What Our First & Second Houses Taught Us

Q: Now that you’re in your third house, I’m sure there are things you’ve learned about budgeting, decorating, house hunting, etc. having been through the process a few times now. Would you ever consider writing a post about what your first and second house taught you? -Alison

A: Sure we’d consider it. In fact, here it is! Like anything in life, you hope your previous experiences will help make you smarter about your next one. And I think having our first home influenced the selection and design of our second and now the same thing is happening again – plus we now have the extra benefit of comparing the first two. We talked in this post already about how stylistically (well, at least color palette-ly) we’ll probably land somewhere between our light & beachy first house and the bold & colorful second house. But beyond that, there are some other influences that those first two places had on the selection and continued evolution of this place. Here’s a sampling of them in no particular order:

We want to splurge less than we did in the first house, but more than the second. In hindsight (which always seems to be 20/20) we feel like we may have overspent in the first house and underspent in the second one (we spent around 35K on improvements to our first house and around 15K on improvements to our second house). A great example of this is to compare our two kitchen remodels. The first one cost us around $17,000 because we splurged on materials (granite counters, custom cabinets) and labor (the only thing we DIYed was painting – so we even had pros gut the room and hang cabinets for us back then). Our second house’s kitchen reno came in under 7K (including all new appliances) because we tightened our belts in both areas, like painting the existing cabinets and doing all of the labor ourselves, except for electrical and counter installation.

We’re happy with the end products of both, but realize our modestly-sized first house probably didn’t need a $17,000 kitchen and our second one probably could’ve been taken up a notch now that we’re looking back (at the time of course we were clutching our wallets and trying not to spare an extra penny if we didn’t have to). I, for one, wish we had gone with new cabinets in our second kitchen because while the paint made them look updated, they didn’t necessarily feel new in our day-to-day life (they didn’t feel like new cabinets when you opened them, we couldn’t configure them to have hidden hinges like modern cabinetry, etc). So for this third kitchen we plan to save on labor whenever we can like we did for our second kitchen, but put more of our savings into higher end finishes whenever we can – especially because we plan to be here for the long haul.

We wanted to bring some of the cozy back. The main motivation for moving from our first to our second house was the need for more space. I had just started working from home and Clara was fresh out of the oven, so 1,290 square feet and only one full bathroom was suddenly feeling very cramped – especially with so many relatives and friends staying with us to visit Clara. So we nearly doubled our square footage with our second house, thanks in large part to the big living room addition in the back. One surprising result was that after 2.5 years there we missed the coziness of our first living room (aka “the den“), which is why we were so drawn to the living room in this house, which reminds us of that space. Our current house is nearly the exact same square footage as our last one, it’s just more evenly divvied up across all of the rooms rather than having one football-stadium-sized living space. So it feels like we have the best of both worlds here: 2.5 bathrooms so we’re not all fighting to use one, but a cozy living room and slightly larger bedrooms (since every bedroom other than the master in our first and second house were pretty modestly sized).

We want openness too, but where it counts. I realize “openness” is kind of opposite of coziness, but an airy feeling and a nice easy flow is still something that we want out of this house – just like we did in our last two. In our first house we tried to let the rooms breathe a bit by widening a few doorways and painting almost all of the spaces in a light and cohesive color palette. And in our second house we took out a big wall to connect the kitchen and dining room.

But one thing we’ve yet to achieve in either house is openness between the kitchen and living room, which has always been something that appeals to us. Coincidentally, both of our previous living rooms (well, the den in the first house) were additions to the original structure, meaning they were separated from the kitchen by an exterior brick wall… a wall that could only be opened so much since it was load bearing to the max. But not this time around. The only thing that stands in our way is a wet bar and a bookshelf (okay, and the associated plumbing) so we’re excited to finally connect the two most used spaces in our home like so many model homes and house crashings that we’ve admired like this one, this one and this one.

We made floors a top priority. By the time we’d left our first house, every inch of floor was new – from having new hardwoods installed in the kitchen/living/laundry to getting the rest of the house’s old oak flooring refinished. It was a pain having to shuffle all of our furniture around to make that all possible (evidence pictured below), but it was well worth it in the end. Yet for various reasons we never got around to doing it in our second house, and it’s probably our #1 regret of that house. Somewhere between having more furniture to get out of the way and working on our book behind the scenes while trying not to displace Clara for too long it just never happened. So that’s why we jumped on redoing the floors upstairs and polishing them downstairs right away here. We’re not completely done with all of our flooring updates (hello faux brick linoleum in the kitchen) but we’re glad we dealt with all of our hardwoods right off the bat.

We wanted to get outside easily. This may sound silly, but convenient access to our outdoor areas was a must for us. All four of us (Burger included) like being outside, but in the last two houses we were never quite able to incorporate our outdoor areas into our daily routine as much as we wanted. For instance, cookouts were inconvenient because getting from kitchen to grill involved a trip through one or two other rooms in both houses. So when we saw the big deck off the back of this house we saw lots of potential – especially once we convert our big bay of windows in the kitchen to doors (you still have to go through the living room to get out there now). Plus, having it all on the same level as our first floor (rather than down some steps like our last two patios) has already made it a more natural extension of our indoor living spaces. We’ve never been outside as much as we were this summer. I think we could star in a series called Deck Dynasty.

Patience is paramount. Our previous experiences as homeowners have also taught us to be comfortable with transformations not happening overnight. We very wrongly assumed that we’d be done painting our entire first house along with fully renovating the kitchen in the first three months of home ownership. We were off by… oh, about four years. And at first we were really frustrated and disappointed by how long it was taking and how not-instant most of the transformations were. But by our second house we’d learned (and learned to love) that homes take years to evolve and come together. Especially the good ones full of thought and heart and meaningful touches. There’s actually a lot of excitement and freedom in letting go of the idea that a house should be done within a few months or even within a few years. So in this house we hope to continue enjoying the journey and having fun living in a full-of-potential-but-not-at-all-finished home. Not only do we enjoy planning and saving our pennies for updates, we also like thinking things through and taking the time to do things right – especially because we plan to be here forever and a day.

I’m sure there are other things we’ve learned along the way (maybe even subconsciously) but I figure these are a good start. Now what about you guys? How have your previous living experiences (everything from renting or living with roommates to living at home with the rents or traveling abroad) informed the way you’re living now – or what you’re looking for in a future home?


As a little Friday bonus, here are four fun projects, chats, or questions going on over on the Forums. We also announced this week’s giveaway winners, so you can click here (and scroll down to the Rafflecopter box) to see if it’s you.

by PrettyOrganized by curvyfurniture by crabandfishblog by karazzies


  1. says

    We’re only on house #2, but man alive, was the first one a learning experience. ;) I loved reading this post – I think you guys definitely found the right combination with your newest space. So. Much. Potential! :) Can’t wait to see how it turns out!

  2. says

    These are some great tips to keep in mind.

    I think we’re one of the rarities…we’ve been in our house for 17 1/2 years and at this point we’re 2 years from being paid off. I think deed in hand is our goal right now. (Funny, we said we’d be here 3-4 years max and even put it on the market after 3 years, thankfully no one bit!) I look at open houses completely different now thanks to blogs like yours. Homes that I once would’ve dismissed because of cosmetic things, I can overlook now knowing that a lot can be done with patience, paint and a little YouTubing. :-) Thank you for that!

  3. says

    We are on house number three as well and this is our biggest project to date! We have completely torn out every ceiling, wall, floor, light, etc and put it back together. We have finished the main living areas of the room, and are now working on the back half. It’s a crazy undertaking that has taken us a year so far- and we are living in it the whole time! BUT – our marriage has gotten so much stronger- it’s like living in an efficiency. :) We are learning a ton too! :)

  4. says

    The house that we close on on Monday was chosen primarily because of it’s location, land, and cost. We initially wanted to be closer to my in-laws (as they both have Parkinson’s), but we switched that to being within 2 hours of them.

    That change freed up a ton of areas (including the Olympic Peninsula). We started searching by size of lots and proximity to water. About 2 days later, I found a house that met the criteria: about 2 miles from the ocean, huge lot, and our price range.

    The house is small which is fine. The land is amazing! It’s three lots with gardening and outdoor play spaces. It needs tons of work, and I’m game! I have a mega list of plans and ideas, but am realistic.

    • says

      Thanks Valerie! We couldn’t believe it when VA tourism asked us to highlight our family. Clara had the best time on those adventures with us! And of course we’re big VA lovers, so it was pretty unbelievable.


  5. says

    We’re on our first house and it’s kind of funny how as we’ve redone each room our taste and style becomes more specific and more defined. Glad we waited to do the kitchen until we had all of that nailed down.

    It’s been a long time coming but we finally finished!

    Check it out! http://bit.ly/16FGA7x


  6. says

    We really want access to a garden in our new home. We live in a tenement flat in Edinburgh and need to go into the communal hallway, down two flights of stairs out the back door and along a wee lane to reach our shared garden. Which is gorgeous but often not worth the hassle.

    We have also learnt that we like homes that need a bit of work, so are lookign forward to buying a second home that we can make our own like our current one.

    And another MUST is a big spacious kitchen with space for a table. Lots of the edinburgh kitchens are cupboard like without windows, we do so much cooking we know that isn’t an option. xoxo

  7. Karen L. says

    We moved around a lot and are in our 11th house now! Guess we learned to do whatever we wanted with the houses even if it’s not appealing to all (future buyers). At first, because I knew we’d be taking another corporate move within a couple of years, we’d so something “safe” instead of exactly what we wanted for the “resale value”. Later, we just did it and usually we’d still sell the house very well because it was done well and with some fun in it, which usually translates to making a home more appealing and “homey” to the buyers anyway! So, have fun, like y’all do in your own homes…..that’s what I’d say.

  8. Jessica says

    Well my husband I will make one year of renting our first apartment on Oct 15! it’s exciting but living in 700 sq ft with him and my 7 year old is quite a challenge. Due to rent prices here in NYC I am constantly looking at your site and thinking should we move outside of NYC too?

    • says

      I remember those days! John and I both had tiny NYC places back in the day (once I had a 400 square foot studio with room for a bed and that’s pretty much it). You definitely can get more for your money if you move outside of NYC, but man it’s fun to live there too! We miss the sushi…


  9. Emily says

    I really appreciate what you said about being patient with your third home’s transformation. I needed that reminder! We are three months into living in our first home and I’ve noticed that I feel like I have to explain to every new guest what we plan on doing with renovation and decorating. Unlike my husband, I don’t get excited about hosting people quite yet because we’re halfway done with painting our kitchen cabinets, etc. Any words of encouragement or suggestions for how not to care about this/not let undone house projects prevent socializing in our home? :)

    • says

      I think we just realized that the potential and the process is so much fun, and that friends and relatives don’t care at all if your house is a gorgeous finished product or halfway done and crazy looking – in fact here’s a post with more on that for ya.


    • says

      Emily, we’ve been doing a major gut renovation/reconstruction of our house for 5 years now, and we still only live in half the rooms because the process is so slow. Yet we’ve had countless house guests — many of them overnight. Literally, we once had 6 extra people sleeping at our house for several days when they came to town for a wedding… At the time, our kitchen was just a hole in the ground, so we had a fridge and a toaster oven set up in our living room for makeshift cooking. We spent their entire visit laughing together, both about that and about the many other things that friends and family laugh about. Because in the end, they really don’t care about the perfection (or not) of your home. They are just there to see YOU!

  10. says

    We’ve been in the same house from the beginning (over 10 years now) but we’ve definitely changed our decorating and DIY style since we started. We originally made some very inexpensive changes in our kitchen but know we want to get new cabinets and reconfigure it at some point – still saving up for that, though :)

  11. Teri says

    We’re in the process of relocating from PA to NC and house #3. We’ve learned a lot about what we like don’t like from the first 2 houses we’ve owned. I’m excited for this next house b/c it will be a totally different style then the first two. This Northeast girl is going to have to find her inner Southern Belle. Love your blog!

  12. Christina P (NS) says

    Thank you for this, especially for the ‘patience’ lesson – I am planning to copy and paste it to my husband asap!

    I love seeing a home grow and evolve but living in a partially finished or unfinished space drives him nuts but he doesn’t believe me when I ask him to be patient and wait for the vision to evolve (and the pocketbook not to explode), I think hearing it from others who actually live in their space, not just design for a living and go home at the end of the day will really make a difference.

    We are just about to move into out 2nd home (19days – yay) and this is our long term home so patience will be key to making it ours without breaking the bank!

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