Attack of The 40 Foot Fixer-Upper

by Katy on March 10, 2009 · 17 comments



I had written this as part of The Non-Consumer Advocate Book Club:

“My husband and I often feel that we are slaves to our house. We bought a fixer-upper in 1996, which was the stupidest decision we could ever have made. All my husband’s spare time goes into house projects, and all our spare money, (hah!) goes into the endless maintenance/upkeep on our house. Instead of being able to put our energies into our lives, it gets sucked into our house. Yes, we have a big lovely home in a great neighborhood, but there are still projects that need to get done.”

A few of you picked up on this and responded in the comments, writing  “I swear I could have written this. This is my story.” and “I can SO relate to you and your husband feeling like slaves to your home. We’re in the exact same situation. We should have more money saved, but it all goes to the 1920s bungalow.”

Although I love the craftsman style of my house, I would gladly go back in time and buy a dull house that would not have needed anything except a few cosmetic changes.

Because life is about what you do with your energy, and spending all of that on a physical structure is a shame.

Why don’t we move? 

Our neighborhood is ideal. We’re able to  walk to just about anything we could possibly ever need. And we wouldn’t list the house until we got all the projects finished.

And at that point, why would we need to move? 

Have you experienced buying a dream house that sucked up all your money and energy? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Maniacal Mommy March 11, 2009 at 5:57 am

Ha, ha! As I type, our circa 1966 furnace is being dismantled to be replaced with one a tad more efficient. The formica countertop with duct tape over the seam is also being removed. While we love our older farmhouse, complete with small rooms and little to love in terms of modernity, the acre with established Concord grapes and apple trees makes it worthwhile. Plus, it is on a paved road (a big selling point in rural Michigan).

While part of me loves doing some of the hands on work, the fiscal reality of needing appliances, new wiring, the new roof, insulation, etc, has taken a toll on our savings. Elbow grease I have, endless cash– not so much. However, the mortgage on our not quite dream home is very affordable. At this point, we couldn’t rent as cheap as we are buying (or even sell it to move on, truth be told).

I hear leisure time and discretionary income is overrated anyway.


Kate March 11, 2009 at 7:57 am

I have to say I’m not a slave to my house, and you help affirm the decision we made! 🙂
My husband knew he didn’t want to spend his time outside of work fixing up an old house, as lovely as some of them were. So we bought a brand new, little modern house five years ago. It may not have as much personality on the outside, but it has a warranty and needs no work. And we got to spend more time working on the garden and landscaping, which I really enjoy doing (it was bare ground when we started).


Jessica March 11, 2009 at 8:00 am

I own a small older home that needs a major update. Although we could have purchased a dull, newer home, I love the idea of being part of a house’s life, not the other way around. Besides making your surroundings beautiful is very fulfilling – you spend more time in your home than any other place.

What is saving all this money for if you live in a boring, uninspired space? To leave a rich corpse?


Meg from FruWiki March 11, 2009 at 8:07 am

Oh, tell me about it! We have a 1965 fixer-upper.

We knew it was a fixer-upper from the moment we saw it. The back room had bad, fake wood paneling (full of roach crap, we’d later discover), indoor-outdoor carpeting that wasn’t padded or pulled tight (it was essentially just scraps laid here and there), wiring that was burning the rafters, a roof that was under-code and leaking everywhere, concrete block walls that are still not close to straight, a foundation that has a huge crack, and a drop ceiling that would have be right at home at some dingy old office — but no insulation, of course. Trust me, I could go on.

And that was just one room!

Fortunately, we are about done tackling that room, four years after we moved in. It looks great now, even if you can still sometimes tell that the walls are crooked.

The rest of the house also has needed a lot of work even though it wasn’t quite in such bad shape since it’s older and the back room was an addition done by someone who didn’t know what the heck they were doing. Unfortunately, that same person must have thought they knew something about home repairs because everywhere there are badly patched walls or other signs that they should have called a pro.

As I said, though, we knew what we were getting into — even if our inspector left out the “best” parts. And I am glad we bought the house. It’s still worth $50k more than we paid and for a while was worth double it’s price. But what really mattered to us was that it was over twice the size of a brand new place we had checked out. And this house is in a great neighborhood in a great part of town, whereas the other house was between two halfway houses (which we were fortunate to figure out before purchasing it).


LeAnna March 11, 2009 at 10:34 am

You know, I’m 24, I’m a single mom, and I’m a fairly new homeowner. My house is is 112 years old. In my case, it was retrofitted to be a duplex, which is a HUGE bonus as far as I’m concerned, because the rental income pays over half of my mortgate, and I can write off half of all repairs and upgrades that affect the apartment as business expenses, even if I’d have had to do them anyway if it were still a “normal” house. Like any century-old home, it will always have projects that can/should be done. I’ve done most of them either myself or hired them done, but I’ve usually been able to have my (cheap) handyman do most of the labor that I am not willing to learn how to do, which isn’t much.

I LOVE my house. Love it. Love every mortgage payment because that’s another square foot or so of my property that I actually own instead of the bank. Love making cosmetic fixes that make the house more mine, love doing maintenance and repairs that make the house healthier. Yeah, there are costs involved, but it’s totally worth it for the quality of life I get as a homeowner as opposed to a renter (GARDENING, hello!?) So maybe I’m still in the honeymoon phase, but I absolutely love my “fixer upper.”


blackgirlinmaine March 11, 2009 at 3:44 pm

Goodness, I can relate. 5 years ago we bought what seemed like an amazing old house, it was built in the 1880’s. It didn’t seem like it would require a lot of work, just taking down wallpaper and a new roof. Well the roof became a major expenditure at almost 20K. That was just the first few months in the house.

The next year while pregnant no less, we needed a new furnace, another major expense as we converted to a more efficient heating system.

Turns out due to the age of the house and wallpaper, its not a simple weekend job…so long story short we have projects to last a lifetime and it turns out neither the hubby or I are as handy as we thought. Of course now we have a preschooler running around so even less time to fix things. Oh and with the economy we are our of money to fix much of anything.

That said, we live in walking distance of everything including my job, so we only have 1 car which is a huge savings. The size of the house alllows my hubby who is self employed to comfortably work from home so its really not a bad house.

Its just that maybe one should not buy an old Victorian that needs “minor” repairs when they don’t know what they are doing.


Josh Heller March 11, 2009 at 7:54 pm

We bought a 1930’s brick colonial with a slate roof. Off the back was a 1970’s addition which was done very badly. We looked to move but new seemed soulless. Other old houses all had problems. So, we renovated the space without adding any square feet. We used the space we have more efficiently. We didn’t do the work ourselves and it cost to much money. We do love the house now. It is a modest size with all the charm character and quality of old and the bulletproofness of slate and brick.


Jacquelyn March 11, 2009 at 8:27 pm

Oh, yes. 1923 bungalow – we LOVE our house, but the list of to-do’s is ENDLESS. And spendy. Luckily hubby is very handy and loves to tackle projects around the house.


alunachic March 12, 2009 at 5:39 am

I like the way Leanna is showing her home lots of love. We have a 60 year old home in an old neighborhood and luckily the original owner (a master gardener) did a spectacular job with upkeep. When we bought in 2007, the kitchen and bathroom had been updated and an addition of a laundry room and half bath was professionally done. We looked at A LOT of fixer uppers and even though this house is not perfect, it is livable. I do have problems with the old oil heat system…nightmarish!!! I know it has to be replaced but there’s no funding to do it right now. So I have a prayer meeting with it every morning ….(hahaha)
Katy, I love the issues you raise in your blog. So relevent and timely and always interesting!


Magdalena Julie Bragdon Perks March 12, 2009 at 6:13 am

I haven’t bought an old house, but rented and lived in several. It kind of turned me off wanting anything old. I have seen all the major problems that go with a poorly maintained and aging house – crumbling plaster, blocked flues, incredibly inadequate plumbing – in one case, installed by someone who didn’t know the English words hot and cold.

The best of the old ones were largely untouched, could be heated with wood, and had small bathrooms that didn’t freeze in the winter. The worst had layers of wallpaper, tar paper instead of vinyl flooring, oil furnaces converted from coal, no insulation except old newspapers, really hideous carpetting, and ghosts.

My advice: get an inspector in who knows old houses before signing the contract on an historic home.


maclynx March 12, 2009 at 8:25 am

We spent 9 years renovating our house. We knew when we got it it would need restumping. One corner of the loungeroom had been restumped and our toddler delighted in rolling down the huge hump in the floor created by all the other stumps rotting away. One thing led to another – replastering, painting, pulling out the second toilet to replaster(it was never put back), polished floor boards and finally in the last 12 months new guttering.
We were considering our next renovation – kitchen, laundry and building a family room. I wasn’t happy with our plans (the kitchen had three doorways and it didn’t sit right). Neighbours did a similar renovation which cost $125.000 Australian and the house across the road sold for $280,000 and it was still a weatherboard that needed alot of attention each year. Very quickly we decided not to do anymore renovations. Instead we tripled our loan, pulled down the house and built a brick house with all the rooms in the right place. That was 6 years ago and I love my house. We don’t have to worry about painting the outside any more. This was my dream home and we have no intention of moving.
In October we will have repaid the $180,000 loan and will be debt free and laughing.


Rhonda March 12, 2009 at 1:01 pm

First – I LOVE THIS BLOG! Just found you recently.

Second – thank you , thank you, thank you wonderful people out there who live our life you have shown that we are not alone!

We live in a circa 1923 home. Lots of work, none of it cosmetic. Nope the bones of this place need the medical care. I wondered, at first, just how our plumber could sleep at night considering how much he charges us – then my husband said “Probably very well on luxury bedding”. Sigh…

At some point we are going to have to replace the ORIGINAL house roof. Luckily for us the wind is doing most of the tear-off on the garage roof, and we will take free labor anywhere we can get it!


tam March 12, 2009 at 5:49 pm

I’m going to add the renters’ perspective here. But first, I have to say that I did own two houses before renting — both old fixer-uppers. The two homes taught me a lot: namely, that I don’t like home renovation projects.
I certainly appreciate others’ perspectives on this. It *would* be nice to have a garden, and I think it’s much more sustainable to buy an old home than a new, cookie-cutter structure. But after drywall, tile, termite tenting (I live in Florida) and countless other projects, I realized I just don’t like doing that kind of work. Maybe someday, I will.
I think about the time, money and energy I used to spend on renovations, and now I’m content to just kick back and relax on most weekends.
So despite a plummeting real estate market ($127K for a fixer-upper in a decent neighborhood in Miami near the bay), my husband and I rent. We pay $795 a month for a small, charming 1920s art deco apartment. We’re saving lots of money and if we get laid off, we can move pretty quickly. It works for us.


Kim March 13, 2009 at 11:17 am

I also am owned by our home. Our brick Victorian is quite the fixer upper. Most of the original structure is in good condition, but previous owners built additions over the years that we had to gut and rebuild, because the construction was subpar to say the least. It’s interesting to read that other people have had similar experiences. I think I see a theme emerging here…

Most of our money continues to go toward fixing the infrastructure of the house. We just had a new roof and gutters installed, exterior dry rot fixed and the house painted. I do sleep better at night knowing that our house no longer leaks when it rains. It really is the little things in life that make me happy. 🙂

We have so much left to do and it becomes overwhelming at times, but we do our best to take it one project at a time. Our next project is to fix some cracks in our foundation.

Even though we spend all of our money on infrastructure improvements, our home has so much character, I couldn’t imagine trading it in for a newer one.


Pennie March 14, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Oh, dear. Owner of a 1922 bungalow here.. I have empathy for so many of you.

There are always projects that need doing with these older homes–currently have an old clawfoot tub and pedestal sink sitting on my back porch, with everything inside covered in a fine film of white sheet rock sanding dust. Ugh!

The worst thing is that I have lived in this house for 25 years, and so am now facing re-do’s or in some cases re-re-do’s of rooms that we’ve already done in the past. *sigh* Difficult to find inspiration sometimes.

Had to have new roof last summer–way too many $$$. Discovered that there were three layers that needed torn off first: the original cedar shingles, a layer of composition, and then a third layer of cedar shakes. You can’t have three roof layers and be in code…! Big mess, but thankfully done now.

I guess what keeps me on the voting side of home ownership is that in those 25 years our house and small acreage has appreciated 4-5x over what we originally paid for it, which (even in this economy) has served as a slow but steady savings account that has been a stabalizing influence for us financially.


Tiffini S. May 26, 2009 at 6:52 am

Oh, lord. If only I had known. I bought a 1910 fixer upper in Peoria IL 2.5 years ago . It was some kind of Craftsman / Victorian hybrid with almost 100 years of repairs, additions, and patchwork on it. I got pregnant almost immediately after we moved in, and over two years later, with a toddler on the move, we still have no time/money to put into the thing. Oh, and we bought the house because the guy who owned it before us had started to do some renovations. Turns out he had more gumption than know-how, and all the stuff he did is starting to crumble. The 5 year old roof that he put on is leaking, the 5 year old ceilings that he repaired are falling down, the 5 year old ‘waterproofing’ in the basement would probably be OK if it weren’t for the 3 inches of water that come in every time it rains. I also found out that he moved to California and jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge less than two years into renovating the house. I’m starting to see why. This place is a money pit. A time pit. A sanity pit. Etc. And now we’re upside down on the mortgage due to the economy and losing 1/3 of our homes’ value in less than two years. A home equity loan is out of the question, heck we don’t even have the money to refinance for the lower interest rate that everybody is getting these days. I could never see before why anyone would walk away from a home and screw up their credit that way, but I’m on that verge. I’m not quite to the point of jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, but getting there…


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