I was bound and determined to find a home for us. We considered prefab; we explored foreclosures. Becoming desperate,we even looked at places obviously wrong for us. We went to see a house where two guys were shooting at each other from their cars, and another one that had a cockfighting shed in the back, with feathers in the air and a lightbulb swinging.
After searching for three years, I came across this sad-looking pink house online. The bones were good, it was in a great neighborhood, and it was cheap. It was in probate-the owner had died and the woman selling just wanted it off her hands.
The house had a creepy vibe. It had belonged to a woman who smoked and was an alcoholic; she drank herself to death. Apparently, a biohazard team had been called in to clean out the place, but this all happened before it went on the market, so to us it looked like a cosmetic fixer.
In reality there were a lot of hidden problems. For example, we found a tree growing through the walls and rafters. And the house wasn’t grounded, which caused an electrical fire on demolition day.
We kept the frame of the house and laid a metal roof over the existing one. Some of the walls we resurfaced; others we had to tear down and re-Sheetrock. The rest is all new-the electrical, the plumbing, all of the windows and doors, and the stucco.
I hired subcontractors for the stucco, concrete, kitchen countertops, and tile work. To cut costs, I did the prep work. Everything else, I did myself-electrical, water, everything.
My dad was a contractor, and growing up I worked summers for him, but I had never done anything by myself. Not a thing. I’ve learned everything from watching other people or by reading my collection of old Time-Life books. Friends and family also helped. A case of beer went a long way.
Overall, the limitations of our budget forced us to be creative. We spent $55,000 on the renovation. That’s taking everything into account, including the cabinets, all the appliances, fixtures, material, and labor.
We decided to spend more on the things we’ll use the most. We like to cook and having a Viking range was essential. Our range was used at a cooking demo show, so I got it online for half-price. The recessed lighting was a splurge. Each light cost about $40, and we got 27 of them instead of putting one light in the middle of the ceiling. We skimped on the flooring, which is bamboo laminate, and on cabinetry, which is from Ikea.
The house is extremely efficient. We use less energy than most homes on the street. We didn’t have the budget to go completely green, but we tried to wherever we could. The roof is recycled metal and we used scrap wood or compressed board when we could.
There are things we’d do differently if we did it again. We would have explored cork flooring. Also, it takes an insane amount of skill to do drywall properly, so I ended up doing this funky texture. I would have been more liberal with knocking things down, but
I was too scared. But again, our budget was limited, as was my skill and our time. I think it turned out pretty nice considering the money we spent.
In my delusional mind, this project was only supposed to take 30 days. I started work the week escrow closed. I’d leave our place at 5 a.m. to work on the house, then go to my full-time job at 9 a.m., get out at 5 p.m., grab fast food, and come here and work until midnight. It took three and a half months, and I only took two days off.
The house is very economical in space and keeps us honest. Like in the kitchen, most people have a couple cans of something, hearts of palm or whatever, that don’t get used and just sit there. We don’t have that luxury. There isn’t room for anything frivolous. The entire house is used all of the time.
I would love for someone to read this story and think, If these people could do it, I can do it. It seems so clichéd, like some weight-loss commercial, but it’s true: It’s doable, if you have the desire.
A former editor at Dwell, Amara recently left the glamorous life of a magazine staffer to pursue her freelance writing dream. She has written for Sunset, Wallpaper*, the Architect’s Newspaper, VIA, and Apartment Therapy.
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