Remodeling Newbies Renovate Their First Home
How a couple of first-time homeowners spent six years tackling a fixer-upper 1879 Italianate house
One spring day, soon after we'd moved in, I was standing on a ladder on the front porch, struggling to pry off an old piece of molding. Finally, it broke in my hand, totally disintegrating. Undeterred, I continued scraping, and suddenly a stream of dirt, dust, and rotting wood began to pour out of the ceiling. I looked over and saw my visiting mother-in-law, eyes wide, with a look on her face like, What have they just bought?
Tour the whole house before and after: A Young Couple Tackles a Forgotten Italianate
Her concern was understandable. My wife, Amy, and I hadn't planned to do any of the work ourselves. When we found the house, an 1879 Italianate in Bedford, Virginia, we were still living about 3½ hours away, in Washington, D.C., and although we loved the place for its size and character, it just seemed like too big a project for us to do ourselves. You could hardly make it to the front door through the overgrowth of foliage, which reached all the way to the second story. Inside, the foundation was sinking in places, some of the floors were gone, and everything was covered in brown paint. But each time we scheduled someone to work, we'd sit there waiting and they'd never show. After a while, we figured we'd just do it on our own.
Of course, we were total newbies. Both of our dads work in construction, but neither of us really got to learn anything from them. At my dad's work sites, I spent most of the time swinging a broom, not a hammer. Amy had never even painted a room! And before this house, we were renters. We were young, and maybe a little stupid, but excited to have a home of our own.
After we closed on the house, that June, we started on basic outdoor stuff, like replacing the gutters, installing new shingles, and pruning all that foliage. We did the master bathroom, too, because Amy said we couldn't live there unless there was a finished bathroom. In January, we finally moved in—and that's when we found out there was no insulation. So we slept on an air mattress and huddled by a woodstove to stay warm. It was like camping—but for two years.
For the most part, we tackled the house project by project—insulation, drywall, lighting—all done after watching videos online or asking our dads for tips. We shopped as we went, too, so that we could take advantage of sales and coupons, keeping anything we found in empty rooms until it was needed. It was slow, tiresome work, but in the end, after those six long years, we were glad to have put all the extra time and effort into the vintage-style details.
Even though we weren't sure, once we finished, that we would want to put this much work into a house ever again, we've since followed our dream of seaside living and moved to another older house, in coastal North Carolina. It's no longer just the two of us under the new roof—we now have a 2-year-old daughter and will be welcoming twins this December. So, while more DIY renovating is certainly in our future, one thing's for sure: There'll be no more sleeping on air mattresses.