Welcome to Salt & Rook, a blog about our DIY home renovation and design.

The Realities of Buying an Old Home: Our First Year of Homeownership

The Realities of Buying an Old Home: Our First Year of Homeownership


We've been in this house for a little over a year - which seems crazy because I feel like we just moved in! At the end of 2017, I read a lot of "year in review" posts - but I wanted to offer more than a recap of our projects.

I thought a reflection on our first year and being honest about our situation might help other first-time homeowners looking to buy an older home like ours make a decision (hey, fellow millennials!). And yes - there is a small 2017 recap at the end!

So here are some things to know if you're thinking about buying an older home.

You Need An Imagination (And Patience)

A lot of friends/family walked into our house the first time and sort of did a variation on this theme:

*Looks around, slowly nods head* " ... It has a lot of potential!"

We spent a lot of time explaining what we saw in the house, so I thought I would unveil our very complicated search process:

We had a list of wants. We looked for a house that checked all the boxes on that list.

That's it.

Our List of Home "Wants"

  • "Good flow" (which we could really only get a feel for once we were actually inside the house)
  • A front porch
  • A fireplace
  • A fenced-in backyard
  • Cozy but not too small
  • Liveable (we wanted to move in right away)
  • And obviously, in our price range

Our house had all of the above, so we went for it. The house was on the market for a while before we bought it, and we didn't have to compete with any other offers.

That's not to say it was the perfect house: we purposefully turned a blind eye toward the things that needed work. Instead, we focused on the good. It was not a perfect house, but it was perfect for us.

We know from experience that it takes a lot of mental work and patience to see beyond the gross paint, weird cabinets, and works-in-progress every day. Not everyone wants to deal with that. And I will readily admit that I'm envious of friends who have houses with nice kitchens and guest rooms that aren't currently storage space.

Understand That You Might Not Understand What You're Getting Into

Even if you do meticulous research, you will not know everything about the house when you buy it. Here are the facts we knew when we bought it:

  • Both bathrooms and the kitchen need complete overhauls
  • The roof needs replacing
  • The exterior needs repainting
  • The landscaping needs a ton of work
  • Some windows and doors need replacing
  • The super-charming fireplaces might not actually be safe to use (spoiler alert: they weren't)
  • Holy shit, we'll need to do a lot of interior painting (so much YELLOW)
  • The back porch might be sinking and we need to fix that

We thought of a general idea of a timeline for all of these projects, along with a general idea of what they might cost. What we didn't plan on is for any of these projects to crop up as a big priority in the first year or two.

We were optimistic. We thought we had time to work on smaller projects before it was necessary address any of the above issues. We were wrong. Which leads me to ...

Having a Flexible Plan

Let me tell you the story of the ceiling leak that's been plaguing us since we moved in.

First we thought it was the bathtub fixture. We fixed it and the leak stopped. Several months later, it happened again. This time, we follow the leak all the way up to the roof, where repairs were needed. A month later - STILL leaking. We confirmed that the roof repair was holding on just fine, that led us back to where we started: the bathroom.

So this spring we are going to renovate our only full bath. It is a project that we wanted to approach within the first 5 years, but definitely not before year 2. This project got moved WAY up the timeline due to circumstances out of our control.

That's what happens, though: a leak in your shower today turns into a bathroom renovation tomorrow. It helps to have a general idea of what needs to be done, but be prepared to be flexible. The priorities can change in just one day.

Fast, High Quality, or Affordable. Pick Two.

This should be burned into your mind. It's crucial to understand this. If you think you or someone else can execute a home project from start to finish quickly, cheaply, and well: it's not possible. KNOW that one of those three will give way, and it will be painfully obvious which one it has to be.

High Quality and Affordable

So far, we have taken the "high quality" and "affordable" route, meaning we've been doing a lot of these projects ourselves - but they take time.

We both have full-time office-based jobs, so we give up evenings, weekends, and occasionally social events to run errands and work on home projects. We also have to consider our budget and projects before we spend money on fun stuff. It's not glamorous and can be isolating.

Fast and High Quality

We did hire someone to install our gutters, which we could thankfully afford. They came by while we were at work and installed the gutters, and they did a great job. But, as the rule says, we took a hit in our wallets. That's just how it works.

We also had someone refinish our stairs and upstairs hardwoods. We were very fortunate that refinished floors were a housewarming gift from Pat's parents. Again, it was done quickly and done well (the main image is our floors before they were refinished), but it wasn't cheap. And it's hard to host friends when we had to sleep in the dining room and our first floor looked like this for a couple of weeks ...

our living room and temporary dining room/bedroom .... auuuuughhhhh

our living room and temporary dining room/bedroom .... auuuuughhhhh

It Helps (A LOT) to Have a Support System

That brings me to my next point. We knew we had our work cut out for us, and we are proud of what we've accomplished.

But we don't do it alone. I hope no one who reads this blog has the impression that we do this by ourselves, because we don't. We have a lot of help.

Both of us have family in the area who are willing to lend advice, a hand, or a power tool at the drop of a hat. Both of our parents have owned older homes. Everyone has a lot of knowledge to pass on and wisdom to share.

So yes, while we have a lot of work to do, we also have an incredible amount of support. That allows us to accomplish so much more than if we were truly on our own.

Finally: It's Incredibly Rewarding

Finally: I know I just wrote a lot about the uninspiring realities of owning an old home, but here is the most important part: it is incredibly rewarding to finish a project and know you are breathing new life into an old house.

Here are some of the projects we finished in 2017. Here's to accomplishing much more in 2018.

  • Painted the walls and replaced window treatments in the master bedroom
  • Had the floors refinished (as a gift, because our family is incredibly kind and generous)
  • Waterproofed the basement and installed new windows
  • Removed most of the paint from the fireplace (we're still working on this one!)
  • Installed a wood stove
  • Removed countless trees and bushes from our landscaping, including two scraggly hibiscus plants that never flowered and 13 arborvitae trees that blocked out light in our backyard
  • Completed an overhaul of our dining room
  • Installed new window treatments in the living room
  • Overhauled the entryway and stairwell (this it still in progress, but you can see our last update on Instagram!)
Secondhand Furniture Find: Green Mid-Century Modern Chairs at Gideon's Gallery

Secondhand Furniture Find: Green Mid-Century Modern Chairs at Gideon's Gallery

Before and After: Painting Our Bedroom

Before and After: Painting Our Bedroom