Email Answer: I Bought A Fixer-Upper, Where Do I Begin?

Q: My husband Tim and I just bought our first fixer upper two weeks ago in Fort Worth, Texas. It is our second home and we hope to make it our last. Falling in love with our home was the easy part, but the thing is we just don’t know where to start. Should I mention that we have a 19 month old little ball of energy “helping” us? I know you don’t know what our house looks like nor do you know what our plans are for it. I won’t bore you with the details, I just want to know if you have a post about getting started; about how to go about making a plan so that we can go about this process efficiently. Or maybe I’m over thinking it and we need to just dive in? – Amanda

That big “where do I begin?” question is something we get asked a lot, both in comments on posts like this, and in emails like Amanda’s. And since we’re at “the beginning” again, it felt like a good time to write about our process. So here are six questions we’ve asked ourselves after moving into each of our houses that have helped us prioritize our to-do list:

#1. What’s necessary for us to safely inhabit this house? If you’ve bought a fixer-upper (or any house that revealed some surprises during the inspection), this is probably a question you’ve been faced with. What’s broken, malfunctioning, or so deteriorated that it must be rectified in order for you to move in?

Is there a mold problem? Broken windows? A heating system that’s not up to code? A swarm of bees living in the attic? Some of these may not be cheap or “glamorous” projects, but it’s probably a no-brainer to put them at the top of your list. In our most recent move that list consisted of four get-on-it inspection items: a malfunctioning furnace that needed to be repaired or replaced, a few dangerous trees that needed to be removed, some rotting wood and siding that needed to be redone/repainted, and an old roof that was actively leaking.

#2. What would be easier to do now, rather than after we’ve moved in/unpacked? This is a tougher question because almost everything could fall in this category. Bathroom remodels. Kitchen gut jobs. Heck, even simply painting each room. They’d technically all be easier to do in an unoccupied space, but it’s often not a realistic goal to accomplish a bunch of major renovations before you move in, and sometimes you just like to live somewhere before rushing into picking every wall color anyway. So we’d suggest picking your tasks wisely. We actually think kitchen and bathroom renos turn out better if we live in the house for a while (that’s the only way we ever would have thought about closing off a door to gain almost 65% more cabinetry and counter-space in our first kitchen).

This time around, Sherry and I chose to tear up musty old carpeting upstairs, spray all of the blue/mauve trim up there white, and install hardwood floors before move-in day. Out of everything on our list, it was the hardest to imagine doing those things after all of our furniture came into the space. The good news is that we were 100% sure about what flooring we wanted. But if we weren’t able to find flooring we liked, this task would have been put on hold and something else would move to the top of the list.

So one tip would be not only to brainstorm what’s the most helpful to tackle first, but also to make sure you’re going to be happy with that new look/material/choice for the long haul. If any part of you is uncertain, it’s probably best to move on to something that you’re more sure about instead of rushing into something you’ll regret. And since we’ve painted two houses worth of rooms/ceilings after moving in (and prefer to think about wall colors over time instead of choosing them all at once) that approach works well for us.

#3. What will make us feel comfortable and “at home”? In all of our moves I’ve experienced a period where I feel like I’m living in someone else’s house. Something about living amongst their design choices makes it hard for me to feel like the home has become ours. Obviously big gestures like tearing out the kitchen would do the trick, but that’s neither an easy or a quick fix (aside from it being one of those things we like to think through for a while). So we prefer to tackle a few simpler tasks after moving in that make things feel more like us. Like getting rid of dated curtains and carpeting – or, my personal favorite: painting. I remember how painting the first wall in our last house was the turning point where I felt like the house finally belonged to us – even if we ended up changing the color down the road. It was an important momentum-building (and morale-building) step for us.

Oh and this feeling of not being able to relax in “someone else’s house” is probably compounded by the general chaos and exhaustion that goes along with moving and unpacking. That’s why I think it’s helpful to put something on your list that will help you feel like you can put your feet up and fully “settle in” to your new space. It could be small, like setting up a reading nook with your favorite chair and a lamp or even just hooking up the TV so you can decompress after a long painting session. In our last two moves we set up Clara’s room on the first day to make sure she felt at home quickly, and then moved on to our own bedroom. Because sleeping on a mattress on the floor certainly didn’t scream “comfort.”

#4. What can we afford? This one’s pretty self explanatory, but if you have ten things on your to-do list that you can’t wait to tackle, but you can only afford to take on three of them, bump those guys to the front of the list and get going on them while you wait for your savings to build up again for the larger/more expensive tasks. For example, when we had those four important inspection items to take care of from tip #1, they made us feel like we turned the money faucet on high and drained our entire bank account. So we dove into nice cheap (and even free) projects, like stripping wallpaper, painting trim, removing an old glass shower door, ripping up more carpet in the sunroom, painting a bathroom, painting our front door, etc. They’ve definitely helped us stop the money bleed and made us feel more in control while we slowly build our savings account back up.

#5. What’s quick and easy? If trying to answer the above questions didn’t leave you with any clearer sense of where to start, then just keep it simple. Getting a new shower curtain or organizing your silverware drawer may not constitute an earth-shattering design decision, but it’s certainly better than doing nothing at all. Accomplishing lots of fast and affordable things can add up to an updated room – and eventually, an updated house.

#6. What will make us the happiest? In the end, you can throw all the logic, reason, and worry that you’re doing the “right” or “most important” thing first – but it really comes down to doing what makes you smile. And often times, that’s something free and something that you consider to be more fun than work. On our first night here I was initially surprised to see Sherry playing around with the items on the built-ins in our living room. Of all the things to do, that seemed pretty far from crucial. But as I sat on the sofa resting my weary moved-ten-million-boxes bones, I could tell that it was her way of relaxing into our new space – and that having one not-trashed corner to rest her eyes was her way of finding peace among the chaos.

In the end, the good news is that it’s hard to mess this up. Because no matter what starting point you pick, you’re already doing something right by doing something at all. The truth is that the right starting point (or the right order) is most likely different from person to person and house to house. How do you guys figure out where to start or what project to tackle next? Are their other questions you ask yourself that help you sort through your to-do list. We’d love to hear ’em, because we’ve got quite the list going on ourselves!


  1. says

    Love this post. The hubs and I are saving for a down payment on our first house and we have had numerous conversations on where to get started when we find the perfect one (which will most certainly be a fixer upper). Thanks for the affirmation and the guidance here!!

  2. Peggy says

    I didn’t see this mentioned, but you might want to take a look at the landscaping. If you want to plant something that will take a while to mature (like trees), it’s good to get them in at the beginning of your time there. That way you’ll be able to enjoy them!
    And living in a kitchen for a while before remodeling is a very good idea. So many solutions will come to you at random moments, so be sure to write them down!

    • says

      I was going to suggest this same thing! Especially if you want to plant a vegetable garden, some of the best things take a couple of years till you can harvest – rhubarb, asparagus, blueberry bushes. My husband and I have a list of thing we’ll plant the first year if/when we ever buy a house :)

    • Alex says

      I agree with the list making, too! You never know when inspiration will strike. My sister took things a step further; she bought a fixer upper a year or two ago and she literally has a piece of paper taped up by the light switch in each room (ha! great decor!). Neither of us are very “plugged-in” people, so Pinterest isn’t as helpful as just having that running to-do list of ideas and plans in each room to physically look at and cross things off of! Maybe when the house is “done” it will be nice to put those in a book with before and after photos or something. For now it’s nice to see all the chicken scratch and things crossed out and updated. :) :)

    • Noelle says

      Also good to keep landscaping in mind for the time of year. Some things need to be planted or transplanted at only certain times, and you’ll regret it if you delay and then have to wait almost a year before dealing with a bush in the wrong place or planting bulbs to get spring flowers.

    • Kathy says

      On landscaping, I’m more for waiting a little time before making big landscape decisions. It takes some time to see what areas of your yard get the most sun/shade, which areas have good drainage or are wet/damp, or even what areas need attention first. Make sure you plant the right plant for the right area.

      We just bought a house last September and after living in it a while, some of my initial landscaping ideas have changed now that I’ve gotten to know the property and what I really need.

  3. Maddie says

    Awesome post, love reading your thought process when the task seems so huge. Especially love #6 – so true! “Whatever floats your boat honey” = too precious. Thanks for keeping it real, per usual!

  4. says

    It was so interesting reading this post…We have been in our home for seventeen years! Wow that is hard to believe! But we moved into a brand new home with painters beige on every wall. We decorated over the years to our liking and it was great. But we are in a spot right now that is kinda peculiar. I want to freshen it up make it new again. And although that can’t happen, the cues from your post have helped me clarify “where to start”. Thanks so much!

  5. says

    We just bought a new (old) house and have decided on a similar order of things as well. First up repairing rotted beams under deck and replacing the sewer because those are kind of important. Next up drywalling over paneling in kids rooms and removing popcorn ceilings (because both of those are super messy and I’d rather not have to move furniture out after we move it in). We are also gutting the master bedroom and bathroom and plan (hope) to have the bedroom complete enough for carpet prior to our move date (next Saturday, eek!) but the bathroom will not be done and I’m ok with that because we can use another bath for a while. Once we get in we’ll get to all the fun stuff like painting and door knobs, and windows.

  6. Laura B. says

    Nice post. We are saving up for some paving stones in our yard. While waiting I am slowly (and stiffly) removing the dirt. It will be months, maybe even Spring, but when the money is there I will be ready.

    You do a good job. Thank you for all your posts. I especially like your reader redesigns. It is so interesting to see how other people solve their household design issues.

  7. says

    This is fabulous you guys and exactly what I’ve been going through right now with the surprise kitchen reno.

    One technique you do beautifully and something I’ve also done since I was a kid is to break bigger projects down into digestible chunks (I call this the one bite at a time method of eating an elephant). Listing out the smaller projects that break up a big project make the entire work more manageable.

    I’ll also break them further down into individual tasks if I know I need even smaller jobs to manage. For example, if I know I’ll be doing some things after work, I need them to be of a really short duration. So that project to re-do the bathroom will have a sub-project of modernizing the linen closet which will have an individual task of clearing out the stuff in the closet. If that is all I have time to do at night after work, then I can get it done and the next night take off the doors. The next night it is paint the doors. The next night it is paint the closet. etc.

    It’s OK to have small objectives when in the end it will all add up to the larger objective.

    • says

      Oh yes, this is a great note! The one day at a time “small manageable chunks” method is so helpful! It makes big things on the list (ex: gut the bathroom) feel a lot more doable!


  8. Sarah says

    Great advice! I SO agree about painting – it is always the turning point for me from feeling like I’m in someone else’s house to feeling like it’s my own. I always wait way too long to do it (color indecision / paralysis) but the house feels a million times more “mine” after we do it. I also agree about getting kids’ rooms fixed up first thing, since adults can process change and chaos in a more deliberate and rational way, whereas kids just feel what they feel, and what we hope is that they feel settled and at home. And I really love the last tip, ie: Sherry fixing up the shelves – there are always little things like that, that just help you feel excited about the house and are just fun. It gives more energy for doing the less fun stuff.

    • HeatherB says

      I have to paint first. Even if it is a basic neutral place holder until I later decide on an actual color palette, I have to paint. It makes it feel so new and fresh and clean–not someone else’s mess, but my home. It can be time consuming (our most recent house sucked up the paint like nothing I’ve ever seen!), but right away that makes it more “mine”.

    • JG says

      Also it helps cover up the former owner’s house smell! Especially if the former owners were smokers.

  9. Maureen says

    I highly doubt you guys need reinforcement from little ol’ me, but THANK YOU for this post! We just bought out first place (a brick rancher in Chesapeake, VA!) and I have to say it’s been comforting knowing you guys are “starting over” in a new house, too. We’ve been in our house for about 5 weeks and it still looks like we just moved in. This list reminded me that it’s a process for everyone, not just slow-pokes like us!

  10. says

    This is such a great post…it’s exactly how I felt when I moved (many years ago now.) In between those big jobs, like painting rooms, striping wallpaper, or renovating a whole kitchen, it’s so nice to celebrate and enjoy those small, immediate victories like beautifully styled living room shelves. :)

  11. says

    Thank you for writing this! We are about to close on our second house/first fixer right near Fort Worth, TX and have been a bit overwhelmed with the where to start question. I will definitely be sharing this with my husband as we plan our remodel! We are pulling a ton of inspiration from your site!

  12. says

    I really, really enjoyed this post! I love list making, but prioritizing the list is often the hard part for me. “You’re already doing something right by doing something at all.” This is a real gem for people wanting to try a new activity/project/idea but they just keep wishing, dreaming or thinking about it instead of trying it! Thanks & happy Friday!

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