Whether you're a seasoned DIY veteran or someone attempting to get settled into your first apartment, I'd venture to guess we've all asked ourselves the same question: "Where do I start?" Moving into a new home and/or attempting a renovation can be a daunting process. You may not have any furniture, or maybe your furniture doesn't fit your new space, both literally and figuratively. Budgets may be tight, and let's face it, no one wants to invest a lot of money and time into a project or furnishings that they'll later regret. 

Old Town Home readers Nathan and Jenn reached out with a similar challenge, as they prepare to move into their first home: 

Hello Wendy & Alex, My fiancé, Jenn, and I have been following your blog for over a year now and we wanted to say 'Thank you' and tell you how much we love all of the renovation tips you’ve added over the years. We are huge fans of Old Town and we are currently in the process of buying our first home there! ... We were wondering if you have any advice for a couple just starting to fix an old home. Like which projects should you start first and which project you should wait on. I guess our question is: if you had to start work on your home all over again, what order would you do things in? Thanks again, Nathan & Jenn

Thinking back to the first months and even first years in our home, we dealt with this exact challenge. Here we were, in our early 20s, having invested nearly every penny into the "home of our dreams." The problem was...many of our friends and family thought it was more of a nightmare. Cracked plaster, dated bathrooms and kitchen, damaged hardwood floors, inefficient heating and cooling systems, and a general bachelor pad vibe didn't exactly scream "welcome to our beautiful home." Though we had little knowhow and even fewer funds, we possessed willingness to put in some sweat equity and we had a vision. 

The two things you really can't change about a house are its age and location. After a lengthy search, we ultimately chose our home because it's located in the historic district of Old Town Alexandria, just a stone's throw from the main shopping and dining district in town, and we also loved the elements of Victorian charm that had withstood both the test of time as well as the shoddy renovation attempts of homeowners past. 

That being said, we also lucked into a lot of our decisions. We may not have had the foresight to think through a lot of the choices we made, but in retrospect, many of these choices are ones that we'd do all over again:

Plan Your Move In Carefully

If you have the luxury of choosing your settlement date to give you a bit of overlap with your current housing situation, I'd recommend giving yourself some time to transition into the new house. We closed on our house approximately 3 weeks before our lease expired. This window gave us enough time to knock out some of the messier projects that would be miserable, if not impossible, to live through. 

For example, we knew we wanted to have our hardwood floors repaired and refinished, as well as start to tackle our phase one work in the kitchen. Not having much experience at this point, we had to be honest with ourselves and our timeline. Therefore, we hired out the work on the floors (one of the best decisions we could have made) so that it freed us up to start in on the kitchen. Just minutes after closing, we had prepped the house for the floor work, including ripping up the disgusting carpet on the stairs, as well as removing the shoe molding throughout the house. It made us feel like we were accomplishing something while letting the pros handle the really hard work.

While the floors in the rest of the house were being worked on, we sanded and painted the cabinets, replaced the hardware, and completed our budget spray paint treatment on the kitchen counters. That way, on the day of move in, the messiest work at that time was already checked off the list.

Start with Small, Inexpensive Projects

This is your home, not a 30 minute reality home improvement show. Transforming your new space into a home takes time, and chances are, in a first time homebuyer situation, you don't have vast experience to draw from just yet. Therefore I'd recommend starting with small projects that you (and members of your household, family, or friend group that feel like helping out) can knock out with limited time, resources, and expertise.

Painting is a great project that falls into this category. It's inexpensive as far as house project are concerned, is a great project for beginners, and it's easy to fix if you mess up or aren't happy with the results. 

Another great project for the more adventurous, though it requires a nicer saw and set of tools, is crown molding. It can really dress up a room and give an additional level of visual interest. There are guides all over the place on how to do it, and as long as you're painting the crown, you can use ample amounts of caulk to mask common first timer mistakes. 

For us, we did both paint and crown molding in a single room as our first project after we moved in. This gave us a great sense of accomplishment while also going easy on our budget. We borrowed a saw from my dad, bought this "how to install crown molding" guide off the internet and the necessary angle measuring tools, and we learned as we went. It took us a while to finish the project, but we felt great when we were done.

Launching into a major bathroom or kitchen renovation, while enticing because of the big impact it can bring, is obviously costly. And not having lived in or gotten to know how you use your house, you risk making mistakes that can be costly, which actually brings me to my next point. 

Accept That You're Going to Make Mistakes

There will be that moment or moments when you have that sinking feeling in your gut. Maybe it's because your first attempt at crown molding yielded gaps in the corners (as ours did). Perhaps it's because the "soothing" color you chose for your bedroom looks like cat vomit. (Ahem, Behr's Ripe Wheat.)

Whatever the case may be, chances are you can fix your mistakes. It's part of the learning process after all. Give yourself or your partner time to shriek, cry, stomp, swear, and then dust yourself off and figure out how to fix it and move on. You'll learn as much from the mistakes you make as you will from the projects you finish. Just remember to be patient with yourself as you work through the inevitable bumps in the road.

Know Your Limits

We're all about DIY here at Old Town Home, but there are limits, especially when safety is concerned, i.e. we don't mess around with projects that involve gas or structural work without a qualified person leading the effort. Like the time we discovered massive water and termite damage in our sun porch. We were well out of our league, and needed help.

Know what your limits are and where your expertise runs out. If you have no idea how to tackle something and you can risk injuring yourself or causing expensive or irreparable damage to your home, call in the pros.

As you work more projects your skills will build. We have far more confidence today than we ever imagined we'd have in doing home projects, but that all came from time and effort spent while knowing our limits.

Keep Your Plan Flexible

I always scratch my head when I hear of someone renovating/gutting/reworking their home before they've even moved in. After you live in the space for a while, you may find that you use it differently than you anticipated, or that your ideas change and evolve to better suit your needs. 

When we first moved in, we were going to use the front two rooms as a "double parlor" for living and entertaining space, and we located the dining room next to the kitchen. 

After living with it for a while, we realized that the front rooms didn't lend themselves well to how we live, and we were happier splitting the rooms into a formal entertaining space, formal dining space, and casual TV watching space.

Thinking ahead, we've love to flip flop the kitchen and the family room, so that the kitchen is adjacent to both our dining and casual living spaces...something that we would never have thought of in our early years. Had we run headlong into the renovation, we'd have a home that is far less functional and enjoyable than the one we've molded.

Limit Your Work Zone

When we moved in, we had an..ahem...eccentric fellow living next door who was also a "DIY renovator." His problem? His approach was very all or nothing, and he decided to strip all the original molding throughout the house in one fell swoop. That meant that every room in his house was a work zone, and there was nowhere to escape from the mess. Ultimately this lead to him giving up on the molding and starting on the plaster in each room. 

I'm sure you can picture where I'm going with this, as it was not a pretty site when the home was sold at the mid point of every single project. My point is, where possible, try to tackle one room or one project at a time. Create separate work zones and living zones, so at the end of a long day you can escape from the mess and enjoy some family time in your new home. 

Without this defined separation of work space and living space, I don't think there's any way I could have lived through a renovation. Too much chaos, disarray, and general discomfort leads to failed renovation efforts and unhappy homeowners in just about every scenario.

Be Prepared for the Unexpected

Living in an old home presents its own unique set of unexpected challenges, many of which are lurking behind walls and out of sight. We feel the tradeoff in the age and history of an old home, especially one in an historic district, is absolutely worth the risk, but it's important to remember the risks are there. Understanding that project scope can grow, budgets may need to increase, and not everyone who has ever worked on your house may have been of the most professional caliber are all important aspects of living in and working on an old house.

This point actually gets back to my earlier points about starting smaller and in a single area. We spent those early years in our house working on less expensive projects and saving as much money as we could. When we ran into the water and bug induced damage in our kitchen, which required a good chunk of change to correct, we were shocked, but somewhat prepared given our work at saving money. Had we been spending on projects as fast as we earned, when the unexpected popped up we wouldn't have been able to properly deal with it.

I hope this advice is helpful and resonates with homebuyers that are interested in doing some work to make their new space their own. As an Alexandria real estate agent I love working with first time homebuyers. Their energy, excitement, and enthusiasm often reminds me of where we were at that stage in our lives. It's very fulfilling to help people make the choices necessary to turn their dreams into reality. I only wish that everyone could get as much enjoyment and satisfaction out of their home purchase (and resulting work) as we have. 

8/28/2013 Edit from Alex

One thing we left off the list that I thought of last night is a very important item with a new house. 

Address Critical Issues Early

When moving into a new home there will be a mix of projects you want to do, and projects you must do. A leaking roof, malfunctioning HVAC, clogged plumbing, or any number of items that could result in further damage and expense if left unresolved may be facing you. For us, it was a leaking skylight that wasn't found during our home inspection and started leaking just a few weeks after we moved in. In cases such as these, it's best to address them sooner than later. If your heat isn't functioning properly, it's often better to have someone take a look at giving you a temporary fix before resorting to tearing the whole thing out and replacing it, and for a leaky roof, try to patch it before you get to the point where you're tearing the whole thing off and replacing it. But try to understand your situation, your options, and your approach before making any major decisions. 

Disclaimer: Ask Old Town Home is meant simply as a friendly bit of advice and is provided free of charge. It is your responsibility to fully research any and all items related to projects or suggestions to ensure proper safety and code precautions and regulations are fully followed. In other words, any advice we provide is just our opinion, and our opinion is only worth the price we charge for it. :-)

Comments 7


8/28/2013 at 2:21 PM
I agree with the "Keep Your Plan Flexible" and "Limit Your Work Zone" parts. We lived in our house for a year before doing any major renovations, and when we did, we did one room at a time.

I'd also add "Plan Your Final Vision". Renovating room by room works best if you can anticipate what will be happening in the adjacent space.
8/28/2013 at 2:37 PM
Such great advice here! Also, I have to say, I love seeing the way-back-when pictures of your rooms and seeing how your decor has evolved. My husband and I are six months into our first house and sometimes I find myself unreasonably frustrated that my house doesn't magically look beautiful and perfectly decorated yet. It's a good reminder to see that even the homes I admire (like yours!) had to start somewhere, and that "somewhere" is often very far from where they end up :)
8/28/2013 at 4:30 PM
We definitely agree with starting small and working your way up. Not only is it usually budget-friendly, but it serves as a confidence builder.

We also recommend getting one major project at least 2/3 of the way done before starting the next so you don't get overwhelmed. That's not to say you can't have side projects going on, but if you have two bathrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and several bedrooms in various states of disassembly, it can drag you down.

Finally, keep at least one room as a "clean zone". It gives you somewhere to go to escape the renovation madness if need be.
8/28/2013 at 9:46 PM
There are some good words of wisdom here. I would also add that while there are some things that need to be done right away, others can be pushed back or broken down into smaller chunks. Rather than do everything we have planned for our kitchen all at once, we are renovating it little by little. One day we replaced the fridge, one weekend I painted a cabinet, another day to replace the stove, a weekend to paint, and a week to install a ceramic tile floor. The last projects will be to build a pull out cabinet beside the stove, replace the countertop and tile the backsplash. It will have taken us over a year to complete it, but we did not have to disrupt our lives very much and were able to accommodate our work schedules. Don't feel you have to do everything all at once even in one room.
8/29/2013 at 12:03 AM
Great advice definitely tackle one project at a time. I find I'm more efficient when I focus on one room largely in part to not feeling overwhelmed with all the projects being worked on. I would add a couple of suggestions.

1) Use the seasons to your advantage. For example we have cast iron radiators with hot water so we cant repair plaster/paint a room until heating season is over. (this doesn't mean you can't prep the rest of the room beforehand.) In the winter do mundane inside tasks like painting/ stripping wood, routing new electrical, etc...

2) In the beginning concentrate on projects that will save you money/ add to the comfort of your home. Our roof had no attic ventilation or insulation so our first spring we put in soffit vents, ridge vent, insulation, radiant barrier and a whole house fan. This kept us from doing things that are more visually appealing but made our summers bearable and saved on cooling costs.
8/29/2013 at 1:27 PM
This is an incredibly timed entry for me, on the day before we close on our first house! Though there isn't a lot of work to be done (thank god!), I do have a tendency to jump in with both feet, and this was the gentle reminder I needed to chill out and enjoy my new house before I go crazy with trying to decorate/arrange furniture.
8/29/2013 at 10:11 PM
One piece of advice that I had heard that I really liked was not to make too many extreme changes to the home until you've lived in it for 1 year. This would apply to projects like kitchens, bathrooms, moving/rearranging interior walls, and replacing original windows.

If I had waited a bit longer on a few projects, I would have made a few different decisions.
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