Nope. I’m not talking about the 1986 Tom Hanks / Shelley Long charmer. Though sometimes it feels like I could be.
Buying a house — especially an old house, I’d venture to say — is scary. A lot can go wrong. In fact, even as you’re signing on the dotted line, a lot is already wrong. You had an inspector come. We had two. But still. Old houses.
Yet you love them. You can’t help it. And there’s good reason for this. Old houses have that je ne sais quoi we tend to call ‘character.’ They have history. They have Original Architectural Features.
Glass door knobs? Check.
Original heart pine floors throughout? Check.
1920s mosaic tile in the guest bath? Check.
My heart soars when I think about these things that have withstood the ravages of time (and really, haven’t most older homes been ravaged for whatever reason?). Not so much when I think about the other checklist that comes with the house:
Messed up original knob-and-tube fire-hazard wiring? Hmm. Check.
Bowed ceiling in the kitchen that looks in danger of collapsing? Uh, yeah. Check.
Leaking roof that threatens to decimate your finances? Boo. Check.
We did our best to see the beasts before we could be forced to confront them. We just didn’t know about the second list — aka, “the bad stuff list” — from the inspection results. But we probably should have guessed they’d be lurking in the dark corners. Why? Because any house the age of this one that has been allowed to decay a bit will almost definitely have these problems. Sigh.
When we bought the house, I was all like:
Now the reality of the house makes me feel like:
So that most of the time I just want to be like:
Anyway, going into the sale, Manny and I assumed we were going to just hire a contractor to do everything. *Oh, how naive we were.* Then we learned a hard truth: Contractors are expensive.
I got a bid from the fancy contractor my parents had used to make a few updates to their basically new house when they moved down a few years ago. This guy is great, and a true Southern Gent with an accent that makes you want to give him all of your money for some reason. I don’t know why. Hypnotism?
He did a walk-through with me; he talked to his sub-contractors; he gave me a quote.
Twenty Thousand Bones.
“And that doesn’t even touch the kitchen,” he added. “For that?” he scratched his head. “I’d guess another twenty-five.”
Inside, I wailed.
NOOOOOOooooooooo! WHAT HAVE WE DONE?!!!!
Seriously, I was surprised because, stupid as this sounds, I had assumed it would cost approximately a billon times less than that to fix All Of The Things. Granted, I’m an art historian so math is hard for me. But this quote was basically just to “fix the walls and paint” and “do some work on the floors.” I mean, I could see with my own eyes that things needed work. Still, I had never considered it would cost nearly that much to fix it all.
For the record, there’s a lot we’d rather do with all or part of a sum of money like that if we had our ‘druthers. Like take a trip to Japan (domo arigato). Walk the Road to Mordor (don’t judge me). Buy ALL OF THE BOARD GAMES.
(Here’s a pic of us on our honeymoon. Having the best time! And super excited about GAAAAH EVERYTHING!)
So about the contractor bid. We felt sad. We ate nachos (which tends to make me, for one, feel a whole lot better about most things in life). Finally, we realized we were going about it all the wrong way.
So we went back to the drawing board.
Fast forward to our first Saturday in the house. Manny awoke to me attempting to rip out the ancient plaid dog-pee rug in the sunroom.
“Betsy — wait — there are nails there — wait — why are you not wearing shoes?”
That weekend came and went, as did a few more weeks and everyday it was loud and noisy and Tilly was in a tizzy, which made me feel bad and worried. But at the end of those few weeks, we’d tackled a host of basic problems with the house. I tell you, it’s amazing what patching holes and fixing broken fences can do. Then it was time to paint. And I learned the mantra that will probably be printed on my gravestone:
*Paint changes everything.*
Once walls are prepped and ready, a good coat of paint does really make all of the difference in the world. Of course, this didn’t magically solve all of the house’s problems. But it made everything else seem a lot more manageable and it gave Manny and me time to learn another valuable lesson. You can do more than you think.
I was overwhelmed by constantly looking at broken or nasty things and thinking: I don’t know how to fix that. Or: I know what I want this to look like, but I don’t know how to make that happen. When we moved into the house, the only tools Manny and I owned included one of those Ikea tool kits in the little orange box (you know what I’m talking about) and a power drill.
So we got more tools.
Now Manny jokes that he worries he’s going to come home one day and find me stuck in the chimney. Or in a wall. Or on the roof. For as clueless and helpless as I can sometimes be, I admit, I am also prone to jumping into projects with a furious enthusiasm that would alarm most reasonable people.
There was the time Manny came home from work to see that I had borrowed a very high ladder from my parents and was standing on its “do not stand on this” step at the top applying paint to the upper sections of the house by hand with a good old fashioned brush.
“Wait — Betsy — that’s not safe — and why are you not wearing shoes?”
(A shot with partial exterior view of a section I repainted by hand in a fit of crazy mania, also showing one of our beautiful old camellias. Those windows are original, single-pane, and they still open. They pretty much convinced us to buy the house.)
I knew the exterior of the house needed repainting, by the way, because I kept getting unsolicited quotes to repaint it from professional painters. There was that time Mr. Wilson, our neighbor in the matching bungalow, had some painters over to re-do his trim and one of them knocked on the door as they were finishing up to say, “Hey, I just thought since we’re here, I should tell you that your house needs repainted. Here’s a quote for you.”
I was touched by his thoughtfulness, really. But I politely told him to get in line — mama needs a new kitchen and plenty of other stuff before we get to Professional Exterior Painting.
With painting completed inside (excluding the kitchen) and outside, dog-pee-sunroom-rug expunged (and replaced with a lovely painted floor I’ll post about one day), and literally about three dozen other projects crossed off of our list, we were able to unpack a little more meaningfully and set up some of the furniture we’d started to acquire.
(Here’s a view of the dining and living rooms in the heart of the bungalow showing how we got our acts together house-wise after a rough and dismaying start.)
Of course, the moral of this story is not that contractors are bad. Absolutely not. (In fact, I wish I had a contractor at my house right now renovating my kitchen!). Instead, I want to suggest that there are lots of ways to skin an alligator. DIY for the win!