Our Current House
Question: Are there any projects that you wish you hadn’t DIY-ed? I’m in the middle of one that’s not going smoothly and I’m second-guessing my decision not to hire it out. – Holly
Answer: This question comes up fairly frequently – it even popped up during the Q&A portion of our talk at the Richmond Home & Garden Show earlier this month. The truth is that we both have trouble recalling a project that we got to the end of and said “man, I wish we hadn’t DIYed that one.” Maybe it’s that post project rush of victory, the relief of completion, or the joy of saving money? Or maybe it’s like childbirth and you forget the pain in hindsight? But there definitely have been PLENTY of projects that have elicited a major “what were we thinking?!?” moment mid-way through. I’ll even cop to shedding a few tears over one. Okay, maybe two.
So I thought I’d break down four projects that nearly broke me down and share what each one has taught me (spoiler: it’s not to stop DIYing, it’s just to DIY smarter).
#1: The Bathroom Demo. I was still working my 9-5 at the time and Sherry was pregnant with Clara, so I carved out a Saturday to smash out all of the existing tile in our first home’s only full bathroom. This was my first major reno project and I just totally underestimated the time, strength, and endurance it would require as well as the gigantic mess it would make. You can practically feel the exhaustion in the words of my post from back then.
Lesson Learned: Seemingly simple projects like removing the old stuff can be just as taxing and time consuming as installing the new stuff – especially in an older home where you’re dealing with mortar and metal-mesh behind every last tile. But learning this the hard way means that we’ve become better at accounting for that step in our planning moving forward, and renting equipment that makes it easier (like the demolition hammer that saved me at the end of bathroom demo). So now, whether it’s removing old carpeting or clearing the land for our deck (this is foreshadowing, btw) – we go into it expecting it to take time and energy, instead of blindly saying “we’ll have that done in an hour, tops.” In some cases it has even lead us to hire out a demo step, like removing the beams in our home’s sunroom for $200, so we could get to the fun stuff faster and save our aching backs.
#2: The Patio. This was a project that we actually contracted out at our first house, but decided to tackle on our own at our second one. The crew at the first house knocked it out in a day, but we knew better than to expect any sort of speed for ourselves. We did rely on a local stoneyard to help us calculate and deliver materials, but somehow in ordering three tons of gravel we didn’t quite the connect the dots that we’d later be manually moving and spreading three tons of gravel into place. So despite our best efforts to manage expectations, it still turned out to be a back-breaking job that had me and Sherry crying for mercy more than once (though not literally crying – that one comes later).
Lesson Learned: Moving materials from point A to point B can be a lot harder than it sounds, so take advantage of any help you can get – whether it’s having supplies delivered to your site (which we did) or having a few extra sets of hands around when it comes time to haul something (which we didn’t). There isn’t much glory in hauling or lifting stuff, so it’s something we’ve become more willing to pay for in dollars, instead of paying for it in lost time or aching muscles.
#3: The Deck. If I weren’t going in chronological order, this is the one that would probably top my list of Most Second Guessed While It Progressed projects. And it took virtually forever to complete, so there was a lot of time to freak out. Oddly enough, in the end I have great pride in completing this project – and I gained lots of new confidence in my abilities – so I don’t wish I had contracted it out at all. It truly is one of my proudest accomplishments to date. But there were a few times that I was on the brink of turning the project over to the professionals.
It was a perfect storm of some of my least favorite things about any project:
- Lots of manual labor (even though materials were delivered to our house, there was still lots of lugging and lifting)
- Lots of uncertainty (it was unlike any project we’d ever taken on, so there were plenty of unknowns and unfamiliar challenges)
- Lots of pressure (having to execute a structurally sound construction and pass multiple county inspections)
- Lots of heat (it was summertime in a very sunny outdoor spot)
The one element we were sure to eliminate from the story was a time crunch. We didn’t give ourselves a deadline, which is the only thing that made all of those “hiccups” (that’s putting it gently) bearable. And again, it’s probably the project I have the most pride in completing – probably because it was my toughest. Oh yeah, and it totally made me cry once thanks to being totally exhausted and then falling and hurting my back. Still not sure whether it was the exhaustion or back pain that brought on the tears.
Lesson Learned: If all else fails, try to eliminate or reduce the time pressures of a project or loosen up a super strict budget if you can. Giving yourself the gift of a more flexible deadline or a budget with a little more padding can really turn those “how will I ever recover from this mistake??” moments into an “I can get through this” Rocky-music rally moment. And oh yeah, make sure your next house already has a deck so you don’t have to build one again. (I’m kidding. Kind of.)
#4: The Hardwood Floors. This one makes the list because we totally disregarded the lesson that we learned from the deck: don’t rush yourself. When our second house sold much faster than we expected, it caught us by surprise… and suddenly gave us a deadline for removing all of the upstairs carpeting, painting all the trim and doors up there, and installing the hardwoods. While we owned the house for a while before moving in, the priority had been to get our second house ready for sale. Then when our old house sold before even hitting the market (as opposed to around 6 weeks later, which is how long our first house took), suddenly those six weeks that we thought would be built into the process were gone and our closing date was looming a few weeks away, with all of that carpeting, trim, and hardwood flooring to deal with.
We did our best to learn from our previous projects by carving out time for demo (i.e. carpet removal) and enlisting my parents to watch Clara a few times so we could have two sets of hands doing as much as possible. But we still found ourselves racing the clock at the end, which translated to some super long and tiring days of under-pressure floor laying. This one made me shed tears of frustration more than once, and this time I can’t deflect blame an injury. I was just dead tired and ridiculously ready to be done with laying plank after plank, day after day, in every seemingly endless room, hallway, and closet. And Sherry was right there with me. We were like a couple of cooks cutting onions. At midnight. While laying floors.
Lesson Learned: Even the best laid plans can blow up in your face. So by now we just do our best to expect at least one or two project derailments (and sometimes four or five) while reminding ourselves why we’re DIYing something in the first place. Maybe we’re saving money (which we definitely did with the floors). Maybe we’re learning a new skill (which can propel your whole house-journey forward and allow you to tackle bigger and better projects down the line). And maybe at the very least we’re proving something to ourselves about perseverance and determination (there’s nothing like dusting your shoulders off when you’re done, both literally and figuratively).
But if those things aren’t the in cards, perhaps you’ll decide that you’re dealing with a job that’s best left to the professionals – and there’s no shame in handing it over. Especially if you did a little bit of the up-front stuff before realizing it was best left to an expert (every little bit helps, so that supremely annoying realization probably comes with some money-savings from the stuff you did before hiring someone). In a strange way, as our DIY know-how has grown, we feel more comfortable with calling in a pro. We’ll gladly contract out work like our bathroom plumbing issue, our yard-leveling adventures, and larger electrical or load-bearing jobs that are just plain out of our skill set. After all, when you know just how taxing certain jobs might be, there’s definitely a tiny thrill when you get to watch someone else take that off your plate. Especially if it leaves you enough steam to tackle something else on your list at the same time…
PS: If you want to read more about how we decide whether or not to tackle a project ourselves before starting, check out this post which bullets some of the evaluation criteria that we use before diving in.
The bookcases in the nursery have officially been filled with board books, toys, stuffed animals, framed prints, and a few other random bobs and bits that I hope our little man will love feasting his eyes (and mouth?) upon. You know, in the case of those gummy blocks in the bottom right corner of this shot that Clara loved chomping on. Of course we still have a bunch of bigger toys, puzzles, and games that will probably get stored in baskets or some sort of cubby system in another area of the room, but it’s nice to have some fun kid stuff on the bookcases that’s easy to grab and gaze at.
This is the built-in to the left of the crib, which Clara helped me fill by offering up all of her baby books to “my baby” as she sweetly calls her brother on the way. She is well past the board book phase, so I was especially grateful that she wanted to hand them down as opposed to suddenly wanting to hoard them even though she doesn’t read them anymore. She even brought in a few of her stuffed animals that she thought he’d like (two gators and a monkey).
Obviously these shelves will evolve as he grows and we get more items just for him that are based on his interests, but I did grab a few boxes from Target, like the three-tone green one below. Just to store things like crayons, blocks, and other small-scale games that feel more organized when they’re corralled.
That crocheted cactus above makes me smile. Isn’t he cute? We bought three of them a while back at a holiday craft fair here in Richmond and I was so excited to break them out as some can’t-kill-it-if-I-try greenery for his room.
Here’s the bookcase to the right of the crib:
That three-toned tree was one of Clara’s favorite stacking toys when she was younger, so I was thrilled when she said she thought her baby would like it. She also dragged her blue crayon-truck out of a basket and said it was for the baby now (she’s more into markers these days, but the gesture was still pretty touching since she colored that herself a few years back).
She also picked out the mustached man-doll for him at a recent craft fair, so I lifted her up so she could do the honors of placing him on the shelf next to a box of flashcards and a cute cloth covered photo album.
Another one of Clara’s “creations” for her brother’s space was this robot print that she colored a few years back (it used to hang here in our last house’s hallway). We were going through frames in the storage room together and she said “he’s going to like this one – can we use this one? I made it just for him.” Regardless of the fact that she colored it well before he was conceived, it’s the thought that counts, so onto the shelf it went. Along with a random teal oyster can that I found at an antique shop this summer (it feels like a cheeky nod to the whole barnacle nickname that Clara came up with this fall).
Besides going through old baby items and buying a few new things like those Target boxes, and the mustached man-doll, Clara and I also had fun making a little art project for the bun. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Norman The Narwhal. He’s FAR from a perfect specimen, but it was the sweetest project to do with Clara and I think I love him more for his handmade wonkiness than anything else. Dude has some serious character going on. So let’s file this under “made by a kid with a little help from mom for her baby brother.”
Here was our inspiration (which is nowhere near as wonky, and very charming indeed), and here’s how Clara and I had fun subbing in paper mache for a styrofoam ball, made the horn a different way, used buttons for eyes, etc.
1 & 2. First we picked up a small wooden craft plaque from JoAnn for around $3 with a coupon, and we had fun painting it white together.
3 & 4. Then we made waaaay too much paper mache (seriously, it was a comically large batch) by adding water to flour and stirring until it thickened up. Clara LOVED this part, hence the comically large batch. She kept wanting to add more water and more flour and “stir, stir, stir” things up.
5. Next we used some newspaper to make our narwhal face, which was essentially just sort of a rounded blob of paper squished up and covered with paper mache with a flat back so it could sit against the plaque. We used small strips of newspaper coated with paper mache over our ball of crunched up newsprint to get it as smooth as possible on the surface, but that’s sort of a relative term since it’s still quite a lumpy little face that he has.
6. We used an old wooden dowel that was about 5″ long to create the horn.
7 & 8. First I just wrapped it with painters tape (using more on one end than the other for that tapered shape). Then I covered that with yellow polka dot washi tape that I had on hand, just because polka dots are cute and our inspiration narwhal had some pattern going on with his horn. We used a coat of matte Mod Podge over the whole thing to keep the tape in place and protect it a bit more (Clara loves Mod Podge and calls it Pod Modge, which makes me think of Padma Lakshmi for some reason).
9 & 10. When the paper mache narwhal face was dry, Clara helped me paint it blue with craft paint. I also used Aileen’s Tacky Glue to secure a screw to the inside of the dowel of our horn, which we let dry for a nice long time.
11. Once our narwhal face was dry and the glue for our screw had cured up, we could screw it right in for that horned look. I even made a small pilot hole with our drill to get things started (Clara LOVES anything drill related, so this was a thrilling step for her as well).
Then we searched the house for some small round items to use as eyes, came up with some old pearl colored buttons, and drew a little smiling mouth with a sharpie as well as drawing some little black lines around the frame of the plaque. I did that while Clara watched and counted (she’d get to about 30 and then start over, which was pretty cute). And finally, we just used some black & white twine from the craft closet to create a little hanging device (one small picture nail easily holds this baby up).
Over the years I’ve been asked if I think obviously fake creations like these (or a ceramic ram head, or a cardboard deer head) might glorify the act of mounting an actual animal head. I’m sure everyone has different opinions about this (it’s such a highly personal thing) but I’ve thought about it for a while, and I don’t believe faux taxidermy makes any sort of pro-real-taxidermy statement. To me, it’s just like using faux sheepskins in our house instead of real ones, or how people might buy faux fur coats. Another example would be how animal rights activists like Stella McCartney will design things with faux leather (real leather = against her beliefs, but she’ll use the imitation to make a statement that there are great alternatives to the real thing).
Now I’m excited to start in on some other personality-adding details, like a pair of colorful curtains, and a large-scale mobile for over the crib. And of course we have a whole blank wall across from the crib to deal with, where we think we’ll add a cubby-type cabinet for toys with a changing table on top and our bike art hanging above it – along with a bold green closet door.
But going back to that “large scale mobile idea,” this is just some bad photoshop, but I have an old manzanita branch that I think could be fun with lots of colorful shapes hanging off of it at a ton of different lengths and depths.
So those are next on the list. What are you guys up to when it comes to bookcase-filling and art-making? Anyone else breaking out the paper mache? Clara kept trying to eat it, which was both comical and surprisingly ok (it is made from flour and water).
Psst- To see our nursery progress from the very beginning, here’s the planning and rug-buying post, the dresser-sourcing post, the wall and ceiling painting rundown, the first half of built-in building, the second half of the built-in project, and how we added crown molding and a homemade crib skirt.