet. We loved the yard and all the nature that surrounded the house. The downside was the house wasn’t at all the open concept ranch we desired and it needed ALL of the work! Buying a house on a budget is about give and take, and this house had enough to give to make us want to take it.
Sure, the windows were drafty and the kitchen counters were not actually attached to the walls or cabinets. Yeah, there was a small hole in the kitchen floor where you could get a clear view of the basement. And yes, the upstairs bathroom looked like something out of a horror show. The landscaping was so overgrown, the day we closed on the loan we may or may not have watched a deer graze on knee-high weeds in our new yard. We signed anyway. We were fearless.
Adventures in renovating
For us, buying a foreclosure has undoubtedly been an adventure in DIY. Although we paid for some repairs to be done by those more qualified (windows, roof, gutters, chimney cap, and a new HVAC system), we have done plenty of work ourselves. I am very thankful that my husband is so handy. He has saved us thousands upon thousands of dollars remodeling on his nights and weekends. My in-laws have also been invaluable through the process. My father-in-law is a tremendous resource for projects and my mother-in-law is a professional interior designer.
There has been no shortage of items to work through on our to-do list. We gutted and remodeled our guest bath upstairs. Soggy floorboards were ripped up and beautiful new tile was laid.
We tore out a rotten window sill and replaced it. Our pathetic excuse for landscaping was no more. A new layout was designed, greenery was planted, and hundreds of pounds of river rock took residence in our front yard. Trees that were dead or dying were cut down and processed for firewood.
In the dining room, we hung some gorgeous grasscloth (this was my splurge- I love authentic grasscloth and it makes my heart so happy!) and added a blingy new chandelier. We also created a board & batten accent along the lower wall. Plus, it got the bamboo flooring when we remodeled the first floor.
Walls were painted, grasscloth was hung, and closet organizers were wrangled into submission. We blew in layers upon layers of new insulation and installed a new water heater after a morning of military showers. We’ve replaced the roof, installed new garage doors & motors, and purchased new gutters.
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Property to renovate: the BIG project
By far, our largest project has been gutting and remodeling our entire first floor, which we aptly decided to undertake six weeks after having our first child. I told you we were fearless. Or, maybe insane. Probably insane.
The floor plan was quintessential late 80’s. Each room was closed off from the others. Drop ceilings made 8-foot spaces even shorter. The breakfast nook made no sense placed at the end of the narrow galley kitchen. I refused to even consider buying this property to renovate unless the hubby was willing to rework the space. It was a dark, dingy excuse for the heart of the home. It wreaked of brass. I despised it from the moment we first walked in the door.
My favorite room in the house
We removed the wall that created the galley so that the kitchen was open to the rest of the house. With the wall gone, we could install a beautiful 5-foot island. We repurposed the useless eat-in area and made it a lovely breakfast bar. By adding cabinets underneath, we increased the storage capacity of our kitchen by 33%.
The old, nasty carpet was replaced with dark bamboo and the drop ceiling was removed, making the whole space feel larger. Wiring and plumbing were rerouted so that soffits could be removed. We widened the hallway entrance into the kitchen to improve traffic flow and make it feel more open. Reworking the floor plan also enabled us to add a pantry we didn’t have before.
Fixer-upper finances: expect the unexpected
Since we are against consumer debt, taking out a loan to finance our remodeling was not an option. Instead, we saved up for a few years. It [almost] goes without saying that you should save more than you expect for a project, as things rarely go according to plan. Although we had saved nearly $20,000 to cover the first floor remodel, we did find ourselves in a series of unfortunate events.
After gutting the entire living area of our home, we discovered our roof had been leaking in multiple places. Upon inspection, it became clear that the entire thing needed ripped off and replaced, along with the gutters. Two weeks later, our heat pump and A/C stopped working. We were in the dog days of August with no air. Our three-month-old son had just had heart surgery and my husband was across the country on a three-week-long business trip. Thankfully, my parents came to our rescue with a place to stay and financial assistance to help purchase a heat pump replacement.
Things were looking up- until a month later- when the water heater sprung a leak and my husband’s company decided to shut down his shop. There we were, proud owners of a gutted house that was over budget. A tiny baby a few weeks removed from heart surgery. The prospect of one of our two incomes completely disappearing. It was a perfect storm.
A light in the darkness
Still, God provided. The job loss was sudden, but we were blessed with a severance package to help carry the finances. My husband used the extra time off to hang and finish all the drywall, and even helped put a new roof on his sister’s home (which was completely ironic, as this was the same week we were paying lots of money to have someone put a new roof on our house!).
Obviously, all the unexpected expenses and circumstances threw a wrench into our best laid financial plans. We continued to pay cash for daily remodeling expenses, but we also financed a few projects at 0% interest. And while I hate that we weren’t able to pay cash for everything the way we intended, we focused on pinching pennies and tackled those debts before we had to pay any interest. Less than a year later, we paid off all the remaining remodeling debt and we were officially debt free again!
Still a work in progress
We still have several large projects that are unfinished, including actually completing the first floor remodel (lots of odds and ends left), but we are waiting until we can save up the capital again. It might take a bit longer to do everything, but knowing we aren’t going further into debt is worth the wait. Buying a property to renovate is definitely an exercise in patience.
Investing in a property to renovate is not for the faint of heart. It’s far from always being rainbows and sunshine. Don’t believe it’s as easy as Chip and Joanna make it out to be (unless you also have an entire team you can afford to pay!). But, for the right people, and the right property, the risk is worth the reward.
It’s been a long road, and we have overcome many obstacles. And while it may not be finished yet, I’m proud of the sweat equity we’ve put into our own fixer-upper. Our hard work is turning this house into a home.