The thrill of homebuying can turn into a letdown after the closing – especially if the house doesn’t look exactly how you remembered during the property hunt.
Didn’t recall that ugly popcorn ceiling? Forgot about those too-steep basement stairs? That’s when some new homeowners get infected with the renovation bug.
Take Robbie Mortillaro and Marianne Sierk, a married couple who recently relocated to Baltimore from Rochester, New York. They bought a three-bedroom, two-bath home with a big yard and deck they thought would be perfect for their three-year-old daughter. At first, they said, they wanted to change only a few things, like repainting the walls.
“We’re like, oh, maybe we’ll change that,” recalls Sierk, a radio host and comedian. “Cut to May, and we were living in rubble. It snowballed.”
Taking on a home renovation can be costly, stressful and time-consuming. But Mortillaro and Sierk kept their sense of humor – and their costs low – with some key strategies.
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Here’s their advice:
Agree on what you can’t live with
A frank discussion will help set your priorities, the couple says. Their biggest post-closing issue: that popcorn ceiling in the dining room, says Mortillaro, a stay-at-home dad and luthier who repairs violins and other stringed instruments.
“When we first walked through the house, it’s like, oh, popcorn, whatever,” Mortillaro says. “But we were both like, ‘We hate that,’ and that ended up being the biggest project.”
Brace yourself for more repairs
Like many homeowners before them, the couple stumbled upon one of the major pitfalls of renovations: one fix leads to another. The popcorn ceiling, which was sagging, turned out to hide bigger issues, they recalled. Mortillaro says he realized the ceiling wasn’t framed right, and that electrical wiring wasn’t run correctly.
“We’re trying to figure out why they lowered the ceiling,” Mortillaro says. “Then you realize like nothing ‘s square and nothing’s level. And so you’re just constantly fixing stuff over and over.”
Be open to reusing materials
The couple estimates that they’ve spent $8,000 on renovations, but believe their costs could have reached $60,000 if they hadn’t relied on some money-saving strategies. Two key approaches: reusing materials and buying lightly used appliances.
“We repurposed so much of the wood that we pulled out of the ceiling from the dining room when we pulled that ceiling out,” Mortillaro recalls.
Sierk adds they bought secondhand appliances for a fraction of what they’d cost new. “They’re like new and they were $300 for a washer, $300 for a dryer,” she says. “Like you don’t have to buy brand-new, top-of-the-line” appliances.
Take on some of the labor
Mortillaro once worked in construction and has the skills to undertake many of the renovations, which lowered costs. But Sierk adds she turned to YouTube and websites to learn some skills, like hanging curtain rods.
Even so, she cautions, be prepared for a steep learning curve. “So many things are like eight steps and I thought it would be one. So not fun,” she says.
But know when to hire an expert
Despite their skills and determination to learn, the couple concedes there are projects that require a professional. In their case, it was the home’s HVAC system.
“I knew enough to know that it wasn’t right,” Mortillaro says. “And then I also knew enough to know that I shouldn’t tackle that project.” The couple hired a professional HVAC company to install a new system.
Enjoy the payoff
“It’s satisfying to know that it was our own muscle that went into it,” Sierk says. And she adds, “The most rewarding part about renovating is that you get it done the way you want.”