So You Want to Buy a Fixer-Upper?

Renovation Musings, Part 1: To move in, or not to move in

We purchased our first house in October 2015. Before we made on offer on the place, we had a detailed plan of action for our renovation. We knew we wanted to remove the wall between the kitchen and family room, gut and remodel the kitchen, add a powder room to the main floor and a second bath upstairs, install central air conditioning, and make a whole bunch of cosmetic changes. Our scope of work changed a little due to permit hiccups (hello, DCRA), and we ended up swapping the bathrooms for a finished basement. All of which is to say, we had a pretty comprehensive plan for the house. Before we closed on the house, we considered whether it would make sense for use to move right in and live in the house during the renovation or whether we should save ourselves the headache and live elsewhere while we finished the work.

Ah, the age-old question of whether or not to live in a construction zone. We opted to move in. I have a lot of opinions and feelings about this decision.

Consideration No. 1: Cost

Before we bought, we were renting a sick, two-level, top floor apartment in a cool part of town. There was no way we could afford to keep up the rent for that place and cover a mortgage. (We probably couldn’t “afford” to live there in the first place, but sometimes you gotta YOLO.) So we knew we were going to move somewhere. Market rent for a cheap, one bedroom place, in an okay-ish part of DC, is around $1500 per month. That’s some serious cash when you are budgeting for a renovation. Plus, there is the issue of timeline. We weren’t in a position to sign a lease since we had no idea how long the work would take. For instance, it is now April and we are still about a month (optimistically) from wrapping up the major work, but we honestly thought we would be wrapping up in January. (Poor, sweet past us.) Moreover, at this point, renting could have cost us over $10,000 just to avoid living through our DC renovation. I would do a lot of things for $10,000 and it turns out one of those things is live through construction. In this regard, one of the surprising cost factors turned out to be just how long it took us to get through permitting. We were held up from October to January just wading through the permitting process. During that time, our house was much less insane, so renting would have only been a marginal benefit. I think cost was our number one factor when we made the decision, and as I reflect back, I think cost would still be my number one consideration.

Consideration No. 2: Kiddos (or lack thereof)

Suj and I have it relatively easy since we don’t have any kids to manage during this ordeal. I know many people successfully live through a renovation with kids and I am awed by that kind of fortitude. Based on this experience, however, I can whole-heartedly say I will never attempt to live through construction with kiddos. Ever. For us, it would be much too difficult to maintain safety and peace in an environment like our current home. Between 100-year-old plaster dust, rouge nails, BOXES, plastic, debris, etc., it would just not make sense. That is saying nothing of our mental health. Example, this weekend, Suj and I watched three hours of TV on our ipad while we ate left over pizza in bed. Do we sound like people who could be responsible for a living being right now? No. No we don’t.

Consideration No. 3: Control

One of the obvious advantages of living in the house has been that we are able to keep tabs on the work as it is done. If there was a problem with framing, or if we preferred to move an outlet or light switch, or if we didn’t like how something was finished, we could tell our crew right away and avoid additional delays. I work from home half of the week, so I am often available if the contractors have specific questions. This has been a lifesaver on a couple occasions. It turns out that there are a lot of tiny decisions made every day, and being available to answer specific questions has really allowed us to customize the work for our taste. I’m sure the guys would do a great job without my help, but sometimes their taste is not my taste. And I am a control freak, obviously.

Consideration No. 4: Quality of Life

I’ve discovered that Suj values his quality of life differently than I do. Apparently, I am like a rat-person who can adapt to an insane environment and run on the fumes of pinterest and excitement. Suj, on the other hand, likes clean sheets, organized clothing, and the ability to socialize with friends and family. He has been a real trooper during this whole adventure. He has also been very generous in not assigning blame for our current living conditions. I know things are going to be different and so much better when we are done, but it sort of breaks my heart to see my darling allergy-sensitive husband sneezing up a storm or shaking dust off his suit before he leaves for work. In the future, I am going to try to raise my quality of life measurement up to his metric.

Things I Would Have Done Differently:

Not bought a fixer-upper in DC! I kid, I kid. But seriously, I think there are some things we could have done that would have cost a little more, but ended up better in the long run:

1. Have a better idea of timeline.
This one is very difficult for a first-time buyer because we didn’t have any idea what we were doing, and the google can only tell you so much. Next time around (ha!), I would understand that there will be a period of calm before the storm and I would plan accordingly. Living in the house from October to January was fine. The house still needed the updates, but it was completely livable. We had no idea the permitting would take so long, so it turned out to be a good thing we moved in for those months. Once construction started, however, I probably should have considered moving most of our stuff into some sort of storage pod to avoid both living in a house of boxes and the dust ruining everything. I guess it is not too late to do that. Hmmm.

2. Pump the breaks on the online ordering.
I love deals and I hate future costs hanging over my head. These impulses caused me to jump the gun a little on many of our major purchases. We ordered our washer, dryer, range, and dishwasher during black Friday sales. We got really good prices on all of our appliances, and we saved hundreds of dollars, but there has been a washer and dryer in my living room for four months. At some point, I gotta ask myself whether that is worth $500.

3. Consider whether my hubby would enjoy the experience as much as I do.
Suj is the best and he is usually game for all of my hair-brained adventures. (Who wouldn’t want to be on a wild ride with a crazy, novice driver?!) But in the future, I think I will consider more honestly whether, in a vacuum, my husband would enjoy the experience.

Thats all I’ve really got on the subject of to move in or not to move in. Would I do it again? Probably not. It sucks living through construction. Everyone said it would suck, and it does. Hopefully, if we ever renovate in the future we will either be ridiculously wealthy or we will live somewhere less expensive. Either way, I would opt to not move in.

(I have a million other musings about all things renovation, so I am sure this will be a 25-part series.)

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