7 Lessons (Already) Learned from an Old Home

by Grace Bonney

What I'v
For the past two weeks of our winter break I’ve been in upstate New York with Julia and our pets starting to work on our new, but very very old, home. It has been every bit of the dream I imagined, but also every bit of the stress we expected, too. Unlike the past 11 years of renting in NYC, I’m now responsible for finding (and paying) for someone to fix every problem that pops up. And we’ve had a lot pop up over the past two weeks. Thankfully, Julia and I are both fast learners and like to push to get things done quickly. Not for the sake of a blog post (we’re not ready for an online update yet), but for the sake of our own sanity and being able to have a few spaces that are comfortable, clean and ready to be lived in. Some of our decisions have turned out so well (we had a fence built for Hope!) and others (like trying to paint our downstairs beams on our own in one day) have been trying to say the least. So I thought I’d take a moment and run down some of the things I’ve learned that apply not just to owners of old homes, but to anyone renting or living in a space where things feel not entirely finished (are they ever really?).

Make decisions for your real life, not the internet: One of the first things I knew I’d have to keep in the front of my mind this year was making decisions in our home based on what we needed and when we needed it. If you share your life online in any way (whether that’s on a blog, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr or Pinterest — or all of the above) you know how much pressure exists to make things perfect — and do them QUICKLY. You not only have to finish things to a magazine level of perfection, but you need to document every step of the process (from the same angle, in the same lighting), too. And, well, that’s just not going to happen here. I knew going into this I’d have to keep that little voice on repeat in my head that said “This is our home, it doesn’t have to be perfect and it doesn’t have a deadline.” And so far, I’ve been good at working at a pace that feels right for us, and taking soda and TV breaks when I feel like I’m going to crash.

What I've Learned from our New (Old) House | Design*Sponge
Sometimes you have to be tougher than you want: When it comes to hiring people or asking for help, I’ve always been a bit of a scaredy cat. I tend to cave in and/or overpay based on someone else’s attitude, rather than demanding specifics or holding someone to their word. It’s one thing when your landlord is paying for repairs and you’re in relative comfort, but when someone rips your wall open and leaves dangerous exposed wires without any promise to return, you have to pull the plug. The past few weeks have been a real practice in learning to be tougher and hold people to their word and timing. In NYC that’s not always hard because there are a million repair people to replace someone who doesn’t work out, but there are fewer people up here, so I have to work harder to make sure I start relationships cleanly and stay on top of promises. We’re perceived as “weekenders” up here (which means people try to charge us more and work when they feel like it) even though we’re not, so it’s been a good lesson learning to stand our ground and show that we’re not pushovers.

[Image above: The same contractor who expanded these doors for us ripped open our walls and wouldn’t tell us when he was coming back to fix them. So we had to let him go and find someone new to continue.]

I have a whole new appreciation for HGTV and Rehab Addict: Over the past decade, I can count the number of HGTV shows I’ve watched on one hand. I always thought it was something about the style of the interiors not quite fitting my personal style, but I realized that most shows were about massive new constructions with cookie-cutter styles (all done in what seems like one hour) that just didn’t work for me. But lately I’ve been watching This Old House re-runs 24/7, along with Nicole Curtis’ amazing Rehab Addict show. She, like me, is a shorter-than-average woman who has a soft spot for old homes. But man, her power-tool-wielding “I can do anything” attitude is so inspiring to me. That show makes so much more sense to me now that I actually have spaces and issues like these that are both my responsibility and pleasure to deal with. I really love the way she lets old homes be themselves and doesn’t force the old “open concept kitchen with granite counters” plan on every space if that doesn’t fit.

What I've Learned from our New (Old) House | Design*Sponge
Know when to fold ’em: This one was a tough, but quick, lesson for me to learn. As someone who loves and promotes DIY as much as possible, not every project is doable (or advisable) for every homeowner. I’ve had two major fails so far (both involving our bathroom subfloor) that reminded me that it’s okay to hire a professional when a project feels like it’s going to send you running for the hills. Sometimes you have to know when to walk away and know you’ve tried your best. I’ll get ’em next time…

[Image above: Our downstairs bathroom floor…yeah. I thought we found wood under the tile, but it was subfloor. And bad subfloor. I’m handing this over to someone who knows more about the pipe and heating issues in the back of the room.]

It’s okay to not be precious with everything: Some people are major planners and preppers. They love taping off walls, laying down drop cloths and getting everything perfect before they start. Those people are smart. They probably work much smarter and more efficiently than me. But I’m just not one of those people. I got paint all over our floors when I tried to paint our ceiling beams today and you know what? It’s okay. I scraped it off and cleaned it up and it’s going to be just fine. Sometimes it’s okay to leave a mark or not have a perfect, straight line if it’s going to let you move on to the next project. I may have a speckle of white paint on the floor in some spaces but you know, that’s why we have rugs.

What I've Learned from our New (Old) House | Design*Sponge
[Image above: No tape, no worries. Hey, we got a decent first coat of primer down on our own and I got a new Stacy London-esque hair streak to show for it.]

Lean on someone and ask for help: Whether you’re working on a project with a friend, partner or a professional, don’t be afraid to admit when you’re stressed out, overloaded or just need some advice or someone to remind you it’s going to be okay. Whether you’re calling your parents, your contractor or just a friend who knows about what you’re going through, let it out and don’t be afraid to admit you feel overwhelmed. It’s okay, we all do. Even contractors.

What I've Learned from our New (Old) House | Design*Sponge
[Image above: Julia and I bought slippers to keep us warm for all those nights when our boiler decides to have an “ignition failure” and freeze us out. I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else.]

Trust your gut: We’ve had so many people give us diametrically opposed advice since we started house-hunting in the fall. “Don’t buy old!” “Buy old!” “Don’t buy a home with a basement, they flood in storms!” “Buy a home with a basement, they’re safer for storms!” Anything we could have worried about has been covered, and the advice has been all over the map. Will and Susan Brinson have given me some of the best advice so far which was, “One person’s ‘trusted’ source can still be late, not show or do a bad job for you.” Some of the resources we’ve been guided to have turned out to be awful, but some have been wonderful. At the end of the day, we’ve been learning to trust our guts, meet people in person and stay in constant contact. Sometimes that leads to us ending a working relationship and other times it means we give someone with less experience a shot because we felt better about them and the feeling we got when talking about the project with them. I’m no Bob Vila, but so far I think my feelings about things at home have been pretty spot-on. Although, now I’m scared that means I may need to replace floors we thought were okay, but seem to be a bit too bouncy….

What I've Learned from our New (Old) House | Design*Sponge
[Image above: We trusted our guts and hired a local landscaper (without much fence experience) to build our fence. He worked SO hard and pulled long days in freezing temps to get this fence built before the first major snowstorm. He finished with 12 hours to spare and it’s perfect. Hope now has a safe place to run to her heart’s content.]

What I've Learned from our New (Old) House | Design*Sponge
What I've Learned from our New (Old) House | Design*Sponge
What I've Learned from our New (Old) House | Design*Sponge
[Images above: The sweet little dog bell for our front door that Julia gave me for Christmas, Hope lounging in the sun, and the winter storm that hit the morning after our fence was finished.]

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  • Congrats, again! As someone who has been working on my third “old” home for the past eight years, I can attest to all of the above! Someday it’ll be a “sneak peek.” Or, by the time we finish our attic, it’ll be time to redo the project we started with. Our #1 was the fence, too. No regrets, there. Yep. I’ve learned to listen to lots and lots of opinions, and then take all I’ve heard and form my own.

  • I’ve really been enjoying reading about your home purchase and renovation journey! Your thoughts here are so down to earth and a breath of fresh air. My husband and I moved into a new apartment over the holidays, and I immediately felt the pressure to have everything perfect. I’ve been referencing your essay from last year about improving function first, and allowing your home to organically grow with you and your family (:

  • It is a huge learning curve. I have been at it maybe 8 years on my house and I am still working on it. Wait til you get to the ‘uh, oh that is halfway done and I HATE it and now I am going to have to pay to do it over’s. Slow and steady and really have a clear vision of what you want before you start. Also, take my advice and wait if there is something you have your heart set on, but can’t afford now. Save up the money required and do it the way you want to the first time. You won’t regret it. Your Hope must be WAY better than my two bozos (or maybe there is wire fence inside the split rail that can’t be seen from a distance?). My boys would be under that rail and haulin’ tail before I could blink :)

  • As someone who just passed her framing inspection, I couldn’t agree any more with you. It’s YOUR house and the internet will love the love that radiates from it. Thanks for sharing – your little piece of the world is really beautiful.

  • Having done two Victorian renos, I can relate to ALL of the above. Especially the importance of one person staying calm while the other freaks out and vice versa. And the variability of contractors. You never know what’s happening in their personal life so, as you note, they can do a great job for a friend and then flake out on your project.

    My best advice at this stage is to get all the “unsexy” things right. Insulation, weeping tile around the basement, windows, roofing, wiring, plumbing. There’s so much that has to happen before the “fun” of picking out finishing materials. But it’s easier to do it now the right way than try and retrofit later.

    I just love the challenge of solving the problem of “our needs” and “this particular space”. Nothing is cookie cutter (non-standard window sizes for example) but the history and character and atmosphere is soooo worth it!

  • Oh my gosh! This could have been written by me! In fact, is the post I will probably feel like writing in a few weeks! I too bought an old (1875 old!) cottage in Yorkshire one week before Christmas, and have been embroiled in an exhausting storm of DIY and painting ever since. I plan to post updates about fixing the house up, because I love reading other peoples, but they certainly won’t be professionally photographed every step of the way, just when we remember. Getting our home right for us is more important right now than sharing how we’re doing it! And dog-proof-fencing was our first task too! Best of luck with the rest of the renovations!

  • Congrats Grace! How exciting for you two… I only hope someday I get to enjoy what you and Julia are enjoying right now (although I’m sure its not all sunshine and rainbows…like you’ve mentioned!) Thanks for letting us share in your adventure :D

    P.S. Nice call on the ceiling beams- better feng shui!

  • Oh, I love this! Our first home was built in the 1890s and never had a right angle that it let stay true. For many years I tried to make it perfect, demanding that it bend to the will of magazines and trends. It took visiting a friend’s house in Pownal, VT and really seeing her cockeyed baseboard molding and imperfect door frames to know that half the allure is the wonkiness. We’re in a newer house now and doing our level best to make it feel older and more weathered. Ha! Wishing you luck and unexpected, “Hey, it worked!” moments as you forge ahead. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Welcome to old home ownership! It’s awesome and awful at the same time, which it seems you’re already realizing. It’s really reassuring to read that a blogging pro like you can say, “This is our home, it doesn’t have to be perfect and it doesn’t have a deadline.” Most notably for me, painting the exterior of my house has dragged on and then I realized I don’t like the color and it’s impractical for my climate…. and now I may repaint. I’d love to post some glossy ‘after’ shots, but it doesn’t always happen right away. I also quickly realized that it’s ok to not be precious with everything. Sometimes when you’re trying to paint every wall in your home before you move in, it’s ok if your edging is a little wiggly.

    Even with all the hard work ahead, congratulations on the new home! I also just wanted to say I’m oddly in love with your new fence!

  • It’s all part of the amazing experience :) Cheers to a year of wonderful FIRSTS in your new home!

  • Again, congrats on the home. It’s so nice to your dog enjoying the place. I can tell you Boarder Collie/Lab would never obey that fence unless I was outside with him :)

  • This post is amazing. I’m insanely in love with your house (okay your life, that sounds so creepy, oops). I’m loving all the Instagram posts and updates. And more than anything, I love that you’re embracing PROGRESS > PERFECTION. Hang in there!

  • I’m like that with painting too! Old houses are so special and its flaws are what make them beautiful. Thanks for sharing!

  • I really appreciate your honesty in this post. I too need to remind myself to do what’s best for my family and I, instead of the Internet. Thanks for sharing.

  • Thank you for this. As a new home owner of a 1913 California craftsman bungalow with a lot of big dreams, small budget, surrendering to the fact that diy for a lot of things are not really what I want, I appreciate this. I was someone who even as a renter would do a lot of diy things (with the landlords permission) to make the space better like painting, installing new kitchen floors, painting cabinets ect. It’s weird that now that i’m in my 30’s and finally got a house, I’m not sure I’m willing to settle on a diy kitchen or bath. I would rather live with the awful Home Depot oaky flipper kitchen and save up for what I really want which involves everything going in a dumpster. If the original kitchen was there from 1913 I would absolutely DIY that, but what is there is not worthy of a light make over. So it’s weird to practice this sort of state of things all not being in their place. I have lived there 10 months and have hung nothing up. This is refreshing.

  • Much appreciated post! We just tried ripping a boxy, ceiling lowering soffit out of our kitchen only to find it houses a ton of plumbing. I had big dreams of no upper cabinets but I have come to terms with trimming back the soffit to match up with the face of our cabinets, trimming them out and painting it all white to visually lighten them. Originally it was a big blow but now I am excited about the compromise and we were able to scrape off our popcorn ceilings without using any water, so I consider that a huge win!

    If you would have posted some picture perfect room – even just one – that has been styled and staged it would feel so much less real and relate-able. As a reader I appreciate this honest approach much more and look forward to hearing more about your renovations of that beautiful home!

  • Oh so agreed! We’re a year into our “old house” projects up here and everything you’ve said about your first few weeks of experience still rings true to me. ESPECIALLY when it comes to trusting your gut about who to work with. We’ve experienced some real nightmares and some genuinely lovely and impressively talented, hard working people out here. At the end of the day, it’s about how the two (or ten!) of you are going to communicate/vibe so that mysterious gut feeling is oh so important. I’m excited for all of your upstate renovation posts… perhaps even more so than the magazine-ready ones, haha! Keep kicking old house ass!

  • Growing up, my parents literally built two houses themselves, so I only knew brand new homes. But, I always knew I’d want something old, something that had a history, something that had no straight ceilings and plenty of quirks.

    Trusting your gut has been the biggest learning lesson in home ownership- everything from the house we purchased to who we hire. It never steers you wrong, listen to it.

    Great post… love seeing this house turn into a home!

  • This is sooo cool! can’t wait till it’s done and you share it with us, make sure to take a lot of before and after pics :)

  • Congrats on your new home Grace! So great to hear about your experiences and renovating a home at your own pace. We’re in the process of opening a shop, and although it’s not as big as your house, we are learning very similar lessons. Definitely go with your gut! Also being in the moment and learning to enjoy the process of creating something new.

  • This is incredibly reassuring — my partner & I bought a Craftsman bungalow built in 1920 (rather old for our part of California) and nothing about suddenly being responsible for a fixer-upper was as I was expecting. Thank so much for sharing your process.

  • if you’d like more power tool-wielding badass female inspiration you should start reading kit stansley’s blog diydiva.net. She is awesome plus there’s miniature donkeys. Good luck on the rest of your projects!

  • I totally agree with all of this! I went through a big renovation last year and all of this is great advice.

  • Congrats on digging in and getting the work done. It will be amazing at the end. Just remember that throughout the hard times.
    If you do by chance need a contractor I have a great recommendation in the Catskill area. He just finished our home in Saugerties and we are thrilled with the outcome and the great communication we had with him through the process. Best of luck and let me know if you need anything. Would be happy to help.

  • I’ve been a reader for over 10 years and this is one of my favorite posts. Thanks for the inspiring and encouraging words, and keeping it real!

  • Loved this essay. It is going to be so fun to see your house develop into your real home. I agree with you about the HGTV shows – one of my new favorites is Fixer Upper.

  • “I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else.” This is my favorite part of the whole post, which I loved all of it anyway. As long as you have your rock by your side, everything’s going to be okay. At least that’s how I feel about my rock.

  • Tough lessons to learn, I personally had to learn the get tough rule several times before it stuck. I think you can apply the ‘weekenders’ rule to any rural area within 6 hours of a major metro area. There’s a book in there somewhere, on how to get it done as a ‘weekender’ with local contractors.

    • Jill

      I agree, re: weekenders. But we actually spend most of our time upstate now, so we’re weekenders in Brooklyn now ;)


  • Grace, I love this post! You are on the money when it comes to not being intimidated by contractors and their promises. Been there…..done that to the tune of $$$$$. I have a question about your fence, which I love. I can’t tell from the photos, but is there a wire outer fence behind the split rail? I’m wondering if the split rail would be able to contain my little Yorkie/Schnauzer mix.
    Thanks for all the valuable information!

    • hi angela!

      thanks- the fence is a 3 rail split-rail fence with black coated deer wire attached to the back of it. if your dog is a digger, this may not be the best fit. but hope (knock on wood) doesn’t seem to be a digger so far, so it works well for her :)


  • I love Rehab Addict too! I personally wouldn’t want an old home myself but seeing Nicole fix up the homes is a lot of fun.

  • Grace,
    This post is so timely for me! My fiancee and I are house hunting and doing second walk-throughs on our favorites – all of which are old houses. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and lessons, because we hope to be in the same boat very soon! It’s a great adventure and I’m so excited for it.

    • thanks megan- best of luck with your home hunting! what i learned so far i wish i’d known when hunting is:

      1. ask for a boiler inspection report!
      2. double check the foundation and surrounding water drainage
      3. make sure you get detailed pest inspections- ours ended up being ok, but we went in kind of blind.

      grace :)

  • Nice post! I have owned an 1862 farmhouse in Maryland for the last 13 years, and I can say these are lessons well learned. Friends and family were more than a bit surprised that we bought such an old home. I just said, if I wanted a new home, I would have bought a new home. I wanted old. I have lived in suburban tract homes, and in an historic old home, this home has a soul, it is a part of our lives like a “open concept/granite counter” home never was. The first time I saw the house, it reached out to me, and I knew I was home. Love Rehab Addict also!!

    • pam

      man, do i know how you feel. you wouldn’t believe how many people, including family, have been like “you know it’s old…right?” “those floors look..old”. i’m always tempted to feign surprise and say “WHATT??” ;)


  • I can’t wait to follow along as you make progress – whether quickly or slowly, at your own pace – on this beautiful home! My house is over 100 years old and my husband and I recently attempted to refinish the wood floors, and had to default to the professionals. Old homes are so precious and sometimes a newbie that’s inexperienced can ruin the charm of whatever it is… especially the wood floors, in our case.

    I also love your #1 rule: you aren’t redoing this house for blog content. You’re doing it for you and your family. What a novel, simple, yet really rare decision in the blog world. Congrats!!

  • Ah I needed this post. In particular the “It’s ok to not be precious with everything” bit. We just moved into our home and although it’s brand new (we’ve been building a custom home for over a year) we have done much of the work ourselves. We moved in with a list of finishing items that we are going to finish while we live there. I need to learn to let go a little. Get the jobs done and not worry so much about perfect straight lines and such. This is such a great reminder. Thank you!

  • Grace, Lol! Luckily once everyone saw the place the house worked her magic and won them over. We loved the house so much we bought it as is, no inspections. We also got 125K off the list price. One of the biggest lessons I have learned is that the things that would have sent me running for the hills are really no big deal. Too many people are scared of old homes simply because they don’t know how to maintain and fix them. A roof or a foundation is no reason to call off a deal. The only reason to not buy a house is- in my opinion- a bad location. Everything else can be fixed. And it is really not nearly as bad as so many think it is. We truly had more problems with the brand new house that we had built than with the 150 year old house we bought. The big drawback to an old house- There is not much at Lowes or Home Depot that will work in my house. There is no such thing as “standard” here. :-)

  • I love that you and Julia have bought your first home! I look forward to more articles about your adventure. I love your honesty and practical advice.

  • Oh Grace, in spite of thousands of totally wonderful posts on D*S, the This Old House of Grace and Julia is going to be my favorite ever story here! I am just rooting for you! Hoping that so many things go the right way and knowing that you will cope with all of it with grace and humor (or grace and julia). Happy, productive 2015!

  • I loved this article! I also have an old home that my husband and I are fixing up a bit at a time (with a mix of DIY and hiring out). It is so easy to get overwhelmed with how much there is to do, or how unexpectedly difficult a project can turn out to be. Glad to hear that others are in the same boat. Thanks for the reminder to do what you can at your own pace and to enjoy the process of making it your home!

  • Enjoy your posts on your new old home. Love your fence, but you don’t really think that kind of fence will keep Hope in or others out do you?

    • isabelle

      please read the text in the post above. it is lined with deer wire- no dog or person can run through straight through that. this wasn’t intended as a privacy fence, only as a way to keep hope safely on our property. it’s like this. (this isn’t our fence though.)


  • Oh these progress photos are great! I actually like them more than “sneak peaks” because how often does a space get totally transformed? This is once-in-a-lifetime. Furniture and fixtures may change, but the raw excitement of ripping out walls and floors, that’s just darn cool.

    The “weekender” thing — I’ve lived in central and western NY and grew up on eastern Long Island, but all in locations people do not “weekend” to. I understand the impulse to distinguish people from Elsewhere with people from Here. There’s implications about the past (you don’t know the history of this place) and about the future (you won’t stick around here, but we will, and therefore aren’t invested in the future) wrapped up in that. Of course none of that may be true. It’s incredibly unfortunate that people change business practices based on those assumptions, because a surefire way to damage a community is to build poor relationships with people who care strongly about the place, no matter when they arrived. I guess my point is that, based on my personal experience, you may be a “weekender” for years, decades even, because it doesn’t literally refer to the days you spend there or away from there.

    Finally, Rehab Addict for life.

  • Congrats on your new home, Grace! My husband and I are actually closing on our own weekend place in Ulster County on Friday so are following these posts with great interest. Any chance you’re willing to share recommendations for contractors? Good help is hard to find!

    • hi rolando- and congrats!!

      sure thing! drop me a line at DESIGNSPONGE AT GMAIL DOT COM and i’ll tell you our whole roster :)


  • You are making so much progress! Our family pretty much thinks we’re crazy – we heard all the old house fear talk. But saving these old houses, which are critical to the story of America, is such important work. Thanks for the mention and anything y’all need we’re more than happy to help. It takes a village. Excited to see what you do next and we love your fence. We just started thinking about a fence but are having hour long conversations as to where to break the property. Who knew it was such an interesting subject? :)

    • susan

      i could talk about fences for DAYS. we love the guy who did ours if you need anyone. they are SO expensive, so we went with split rail with wire (like 1/4 as much as any other type) and fenced off like 1/5 of our yard. we couldn’t afford to do any more than that. i’m still stunned by the estimates. so much more than i expected.


  • I can relate to so much of this… My husband and I both studied Furniture Design so we’re both capable DIY’ers. Last year we purchased an upstate home near where I grew up. Although we don’t consider ourselves weekenders, the locals often times do, until I whip out my credit union card or mention growing up there. We had 6 months to complete the renovation work, of the 100 year old farmhouse, from time of purchase. We never planned on completely gutting either bathroom… until we took up the linoleum floor, which revealed rotting subfloor under the cast iron tub, which led to removing the tub, and the walls, finding an old door in one (?)… In the end our contractor removed the entire floor, right down to the huge support logs, built an entirely new structure between the the logs and a new subfloor. We used the original floorboards to make a workbench to drop the bathroom sink into. My husband installed a new subfloor in the upstairs 1/2 bath, twice. I tiled both floors myself, one which I was laser focused on having a herringbone tile layup in (thanks internet!). We are past the 6 month mark and the pressure is off, so now we can tackle projects one at a time. I thought I would be able to blog about my experience as it was happening but my presence was needed in the moment; there were so many decisions to be made! I will end by saying that if you, for whatever reason, find yourself considering epoxy grout, please use Laticrete Spectralock Pro Premium, it has the longest cure time and is available at Metropolitan Lumber locations throughout NYC (no I’m not their rep but should be), I spent far too long on ContractorTalk.com reading forums. All the best to you Grace!

  • Hi Grace, Thanks for this. As always your authenticity is so refreshing. We are about to embark on a huge house project, so the timing is also spot on. I’m in the ‘advice from everyone’ stage and it’s making my head spin. I know people are trying to be helpful but I have some gut instincts about what we should do and it’s great to have some affirmation. I have the exact same attitude right now, excited, but also realistic about the inevitable stress coming our way. Wishing you all the best with the rest of the renovations. Don’t worry about us ‘needing updates’ – we will take them as them come!

  • when i was 21, my then-husband and i bought an old victorian house that had once held a grocery store on the first floor. the house was dirt cheap, and we didn’t think to wonder why until we ended up learning how to lift the house up to straighten the sagging floors, tear down all the walls, and pull up the floor boards (finding a hidden report card with all F’s). We repaired and then eventually replaced windows, replaced the roof, added insulation, bought a wood stove to heat the place; then after 2 years, scrapped up enough money to hire a professional to re-do the kitchen. My second home (now divorced with a baby) was just as old, but much easier to work on because i knew the drill, and also knew what was feasible for me to accomplish and what was not. looking back, it was worth all the work. good luck to you both.

  • I loved reading this post, and not just because I’m the owner of an old home, but because it’s a great reminder to take a step back and breathe. You can’t plan a home renovation according to what you think the Internet wants, and not every project you do is going to go swimmingly just because 10 other people posted success stories about something similar on their blogs. Amen to what you said about someone else’s awesome experience with a contractor not necessarily being YOUR experience with that contractor. It makes me feel better to see that someone else feels the same way sometimes!

  • Grace, I so enjoyed reading this essay and am delighted to follow along on your journey. I LOVE old homes and old furniture too. We bought an old home almost two years ago which we’re redoing slowly with our little family. Growing up I watched my parents restore a home and a colonial mansion (into a restaurant). I LOVE This Old House and isn’t Nicole Curtis A-MAZ-ING. I wish I could use power tools and diggers like her. HA! HA! Painting and sanding is more my speed but maybe one day. I wish you so much happiness in your new home! x

  • My fiancé and I bought an 1849 farm house in somewhat-nearby Orange County just last year. We’ve had the exact same experience dealing with contractors! I can’t even begin to try to name off all of the no-shows, no-call backs, etc.

    I’m no expert in any of this, but one thing that I can recommend to everyone with an old house (in New York state at least) is looking into the NYSERDA program. It offers very low interest loans to homeowners to do energy efficiency upgrades. They do an energy audit for free to find out where you may be loosing heat. We upgraded to a high-effifiency boiler and had the whooole house insulated from top to bottom. It feels like a brand new house when you properly insulate everything! Whoever mentioned “work on the unsexy stuff first” was right.

    It was so timely, Grace, that you just bought an old house upstate, too. It’s like I couldn’t believe my luck! I’ve been reading design sponge for many many years now, and I look forward I reading it even more now in the future to see how things are going with the house. Good luck with everything!

  • We own a 100+ house in Philly and after 7 years the fixes definitely become less urgent. I think the best DIY advice I can give is to learn how to do the stuff that you’ll do more than once. Learning how to paint correctly, fix a faucet, etc. Leave the once-or-twice things to the professionals. The learning curve and risk of, say, refinishing floors, just isn’t worth it for the amount of use you’ll get out of that skill. Best of luck!!

  • i love the covers on the chairs in the first photo! i totally agree with having to be tougher than you want to be, but it has absoulutely paid off for me in the long run!!

  • Hello, Grace. I must say that this post was so relevant for me. I will be a homeowner in the next few months, and I believe my house was built in the 70s. It’s charming, but it definitely needs a little TLC. There’s wood paneling in most parts of the kitchen, living room, and the hallway that connects to the living room. It’s very thin, so I know it can be removed with ease, but I’m nervous to tackle the project. I just wanted to thank you for sharing these lessons, and I will certainly keep them in mind once I start designing this house. I can’t wait to see your progress as you move further along. Also, I think I can speak for both of us when I say that the greatest enjoyment will be turning something old into something new. It will be so rewarding to know that you have tackled these obstacles to make this home YOUR home. I know I will feel the same way. Oh, and I couldn’t agree more with HGTV appreciation. I have been obsessively watching as well as picking up interior design books at the library. I guess you could say I’m “studying.” Anyways, good luck!

  • My wife and I just bought a 100 year old house in Brooklyn and completely understand. It was gut renovated before we moved in. I could write an entire book about these places that they flip in Brooklyn in two months with no permits. They basically renovate the places to hide the problems.

    Since moving in the pipes froze and had a plumber there from Friday to Monday. We thought we were going to pay thousands but he was great and only charged $300.

    The place has flooded in the front and back and has no insulation what so ever (a $4500 dollar job). If anyone is thinking of buying one of these places in the Bushwick/BedStuy/Crown Heights area, beware. Get a good inspector and get everything in writing. I can’t stress that enough.

    Good luck with the house, I can’t wait to see what it looks like in the end. It is really inspiring and makes me want to get a small little place to go away to.

  • Really great tips Grace! We’ve been working on our 1890 Farmhouse for 3 years now and I get overwhelmed by the internet “old home” bit and how everyone seems to be turning around their homes within a year if not sooner…we can’t afford to do that…and I am not sure why we should honestly…I have found that I really need to live in our home to understand my place in it and its place in me…we’ve made a few hurried mistakes because of the pressure we felt but not anymore. Good luck with everything….so jealous of your pool!!!

    • Tiffany

      I know how you feel. We’ve gotten a lot done quickly, but we pretty much set a budget for “big stuff” (new drywall, widening doorways, etc.) and blew through it in the first month. So now we get to sit and wait and slowly DIY the rest on our own over time…

      Grace :)