I’m back, friends. Sara here to regale you with more anecdotes of first-time homeownership—the misery, the woes, the money hemorrhaging, and all the joys in between.
Last we left off, I told you all about how we went about buying our house, what the process was like for us, and covered some tips that could be helpful if you were shopping for a home. What we didn’t cover was how much we actually paid for the house, what that amount got us, or what’s happened since we got the keys. In all honesty that was partly because I was scared to; disclosing hyper-personal information, like how much you’ve paid for a very big thing to thousands of people online, is a bit intimidating. In a lot of ways, people are impressed to hear that we’ve bought our first house under the age of 30 in a market like LA. But the truth is we didn’t do it alone. We have family that pitched in to help make it a reality for us. And, at the risk of sounding like insurance fraud, the renter’s insurance check we received because of the fire that forced us to move out from our apartment also helped a lot. We ended up choosing not replacing a majority of the damaged items that we were being paid out for and instead invested that money into a down payment. It was a lot of stars aligning, family support and financial assistance, and a lot of personal savings on our own behalf (and I recognize that even being able to put money away every month is a big privilege). BUYING A HOUSE IS HARD and I would never want anyone to feel bad that they weren’t in a position to do it, or feel like we were taking out ability to for granted.
But then Emily Bowser wrote an amazing post all about her home buying process (which was so different than ours, and wildly more dramatic). I was riveted. Her transparency was utterly refreshing, and kept my eyes GLUED to the screen all four (4) times I read her post. So, taking a page from her book, I’ve decided to be totally transparent about the actual numbers when it comes to these posts moving forward. And we’ve got a lot of great content in the pipeline about house renovation and design that will hopefully keep you all entertained while also being honestly informative.
Here we go.
Buying Our House: What It Took
Mac and I bought our house for $550k. It had been on the market for a month at $575k without any movement. The weekend we went to see it, they dropped the price to $495k—lucky! And honestly, I could see why it wasn’t getting a lot of attention at $575k: it needed a lot of work, and I think people’s eyes were just glazing over when they thought about the amount of effort they’d have to put in. It also just pulled itself out of the price range were investors might be interested in it as a flip. I, on the other hand, either out of desperation or sheer force of will, saw potential. And I told Mac that I wanted this house. I found out much later (after we finished round one of renovations) that my grandma had actually called my dad desperate for him to convince me that this house was a bad investment. To be fair, when she came to see it while we were still in escrow, there were rotting banana peels on the floor in one of the bedrooms and a dead car sitting in the backyard. It didn’t look good. BUT I WANTED THIS GARBAGE FIRE HOUSE. So we offered $550k—$55k more than asking because I wasn’t about to risk not getting this house after being outbid seven times in the previous eight months. As we all now know, our offer was accepted.
Here’s what $550k got us in north Pasadena (in November 2018): An 1,100-square-foot “three” bedroom, two bathroom single-family home on a 4,770-square-foot lot. The lot includes a front yard, back yard, driveway, detached garage, and a whole lot of checkered tile. Everywhere.
We still feel like this was a really, really good deal. Especially considering how much red and white checkered tile we were getting! Some of the houses we had been looking at were around 600-800 square feet, with no parking, no garage, and no backyard for about the same price… or higher. And zero checkered tile. What shifted the most in our search? Well… GUYSWEBOUGHTINTHESUBURBS. Ugh, it pains me in a certain millennial way to write that. And I know it was a hard mental shift for Mac, who is a unicorn in the sense that he’s actually from LA, and has never lived outside the city. He grew up Mid-Wilshire right across from LACMA, not out in The Valley. But now that we’re here, it’s actually great (though Mac is still team “sell the house and raise our kids in the city” if anyone is wondering). Overall, it reminds me a lot of Claremont, which is where I grew up and where my parents still live. Pasadena is big enough and close enough to East LA and Downtown that we don’t feel like we’re out in the suburbs. Just in our local area, we’ve already found lots of restaurants and cafes that we’re really into!! Plus some stores where we’re quickly becoming “regulars.” Pasadena is pretty awesome!!!
I honestly don’t know who I’m trying to convince with that paragraph (and all those exclamation points). But the moral of the story is, trying to find something worth our money in the city wasn’t happening. We just didn’t have enough to buy something that would meet even the bare minimum of our needs…like parking.
What We Were Working With
That tile was pretty… aggressive. And, wow, that pink master bathroom. Once we owned the house, we had to decide how we wanted to tackle this beast of a renovation. We both agreed that the tile floors needed to go, and a fresh coat of white paint was needed all around. We figured we’d do three things to start:
- Rip out all the floors and replace with solid hardwood (this would be the BIG thing we’d spend money on to start).
- Tear down the partition wall between the living room and dining room.
- Paint every room white until we decided what was happening with furniture and design.
Those three things sounded like a lot of work already, but we’d closed escrow at the end of November and didn’t have to make our first mortgage payment until January, so we could afford to stay in our apartment in December. That gave us a month to get it all done, with my dad and brother (Shade) working pretty much full time on it with our help on the weekends.
I had known we needed to find a fixer, something that would be in our price range just due to the simple fact that it needed a whole lot of work. Plus, I knew my dad and brother would do the majority of the heavy lifting when it came to the renovation labor. My dad has always been extremely adept at figuring things out, and even though he’s not a licensed contractor or craftsman, I grew up watching him renovate whatever house we were living in. He’s refinished floors, built closets, and made beautiful stain glass windows for their living room and bedroom. And my brother inherited that “figure it out” handyman gene from my dad. Between the two of them, I kind of figured we’d be able to renovate anything that had good bones in a good area.
That first week in December, we got started by pulling up all the tile in the living room and dining room. Our plan was to pull up all the old flooring ourselves, and then get quotes for having someone else come lay the new hardwood flooring.
We actually found original hardwood underneath the tile in the living room, but it was so damaged, there was no hope of refinishing. It did, however, gave us a glimpse of what could be!
And the room already looked so much better without the tile. So we brought in two different flooring companies to give us quotes for laying down solid hardwood floors. One came in at $15k+ and the other around $11k, but that was only if we removed and laid new sub-flooring ourselves. Both companies stressed that we really needed new sub-flooring before we could even think about laying hardwood. The bids had us reeling, so in typical dad fashion, he decided we’d just do it ourselves. He agreed that new sub-flooring would give us the best results, so up came all the flooring everywhere except the bathrooms and kitchen.
The underside of our house, much like the topside, was a mess. There was so much garbage piled under our house that we spent two whole days just cleaning it out, raking it, and leveling it out. If anyone ever needs to go under our house, I guarantee it will be one of the cleanest and clearest crawlspaces they will ever encounter. I’m sure at this point Mac was feeling more than a little anxious about the path we were on. We’d just bought a house—one that had been totally livable—and torn out all the flooring. Not just the surface level flooring, ALL OF IT. We spent the next two weeks walking around by balancing on the joists of the house.
Looking at that photo up there, I honestly can’t believe that was our house at one point.
Let’s talk about the joists. The house is almost 100 years old, and over all that time, there had been some sinkage in the house. And that meant that without re-leveling those bad boys, we’d be laying sub-flooring on uneven joists, which would lead to uneven floors. So my dad and brother began the painstaking work of carefully threading a spider web of twine with tiny floating levels all around the floor, finding the highest point in the joists and then doing something called “sistering.” That means adding new wood to existing joists in order to strengthen weak pieces or help level sagging pieces. Feel free to type “sister joist” into the Google machine to find hundreds of Youtube videos all about this riveting topic.
This set us back several weeks, and honestly we were SO happy we decided to do it ourselves because paying someone to pull up the floors and deal with that mess would have no doubt made their initial estimates look like nickels and dimes. But this is also where our three-part renovation got a little out of control. Have you ever started jogging down a hill only to end up running at full speed trying not to lose your footing? That’s what our renovation started to feel like.
The Renovation That Snowballed
In order to sister joist our floors, my dad had to remove a little more wall than anticipated. Once he did that, he found some termite damage in the back of the house. Well, we can’t just LEAVE that damage there. We might as well replace those damaged wall beams while we can see where the damage is. So down came some of the walls in the back of the house. But with the walls already down, shouldn’t we replace all the electric and insulation? It’s going to have to happen at some point anyway! So out came the walls throughout the whole back of the house in order to run all new electrical. And if we’re doing the insulation in the walls, we should do the ceiling, too (and create an attic space up there). We literally came home one day to no ceilings in the back part of the house. “Had to go” was all my dad said.
I have no doubt that Mac was seriously considering how much he valued our relationship and this house over his sanity.
“Had to go” has now become a running joke, but at the time I felt like I was trying to play mediator between my dad who “wanted everything done right, and why not do it now?” and my boyfriend who was just trying to financially and emotionally survive an extreme home renovation he didn’t realize he’d signed up for. Honestly, I was game for anything. I just assume that if my dad takes something apart, he’s going to put it back together even better than he found it. I also didn’t have any qualms with living in a human garbage dump. Mac on the other hand was (and still is) anxious to live like a normal human. Which I guess is understandable. We’d been unsettled for so long since the fire that all he wanted was to come home every night (after enduring his now hour-long commute) to a calm, clean, and organized house where he could relax and enjoy his life. This whole “tear the house apart and start from scratch” situation wasn’t what I had described when I talked him into buying a house with me, and it wasn’t getting better any time soon.
A Change of Plans
We quickly realized we needed more than a month to finish everything we had planned plus all the extra that came up. So we decided to break the renovation into two parts. We’d focus on the front part of the house first so we could make it move-in ready and live in the front bedroom while we continued to work on the back part of the house over the coming months. We asked our landlord for a two-week extension on our apartment and spent all of our Christmas break at the house with my family and our friends plastering, sanding, and painting. The day we moved in we still didn’t have our flooring fully installed, and had to walk carefully on certain parts of it while some glue matured.
What followed was the coldest winter of our lives. The back part of the house was nothing but a shell and the only thing separating it from our living area was a bedroom door. We still didn’t have our molding in the front part of the house, so cold air would seep in from all sides of the house. We didn’t have heat because we’d ripped the wall furnace out of the living room for aesthetics (we knew we wanted central heat and air and didn’t want to deal with removing the wall heater later). And it rained so much that winter. We’d literally wear our winter jackets inside the house, and I bought a box of those little bags of sand that get super hot to put in our shoes and hold in our hands while we hung out in the living room. Plus our dining room was a storage unit, and dirt and dust got tracked everywhere from the back part of the house. But we were IN.
Since then, things have gotten wildly better. Sure, we’re still living in the front part of the house, but the back part of the house has been insulated and has drywall that’s ready for plastering. We moved all the boxes out of our dining room, so it’s not a storage unit anymore, and we actually have some furniture in place that we can hang out on. We lived with protective paper on our floors for months, and that’s finally all gone. And after enduring the coldest winter and hottest summer, we had central heat and air installed this past weekend. It cost us $9,500 and pretty much wiped out our savings for the time being, but this morning I woke up to a warm and cozy house and I couldn’t be happier. We’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. We still have a lot of work ahead, but it’s feeling manageable!
Here’s a quick look at the “original” floor plan from the ’20s, the floor plan when we bought the house, and the floor plan with all the renovations we’ve made:
The biggest changes have all happened in the back part of the house. Originally to get to the master bedroom you’d have to go through this strange small cement room that we guessed was a laundry room. Now you go through the room off the dining room, which will be our TV room*, and we’re turning that small room between the kitchen and master into a walk-in closet for the master. We also moved the door to the master bathroom. Both the closet and bathroom doors in the master are now pocket doors, which have helped us so much with maximizing space. The bedroom that we’ll be using as our TV room has a sharp angle to it but we didn’t want to change the actual structure of the house in any way, so we’re going to square that angle off by turning it into a built-in bookshelf with cabinets (to utilize the space left by the angle). And we tore out the partition wall between the dining and living room, making it one big open floor plan area which really makes the space feel airy (except for the TV we have right smack in the middle for now).
*A few people have commented about our loss of a “third bedroom”, and the truth is that room was too small and awkward to ever really be a bedroom in the first place. We honestly hope that, if we ever decide to sell, all the value we’re adding to the home in other ways (walk-in master closet, hardwood floors, central heat & AC, renovated bathrooms, new water heater, attic, etc.) will be more attractive to buyers than keeping a strange third room and having to walk into their master through the kitchen. But most importantly, we’re not looking at this house as flip-and-sell. It’s our home and we want to enjoy it for as long we live in it 🙂 having to go through the kitchen to get to my bedroom would not make me happy, haha.
So here’s what we still have left to do:
- The back part of the house (TV room, master bedroom, master bathroom, and master closet) needs plastering, paint, and wood flooring installed.
- The master bathroom needs plumbing moved around and tiling.
- The closet needs everything that makes it a closet.
- The TV room needs a built-in built.
Eventually, we want to gut and renovate the kitchen, which will likely be the next project after the back part of the house is done (hopefully in late 2020 after our savings account has recovered a little).
We also want to gut and renovate the front bathroom. The front bedroom will be turned into an office/guest room with a sofa-bed. Our garage, once it’s emptied out, will be where our washer and dryer go. It needs a lot of love but works as storage for now. And lastly, our backyard and front porch both need to be jackhammered out completely and rebuilt. It’s a NEVER ENDING project, but one that we’re pushing forward on.
And here’s what we’ve spent so far…
WOW THAT NUMBER IS REALLY HARD TO READ. It makes me dizzy, and light-headed, and a little nauseous. But it’s actually a really good number, considering all the work we’ve done. Our biggest saver has been on labor. Guess what: dad labor is free! And dad labor has been so, so, SO valuable. We also roped in some friends to help with two big days of plastering and sanding. On the other hand, we’ve been paying my brother for his labor because he’s been doing the bulk of the work. And also because he wasn’t one of the adults who convinced us to buy a house (unlike my father), so he’s really innocent in this whole situation and deserves to be paid. And the funds for our AC and heat were a gift from Mac’s mom upon moving in, which we had just been holding onto until we were able to get around to it.
But the hope is that we’ve added more than $34k in value to the home already.
And now we FINALLY get to start focusing on the fun stuff. What is the fun stuff? Lighting fixtures, rugs, furniture, and paint colors besides white! THE DESIGN OF THE ROOMS, PEOPLE. Our master bathroom is practically done, design-wise. We have beautiful tile from Pratt & Larson sitting in our garage just waiting to be installed, and a custom vanity from Ross Alan Reclaimed Lumber ready to be picked up. We’ve also installed a room-changing skylight from Velux to get some natural light in there. Our bedroom is going to use a lot of the same bigger furniture pieces we already have (like our bed, nightstands, and dresser), but I’m excited to look for a new rug, light fixtures, and art for that space. The TV room is going to be a super exciting room to design because we have some dramatic paint plans for that space that I can’t wait to get started on.
But first, we’re starting with the living room and dining room, and we’re bringing in a VIP to help us out. Our very own Velinda Hellen (there she is above!) is going to be designing our living room and dining room in a series we’re tentatively calling “Design Diaries.” As in, Macauley and I are going to be her clients. And we’re going to document every single step of the process and share it with you. We’re hoping to let you guys in on what it’s actually like to work with a designer, what it’s like for a designer to actually work with clients, and how much it would all cost, hour by hour. There are a lot of “design agonies” in this open floor living/dining space that I’m so happy ARE NOT MY PROBLEM. How do we get the spaces to flow? How do they talk to each other? What do we do with our fireplace? Velinda is going to tell us (and by us, I mean all of you included). She’s also basically going to serve as our design intermediary/couples therapist. It’s going to be hilarious, informative, and hopefully very entertaining.
So that’s what’s next. Stay tuned for Velinda, who’s going to be up next sharing her initial design plans for our space. In the meantime, ask any questions you have down in the comments! And if you’re interested in watching step-by-step renovation process, I’ve documented it all in my saved highlights on Instagram.