Just fix the damn thing and leave my personal life out of it
October 22, 2013 3:02 AM   Subscribe

Eight years or so we bought a fixer upper. Then things went sour. Now I'm feeling like I'm at the end of my rope. Help me figure out how to get this place fixed up.

We were doing pretty well until our neighbors house burned down and did a bunch of damage to the work we did - then, in our shell socked-state, our insurance company came in and low balled us on the damages. For the last three or four years we've accomplished very little but entropy has kept marching on.

At this point I'm more than ready to wave the white flag, dig into my retirement savings a bit (I'm in really good shape and not too old so dropping $100K on this would still leave me in OK shape), hire a contractor and say, "Hi, I have a big bag of money here - make all this be right and save me the trouble of going mad!"

1) I realize this story puts me in the "easy mark" category, or at least not bargaining from a position of strength. The good news is that I've found a guy who is both well recommended by someone I trust and has received several awards from area homeowners groups (found on their web sites, not his). Still, any advice on how to look less vulnerable here?

2) People spend $30-40K redoing kitchens in my part of the country, so I realize $100K is not going to turn my house into a grand ole manor. And there still is stuff I'll be willing to do myself when I'm less overwhelmed. How do I prioritize all this to get the most bang for my buck?
posted by Sid and Marty Krofft's HR Sockpuppet to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: First of all, do NOT pitch up and say "hi I have a big bag of money here" even if Jesus himself is your contractor.

Make a list. Ask the contractor to come in, view the property, and make an estimate just to get a sense of where you are going to end up, cost wise. Working from his estimate, prioritise. Then get a couple of bids. And no, you do not need a 40K kitchen. Oak cabinets are very nice but there are many other things that are also very nice and do not cost anything like that.

Worth knowing: in other countries, we have Quantity Surveyors; in the US, they seem to be called Cost Engineers. They will spec and price the job down to the penny, and do not have a vested interest because they are not doing to job. Ours specified the brand of sheetrock and the exact number of panels to be ordered; stuff like that makes it easy for your contractor to stick to costs.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:16 AM on October 22, 2013 [12 favorites]

People spend $30-40K redoing kitchens in my part of the country, so I realize $100K is not going to turn my house into a grand ole manor.

People spend that, but it's not what you have to pay. Most of the money on expensive kitchen outfitting goes on frivolities like expensive faucets, marble tops, needlessly high-end appliances, or having the "best" company in the area doing the job. Beware of getting lured on to that path. Even in an expensive area, you'll be able to find a contractor who's happy to fit a good kitchen for far less than $30K and if you're able to buy most of the parts yourself from a Home Depot, you can avoid a lot of markup a big kitchen company will throw onto their prices.

To me it sounds like step one is making a really good plan. Before you call anyone in, make a list of every room (include the garden and the outside of the house), list your problems with each one individually, and then list what your preferred, simple solution will be. Having such a list will help a lot when it comes to approaching contractors and might also allow you to prioritize better.
posted by wackybrit at 4:21 AM on October 22, 2013

Best answer: I think the thing most likely to hurt you isn't your big bag of money, it's your frustration and impatience. You want this over with, and you already think you know who should do the work for you, before you've even clearly specified what you want to accomplish or gotten any bids at all. You have survived eight years in your sub-par house. If it takes you six months to go through a few cycles of making a plan, getting bids, and refining the plan before you commit and get on some contractor's schedule, you will survive that time too. Go out and do whatever high-energy physical activity you like to blow off some steam. Realize that if you're willing to throw substantial cash at this project then things are about to get much easier. Clear your head, and approach this methodically.
posted by jon1270 at 4:42 AM on October 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Maybe think about dropping a few thousand bucks on a designer or architect to come in and help you figure out what to do? They armed with a plan, you can more effectively prioritize your renovation schedule.
posted by COD at 5:22 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I assume you're fixing up to sell. If that's the case, and you want to sell sooner than later, get the house fixed to the point where it passes inspections and sell it as-is, taking the rest of your money to offset any losses and help finance your next non-fixer-upper house. If you're instead looking make the place really nice...take your time and focus on the eyesores, kitchen, and bathrooms first. And then curb appeal. You'll never really get back the money you put into it above that, so if you're there to stay, invest what you feel comfortable with.

As for looking less vulnerable, you can do that by getting multiple estimates from different contractors, and let contractors know before they give you a quote that you'll get in touch after you've evaluated other contractor estimates. Make sure they compete for the job.

A lot can also be done with the help of friends and family too. Drywall for example is probably one of the easiest (and cheapest on materials) things you can DIY if just starting out on home repair. For ceilings, a drywall lift could be rented (but are also not terribly expensive if you anticipate multiple rooms).
posted by samsara at 5:24 AM on October 22, 2013

First, I feel ya! I just ditched my money pit and drained my savings to do it. We are SO much happier.

So, could you unload the house for a $100,000 loss and just skip the reno hassle? Dude, I'm such a happy renter right now. I advocate this.

But, if you really want to do this.

First, get the house thoroughly inspected. Use that list as a starting point for repairs and changes. If you do sell the house, you can point to your inspection and you can show them your repair list as a bargaining tool.

Get the A-1 inspection. The one where they put a camera down your pipes to check for leaks and problems. The one where they go into the attic and measure your insulation.

Next, scour your utility, municipal, county, state and federal government sites for any energy saving upgrades they'll subsidize. More insulation? A more efficient HVAC? Double paned windows? Sign up for whatever they'll give you money for and include those upgrades in your design. We got our tankless hot water heater paid for between the federal government rebate and the gas company rebate.

Work with your contractor to cut the prices of things. You can get deals on stuff like scratch and dent appliances (if the dent is next to a cabinet, who cares?) Cabinetry that someone returned, partial slabs of granite. (The granite is perfect for bathrooms because you don't need that much in there.) Tile closeouts. Floor models. Whatever. We have this place in Atlanta and the deals there are amazing! Haunt the clearance section of the big box home improvement stores for light fixtures, faucets, and other gee-gaws.

If you can't get enthusiastic about the project, DON'T DO IT! Just fucking move.

Life is too short.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:01 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am in a similar spot as you. I am relatively handy. I helped my parents do all sorts of projects growing up. I know how to do almost all of the work that needs to be done to a house. All of this led me to believe that I would love to have a fixer upper. Now this house has turned into my hell. My next house will either be turn key or a rental.

I really like Ruthless Bunny's advice to sell for a loss. I really wish I was close enough to rock bottom to take that advice, because it is very tempting. I also approached a contractor that I trusted, and had him give me a quote to completely finish a few rooms. The quote I got gave me intense sticker shock.

The route I am taking is a little different, and it may work for you. Right now it has allowed me to get my head above water. I am managing, and it has taken some of the burden away. I went around the house, and identified my priorities. I made of list of the things I had to do to make the house liveable/marketable, and picked the order in which to tackle them. The main thing I realized was that I was working on too many projects at once.

Once I was armed with my list, I started focusing on one room at a time. I also decided to finish some rooms that were low hanging fruit. Two bedrooms just needed texture, paint, and new light fixtures. Those rooms took about a month, but it feels good to not have to worry about those rooms. I rewarded myself with a weekend off after I finished them too.

Before I would try to do everything myself. Now I feel like I am acting more as a general contractor. For instance, I am working on the master bath right now that has been torn up for three years. I demolished it years ago. I've done some framing and plumbing. I have hired out the drywall, texture, and tile. I bought RTA cabinets online that I am going to build and install those. Then I will handle the lighter finishing items like paint, towel rods, etc. Not sure what I am going to do about counter tops yet, but you get the idea.

Hiring crews to do things that might take me a few weekends is helping progress a lot. I generally can tackle a few things the crew needs to get started. They come in for a week, and then the next weekend I am getting ready for the next crew. Usually there may be a week or two of waiting depending on how easy it was to coordinate different people to come in. When I finish this bathroom I am going to reward myself with a weekend off.

The only other advice I have is to stay focused. For a long time I was denying it was a problem, and I was stressed out all of the time. I would get so stressed out that I wouldn't work on the house. Then the lack of progress would stress me out more. Focusing on one project at a time, and setting completion of that project as a goal has helped. As I am making progress it is easier to focus, and I am gaining momentum.
posted by ohjonboy at 8:09 AM on October 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

I can't agree more with picking the low-hanging fruit - it really keeps you motivated when you see a room or a project DONE. Chunking things down into separate jobs that you can cross off a list... it feels great.

We also hire out certain jobs that other people can do faster and easier - insulating the attic, doing the siding - things that we could do, but our time is worth a certain amount of money too.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 9:33 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: On the feeling overwhelmed front: the single most important thing you can do to start feeling better about all this is make a list of all the things you know need to be done...then make a sub-list of "must do to meet code/safety" and "must do to refinance" and "must do to sell" and "must do to love my house", in that order. Call in the necessary folks (as others have noted above) to generate the "meet code" stuff (they'll find things that weren't on your original list, surely.)

Once you have these lists, look at the expense of doing the code stuff, because that's all you really need to do. You'll probably find this list is very short, although if it is long/is extremely expensive, then you do a cost/benefit assessment on ditching the house as-is for a loss or spending the money to bring it up to code. This is the only thing you really need to care about today.

If the list is reasonable, fix those items, and then celebrate! You've finished the only things that really matter. You can live in this house for the rest of your life in the current condition, and the only shortcoming is that you might not enjoy it very much.

If you want to keep going, pull out the refinance list and proceed with that one; it will be things like "your bathrooms must have sinks and toilets", so this list may be very short, too. Do those items and celebrate, because you have a property the banks are satisfied with the condition of...so you can refinance or sell or get a home equity loan, if you otherwise qualify. That means you've got a house that -- from a bank's perspective -- you can sell if you like.

Still living there, and not sure whether to sell or stay? Do the sell list. It should be limited to cheap things that make the house show better. Paint in rooms that have really really bad paint, touching up the rest. Knobs on drawers and closets. Cleaning the house inside and out. Powerwashing the outside. Trimming up the garden.

If you still want to sell when you're done, sell; if not -- and you probably won't, because you're nowhere near a money pit any more -- you knock off the "love my house" list, one at a time, and each item makes you feel better about your home.

Oh, and: stop looking at those magazines with amazing houses. They're as realistic as models in fashion magazines, and they'll make you feel bad about your house. You can only pull out those magazines again when you're starting on your "love my house" list.
posted by davejay at 10:21 AM on October 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you do any of this stuff yourself, do yourself a favor and subscribe to Fine Homebuilding, and possibly buy up books from that magazine's publisher, Taunton Press, as needed. (I also try to scour their clearance store once a year or so.)
It may or may not be important to you, but Taunton is based in Newtown, CT and set up a special company fund for the community following the Sandy Hook shooting.

You could also go the cheap route and get Family Handyman or a similar competitor. These showcase tools, techniques, and generally have helpful articles like "A $500 Bathroom Makeover" that you can use to strategize your own projects. All these other magazines tend to have uncomfortably promotional relationships, like auto magazines, and will have advertorial material like beauty magazines ("50 door handles for your house"), but they can still be useful to get you thinking. I would agree that fancy architectural or interior design magazines might make you feel your situation is inferior.

I do agree, though, that whatever you do you need a plan, and something to help you prioritize. There may be simple, inexpensive ways you can make your house more livable right now, while holding off on any five-figure renovations. If you have specific things you can target, e.g. "outdoor patio with firepit", that make your lifestyle more comfortable and happier about your house, you can get through some other frustrations.
posted by dhartung at 3:15 PM on October 22, 2013

Don't dip into retirement; you lose 10% right off the top. It makes more sense to borrow. Make a list of Big projects, and a punchlist of small projects. It takes a crapton of time to bring in contractors, check references, and negotiate a deal, but you will be so sorry if you don't. If you can hook up with a good contractor, and a reliable builder/ all-purpose handyperson, you can get a lot accomplished.
posted by theora55 at 3:30 PM on October 22, 2013

How do I prioritize all this to get the most bang for my buck?

Well, we hired someone to do a lot of staff last year when we bought our house. I will say - anyone can paint, don't hire a painter, do take your time.

As a corollary: most home-tiling jobs I've seen have been terrible quality compared to the pros.
posted by smoke at 4:09 PM on October 22, 2013

You don't have to fix up the house to sell it.

You may end up better off selling the house to someone else who is looking to spend less money and fix up the house themselves than you would be to pay a contractor.

That would also rid you of the stress of dealing with it sooner, and might be better for your cash flow.
posted by yohko at 2:24 AM on October 23, 2013

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