Cheap, labour-intensive home improvements
November 27, 2016 3:16 PM   Subscribe

We're buying a house - yay! I may be going on strike... oh no! What cheap improvements can I do to the house between shifts picketing?

I'm looking for home improvements which cost very little and can be done during the Canadian winter. The list so far includes:
- stripping wallpaper (basically free!)
- painting (fairly cheap)
- ripping up carpet (basically free as long as the floors beneath it are decent)
- maybe sanding floors? (would need to rent equipment, so less cheap)
- cleaning (basically free)

I am especially interested in improvements to the house's energy efficiency - things like blocking drafts? Remember the "very cheap" requirement here!

Details of the house: It's big and old (>100 years) and we love it! It's been well-maintained but we'd like to do lots of cosmetic upgrades, like the aforementioned interior painting. Oil forced-air furnace (very typical around here) with electric baseboards. Single-pane windows with storm windows. No insulation in walls, a little bit in the attic. We have snow and lots of wind in the winter, and generally pleasant temperatures in the summer.

Details about me: I'm not super handy, but am perfectly capable of doing research and following instructions. I don't have many tools but can borrow many things.

If you have links with more details/instructions, I'd love those, too!
posted by MangoNews to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Make and/or hang thick curtains over windows to keep drafts out. Alternately: plastic them up to keep drafts out. If you have thrift stores these don't have to be that nice or that curtain-y really (there are some instructables on how to make curtains out of blankets) but just keeping drafts down in the rooms you are in a lot is HUGE.

Also you can make draft stoppers under doors either buy buying weatherstripping or making your own.

Insulate pipes in the basement and the hot water heater (steps)

It's possible your utility company will come by and do an evaluation, this is a thing in the states, possibly up there?
posted by jessamyn at 3:25 PM on November 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Sealing air gaps. Expandable spray foam is your friend here. Around taps & drains, windows etc. Also insulate your ducting & water pipes/heater like Jessamyn suggested. Make everything as air tight as possible. Not so much cosmetic but a cheap easy job that you can feel the effects. If mice are a problem put steel wool in the hole first. I've got a 100+ year old house & it made a surprising different & slowed the mice problems.

The video is an advert but gives you some idea of what to look for.
posted by wwax at 4:49 PM on November 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Clogged gutters cause ice dams, so find a way to clear them. Are you in a one, two, or more level home?
posted by vrakatar at 7:09 PM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd use this time to take advantage of all the free/cheap perks that homeowners can have. These will differ depending on where you live.

Where I live, I can get a free energy audit from my power company. There are also tons of salvage lots near my house that require a lot of time, but have all sorts of homeowner goodies super cheap (wow, imagine all the different doorknobs I could have!!!) I'd probably check out junkyards and craigslist too. You can set alerts on craigslist as well, and if you are not working you can be the first person to pick up that free claw-footed tub that was posted at 10:47am.

Painting is a no brainer, but since you have time, would you consider an unusual painting technique?

I'd definitely do a thorough clean out - like all of the tops of the doors, and vacuum under the fridge. How much time have you spent in the attic and basement? That could be interesting.

Also, I'd spend most of my time shoring up the house to keep it heat tight. The recommendations above are all a good start.
posted by Toddles at 8:01 PM on November 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Around here, a lot of hardware stores will let you borrow a blower for attic insulation if you buy the cellulose from them. Not cheap-cheap, but you'll definitely see a return on your investment and be more comfy. Once the money starts coming in, if you're thinking of gutting the place, spray foam those walls. Helps with wind, cold, noise, mice... it is DA BOMB. Soooooooo cozy!
posted by kate4914 at 8:39 PM on November 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Apologies if this is obvious, but measure everything. I mean everything: all the basic contours of every room, the size & height of every door & window (it's amazing how non-standard these can all be). Sketch diagrams of each room (I'm analogue so it's all in notebooks, but I am sure there are digital ways to do it). Draw up 'glitch lists' of all the jobs, however small, in every room. Have all this in one place that you can easily refer to, even when you're outside the house.
It is amazing how much that can facilitate things when, for e.g. you spot something on special offer in the hardware store and can immediately calculate how much of it you need, or you sit down and ebay for curtains knowing exactly what measurements you need for each room, and so on. The glitch list also helps you figure out what order things need to be done in, and is a hand way of deciding what to do if you do get a spare hour.
posted by AFII at 12:06 AM on November 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

Energy audit for sure. Get the best one you can. IR photos of the walls would be great so you can ID spots where the insulation has settled and isn't doing its job any more, windows that are leaking, and any other big leaks.

Once that's done, start working on a punch-down list. Go through every room, every space and make a list of what needs doing (in an ideal world), regardless of cost. Be thorough and include all the items from the energy audit. When I bought my house (built in 1929), I had an inspector do the list for me - cost me around $500, then I added to it as I started to open walls and find "interesting" things. Thirteen years later, I've almost finished the initial list, and I've done something in every room of the house but the kitchen (which is the second-to-last item on the list - last is replacing the exterior stucco on the three walls that haven't had that done, and putting insulation in the walls while they're open).

Also, get estimates from contractors. That's time-consuming and you need to be home for it. Do that now, but make sure to explain "I'm not sure when I'll be able to afford this work. Part of why I'm getting an estimate is to plan and prioritize the various things I need to do." If you make good contacts, make sure to prioritize using those contractors when you do have money.

Anyway, once you've built your punch-down list, prioritize it, based on your ability to do (and pay for) the work. There are a lot of things around the house that require only very basic tools and time, or which can be done two ways, one quick and expensive, or alternately slow and tedious, but cheap. Think about both as you prioritize your list, and don't be afraid to change the order as you learn more. There are tasks I do now that I would have been petrified to tackle without professional help a decade ago.

Then start plugging through the list. One thing at a time. Don't try and juggle multiple projects. That way leads to madness. And don't toss the list when the strike is over. If you're buying a typical century-old house, you'll have over a decade's worth of work on the list, and it will be a handy guide to you as you ponder what's next. Pay for things when you can, and do things from the list yourself when you have the time.

And should you choose to sell, having a list of "Here are the things I improved while I was here," will not only be a big ego-boost, it'll help inform the new buyers what they're getting and hopefully justify the extra money you're asking for.

Good luck! Making a house into "home" has been very rewarding for me, and some of the things I've learned along the way will keep me busy with hobbies in retirement (woodworking mostly). I also feel good about my house not needing major work once I do retire, as I've been over pretty much all of it already, and any major problems have been added to the list and dealt with.
posted by DaveP at 3:56 AM on November 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

In addition to the great energy audit ideas/actions - baseboards and thresholds! I lived in a 100+ year old house, and cleaning/repairing/restaining the baseboards was a cheap but time-intensive project that brightened every room. I also had several uneven thresholds between rooms (where things had settled at different rates over the decades) - adding little sweeps or thresholds stopped the toe stubbing.
posted by writermcwriterson at 7:33 AM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Beware that insulation does nothing to stop drafts and dirty insulation is indicative of a draft You should focus on mitigating drafts well before adding insulation.
posted by qsysopr at 8:41 AM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Some old houses are short on functional storage space, although this varies a lot from old house to old house. Optimize existing storage spaces, and consider tackling some basic built-ins if you're feeling more ambitious. For example, my previous house had a pantry closet in the kitchen that was about 30" wide by 30" deep, with a fair amount of unused/unusable space. We tore out the door frame, installed a 24"x24"x90" IKEA pull-out pantry unit, then framed back around it so it looks built in. It's actually able to hold a lot more stuff, and it's all more easily accessible. To keep the cost down, keep your eyes open for second-hand closet organizers, scrap lumber, etc.

Good storage makes a house so much more pleasant to live in.
posted by drlith at 10:55 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you have exterior storms, making interior framed storms -- fitted lightweight wood frames and heavy plastic sheet pulled tight -- is finicky but prettier than taped-on plastic, and you can take them down briefly to open windows in a warm week in autumn or spring. All the materials are pretty cheap, too.
posted by clew at 2:56 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

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