Our First House

Things 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.

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First House Vs. Current House

Q: I just read an old post of yours where you compared your last house to your current one – and it looks like you preferred the old one in some ways because you had done more renovation, etc.  I think it would be awesome if you did a do-over of that post now that it has been so long and you’ve done so much to improve your new house! – Thanks for all the inspiration, Sarah

A: You’re right, it’s high time we revisited this weird little comparison of our first house and our current one, so let’s get right into it. It all started when someone (ironically also named Sarah) said this about a year ago: “I love your videos and it’s crazy to see the difference in YHL style from the first house to this house! If you wanted to do a side-by-side of rooms past and present, I wouldn’t hate it :)” We decided we wouldn’t hate it either, so we had some fun with it. And now over a year later it’s baaaaack. It’s a battle to the death. First house vs. current house. Cue the dramatic music and picture me singing while Simon Cowel says “you sound like a dog trying to lay an egg.” Of course it’s kind of an unfair fight since we’ve only been in this house for 20 months and it took us four and a half years to finish our first one (and we definitely expect this one to take us a few more years since it’s bigger and we have crazier plans) but on the other hand, after over six years of figuring out what we love and learning by trial and error, we’re definitely in a more confident place than we were when we started out, so some things haven’t taken us as time to figure out. Oh and we stole most of the current house pics from our House Tour page, hence the big “progress” label on the bottom of those. Anyway, it’s on:

The Front Yard, First House:

The Front Yard, Current House:


Winner: The first house. Our current yard has definitely improved by leaps and bounds from the bushy overgrown lot that we inherited (you couldn’t even see the house from the curb), but our first house took us over four years to upgrade it from this craziness, so we’re guessing we still need a few more years with our current one (from other angles it still looks pretty rough).

The Front Porch, First House:

The Front Porch, Current House:

Winner: Tie? We actually would give the front door win to our second house (we loved the red but we lurrrve the yellow) but we still have big plans for boxing out the porch columns and staining the concrete and doing about a million other things at our new digs – and the hanging ferns and tan-and-cream stripes on the first house’s porch were a few of our favorite things. So… lame, but let’s say it’s a tie for now.

The Living Room, First House:

The Living Room, Current House:

Winner: Our current house. Although we’re still hoping to upgrade things (like converting an old dresser into a media stand, etc) we never really used our formal living room in the first house (we had a den for TV watching and chillaxing), so we feel tons more at home in the current living room where we can sink into our giant sofa and zone out.

The Kitchen, First House:


The Kitchen, Current House:


Winner: Our current house. This might be a you-have-to-be-here-in-person thing, but the floor plan and smaller size of our first house’s kitchen just felt a lot more closed in and separated from other rooms and the new kitchen is truly the heart of our home (with two giant openings leading to the hall and the dining room and two other doorways that connect it to the office and living room). It’s hard to explain, but when I’m sitting at the peninsula approving comments while Clara plays on the rug by the fireplace and John cooks up something yummy for dinner, it’s just a nice place to be.

The Hallway, First House:


The Hallway, Current House:

Winner: Current house. We’re so thankful to have a nice wide, light-filled hallway. And the giant family gallery of frames just does it for us.

The Spare Bedroom, First House:

The Spare Bedroom, Second House:

Winner: The first house. Although this picture is stolen from an old post about how messy the playroom was before my mom helped me clean it, once again it looks almost this ca-razy (and has a lot more major furnishings in there since it’s full of secret book projects, hence the need to use an old pic). So yeah, the clean little room with a daybed and a desk made me a lot less sweaty and clammy. Someday I will show this room who’s boss. Until then, the door will remain firmly closed.

The Nursery (Formerly The Third Bedroom), First House:

The Nursery, Current House:

 Winner: Current house. But it was a hard call. We loved the room that we took Clara home from the hospital to so much. It just was such a sentimental space. But the bigger closet in the current room (which Clara now uses as a reading nook) gives her newer room the edge. And we can’t wait to do a bit more in here, like add crown molding, paint the ceiling, refinish the floors, etc.

The Master Bedroom, First House:

The Master Bedroom, Current House:

Winner: Current house. Although the built-ins that we created with doorless Ikea wardrobes to flank the bed in our first house (and to provide some much needed storage) will always have a special place in our hearts, our new bedroom is easily the coziest room we’ve ever slept in. Especially since we rearranged everything and painted the walls a dark and moody color. And of course having a walk-in closet and a master bathroom that’s actually connected is a huge step up in the function department.

The Master Bathroom (located in the hall), First House:

The Master Bathroom (actually attached to our bedroom this time), Current House:

Winner: First house. By a mile. We loved that complete bathroom gut job more than words can say. And although we did some small easy upgrades to our new one, it doesn’t doesn’t make us feel quite as shiny and proud as the first one did after a few months of serious work. But there’s a chance that we’ll love our current one more someday (perhaps after we redo the flooring like we’ve talked about) just because it’s attached to our bedroom and doesn’t have to be shared by everyone else in the house.

The Office/Guest Bedroom/Playroom, First House:

 The Office & Guest Bedroom (which are now separate rooms), Current House:

Winner: Current house. The office in our first house was such a great multi-tasking space, but it was teeny and it made us feel a little cramped when we were all in there. And when guests came to town it was hard to do blog stuff (which definitely doesn’t stop on nights and weekends) since the office was occupied by family & friends. So although our first home’s office/playroom/guest room was such a fun space, it’s a lot more functional to have a separate office with a nice built-in desk and our own cheerful guest room (with its own attached bath) for guests.

The Den, First House:


Winner: The first house. 1) Because our current house doesn’t have a den, and 2) Because our first house’s den was one of our favorite rooms ever – so cozy.  Although the room that we call “the living room” in our current house could have been a secondary living space/den, we opted to turn what used to be a formal living room into a spacious dining room to accommodate our huge family who couldn’t squeeze into the dining room behind it (which we made into the office). We don’t regret our decision to just have one huge casual room for TV, reading, playing, & hanging out, but we just have a special place in our heart for the comfy den that our first love – er, house, offered. I remember sitting on that sofa holding our newborn baby with Burger to my right and John to my left like it was yesterday. Sniffle.

Dining Room, Current House:

Winner: Current house. 1) Because those curtains are my babies and we’re enamored with the dark teal color that we painted on the back of the built-ins, and 2) Because our first house didn’t even have a dining room (it just had a dining nook in the corner of the living room). Well, originally it had a small dining room off of the other side of the kitchen but we closed off that doorway to turn it into a third bedroom which later became the nursery since we needed that space far more. It’s all much more clearly explained here.

The Laundry Area, First House:


Laundry Area, Current House:

Winner: The current house. We love our new laundry space. Even though it’s narrow and we don’t have a surface for folding, it just feels happier. Plus we don’t have to fight all of our normal human urges to resist clutterering up a big long counter near the door like we did in our first house (it was always full of incoming or outbound stuff). And it’s more fun to fold laundry in front of the TV on the sofa in the living room anyway.

The Hall Bathroom, First House:


Hall Bathroom, Current House:

Winner: The first house. The stripes and the fun glass chandelier were so charming, and we loved the pedestal sink and the pocket door too. But the new hall bath isn’t just a toilet – there’s a tub in there, which is where Clara takes all of her baths. So maybe the current house wins for function but the first house wins for sweetness? Either way, that blank slate of a bathroom in the current house is begging for some love, so we’ll count this as a point for the first house until we tackle the new one, since that was our first instinct.

The Sunroom, First House:

The Sunroom, Current House:

Winner: First house, all the way. We have about ten million things on the list for the current one though, so maybe in a year or two it’ll give our first one a run for its money…

The Patio, First House:


The Patio, Current House:

Winner: Current house. Just because it’s more spacious and cozy/shaded. But most of all because we did it ourselves (we hired out the first house’s patio since we were three weeks away from our backyard wedding and worried that if we tried to DIY it we’d get married next to a half-finished mud pit).

The Deck, Current House:

Winner: Current house. 1) Because we didn’t have a deck in our first house and 2) because John built this one with his bare, manly hands and I got to get it furnished. We can’t wait to stain/seal it and fix a few more things up out there (ex: hide the utility box, hang some shutters, paint the siding so it feels more balanced, etc).

The Basement, First House:


The Basement, Current House:

Winner: First house. Because we’ve obviously spent a little more time on the first one. Haha. But you never know what we’ll do down there with our current one as soon as we can make it not resemble a pile of junk…

The Backyard, First House:


The Backyard, Current House:

Winner: First house. We still miss that lovely flat grassy area surrounded by pretty woods. Someday we’ll hopefully make a little grassy spot for Clara and Burger to romp (after lots of transplanting, I imagine).

So there you have it. I think the final tally is 10 to 8 with our current house squeaking ahead by two (last year when we did this our first house got a 9 and our current house got an 8 since we didn’t have the deck in the mix yet). It’s interesting to see how our style is gradually evolving (more color/contrast/risks), although we’ll always have a soft spot for the tone-on-tone look of our first baby- er, house. And as for what’s still on the agenda at this place, here’s a big ol’ rundown that we shared a few months ago. What do you guys think? Have you ever looked at photos of your current house next to photos of a previous house to compare what you liked or disliked about them? Isn’t it funny how a new house is a chance to completely reinvent yourself, yet you’re usually working with a lot of existing furniture, so it still has “glances” of your first house going on?

Psst- Check out a full source list for where we got nearly every last item (and what paint colors we used) in our first house here and our second house here.

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