Five Home Mistakes We Made (We Learned The Hard Way)

I was lying in bed thinking about what random lessons we’ve learned in over nearly seven years of homeownership and DIY, and I realized it might make a good post. Shoulda woulda coulda – ya know? Here’s what I came up with (which is by no means all-inclusive, but hopefully will help someone else out there who’s just learning as they go like we’re apt to do). Who’s ready for number one? Ok, since I can’t actually hear you guys (but clearly you’re all screaming “we are!”), I’ll continue.

1. It’s not always best to blindly follow one sentence tips in home improvement magazines without knowing if they’ll work for your system/house. For example, we read somewhere that shoving a piece of insulation up your not-in-use chimney was a great way to save energy since you won’t be losing heat or cool air through the chimney. So we did it, just shoved in some insulation (warning: if you are eating or afraid of bugs, don’t read this tip).

A few weeks later after a lot of rain while John was away on a business trip I was walking into the kitchen, past the fireplace without my contacts in. And I saw what could best be described as a bunch of white pieces of rice on the floor. So I knelt down to look a little closer and they were… maggots. Crawling out of the fireplace.

Probably fifty or more of them. Thankfully I’m not too squeamish (although I did take a moment to resent John for missing this debacle entirely by being gone on business) so I used a paper towel to gather them all up and fling them outside. Then I shined a light up the chimney only to realize that somehow the chimney cap must have leaked and the moist insulation was the perfect place for a fly to lay her eggs, which had hatched and were now in their larvae stage.

How did I know they were flies? Because apparently I missed a few of them and a few days later flies were all over the house. Thankfully I could solve the problem by removing that nasty piece of insulation, resolving to get the chimney cap looked at (we later resealed it with some silicone caulk) and reminding myself that perhaps every one-sentence tip in a magazine isn’t a blanket this-is-definitely-best-for-your-house rule.

2. Don’t decorate around a stump. Just pay to get it ground instead of sinking money into trying to make it look like a pretty planter. Although I’m sure some folks could totally pull it off, we couldn’t. We thought we could, so we attempted to make a little octagonal planting bed with some wood on top of the stump but it always looked like a tree stump in the corner of our driveway with a weird wood planting bed on it. So when we later decided to get our pebble driveway paved for our backyard wedding, we jumped at the chance to finally get that stump ground once and for all so we could reclaim that corner of the driveway and no longer look at our mutton-dressed-as-lamb stump.

Note: here’s where I’d put a picture of the hideous octagonal planter that we built on top of our giant 3′ wide stump, but the thing was so ugly we never snapped a picture. But you can see the tree that we had to remove (it was dead when we bought the house) which left the stump in the background of this picture of the sunroom:

I think this is probably a wider concept, actually. For example, if you have an ugly obstacle (gross wallpaper you haven’t gotten around to removing), don’t try to pick art, drapes, and accessories in that color palette to try to make the ugly thing work if you don’t even like said ugly thing. If at all possible, just save up money (or wait to have some spare time) and remove it if you can. Then you can spend money and energy towards creating a room/feature that you love instead of spending money and sweat to try to disguise something that makes you twitch whenever you see it.

3. Plant things a safe distance from your house’s foundation. Some things we dug in at first were borderline too close, so we learned that even though planting a dwarf tree four feet from the house feels oddly far, from the street it looks just fine and it’s much better for the foundation (and the tree itself since it gets more sun and rain than it would if it was half-tucked under the eave of the house).


4. Spackle and drywall mud need to be smooth before you prime or paint. Primer and paint actually will enhance any irregularities, so they won’t hide any sins at all. And once those things are painted if they’re not smooth, you can no longer just easily sand them to make them smooth (paint is really hard to sand and get the same smooth look as caulk or putty or drywall mud before the paint is applied).

So when in doubt, we like to spackle and sand and spackle and sand – at least two rounds just to make sure we fill everything in that needs to be flush and sand everything down that needs to be smooth. The instinct is to hurry up and get done as quickly as possible, so you really have to fight yourself to make sure you sand things well so they’re nice and smooth (in the end it’ll save you lots of time since going back and trying to fix things after they’re painted over is a royal pain in the behind).

5. Your first idea isn’t always your best idea. Take our first house’s kitchen for example. For a while we were planning to just get new cabinets and put them in the same configuration as the old ones. But after a while of thinking and rethinking and brainstorming we came up with removing the door to the old dining room, making that a third bedroom (it already had a closet), moving the dining area off of another kitchen doorway in our extra-long-never-used living room, and making a completely functional and much more beautiful u-shaped kitchen instead of the old i-shaped counter that used to be there (we gained at least three times the storage and counter surface along with making our house more valuable since we added a bedroom).

Similarly, in our current house we initially wanted to add an island to the kitchen. And then we considered a banquet.

It took us a while to get to the peninsula idea, which we definitely think was the right way to go.

So try not to rush into anything major without really thinking and rethinking everything. We find that living in a house for a while to get a feel for it can give you major layout-change and floor-plan ideas that you never could have come up with if you renovated off the bat.

And there you have it. Five things we learned the hard way. Well, I guess the last one wasn’t something we learned the hard way because we rethought things enough to narrowly miss creating a similarly small and cramped kitchen in our first house and a room with an oddly placed island or banquette in our current house. But it’s still definitely a lesson we learned along the way. What have you guys learned the hard way? Share and share alike.


  1. Brenda says

    I will definitely second #4! There is a spot on my apartment wall that must have been where something hung, but it was clearly not repaired properly, and the paint over the area makes it look 10 times worse.

    I would say that it’s a good idea to view things from different angles. If you always look at a room from one direction (because of where the seating is facing), try a different angle. Maybe move some furniture. You might be inspired to use what you’ve got rather than start over or add new things.

    • Anna says

      Different angle yes! Sometimes I hold a mirror up and look at a room that way just to get a totally different perspective.

    • Hayley says

      I agree with #4 too! A great tip I got from a drywaller- hold a flashlight against the wall, pointing the light at the spot you just fixed. It helps you see where there is any uneven spots because the light will cast a shadow/highlight that you wouldn’t see until the paint was on. It’s the best tip ever!

  2. Renee says

    Oh man, I got chills just looking at the picture of you sanding….I can’t handle it. I have to leave the room – it gives me goosebumps all over! (I can’t even file my nails, ha)

  3. Laura says

    So true about planting close to your foundation. I see a lot of houses where people planted a little tree in front of the window and in time it completely blocks the window. The bigger the plant, the farther from the house. Unless you want to rip it out and do major repairs ten years from now…

  4. says

    We actually just did something similar for our Christmas card this year!! Three things we learned this year. This Chris’s (very sarcastic) tip. “Everyone says it’s the details that matter. We disagree. Details are nothing but minor issues meant to distract us from the bigger picture. Do you need an example? You need an example. Big picture: “We need to get rid of that ugly half wall in the family room.” That’s all you need to focus on. There’s a wall there, and there needs to not be a wall there. Evaluation over. Permits; electrical wiring; portions of the foundation that stick out uncomfortably far, requiring the ugly half wall to be there in the first place; those are all just details. The 20 or so holes you drill into your ceiling in an effort to find 6 evenly spaced areas, not being thronged by plumbing from the bathrooms above, to install recessed lighting, are much less important than just having recessed lighting. There’s a time for asking questions, and there’s a time for pulling’ the trigger. And once you’ve pulled the trigger the time for asking questions is over anyway, so don’t sweat the details and just go with it.”

    He’s funny that one. And I couldn’t agree more about first ideas not always being best. We have been planning a pending kitchen remodel for a year. But when we are continually tweaking the plan every other week to make it better–I know we haven’t got THE one just yet.

  5. Stefanie says

    I could not agree with #2 more. I bought my house in October of 2011. I hated the honey oak cabinets but decided to do what they say and live with them for a while before making any changes (I always loved white cabinets in the kitchen, they’re just so bright and cheerful). I even tried getting a piece of art and painted the kitchen to try to make them flow a little better. Instead I ended up with a paint color that goes well with the cabinets but that I ended up hating just as much! I’m now in the stages of mentally preparing to paint those cabinets when it gets warmer out. I’m NOT looking forward to the process, but I know it will be worth it. :)

  6. dana828 says

    The spackle/drywall mud tip is SO important! And how about when installing drywall one should make sure to screw into a stud and not overlap pieces in random places around a room?? This is a lesson I hope the former owners of our home learned, as this is how they drywalled our 3-stall garage. The entire thing is a disaster, with drywall overlapping here and there, seemingly randomly connect with the WORST mud & tape job I have ever seen in my life. We would love to re-do it so we can paint the inside of the garage, but man, that’s a BIG job! We’ve lived in this house for 9 years and I still curse the former owners (who I actually see often in our small town) for it. It takes everything I have not to lay into them about the stupid things they did in this house…

  7. Cher says

    Was totally eating when I read this. You were right, I should have not read that first tip. But thanks for sharing the others, especially the one about not making do with something you can’t stand. There is a whole lot of that in my new-to-me old condo.

  8. says

    OH.MY.GOSH. maggots. I’m dying a little. I’m not squeamish about some things, but…ew. Brave woman you are. I would have screamed and then screamed more and then maybe died. I’ve dealt with other gross stuff, but maggots…shudder. Big points to you, Sherry!

  9. Hannah says

    To this day, I’m so very very happy you guys decided against the banquet. I have a feeling that, though popular right now, they will end up looking very dated in a decade. I think you guys have made wonderful choices thus far! :)

  10. says

    Thanks for the great tips Sherry!

    Another reason to grind dead tree stumps? They are thriving environments for pests like carpenter ants! If their stump is close to your house, they will on to your home next! We have had to grind a few stumps near our house for this very reason – even ones that are 15′ away!

  11. Annie Reindl says

    I’ve learned that cheap paint is NOT worth it!

    I also agree with your statement about living with stuff for awhile first. We completely gutted our whole upstairs (down to studs and raised the ceiling height) right after we moved in (we had to do that for safety reasons) but I wish I would have trusted my gut on moving the washer and dryer upstairs. Its in a closet in our kitchen with bifold doors now and who likes to eat next to dirty laundry or listening to the washer? I kick myself for not moving it, but I was so grateful at the time that it wasn’t in the basement( meaning 2 flights of stairs to do the laundry!) Oh well- live and learn!

  12. says

    Great tips!

    We had a memorable fireplace moment [as yet un-blogged] in our house. We went to tear out our fireplace about a year ago – it was just an insulated firebox and triple walled flu – not a true brick chimney – and found a mummified squirrel caught between the flu and the box!

    Even though the house was vacant for nearly a year before we bought it – we shudder to think how long it had been there and count ourselves very lucky that in the few times we used the fireplace before installing an outdoor woodstove that it didn’t catch on fire in between the walls.

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