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. says

    Oh where do I start? A biggie is learning the importance of properly stripping before re-painting. We used a liquid deglosser on the trim (which was stained) in our house before painting it, and it clearly didn’t do the job because the paint has already peeled and chipped off in places (after only a couple months). Sanding must be the way to go! Either that or I have yet to learn how to make liquid deglosser work… could be a user error. You guys seem to use deglosser a lot, any tips or tricks??

  2. says

    I made the spackle and paint mistake too in our bathroom. I would also add to the list– if you’re buying new furniture for a new definitely want to buy things you will LOVE for awhile or go with cheaper options if you can. Save the extra money for improvements in other areas. Even if you think the house won’t need much work– they usually do. And- if you’re right and everything is peachy, then you have extra money saved for when something breaks / needs replacing.

  3. says

    I’m feeling mildly validated that someone else had the maggot experience… we just forgot to deal with our chimney cap and had a little squirrel issue. I’ve felt sullied ever since… gack.

  4. Kelly says

    John and Sherry,

    I think I can relate the most to #2. I tend to just dive in and try to fix a little thing, not realizing its the great big thing that I don’t like. I need to start looking at the bigger picture.

    Thanks for all your tips. You guys ROCK!

  5. Emily says

    How exactly DO you fix a drywall/spackle issue? In our kitchen there is a line where the mud wasn’t sanded smooth. Its been primed and painted and drives me crazy!

    • says

      You just have to sand that baby down and start over again! If you sand through the paint/primer you’ll get down to the spackle/drywall again and you can putty/sand/putty/sand as many times as you need until it’s smooth- and only then should you prime and paint once and for all! Good luck!


    • Jen S. says

      We had this same issue on the ceilings in our living room and our house was built in the early 90’s — we ended up having to retape the drywall and then spackle, sand, spackle, etc. I wish we would have known that from the start! Ha!

  6. says

    Here’s something I really respect about you guys, and something that if you don’t do, it’s probably not going to end well. Respect the house you’re in.

    Mid-century ranchers are never going to look like McMansions. McMansions are never going to look like an Eichler. Eichlers aren’t Victorians.

    Not that you can’t pull in different stylistic elements (a piece of ornate Victorian furniture usually looks great in a modern space), but don’t try to turn your house into something it’s not. It’s never going to look right. Bring in elements, freshen the space, but stay true to the spirit of your home and your renovation will probably turn out better in the long run.

    • Katie V says

      Yes! There is someone in my neighborhood who needs to sit & chat with you. Almost every single house in my city(and most in north Texas) is a brick ranch. Down the street, someone must have lost a bet and painted their red-brick ranch powder blue & added a Victorian style tower to the side…. I die a little every time I drive by it.

  7. says

    Great advice. After just having the wall between the kitchen and dining room torn down, I’m having a hard time trying to decide how to make everything come together so for the time being I’m just living with it and not rushing into anything until I know what I want and what will work best. Maybe it will be done by next Christmas!

  8. Christine says

    I totally agree with the stump tip!! Though for us it was dark brown shag carpet in our living room. For 15 months it was the bane of my existance and I filled my Pinterest board with ideas to decorate (layering rugs, using light accent colors, etc) but it was just not working. So we pulled the trigger on hardwood floors which led to a new couch, rug and credenza. I could not be happier that we waited for what we wanted! P.S. Love your blog and eagerly awaiting Santa to leave your book under my tree this year!!

  9. Liz S. says

    Ahhh! The bugs! In our old apartment there was one day a year where flies would appear…no explanation. I’d roll up the window shades and wait for them to land, then get them with the swatter…it turned into a small competition with myself, haha

  10. says

    Wow, you just put into words what I never knew I was thinking until now. I have tried so many times to try and make something ugly, or at least not in love with, pretty. All it does is take a lot of time and energy, and sometimes money to do something you will never really love. I definitely like these types of posts!

  11. says

    We renovated the first of two bathrooms a couple of years ago. We were in a rush to finish it since company was coming, so we bought the pre-finished trim – as in, it had that fake wood laminate covering it. Bad idea. It started peeling on a couple of edges, and we’re now in the process of using the leftover trim from our 2nd bathroom renovation to redo the trim…again. More work and more money in the long run, so trying to save time and money back then has not been worth it!

  12. says

    Great tips! It’s a relief to know that even the seasoned veterans like you have made a few mistakes over the years. Makes me feel not so bad about learning things the hard way myself :-)

  13. Nicole says

    I second living in your house for awhile before changing anything. Even something like paint color, which is easy to fix, usually works out better when you’ve had a chance to live in space, note the lighting at different times of the day, etc.

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