For the past two weeks of our winter break I’ve been in upstate New York with Julia and starting to work on our new, but very very old, home. It has been every bit of the dream I imagined, but also every bit of the stress we expected, too. Unlike the past 11 years of renting in NYC, I’m now responsible for finding (and paying) for someone to fix every problem that pops up. And we’ve had a lot pop up over the past two weeks. Thankfully, Julia and I are both fast learners and like to push to get things done quickly. Not for the sake of a blog post (we’re not ready for an online update yet), but for the sake of our own sanity and being able to have a few spaces that are comfortable, clean and ready to be lived in. Some of our decisions have turned out so well (we had a !) and others (like trying to on our own in one day) have been trying to say the least. So I thought I’d take a moment and run down some of the things I’ve learned that apply not just to owners of old homes, but to anyone renting or living in a space where things feel not entirely finished (are they ever really?).
Make decisions for your real life, not the internet: One of the first things I knew I’d have to keep in the front of my mind this year was making decisions in our home based on what we needed and when we needed it. If you share your life online in any way (whether that’s on a blog, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr or Pinterest — or all of the above) you know how much pressure exists to make things perfect — and do them QUICKLY. You not only have to finish things to a magazine level of perfection, but you need to document every step of the process (from the same angle, in the same lighting), too. And, well, that’s just not going to happen here. I knew going into this I’d have to keep that little voice on repeat in my head that said “This is our home, it doesn’t have to be perfect and it doesn’t have a deadline.” And so far, I’ve been good at working at a pace that feels right for us, and taking soda and TV breaks when I feel like I’m going to crash.
Sometimes you have to be tougher than you want: When it comes to hiring people or asking for help, I’ve always been a bit of a scaredy cat. I tend to cave in and/or overpay based on someone else’s attitude, rather than demanding specifics or holding someone to their word. It’s one thing when your landlord is paying for repairs and you’re in relative comfort, but when someone rips your wall open and leaves dangerous exposed wires without any promise to return, you have to pull the plug. The past few weeks have been a real practice in learning to be tougher and hold people to their word and timing. In NYC that’s not always hard because there are a million repair people to replace someone who doesn’t work out, but there are fewer people up here, so I have to work harder to make sure I start relationships cleanly and stay on top of promises. We’re perceived as “weekenders” up here (which means people try to charge us more and work when they feel like it) even though we’re not, so it’s been a good lesson learning to stand our ground and show that we’re not pushovers.
[Image above: The same contractor who expanded these doors for us ripped open our walls and wouldn’t tell us when he was coming back to fix them. So we had to let him go and find someone new to continue.]
I have a whole new appreciation for HGTV and Rehab Addict: Over the past decade, I can count the number of HGTV shows I’ve watched on one hand. I always thought it was something about the style of the interiors not quite fitting my personal style, but I realized that most shows were about massive new constructions with cookie-cutter styles (all done in what seems like one hour) that just didn’t work for me. But lately I’ve been watching re-runs 24/7, along with Nicole Curtis’ amazing show. She, like me, is a shorter-than-average woman who has a soft spot for old homes. But man, her power-tool-wielding “I can do anything” attitude is so inspiring to me. That show makes so much more sense to me now that I actually have spaces and issues like these that are both my responsibility and pleasure to deal with. I really love the way she lets old homes be themselves and doesn’t force the old “open concept kitchen with granite counters” plan on every space if that doesn’t fit.
Know when to fold ’em: This one was a tough, but quick, lesson for me to learn. As someone who loves and promotes DIY as much as possible, not every project is doable (or advisable) for every homeowner. I’ve had two major fails so far (both involving our bathroom subfloor) that reminded me that it’s okay to hire a professional when a project feels like it’s going to send you running for the hills. Sometimes you have to know when to walk away and know you’ve tried your best. I’ll get ’em next time…
[Image above: Our downstairs bathroom floor…yeah. I thought we found wood under the tile, but it was subfloor. And bad subfloor. I’m handing this over to someone who knows more about the pipe and heating issues in the back of the room.]
It’s okay to not be precious with everything: Some people are major planners and preppers. They love taping off walls, laying down drop cloths and getting everything perfect before they start. Those people are smart. They probably work much smarter and more efficiently than me. But I’m just not one of those people. I got paint all over our floors when I tried to paint our ceiling beams today and you know what? It’s okay. I scraped it off and cleaned it up and it’s going to be just fine. Sometimes it’s okay to leave a mark or not have a perfect, straight line if it’s going to let you move on to the next project. I may have a speckle of white paint on the floor in some spaces but you know, that’s why we have rugs.
[Image above: No tape, no worries. Hey, we got a decent first coat of primer down on our own and I got a new Stacy London-esque hair streak to show for it.]
Lean on someone and ask for help: Whether you’re working on a project with a friend, partner or a professional, don’t be afraid to admit when you’re stressed out, overloaded or just need some advice or someone to remind you it’s going to be okay. Whether you’re calling your parents, your contractor or just a friend who knows about what you’re going through, let it out and don’t be afraid to admit you feel overwhelmed. It’s okay, we all do. Even contractors.
[Image above: Julia and I bought slippers to keep us warm for all those nights when our boiler decides to have an “ignition failure” and freeze us out. I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else.]
Trust your gut: We’ve had so many people give us diametrically opposed advice since we started house-hunting in the fall. “Don’t buy old!” “Buy old!” “Don’t buy a home with a basement, they flood in storms!” “Buy a home with a basement, they’re safer for storms!” Anything we could have worried about has been covered, and the advice has been all over the map. have given me some of the best advice so far which was, “One person’s ‘trusted’ source can still be late, not show or do a bad job for you.” Some of the resources we’ve been guided to have turned out to be awful, but some have been wonderful. At the end of the day, we’ve been learning to trust our guts, meet people in person and stay in constant . Sometimes that leads to us ending a working relationship and other times it means we give someone with less experience a shot because we felt better about them and the feeling we got when talking about the project with them. I’m no Bob Vila, but so far I think my feelings about things at home have been pretty spot-on. Although, now I’m scared that means I may need to replace floors we thought were okay, but seem to be a bit too bouncy….
[Image above: We trusted our guts and hired a local landscaper (without much fence experience) to build our fence. He worked SO hard and pulled long days in freezing temps to get this fence built before the first major snowstorm. He finished with 12 hours to spare and it’s perfect. Hope now has a safe place to run to her heart’s content.]
[Images above: The sweet little dog bell for our front door that Julia gave me for Christmas, Hope lounging in the sun, and the winter storm that hit the morning after our fence was finished.]