Our $979 Downstairs Bath Renovation

Last year, I shared some “Before” photos of the downstairs bath at our old house. It was a room we didn’t really think about until a guest would ask to use it and then I would cringe a little. Stained baby blue and pink linoleum (the previous owners kept their dogs in there during the day), a crusty old oversized sink and vanity, and weird frilly-looking light fixtures. The faucet was a big pet peeve of mine--it was one of those cheap, 1980s styles with the knobs so close together your fingers would get stuck trying to turn the water on or off. That being said, this little ¾ bath did its job, providing a shower, sink and toilet on main floor of the house. If you've lived in an older house (ours was built in the 1920s), you know how tough it is squeezing an extra bathroom into the house! I don’t think anyone would complain about an extra bathroom, no matter how ugly.

Before we got on the house-hunting train last summer, we had started our bathroom project, choosing paint colors and sourcing some fixtures, but we weren’t in any rush to finish it and were actually planning to get it done in the fall after the nice weather was gone. When we decided to sell, we had to hop to it, and finish the job! We also had to really prune the budget, especially when it came to things like art work, hardware, accessories, decor, and a back splash I had wanted to add. Despite the fast-track schedule and pared-down budget, it came out nicely, and, I believe, was one factor in selling our house quickly!

Things were so hectic, I didn't even get a chance to take photos of it after it was done! So the one below is from our real estate agent, who was taking photos for the listing:


And, as a reminder of how yucky it was before:


We kept the toilet and shower stall, as well as the existing light fixture over the vanity, the mirror, towel rack, and towel bar. We replaced the floor tile and purchased a new vanity/sink combination that was actually on sale for Memorial Day weekend. We also gave the ceiling, walls, and radiator a fresh coat of paint. For the lights, we found new shades that fit into the existing fixture, but were a simpler design. We did the work for less than $1,000! Below is a rough breakdown:

  1. New paint, about $40

  2. New exhaust fan/light, $89

  3. New vanity cabinet, top & faucet, about $500 all together (Saved about $250 due to a Memorial Day sale + coupons at Lowe’s)

  4. New tile floor, $320

  5. New toilet seat, $30

Total: $979!...and probably $100 or so in supplies like paint brushes, grout, etc. Ok, so a little more than $1,000, but still nothing to sneeze at.

Keeping most of what was there, and dedicating the biggest portion of our money to the new floor and vanity helped keep our budget in check, while really giving it the look and feel a completely new bathroom. What do you think? Did this help sell our house? Would you complete a renovation like this before putting your house on the market?

Fixer-Upper Friday: Replacing the Electrical Panel, Shoring Up the Basement, and Making the House Safe to Move In

This week I’ve spent considerable time on fun stuff--working on a cohesive color scheme for the house, poring over the internet and shelter mags for inspiration, researching products and sources, and generally having fun with the process of making this place ours. We’re going to start with our living/dining room, and I’ve decided to join in the fun over at the One Room Challenge, an online event where designers and bloggers are challenged to transform a room in 6 short weeks, chronicling the progress via instagram and a weekly blog post. There are so many great spaces, in all styles and budgets, so if you’re looking to fluff your feed with some eye candy, give them a follow! It starts next week, and I’ll be sharing our plans for the living/dining room then.

But enough about fun stuff for a minute! Today I wanted to discuss a few less sexy, but vitally important tasks we undertook upon moving in last October, that were fairly large investments, and the reason we haven’t done much in the way of cosmetic upgrades until now. If you’re considering buying a house that needs work, this post will hopefully give you some solid information about the process. 

Last week, when I wrote about our home buying experience, I mentioned that there were several times we thought the whole deal was going to fall through. This had mostly to do with getting approved for a mortgage and finding an insurance company willing to cover us. Luckily, we had an experienced mortgage broker and we were longtime home and auto customers of our insurance company, Amica, and after much hemming and hawing and hand-ringing, they finally approved us under the condition that we do repairs immediately upon moving in.

From most of the pictures I've shared so far, she doesn't look that bad. But believe me, she's in rough shape:


As an aside, when we were first shopping for mortgages, we looked into the FHA’s 203k program, which is specifically for properties that need rehabilitation and renovations to bring them up to code. In this type of loan, the costs to fix up the property are rolled into the mortgage. The idea is to help someone buy a distressed property and renovate it, therefore helping the homeowner and by extension, the whole neighborhood. It’s a fairly complicated process; you need to find a mortgage broker participating in the program (there was only one in our area) and an approved contractor to do the work (also hard to find). The one bank I did talk to said we didn’t qualify because our “pay stubs don’t match our tax returns”, even after I explained that was because part of Frank’s income is in the form of tips. Our income was accounted for, it was just in two different boxes on the form but apparently that was too much work for them. Long story short, it was a dead end.

I knew the house wasn’t a horror show, but there were a few things that definitely needed to be taken care of first for me to feel safe with a toddler and two mischievous cats living there. Our mortgage broker, Steve, whom Frank had worked with before on our old house, had an idea. He asked us if the house was “habitable.” In Massachusetts, that essentially means the house has working plumbing, water, and no structural issues, insect infestations, etc. It’s a fairly low bar, actually, haha. The house was also on city water and sewer, so we didn’t have to worry about Title V, which regulates septic tanks and basically states that a property isn’t habitable if there are any issues with the septic system.

We told him, yes, the house met the definition of habitable. He suggested we apply for a standard (non-FHA) mortgage, and do a minimum 3% down payment. Not ideal, who wants a bigger mortgage payment? But this would allow us to buy the property “as is”, and also free up cash to handle a few things right up front so we could move in and not feel like the house could catch on fire or a tree could fall through the roof at the first winter snow. And hopefully allow us to get an insurance policy. As for the income verification, he took the time to ACTUALLY LOOK at our paperwork and could see that we had the money we said we did. Phew!

Next, we had to convince Amica to insure the property. We submitted the home inspection and let them know we had money set aside to replace the electrical panel, take down a tree branch hanging over the roof, and remove the water-damaged wall panels in the basement. Different people kept calling us back every few days to ask the same questions over and over and then say “I have to send this back up to under writing for approval…” After about 3 weeks, we started to panic. What if we couldn’t get insurance?! No insurance = no mortgage = no house. And we were scheduled to close and move out of our old house soon. FINALLY, they approved us, under the condition that we make the repairs and send them proof (photos, building permits, etc.). Phew #2.

So one, two, skip a few to actually moving in! Here are the things we handled straight away:

  1. Ordered new appliances (because #priorities)

  2. Replaced the Federal Pacific electrical panel and upgraded to 200 amp service

  3. Removed a tree branch hanging near the roof*

  4. Sealed the leaks in the basement; removed some water-damaged material

  5. Hired an exterminator

My blood pressure went down about 50 points after our electrician replaced this scary and defective electrical panel!



And the After (those scraggly wires on the left are from the old telephone wires, and no longer in use):


And our lovely basement, the day after we moved in. Happy to report we haven't had water since we sealed the cracks (fingers crossed it stays that way).


Now that it’s spring, we’re going to focus on repairs to the exterior. This week we had a painting contractor at the house, and once the weather is decent we’re planning to have it power washed, scraped, and repainted. I really can’t wait, she’s going to look fabulous with a fresh coat of paint. Happy Friday!

*As luck would have it, the largest tree branch of concern actually fell onto the roof about 3 weeks before we closed after a storm. The sellers had it removed, fixed some minor damage to the fascia, and sent us the receipt for the repairs. They also had the chimney repointed.

Our Home Buying Experience: Triumph Over the House Flippers


Last July, we were finishing up some projects at our old house, getting things ready to sell in the fall. We had already met with our real estate agent, Brian, and had an idea of what our home would sell for, got a pre-approval for a mortgage, and were casually looking at real estate online.

Every day, I’d scroll through the Redfin app, seeing what was new in a few of the neighborhoods we were considering. As the real estate market was “hot” last summer, it was a little discouraging. First, houses were selling in a matter of days. I’d tag a house as a favorite and within 24 hours it would disappear from the list, already under agreement. Almost everything in our budget and preferred location was either the same size, or smaller than our current house. Not necessarily a bad thing, but we were looking for a little more space and hopefully a garage. Aesthetically, we wanted a house with some character, although we weren’t tied to a particular style.

We also considered designing and building a house, although finding land that was affordable and not in the middle of nowhere was a problem. Ultimately, we really like being in a neighborhood suited for walking and easy trips to the store, restaurants, daycare, and work.

One afternoon I got my usual email update from Redfin and decided to do a quick scroll while I waited for a meeting to start. More houses just like our current home, but smaller and needing a new roof and also $20,000 over our budget. Blech.

Scrolling down, I came across a ranch. Hmm, that’s pretty cool, I thought. I swiped through the photos. Ok, that’s VERY COOL. I googled the address and saw that it was in a great location--tucked away in a cul-de-sac on a quiet street but still close to restaurants, shops, parks, and the art museum. It was also less than a mile from one of the city’s best elementary schools. And priced about $50,000 below similar houses in the neighborhood. My first thought: something must be very wrong with this house! I had visions of squirrel-infestations, mold, and giant holes in the roof. Despite my ingrained Yankee skepticism, I added the house as a favorite and it turns out, so did Frank (it was actually the only house out of dozens that we both tagged as a favorite). We decided to at least go and have a look at the open house scheduled for the following Saturday.


When we pulled up to the house, the place was busy. There were some older folks who were clearly interested in single-level ranch living, some nosy neighbor types, a few youngish couples like us, and about a million house flippers (approximate). They had their tape measures out as they pointed to which walls they were going to rip out to give the house more of an “open concept” (the house already has plenty of open space) and two of them kept referring over and over to the kitchen as a “total gut." It was all the typical stuff you hear on TV: open concept, insert a beam, yadda yadda yadda.

As they trampled through the space, shouting to each other, and rapping their knuckles along the walls to see which were load-bearing, I felt oddly protective of the place being invaded by all of these loud-talking people who didn’t notice or appreciate any of its features. Don’t get me wrong: I think *some* people who buy houses, renovate, and re-sell them do a good job. I think *many* of the people who do it don’t have the skills or experience required and ruin a lot of perfectly good homes in the process.

But the house flippers had a clear advantage over us that day: immediate access to cash. For one, our house wasn’t even on the market. For another, we didn’t have much wiggle-room in our budget. If there were multiple offers, we wouldn’t have been able to compete with those folks, or anyone else who came along ready to buy.

We chatted up the seller’s agent anyway and she let us know that there had been quite a bit of interest in the property and that the sellers would consider offers starting that evening. She also mentioned that a pre-sale home inspection had been done, and that we could review it if we wanted. We got her card and said we would be in touch, and that we were definitely interested in putting in an offer. We left out the little fact that we had our own house to sell first, no big deal, haha.

As we sat in the car looking at the house, we talked about all the work that it needed, how it smelled terrible in the basement and how it would most likely be one of the biggest projects of our lives (notwithstanding the toddler sitting in the back seat). But we also knew it had potential, that someone had designed and built the house with a lot of thought and care, and that it had clearly been loved and taken care of by the people who had lived there for many years.

That night, the agent sent us the home inspection and we were quickly brought down to earth. Long story short, the man who built the house and lived in it for over fifty years, had passed away at the age of 91, and it had been at least a decade since he had done any real maintenance on the place. When you’re 91, you’re not going to buy green bananas, let alone fix the water heater. As a result, this pretty ranch needed more than a facelift. She was in rough shape all around. Cracks in the foundation. Water damage in the basement. Broken windows. Crumbling chimney. An electrical panel that had been recalled in the 1980s and could burn the place down any minute. Fun stuff all around!

Still, we forged ahead. Brian warned us that in the current market, sellers generally weren’t interested in offers that were contingent on financing or selling another property. They simply didn’t have to, as many homes were getting multiple offers and bidding wars were common. Since the ranch had generated so much interest, there was really no incentive for them to entertain our offer. We had Brian reach out to the seller’s agent to test the waters anyway. Would the seller be willing to accept an offer contingent upon us selling our current house? We waited with our fingers crossed. The answer back was a polite “no.”

So we were back to square one, and figured, oh well, that house will probably sell this week and that’s the end of it. Something else would come along when the time was right. We still stuck to our plan of putting our house on the market ASAP, just in case the ranch was meant to be ours.

That week, we busted our humps (mostly Frank did, while I was on Ronnie duty) getting it ready for a listing and open house, which we had planned for the next week. With a deep breath, our house went on the market. We were nervous about selling it, for a few reasons, which I’ll go into later, but mostly the fact that we were on a busy street. It felt like a huge hurdle and we hoped someone would look past it and see how great our little house was. We kept our fingers crossed that week as multiple people came to look. Our open house came and went with quite a bit of interest, but no offers that day. On Monday, an offer came in right at asking, and we accepted! Phew. One hurdle down.

Every couple of days, I would come back to the listing for the ranch. It was still for sale. Hmmm. Three weeks passed, and the price had dropped $10k. Curiouser and curiouser. Two more weeks passed. Still for sale. I suspected that the sellers weren’t interested in just getting a quick cash offer. Or perhaps they needed a decent offer that would pay off debts in order to settle the estate. Whatever the reason, the house wasn’t selling, and it wasn’t for lack of interest.

Meanwhile, we had a lot of homework to do. We needed to figure out, if it came back to that, what we could comfortably offer on the ranch without losing our shirts. While we were still in love with the house, we needed some facts and figures in place to truly decide if putting in an offer on this house would be a good idea. We were sure there had been plenty of low-ball offers already. We needed to come up with an offer that was fair and realized the potential of the home, while facing the reality that it needed a ton of work. We also needed to show them we were serious and had done our due diligence.

I took everything from the pre-sale home inspection and put it into an itemized spreadsheet. An architect I know gave us an Opinion of Cost for the items, which provided an estimate for what it would take to get the house up to current code, as well as ballpark figures for the cosmetic stuff. We also had a structural engineer walk through the house and take a look at the cracks in the foundation. He concluded that the cracks were non-structural, and a result of the house settling slightly. He surmised that the original contractor probably hadn’t done the best job of compacting the earth when the foundation was poured. All that was needed was some epoxy to seal the cracks and prevent water from coming in. Overall, the house was structurally sound. After we walked through, he joked, “I don’t see anything scary here, well, nothing structural.”

That gave us a clear idea about what kind of money we were going to be spending on the house. We took the Opinion of Cost, and came up with an offer that we felt would be reasonable, about $13k below the already-dropped asking price. We made it clear that our offer for the house was "as is", meaning, we weren't going to have another home inspection done and then come up with a laundry list of things to be fixed before we closed on the house. We also wrote a letter to the sellers, two sisters who had inherited the house after their Dad had passed away, explaining all the reasons we loved and appreciated the style of the ranch, how we wanted to keep a lot of the original fixtures and finishes, and even included our secret weapon: a cute snapshot of Veronica.

Finally, with the signed purchase-and-sale agreement for our old house in our hands, our letter to the sellers, and the architect’s opinion of cost, we sent over our Hail Mary of an offer. If this didn’t work out, we would throw in the towel and start touring other houses. We felt that we’d done everything we could, gave it a solid effort, and were at peace with whatever happened. This was a Thursday.

On Friday at 5 pm, we finally got an email back: the sellers loved our letter and felt our offer was fair, but they were still hung up on the fact that we hadn’t officially sold our current house. Could they have until tomorrow to think it over? Sure, we emailed back. Saturday is fine. We also had a little glimmer of hope--it seemed like they were leaning towards accepting our offer.

We waited all day Saturday and heard nothing. Around 5 pm, we fumed as we pushed Ronnie around the neighborhood in her stroller. Did they just blow us off? We had busted our asses for the last month trying to make this happen and these people don’t even have the DECENCY to respond?! All of the emotions from the past month frothed to the surface and we were really upset. Like, REALLY UPSET. We ranted and raved and carried on about how terrible it all was. It felt like a slap in the face, to have done all this work and then not even get a response. Around 8:30, we put the baby to bed, ordered some take-out and were just about to start our pity party on the couch when we got a text from Brian: “They accepted your offer. Happy?”

We looked at the text, looked at each other, and both started hysterically laughing. Whaaaaaat. We couldn’t believe it. We kept reading and re-reading the text. After a solid three minutes of laugh-crying, we sent back a “Whoop! Yes!” and started high-fiving each other and jumping around the living room. I can’t even begin to describe how we felt that night. Elated? Victorious? Terrified? All of the above.

It was a long trip from that evening to finally getting the keys to the place, but it was a huge step forward and it meant everything. There were a few more hiccups we had to deal with along the way, and many points when we thought everything was going to completely fall through, but in the end, we made it work. I’m so glad she ended up with us and after about five months living here, I can honestly say we love the house even more.

One of my favorite books as a kid is called The Little House, by Virginia Lee Burton. No spoilers, but basically it’s the story of a once-proud little house that, over the generations, is neglected and falls into disrepair. Guess what happens next? :-)