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Bowser’s Backyard Journey – An Unfinished EPIC Adventure

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Today’s post is written by GOOD friend of the blog and EHD alum Emily Bowser. We hope you’ll all join us in giving her a warm welcome back : )

Back towards the start of the year I started sharing the saga of my back patio on Instagram, and the EHD team reached out and asked me to share it with all of you here on the blog. Of course I LIVE to talk on and on and on about renovation woes, so I quickly said yes.

Then, the tragic murder of Ahmaud Arbery happened in February, followed by Breonna Taylor’s murder by police in March. And everything was punctuated by the slow, calculated murder of George Floyd in broad daylight, by police, with people filming and crying out for them to stop. To say that a blog post about my patio felt unimportant is a massive understatement.

To be completely honest, the experience of the pandemic, combined with the current civil rights movement spearheaded by Black Lives Matter, months away from a very important (also understatement) election, has me re-evaluating every aspect of my life. I know I was asked to write a post about my patio, not social justice, but I simply can’t without first acknowledging the fact that what is happening in the world deserves our complete attention. I am white and have benefitted from systems that are founded in white supremacy, including buying, owning, and renovating a home. These systems include things like generational wealth, bank loans, and real estate practices. I chatted a lot about some of this in the comment section on my first post because a few readers felt that I was flippant in the way I spoke about homeownership (thank you to those who spoke up). Yes, I’ve worked hard, and despite a lot of other odds I was able to buy this house and do these expensive renovations. However, those facts do not negate the hard truth that had I been born with a different color skin, my odds of being a homeowner right now would diminish greatly.

So, before I go on to the rest of this post, I wanted it to be clear that all of this is on my mind (and hopefully on all of your minds too). I hope that my story of our small backyard renovation is helpful to those looking to renovate on a budget while enjoying the process. With all of that being said, let’s get into it . . .

WHERE WE STARTED

this is a picture taken standing near the back unit, facing the back door of the front unit.

As a reminder, we own a “2-on-a-lot” (multi-family) property built by a single man in 1930. My husband and I live in the front unit (860 sq feet) and rent out the back house (680 sq feet). The whole lot is a little over 5000 square feet and when we bought it, the lot was all concrete, spare a few small openings for trees. There were 3 lemon trees, 2 apple trees, an orange tree, a clementine tree and a -still- unidentified tree (possibly guava) – where were they getting water with all that concrete??

I talked a bit about this before in my other posts, but it bears repeating – I am a very optimistic person. When I saw both houses on the property they were borderline in shambles. But all I could see was what could be versus the reality. The fact that the two houses were separated by a yard made them each feel a lot more private vs the upstairs/downstairs or side by side duplexes I had looked at. Not only were they separated but they each had their own outside space. I mean, it was nothing to look at, but the square footage was there and it was already mapped out to be a lot more private than any multi-unit property I had seen. I saw these outdoor spaces and I saw nothing but opportunity.

LOL. Reality is so annoying TBH.

You can read about the very overwhelming financial situation we were in here but the general thing to know is this: We had none monies. We didn’t even have the money to do the things that sort of had to be done in order to make the homes, you know, liveable or whatevs. The outdoor space quickly turned into a “one day later” thing as we put out reno fires for months then retreated into our somewhat-renovated but largely unfurnished home and licked our THIS-close-to-financial-ruin wounds.

our backyard/renovation dumpster

Here were the few things we did do: We ripped up and replaced the sewage line that led from the back unit to the front. This meant pulling up some concrete and I specifically remember telling my contractor not to bother pouring new concrete over the new sewage line because “we will rip all this up soon.” We cut down the 2 apple trees and one lemon tree on a whim. And finally, we painted the exteriors of both houses. The space between the 2 homes became the dump for the renovation from October-January (as seen above).

THEN THE RAIN CAME . . .

All I remember about 2017 is a lot of rain, hustling but not having enough money, laughing with my friend Lauren instead of crying (mostly about the “quick and easy refinance” that was proving to be neither) and cuddling my cat Daffy. I noticed some pretty significant cracks in the walls of my bedroom and laundry room at some point in 2017 but tried to ignore them. The house was just settling, right?? RIGHT????

The cracks got progressively worse, and despite the fact that I still owed my contractor like $70,000 – I had him look at the foundation and turrrrrrrns out all that rain had washed its way down our concrete hill and landed right around those steps, soaking in, destroying the back wall of our foundation. Cue me laying in a fetal position and wondering (hoping?) if my bed would just fall into the abyss. 

My contractor took pity on me, and agreed to do the work knowing I would find some way to pay him. If you want to talk about getting into a codependent relationship with a contractor we can chat more in the comments below.

december 2017, getting down into the foundation

If my backyard is all concrete then what is that mass of green you ask?? OH, THAT’S A MONSTER TOMATO PLANT GROWING OUT OF A CRACK IN THE CONCRETE THAT I DID NOT PLANT OR WATER OR CARE FOR IN ANY WAY. Not only was it growing out of a crack, earlier in the year my mom had sprayed it with weed killer and STEPPED ON IT. Sorry if this is triggering to find out for anyone who is precious about their tomato plants. So there was something good about 2017 – I had more fresh tomatoes than any other person on the planet.

Anyways, we had fixed the foundation but how were we going to keep this from happening again? We learned that all the concrete poured over the years was likely an attempt to try to keep the water from doing what it did. Remember the sewage line? Well, ripping that up and not re-pouring the concrete had exacerbated the problem. We realized the best option was to pour a sh*t ton more concrete to protect the foundation. So we agreed, but I was like, “yeahhhhhh . . . maybe, pour it into the shape of a patio tho??”

In retrospect, I’m an insane person. WHY would I add more to my debt when I was so far in? Probably because it seemed so counterintuitive to ADD more concrete without at least making it functional. Meanwhile, we were already paying to tear and remove some concrete in other parts of the yard, so the ‘ole “welllllll, as long as we’re here . . .” thing happened and we went ahead and removed all the concrete in our backyard (except of course for the new concrete patio we were going to pouring). When they brought over all the machinery to fix the patio, the chain-link fence gate in the front got damaged and I had the genius/insane idea of adding a stucco wall there as well. All in all, I added QUITE a bit to my already existing debt with my contractor (on top of the $2000 I paid to the subcontractor to remove all the concrete). Luckily my husband got a holiday bonus that year and we were able to give our contractor a $5000 check of goodwill.

NUMBER REALNESS

Speaking on money, let’s take a quick break to look at the numbers: We bought our home for $600,000, put down only $22,000, were able to pay our contractor $38,000 from a construction loan (that was added to our $600,000 mortgage), got a family loan (aka generational wealth) for $60,000, and scraped together the rest of the money ourselves ($40,000ish). By February 2017 we had paid our contractor $130,000 and still owed him around $70,000. Then the foundation problem happened, and $14,000 got added to the debt. It wouldn’t be until November of 2018 when we finally were able to get our house refinanced and pay him the $84,000 we owed him. I’ve talked about this before but it’s worth noting again – my contractor had quoted me $100,000 for the renovation, so it was 100% over what he said ($214,000 total), which is part of why he was understanding about the delay in payment. 

Back to the patio . . .

THE FANTASY STARTS TO BECOME A REALITY

Remember William Hunter’s home? Well, he and his wife Amanda are friends of mine and he just whipped this beauty up for me. It was/is my north star. ALSO, CHECK DAFFY IN THE WINDOW. I came up with the layout of the patio by imagining what size the walkway needed to be to seem comfortable and extending the patio all the way up to that line so there wasn’t any wasted space. I gave myself around 2 feet of depth for planting a hedge against the fence and 4 feet for the walkway. The wall around the patio also created a natural nook for the trashcans to live on the other side without being an eyesore. William and Amanda actually convinced me that I would want one wide step for sitting on and they were SO right. It’s a weird concept, but sitting on the edge of a step is just something humans do I guess? I sit there ALL the time.

At this point the foundation was fixed, we had a structure, and all the concrete was gone from this area. There was just the teeny tiny problem of, once again, having absolutely no money but a very unfinished dirt yard. When this was going on, my friend Anne lived in the back unit and I believe she had shoes she would specifically wear to walk through the dirt/mud (because it was still rainy season!) and change shoes when she got to her car. I got to work as fast as possible creating a new walkway to at least fix that problem. Originally I was going to do a pebble path, but I had learned of too many people on hills having a hard time with them washing away with heavy rains.

I settled on large pavers and medium-sized stones surrounding them. I did a little (a lot) of googling and watched a ton of old men DIY youtube videos on how to make a path like this and here is what I learned: You have to dig a shallow ditch, the shape of the desired path, about 4 inches deep. Line the ditch with landscape weed barrier, use some kind of edging to keep the earth from falling back into the ditch (I used steel edging at first, replaced later by a stone edging), place pavers where desired and then fill in the rest with the smaller stones. Easy enough, right? FALSE. My dirt is made of clay and rocks, and digging that trench almost killed me. If you want a play by play, I have the whole saga saved in my story highlights (titled Yard Reno 3). It’s RIVETING.

We put the hedges in before the walkway so I knew I had enough room for the hedge to fit first. The hedges are Ficus Nitida and I got them from a local place called Planta Nursery. We bought 22 of them and planted them about 3 ft apart. 

After I finished the hedges and walkway the yard stayed like this for the first half of 2018. We were, again, out of money and I had started working a lot more regularly for Emily, which kept me too busy daily to try any more intense DIYs. Personally, I also like to live with things unfinished for a while so I can figure out what I actually want. We put up lights, used outdoor furniture we had from our former apartment and honestly, despite the dirt yard (you didn’t notice that as much in the dark anyway) we really enjoyed the patio. We played Kubb (google it), sat around a fire pit with our back house tenants (and good friends) almost every night, and started letting our kitties out for supervised outside time (game changer).

VEGETATION AT LAST

A few months later we had saved enough to pull the trigger on having a landscaper put in a garden, mulch for under the fruit trees, river rocks for the walkway edging, irrigation, and grass. The total for that was about $7000, but we were able to pay in a couple of installments. A good chunk of that was the irrigation system (around $2000), grass (around $1500), and the install of everything ($2300). I can tell you right now, whatever they charged me for install was not enough. After that walkway and the hedges, I have a whole new respect for landscapers. Digging is. So. Hard. 

During this install, I went to Maryland for a month in June to be with family after an unexpected passing of my aunt’s husband (she’s only a year older than me, it’s a long story, er, confusing story?). And as soon as I got back I jumped on a plane 24 hours later headed to Portland for a Target shoot Emily was doing there and that led right into the Portland Project. Every picture I have of the back yard during these early times of having a yard was of my cats because I would only be home for a day or 2 and then go back to Portland and clearly I missed my cats sooooooo much.

I had planned on doing the gardening part myself but when it became clear that I wouldn’t be home for quite awhile, I went ahead and had the landscapers put plants in as well so they could establish themselves before cooler weather. The direction I gave was that I wanted it to feel very natural. I wanted herbs and lots of shades of greens with some dark purples. There’s rosemary, Kangaroo paws, lavender, olive bushes, black rose succulents, and more…

My hedges. I could write a love letter to them. They were inexpensive, they grew fast, and they just did their GD job. I always say they are the ONLY thing about this renovation that just all around WORKED. 22 of them + delivery = $350. I planted them myself, so that was free but honestly, I would have paid someone if I could have. 8 months after we planted them they needed to be staked because they were growing so fast and falling all over each other. My landscaper did it, the stakes and ties cost $195, the install was $75 (DEF glad I paid for that) so my total investment was $620 and LOOK AT THEM NOW:

I LOVE THEM SO MUCH.

They cover the not-so-pretty (because we were looking at the back of it) fence and add so much drama. That picture was taken in May, and since then they’ve actually gotten taller. I surmise these beauties are about 10 feet tall. You can kind of see where the fence is behind them, and that’s a 6-foot fence. Going from zero green, to the green grass and hedges has completely and totally changed this small outdoor space.

PAINTING THE PATIO – ONE STEP CLOSER TO DONE

We recently decided after living with the unfinished (read v dirty and stained) concrete patio that we left that way because we couldn’t afford tile for 2 years, to just go ahead and paint it. It was a pretty simple process. I bought an inexpensive power washer (the most exciting part. Fun fact: I like owning all the tools), washed the patio, filled in the cracks with concrete filler and painted it the same color as the house. If you go back to William’s sketch of the dream of the backyard, you will notice it is all white. At the time I was really into that look but figured it was not 100% a great choice as far as keeping it clean. Spoiler alert: It’s not. However, this is just for the short term and very fun nonetheless. You can use a Porch and Patio paint like this one. Then to make sure it would be easy to wash (knowing it would get so dirty) we finished it off with a wet look sealer which makes it way glossier and easier to clean. Probably could be slippery when wet though, just FYI.

BEFORE & AFTER (SO FAR)

SO, this is where we are now. Mind you, this is all our old furniture and look how sad that couch styling is! But we have BIG DIY plans for this space! Stay tuned, because I’ll be attempting a very large sectional, built with my own 2 hands featuring Ross Alan Reclaimed Wood. Stay at home orders have me itching to do some gardening. I’m going to be fixing up the garden that has grown in so much and needs some love and even more herbs so it becomes even more functional and not just pretty.

look at that hedge!

On the right side of the patio I’m going to attempt my first vegetable garden in a raised bed, and I’m going to make myself. Did anyone else watch Ron Finley’s masterclass??

I’m sure I’ll be talking more about the process and selling things we no longer need (and I’m looking for a perfect table to put in this space!) over on the insider community! Please let’s talk in the comments, love hearing from all of you! Until next time xx

Fin Mark

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Nina

Woa those before and after pictures already look incredible!

I know it’s insane!!

Sahaja

This was amazing to watch! Following along your house journey has been really compelling. I definitely know the feeling of a house always needing work, though yours was a whole other level. The result is nothing short of spectacular. Btw, I also want all the tools – isn’t power washing so satisfying?!

Juanita

Incredible transformation, and thanks as always for sharing the finances, soo helpful! Also “exasperated the problem” might be the best typo ever.

ha all fixed!

WOWWWWWWW. what a transformation! it seriously looks AMAZING. looks like soooo much work, but totally worth it.
question, i’m surprised you put in grass in southern CA because isn’t there a drought going on there? what made you choose real grass over fake? or even just drought-happy plants? just wondering

Rusty

Fake gets wah-really hottt and doesn’t let water through well because it’s put onto a base material.
You CAN grow grass with very little water because they’ve hybridized grass specifically for hot, dry climates.
Australia is waaaay hot n dry and real grass keeps things cooler (less air con, power use) and critters, insects n birds love it too.
Habitat.

I reckon Bowser shouldvgoogle BENEFICIAL INSECT HOTEL DIY

Susan

I cannot fathom the amount of $ that you’ve had to sink into this place. Cannot fathom having a family member with $60k to loan me, and cannot fathom owing a contractor that much without knowing how I would pay for it. It’s a scale issue. I live in Northern MN where my 3 bedroom 1 bath with a giant yard cost me $110,000 in 2012. My parents are buying the 2 bedroom house across the street next month for $125k. All that to say o dont know how you didnt get depressed or lose your mind during this process. Where you have landed now is very pretty

Anna

Backyard turned out GORGEOUS, Bowser, but I did have similar thoughts to Susan. It was stressful to read, although I do appreciate you being honest with the financials! What is your opinion/thought process now moving forward?

Melissa

Yes, It’s ridiculously expensive to live in LA, but who wants to live in northern Minnesota? Not me…..

Meghan

That’s an incredibly rude comment. Just because you don’t doesn’t mean others don’t. Have you been there? Northern Minnesota is extremely beautiful.

Diane M

I was thinking the same thing!!

Michelle

Let me guess, you live in Cali? It just sounds like the tone deaf thing people say when they live in overpriced warm places… I’m from MI and my brother moved to San Diego where he lived for 22 years and never bought a house. He moved back home for affordable housing and to save in pre-retirement decade. I do get the appeal of Cali – the sunshine, the fruit trees, etc. I visited him lots. But too many people (ahem esp Californians) think nice weather = happiness. I never could get over the high cost of living and find the midwest a sensible choice. I am fortunate ai can own and afford to travel. Couldn’t do that with a $800k mortgage. Our home town was priced similarly to northern MN references here and I bought a house at age 27 ($115k with then possible zero down loan). I did want more city amenities but relocation to either coast seemed just too expensive. I now live in the Minneapolis area where housing is way higher than home (not Cali crazy but still) but isn’t going to take three generations to own free and clear… Guess what I do when I… Read more »

Susan

There is no “Cali.” It’s “California.” You can qualify it with “Northern” or “Southern.”
Not “Cal,” which refers to UC Berkeley. And never, never, never “Cali.” That’s as rude as calling San Francisco “Frisco,” which no Californian does.

Michelle

Well isn’t that fascinating. Having heard the term in songs I never dreamed it was “rude.” Note taken. It may be distressing to you that a great number of people, not living in or near California, may be unaware it’s offensive and are therefore using the term “Cali” quite frequently.

Amy

What a change!! The yard looks so great with the greenery, those beautiful fruit trees, kitties sunbathing…just perfect! Can’t wait to see more as you go. Will you be sharing the details about the second house on property, what did you have to do to fix it up, any reveals? Congrats on working towards a vision and not giving up!

S

Out of curiosity- will all the money you have put into the property be reflected in resale?
I’m currently debating a full kitchen reno, but since I don’t know how long I’ll be in my current home I am reluctant to spend tens of thousands of dollars not knowing if it will pay in the long run. (Though I’m in a townhouse (in Maryland!) so there is more of a cap on property value in the neighborhood.) Very curious on the situation in LA!

Kim

I suggest asking your realtor. Some improvements you will gain back in resale and others not so much. Every market is different and your realtor will be able to give you good advice.

Vicki Williams

I’m a retired…er semi kitchen designer. Kitchens and bathrooms, you almost always get your full reno investment cack when selling. Obviously invest what will go with the state and genre of your home but you should be OK and get a very nice kitchen return.

Vicki Williams

Back not cack :/

Kiana

This (and you) is so inspiring to me. I recently bought a house and the previous owners loved to garden and put all this stuff that I have no idea how to care for or even what it all is. It’s also waaaay too much. I’m not a gardener and can’t see myself suddenly becoming one so I just stare at all the plants and trees all day and fret about what to do. I think you’ve given me the courage to finally tackle my space and hire out what I just don’t know what to do with. Thanks Emily!

Rusty

Join your nearest garden club!!!
Meet new people.
Connect with sagely wisdom of elders.
Learnwhatthose plants are (from those new people/friends) and how to tame and care for them!
Ta-da!

Great suggestion Rusty!

jen

There’s a great app for identifying plants which we found helpful after moving into a previous gardener’s delight.

j

Yes! Learn the plants and figure out their care. Established plants are sooooo good, such a treasure! (Don’t be tempted to rip them out and start over, just sit tight) Learn them, live with them a season or two, decide if you like them, see if they are easy or high maintenance and go from there. (This from someone who was in your exact shoes!) I took pics to my local garden center (NOT big box, local nursery). They helped so much with identifying and giving direction.

Clara

I agree with a few other commenters. It looks beautiful, but that is a serious amount of debt for someone who could only afford a $22k down payment. On the one hand I appreciate the honesty in revealing the cost and the fact that it was all done on loans; on the other hand I would not normalize this kind of spending on a house. $7,000 for someone who has a 30 year loan at 5% means that is ~$14,000 worth of landscaping.

Clara, in no way is Bowser trying to normalize anything. She is just talking honestly about her experience. I think if anything she would categorize this as a cautionary tale. Talking about the realities of what can happen in homeownership and the money it can take, only helps to educate people.

Kara

I agree, Jess, this is totally how I’ve seen all her posts about her house. Fixer-uppers (and DIY) are so romanticized and seen as a way to save money, so I appreciate a very clear look into her reality that does the opposite of romanticize that stuff (even though the finished product is so beautiful!!).

Michelle

Actually I think “appropriate” amounts for landscaping are a very local consideration. In Cali, these spaces are year round living, cooking spaces and it is a huge impact to housing value when the space is attractive and functional. So I agree, most places in our country landscaping is more of a luxury, and rarely returns on the investment (although it can sell a place faster), I would expect this money to drive clear resale value for this home…. based on my second-hand knowledge of Cali housing markets anyway. I DO appreciate the money details because it does help put some things in perspective, but it doesn’t make them universally relevant (of course.) Not sure there is a “normal” that’s particularly useful…??

Susanna

Looks fantastic. Great reminder that making a house a home takes time (or a lot more $$ upfront). Could just be me, but I really want to give the patio section a bit of breathing space and float it out a bit from the walls.

Mk

Fabulous!

Others may not understand because they live in areas that do not appreciate as quickly or robustly as CA homes. The only caveat is to not sink $$ into a neighborhood that can support those numbers. In the end, it will pay off for you especially with that back unit.

Addition of the patio and designed to hide the garbage cans was well thought out. I wish I could grow Ficus in my area. It is a perfect solution for a narrow privacy screening. I, too, do not like looking a wood fences because after a short period of time they do not look that great. I would rather see green.

Rusty

BOWSER!!! 😃
So … no time to get that book started,obviously.

Wot a transformation! I did a similar thing here (massive garden) and a couple of beds screamed foradvanced plants, but ya know? Baby plants actually grow faster and stronger.

Your kitties!!! Love!

I’m stoked you have KANGAROO PAWS!!! They’re from Australia, sure, byt getcha didn’t know they’re from right here, where I live … Perth, Western Australia!

Question: What are yourhedge plants?? I zoomed in to try and see. Are they Lillypillies??

Honest, when I saw it was a post by you, I was excited (love your writing style and cup overflowing attitude), but, man! The difference between the before n afters is MASSIVE AND GORGEOUS!! (Take that, you caps police!)

Love it. Love the realness and doableness for anyone to give facets ofut a go.
👍❤👍

Rusty

Sorry re typos … numb fingers don’t like touch screens.😖

Cris S.

The patio and half wall around it are such a genius solution to the flooding problem AND a beautiful add to the house that makes it look much larger and more finished. Such a great solution! I always read your house posts holding my breath! I feel you on your financials we renovated also and went way over budget in adding a second story, etc. And now the basement needs a bunch of work to prevent flooding (that the previous owners swore never happened before, but how is that possible with the clay pipes in the ground crumbling and full of tree roots???) and right now we just have to use the wet vac in heavy prolonged rains because I don’t have the $30000 to do all the work needed. And I love the house but keep thinking, especially now, that we are too close to retirement to pay off this place AND provide for our special needs son. In one of your previous posts you mentioned that a year after purchasing your house and paying your bills on time your credit rebounded to where it was before. Its been almost two years for us and the credit rebound is… Read more »

Jamie

A stencil on the floor of the concrete patio would look amazing – we just did this to define a similar, three-walled patio area in our backyard, and it’s a much nicer alternative to the outdoor rug we had there previously and less costly/labor intensive/slippery than tiling the area. Plus it’s fast (1-2 hours) and cheap (stencil and a gallon of paint).

yes!!!!

Megan

This is an amazing transformation and thank you for keeping it real about all the hurdles and $$$!

Catherine

Seriously amazing transformation!!! And I’ll piggy-back on what others have said: it’s refreshing to hear you talk money, because that’s what always holds me back from doing stuff.

I so appreciate you walking us through the financials. While I love reading about renovations etc, I think a lot of blogs intentionally skip over the dollar factor. Most people can make fabulous renovations and design plans if they have unlimited finances. I have to be realistic with my funds and – as an example – doing a kitchen reno which includes a $1K faucet may look fabulous – it doesn’t translate well with a lot of folk. I may love it, but it would be completely out of my budget. So, I’m happy that this post took the realistic approach and told us what the costs were!

Dena

AAAAAh, this is one of my favorite types of homes!! I love how you incorporated the patio, and added lots more green!! Looks beautiful and hope you decide to put in a few butterfly/hummingbird/bee friendly plants. It’s magical to see them floating around your yard. You were so smart to do hedging instead of replacing the fence with a wood one. I live in a beach area in FL and it is so expensive to do anything so I can relate to the money you have spent but knowing that where you live it should be okay. That is a lot of financial pressure but so great you are starting now while you are young and with a rental to help.

kate

What an incredible transformation! Well done!

Lindsay

Hi Boswer!

Mandi at Vintage Revivals did an awesome raised bed tutorial a few weeks ago that you might wanna check out. I am obsessed with it and desperately want to find a place in my yard to recreate it. I appreciate your transparency re: the funds. Life is expensive, but it’s so rarely discussed.

ME

Love your hedge plants! Looking for a similar type for my backyard privacy. Do you know what specific type they are?

Lauren

Emily ❤️, my favorite author, I sweat reading every one of your posts. I have literally been with you every day since you first set eyes on this place and against all advice, and all odds, this house and you were meant to be. I was lol’ing look through the pictures because it was a true NIGHTMARE and when you said you were lying in bed hoping to be pulled into an abyss. The day you told me Ron came to start the patio, I was working in a coffee shop and I remember thinking and saying to you “wtf”. But here you are on the other side. Well done, friend.

Betsy

And this my friends, is why you don’t buy a house unless you can afford to buy. I get that California is a totally different game. My friend just bought a $1.7 million dollar shack in LA. And I do mean shack. Very disconcerting. I about cried when I saw pictures. You need 20% down, 6 month emergency fund & 1% into a house emergency fund, etc before you should even consider buying a house. But I digress. The transformation looks fantastic!

Bella

I’m from the Bay Area and it is heartbreaking how expensive stuff is in CA. An 800 sqft shack next door to us sold for 1.2M and it was a teardown! Emily’s house in LA at 600k is an absolute deal by comparison (I say this laugh-crying at the ridiculousness of calling a 600k+ fixer-upper cheap).

I will say, as someone who “did everything right” with 20% down, great credit, a life emergency fund, 1% house emergency fund, and reno money savings in cash plus a bit more for contingency, we still went over budget with our reno and that ‘affordable fixer upper’ took a lot more $$$ than we’d planned. So the best laid plans can still go awry. Lesson learned I guess is don’t buy a fixer upper? 😉 They are definitely way more risky than buying a new build/move-in ready house. I would say… for renovations, get an estimate, double that amount and add another 10-50% for contingency. That amount is probably a more realistic price at the end.

Suzanne

What an oasis you created! I’ve loved your transparency on this project from the beginning. It’s such a realistic look of how off an estimate can be. During my house hunting years, I passed on many potential amazing homes, because I feared the costs that would tumble out of control. I’m happy to hear that you’ve been able to use loans, patience, and sweat equity to make it work. The transformation is truly stunning!

Moo

Hi! I love seeing Emily on here again. And I really appreciate that you addressed systemic racism first because you’re right, how could it not be. We cannot be silent. And your sharing of financials is so refreshing! Homes in LA are so expensive! I’m so glad it turned out okay in the end. All that hard has really paid off, it’s transformed into such a beautiful outdoor space and I can’t wait to see more of it.

Beth

I really like the way you included social justice as it relates to housing, financing etc. I’ve been struggling with wanting fun design content balanced with an ongoing conversation about racism in this country, and this was a great mix for me!

KD

This is amazing! And so inspiring. Love your explanation of the journey, too.

Bowser! I’m living for the Spanish Bungalow fantasy you are serving. It’s such a Californian thing and its coming together so beautifully.

Sheryl Lyons

Who was your landscaper? I have an equally ugly concrete backyard I’m dying to transform!

Jenms

Awesome post! So glad to have you back, Bowser!

Question: Why did you switch out the steel edging for rocks? I’m seriously considering getting steel edging for a pathway I’m making next year (thanks for the heads up about how difficult it actually is!) and I’d like to know some pros/cons for steel edging. Thanks!

Alicia M Freeman

BEAUTIFUL! Please paint your back door black or some other fun color 🙂

Shannon

LOVE THIS!! Are your pavers concrete or limestone? I’m trying to decide between one to the other. TIA!

Paula

Beautiful job! I know about that clay soil (adobe, my mom called it, and she hated it, too). All respect, Emily.

Are you planning to get an umbrella or something for shade on the patio? Because I know how glaring white walls/floors can get in the sun. For me, anyway, that intense brightness can be almost physically painful.

P.S. when I first saw this in my email, I was thinking “Bowser? I guess this a dog friendly backyard” TOTALLY forgetting that Bowser was your last name. Me? Embarrassed.

Lily

Pardon my language but holy fuck this is amazing Bowser.

I love the transformation! We are in the process of a backyard transformation as well, so I appreciate the inspiration.
Will you do anything for the sloped roof over the door? Maybe tiles like the upper part of the roof? Trim on the windows?

Heidi

Thank you SO much for talking about the money!

Kendra Yoes

unbelievable! great job, I especially love the large cement pavers. You’re an inspiration!

Susie

You are amazingly impressive. I can’t imagine tackling that mess.
I’m glad to hear your words about the privilege of home ownership. Many people are unaware of the damage to generational wealth from redlining and other racist practices that were not only legal, but practiced by our government.

MsZ

That is an amazing transformation!!! And I appreciate your honesty about the financials. What power washer did you get, and do you like it? I bought one at Lowe’s and I swear it was no better than my garden hose…

MsZ

Coming back to thank you all for your advice!

Amy

What a transformation! Do you still plan to tile the patio? Stencil “tile” instead (I’m debating doing that on our porch…) And thank you for your intro – it does feel strange not to acknowledge the world we’re in right now.

LA Lady

Beautiful!! I want to warn people away from your hedging plant ficus microcarpa nitida. It is notorious in California for invasive roots that break up concrete sidewalks and patios and bust your water pipes. Our next door neighbor actually threatened to sue us for the the damage the ficus hedge planted on our side of the fence did to his concrete patio. We had to invoke our home ownership insurance to pay for a new patio for him. (We still had to pay the deductible so it wasn’t free.) So for the sake of neighborly harmony in 15 years or so, don’t plant a ficus hedge.

Ursula Willis

I am so glad you are continuing to update us on your home ownership saga (it is a saga!) your first post about buying and fixing up was one I read with my mouth open, thinking “No way…NO WAY.”

I remember a comment that you replied to in the first post about “blessing vs. privilege” in regards to your privilege as a white woman, and how calling it a blessing to own a home and have access implied that others did not deserve to be “blessed.” and I was like oh, I like her, that is such a clear and pragmatic way of framing it, so that others may see their implicit bias and prejudices.

And you starting out with addressing BLM and the recent deaths of unarmed black men and women at the hands of the police is a much needed reality check for some. It does feel sometimes feel dissonant to be reading about home decor and such while civil rights movements are literally happening outside our doors but I remember that needing healing and a bit of levity is just as important as well. So thank you for this update.

Jen

Fellow LA homeowner/renovator here and this project is giving me so much hope for my own sad, scraggly backyard. Really appreciate all the real money talk and I wonder if you’d gut check me on something: I’ve been getting insane estimates for getting concrete poured (like, $5000 for a truck’s worth, plus the labor). Is that….reasonable? How much did it cost to pour your patio, if you don’t mind me asking?

Vicki Williams

That space is amazing! So inviting, comfortable looking and I just want to be there! Great albeit difficult, complicated hard work, long time coming job!

Amanda

I might just be missing it, but what kind of hedge is that? We are in desperate need of one and yours seems to have grown in so nicely!

Amanda

sigh, shoulda gone to the comments first, found it!

Tara Lynch

I’ve been reading your updates for a while and truly, truly think you are so generous in sharing personal and financial details of your journey in the spirit of cautionary tale or optimism or whatever. I love that you are optimistic and see opportunity for better – that’s how the makers of the world think! Anyway, thanks so much for the inspiration and honesty. Every update you’ve shown is fantastic!

Karyn

Hi Bowser, coming in late with my comments. Your yard is gorgeous and it’s clear how much time and effort and $$$ went into it. Where is the firepit that you mentioned playing Kubb around? Also, we have a lot of same plants that you put in as well as veggie garden. Word to the wise. Put tomato cages around your Kangaroo plants until they are well established, just so your cats can’t pee near or on them. It will KILL them. My dogs took mine out and after replanting twice, we added the cages and they survived.

Karyn

Oh and also on the discussions of grass vs artificial grass, the latter is at least 10 degrees hotter than real grass. If you decide you want to change it out, there are lots of ground covers that can handle foot traffic and such and spread like grass.

Monica

Hi Emily.

I always find myself chuckling when reading your posts about your house. I still laugh when I think about “When you owe someone $80,000, it is kind of hard to be like “YEAH BUT WHERE IS MY MIRROR, RON?!” I truly think you should write a book about your adventures in home ownership. It is highly entertaining and you could make some $.

You know what didn’t make me laugh in this post though? When I read you planted a ficus hedge. Oh no… please say you didn’t. 22 of them? Yikes! I am dying for you. Ficus have notorious invasive roots. As a gardener, I always say to people, “I love ficus trees…as long as they’re in pots”. I feel like this is going to be yet another chapter in your homeownership saga (in 20 years). I would rip those suckers out now and put them in pots. Then you have to make sure the roots don’t escape the bottom of the pot–they are on a mission!

Kara

WOW I just went back and read the original post on when you bought the house. I can’t believe I missed it back then because I read the blog almost every day. I LOVE your honesty and candor and your writing style. Truth articles like this however are why I will probably rent until I die lol (I’m in my mid 40s already) but I really enjoy knowing all the details and appreciate you giving them. You are doing an amazing job with this home. Sending you all the good luck for smoother sailing from here on out!

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