Renovating Your DC Home

This article was part of the original “Cyberspouse” series that ran in our Global Link newsletter in the 1990s.

We’ve all seen housing prices in the Washington , DC area go up at double-digit rates for the last few years, while Foreign Service salaries have not! Many families, including the Cyberspouse’s own, have considered buying a “fixer-upper” in order to get into a desirable area. This can be a scary experience for those of us who have been living in government housing or rental properties for years and may have little to no home improvement experience.

So, what is it really like to go the fixer-upper route? The Cyberfamily purchased a typical 1960s suburban rambler in Fairfax County about a year ago. The house, while structurally sound, was the ugly duckling on the block. But, the location was great: in a top school district on a large and potentially beautiful lot, about an hour from downtown by public transportation. Most importantly, it was affordable! With months of continuous renovation behind her, the Cyberspouse is finally ready to tell her story and cannot resist offering a few tips to those considering a similar project.

Priorities, priorities.

First, make a list of projects. Include everything from major repairs or changes to minor matters. Put the list down. Take a few deep, cleansing breaths. Walk around the house, inside and out. Add a few items to the list. Repeat as needed. Eventually, you should have a fairly comprehensive list, though you can expect it to grow over the next few weeks and months as more projects magically present themselves.

Now, prioritize your list in terms of

  1. What has to be done before you can move in.
  2. What has to be done before you can sleep peacefully.
  3. What has to be done before you can cook dinner in your house.
  4. What you can do yourself in order to save money!

Some priorities are obvious. For example, the Cyberspouse had to replace all her ground-level hardwood floors due to the depredations of a previous owner’s large and undisciplined dog. As often happens with renovation projects, this turned out to be more complicated than expected because the subflooring was not up to modern code. The floors were completely ripped out, new plywood subflooring installed, and new hardwood flooring over that. Expensive and time-consuming, but it would have been downright hellish had we waited until after moving into the house. Therefore, the Cyberspouse’s first piece of advice is to put any repair work involving floors at the top of the list!

Other items that you might want to put near the top include window replacement, repairing, replacing, or cleaning air conditioning or heating systems, and anything involving new construction, such as finishing off a basement. Not only will the noise of construction drive you crazy, but drywall dust is the most invasive substance on the planet. No matter what precautions are taken, such as covering doors with plastic, this dust will get into everything, including your hair and lungs. If at all possible, arrange to have this sort of work completed before you move in. (The Cyberspouse, unfortunately, did not have this option, but she will make darn sure she does the next time she renovates a house!) Interior painting is not as disruptive as drywall work, but should definitely be done before unpacking small items and unwrapping furniture if at all possible.

In the yard, check to see if any trees will have to be taken down for safety or for aesthetic reasons. It’s better to do this before embarking on any other landscaping projects (the Cyberspouse will remember this next time, too!).

After you move in, you’re all going to need a place to sleep. Take it from the Cyberspouse, you are going to be very tired for a while! One of her best decisions was to paint the bedrooms first, and to install blinds on the windows right away. The rest of the house may have been a mess, but at least there were three small islands of tranquility to which her family members could retire at the end of the day (even if there were little kitty pawprints marked in drywall dust all over the floors.)

Finally, it is the Cyberspouse’s long-held opinion that the hardest room to pack and unpack is the kitchen. It is amazing to see the volume of stuff that comes out of, and must go back into, those tiny cabinets. You will probably want to at least partially renovate the kitchen in an older house. If the kitchen is so bad that you really must renovate it as soon as possible, don’t move into it until it’s ready. Set up a camp kitchen right away in another room, with a coffee maker, microwave, crock pot, and so on. Use disposable plates and cutlery. Order a lot of takeout pizza and Chinese food. Whatever you do, don’t unpack the bulk of your cooking and eating equipment until your kitchen is ready to use. It’s safer in the boxes!

Expect chaos.

Whether or not outside contractors are working in your home, but especially if they are, life will be chaotic for a while. Contractors are, frankly, quite unreliable. Ask any renovation survivor: there is very little relation between when contractors say they will arrive and when they actually show up. Whatever they are doing will probably take twice as long as they say it will. But we can handle this. We are Foreign Service. We have lived in the developing world. We know that sometimes, fijese, the truck will break down, the power will go out, or the rainy season will begin two weeks early. The Cyberspouse advises you to take a deep breath, hand over the keys, and go to the pool with the kids. Maybe the work will be done when you get back if you are lucky.

Prioritize your domestic routine. Your house is not going to be clean as long as there are people working in it, so pick some areas to focus on and forget about the rest. Aside from the drywall dust and sawdust, there will also be a lot of dirt tracked into your house. (Contractors’ boots seem to be specially designed to accumulate as much mud as possible.) Put a cheap throw rug, or flattened cardboard boxes inside the front door, and ask workmen to wipe their feet. Designate a bathroom for contractors (they will probably ask which one you want them to use) and don’t clean it until the work is done. Designate another bathroom for your family, and clean that one instead. Throw dropcloths over furniture in the “public” areas. Unpack as little as possible. Move the TV and laptop into the bedroom, close the door to keep out dust, and keep wet wipes at the door to wipe bare feet off before entering. Pretend that you live in a small studio apartment that just happens to be located in the middle of a construction zone.

The Do-it-Yourself stage.

It is quite likely that you will have to complete some of the work yourself, either for financial reasons or because you just can’t stand to have strangers in your house anymore. And this is not a bad thing. Most household repairs and improvements are not as difficult as you might think. All it takes is patience, persistence and the right tools. Painting, for example, is not exactly brain surgery. Replacing light fixtures, switches and outlets is also simple once you know how. Plumbing is a little more complicated, but again, patience wins out. Once you know how to make these repairs, you won’t have to call plumbers and electricians nearly so often, and your nifty new tools will pay for themselves in no time!

Remember that you can always split up a project, doing the demolition work and/or basic construction by yourself, and paying others to add finishing touches. The Cyberspouse’s new kitchen is such a mixture. The Cyberfamily ripped out forty-year-old grungy cabinets, pulled up cheap fake wood flooring, and removed the Ugliest Countertop in the Universe, as well as several old appliances. After the kitchen was completely gutted, we then installed new plywood subflooring and vinyl tile, put together and installed Ikea cabinetry with hardware, and spackled, sanded, and painted the walls. All of these tasks were relatively simple, requiring only basic tools, patience, and a lot of hard work.

We then paid to have new Corian countertops professionally installed, a gas line put in for a new range, and the kitchen sink, disposal, and dishwasher hooked up. We also paid an electrician to install new outlets and upgrade old ones to modern code. We only recently finished drywalling the soffits, and are just getting around to a tile backsplash and new lighting. But, we estimate that we have already saved at least $10,000 by doing the bulk of the work ourselves. Everything works perfectly to date in our “custom” kitchen.

We took a similar approach to one of the bathrooms, paying to have a new bathtub installed, but replacing the floor tile, toilet, vanity, mirror and light fixtures ourselves, as well as performing extensive repairs on the walls before painting. (The Cyberspouse is especially proud of her drywall skills!)

The major hardware chains all have do-it-yourself guides that cover a wide range of subjects. There are also some great online resources for home repairs, and lots of message boards where you can pose your questions to the more experienced or even to professionals. (See resources below.)

Check your gender roles at the door!

The Cyberspouse has observed that her husband has exactly four advantages over herself as a handyperson:

1.) He can lift heavier things

2.) He can reach higher things

3.) He can bang harder on things

4.) He can curse at things more expressively.

Otherwise, there is nothing about being a male (or an FSO) that qualifies one to repair or renovate houses. In fact, smaller, defter, fingers are perfect for electrical work. It doesn’t hurt to be short and limber when your head is underneath the sink installing a drain, either. And remember that old saw about men not wanting to ask for directions? The Cyberspouse is here to tell you that simply asking for directions is without a doubt the most important home improvement skill! Pose your questions at the hardware store, either to the staff or to contractors who happen to be standing nearby (The Cyberspouse has often been offered unsolicited help from more experienced customers while puzzling over parts in the electrical and plumbing aisles.) If the first salesperson you ask has no clue, find out who does. Ask your friends and relatives! Ask on a message board. Ask, ask, ask, and your questions will be answered.

The Cyberspouse completed many of the renovations on her new home herself. Aside from the kitchen, which was definitely a two-person job requiring the assistance of a person larger than her dainty self, here are just some of the tasks she was able to complete with minimal experience and assistance:

  • Replacing toilets.
  • Replacing old ceramic tile floors with new vinyl tile over new cement subfloor.
  • Replacing sinks, vanities, and bathroom cabinets.
  • Patching and “mudding” drywall.
  • Installing new light fixtures and bathroom fans.
  • Replacing and repairing countless electrical outlets and switches.
  • Spackling, sanding, caulking, and painting every room in the house.
  • Building new brick planters in the front yard (she had help hauling the bricks!)
  • Installing new closet systems and shelving.
  • Repairing, re-painting and re-hanging old doors with new hinges and doorknobs.

Take a stroll around your neighborhood hardware store during the work week. You’ll notice that while most of the contractors are men, most of the homeowners buying paint, tools, and other supplies are women. American women have figured out that most home improvement projects get done much faster if we they just do it ourselves.

Consider child labor.

Enlist your children as well, if you have them. They are great at demolition work. The energetic 8-year-old Cyberson donned ski goggles and roller blading kneepads to help remove an old ceramic tile floor. The artistically inclined preteen Cyberdaughter proved to be a whiz at painting miles and miles of wood trim. Both Cyberkids contributed substantially to painting their own rooms as well as other parts of the house. And a funny thing about kids: eventually they grow. Bingo, someone to help lift things!

Kids can easily excel at yard work as well, weeding, digging, and chopping with great energy. Pay them if you have to-at $10 a bag, it was amazing how quickly English ivy disappeared from the Cyberspouse’s yard. And they love “real” building projects, too. Both the Cyberchildren were involved in the construction of the Cyberspouse’s large brick planters, and they didn’t even ask for money. It was enough just to get dirty and play with life-sized Legos. In short, depending on their ages, your kids may be less of a liability and more of a resource than you might think.

Try not to get overwhelmed.

Renovation is hard work, and it seems to go on forever. Particularly when one is ripping a lot of fixtures out in order to replace them, it can seem like a two-steps-forward, one-step-back proposition. The Cyberspouse will freely admit that there were times, especially when renovating a certain basement bathroom, when she felt like either crying or running away from home! But, she is a work-at-home Mom, and therefore used to tackling projects in small increments as time permits. After a few frustrating weeks, she learned to apply these principles to renovation as well. A typical painting project, for example, might be handled like this:

Monday: remove or cover all furniture in the room, spackle and sand walls, vacuum and wipe down walls and trim.

Tuesday: paint first coat on ceiling and trim, wrap up painting supplies in plastic and store in the freezer overnight. (No need to wash them out that way.)

Wednesday: paint second coat on ceiling and trim.

Thursday: tape off all trim, paint first coat on walls.

Friday: paint second coat on walls, clean up all the painting supplies.

Saturday: caulk cracks around doors, windows and baseboards, enjoy freshly renovated room!

Breaking projects up into logical steps like this not only keeps a person from becoming totally exhausted, but allows time for attention to detail. If the only item on the Cyberspouse’s list for the morning was to spackle walls, she would turn up the radio, chill some Diet Cokes, take her sweet time doing it right, then move on to her regular daily tasks. The Cyberspouse believes that one reason that many people decide that they aren’t good at home improvement simply because they have underestimated the amount of time needed to complete projects properly. But once you have lived through a renovation and observed the professionals at work, you will realize that they also take their time in order to get it right.

Is it all worth it?

As of this writing, the Cyberspouse has owned her fixer-upper for almost exactly a year. And what a difference a year can make! An ivy-choked, trash-strewn yard populated with ugly, overgrown bushes is now a sunny woodland perennial garden with a classy new brick sidewalk covering the muddy path to the door. Inside, cheap builder-grade carpeting has been replaced by beautiful hardwood flooring. An old, unimproved kitchen is now a cheerful, functional room with over twice the cabinet space and brand-new appliances. A mildewed deck that threatened to tear away from the house is long gone, replaced by a new one that is a sturdy, pleasant place for summer cookouts. Dingy beige walls and ceilings have all been repainted in “custom” colors. Unlit, cave-like rooms have been transformed by new overhead lighting. Nasty old bathrooms are now bright and well-ventilated. A brand-new guest room occupies former basement storage space. It’s hardly recognizable as the house that we purchased.

So, has a year of serious sweating been worth it? The Cyberspouse would unequivocally say yes. We now live in a house that we could never afford if a large part of the purchase price hadn’t been sweat equity. An added dividend has been the set of skills that we have acquired in the process (along with a workshop full of cool tools, of course). The Cyberhusband enjoyed the chance to break out of his usual desk-bound routine and get his hands dirty. And the Cyberchildren proudly show their friends around the home in which they have invested so much of their own time and energy.

Every time we arrive at a new post in the Foreign Service, we take on a new adventure. Renovating your own home together is just a different sort of adventure. It can bring you closer together as a family if you let it. Any family that can cope with living in a foreign country for years, going without familiar domestic comforts and learning new skills out of necessity, can handle a few weeks or months of home renovation. So, if you’ve got the time, the patience, and the funds, don’t be afraid to take on a fixer-upper to live in a neighborhood that truly feels like home!

The Do it Yourself Network has a great library of home improvement articles, usually with photos. The Cyberspouse’s first stop when working on a home improvement project.
This Old House, the popular PBS television show, also has lots of useful articles online, some with streaming video. Great message boards, too.
Both of these home improvement retailers have large libraries of DIY articles on their websites, and also sell dozens of books on various DIY topics.

The public library can also be a great resource. Don’t limit yourself to your local branch: go online and search for how-to books in the entire county library system and beyond, then have them delivered to your local branch.

If you are renovating an older home, you may find that replacement parts cannot always be found at local home improvement stores. The Cyberspouse, for example, threw out several rusty old heating duct covers and was unable to find the right size to replace them until she discovered She is currently considering ordering a shower stall replacement online for the same reason. If your local outlet does not have what you need, don’t give up, Google it! Many builders’ supply companies offer a wider selection online than hardware stores and often for a lower price, especially if you are purchasing multiple items.

Many items can be purchased less expensively on as well. The Cyberspouse ordered all her door hardware from an eBay seller, saving about 40 percent over the retail price at the nearby home improvement center. She has recently ordered kitchen lighting from another eBay seller. Always compare online prices with local retail if you can.

Finally, if you are removing old appliances and fixtures from your house, there’s an easy way to get help, save on removal charges, keep items out of the landfill, and help others in need: The Cyberspouse quickly and easily disposed of everything from kitchen appliances to bathroom fixtures to a quarter-ton of peach-and-black granite kitchen countertop in this manner. Search for your most local group and sign up for a second group as a backup. is another great resource for either giving things away or selling them at yard-sale prices. Listings are free.

Kelly Bembry Midura is AAFSW ‘s Content Manager. She blogs at

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