What I learned

Lessons learned from restoring an old home, DIY-style


BEFORE moving in

  • Demo.
    • Knock out all demolition before you move in so that you don't have to quarantine each room to control all the dust.
  • Refinish the floors.
    • Refinishing floors creates a lot of dust and it will be cheaper if you can knock all the rooms out at the same time, since you'll be saving time, therefore money on tool rentals. Your home will instantly feel more habitable, even if the walls aren't done yet. And finally, just get it done BEFORE funds run out. You can take on small, room-by-room projects later, so allocate the funds to the big stuff like refinishing floors first.
  • Drywall
    • Sanding drywall is extraordinarily messy and the dust can damage electronics. It will also break your cell phone and everyone else's that encounters the dust cloud. Drywall is cheap and knocking this out early will save you lots of headaches.
  • Build a large, sturdy workbench before doing anything. Trust me, you'll need it.
  • Then paint
  • Separate your work areas from your living and sleeping areas. It's nice to have a comfy place to escape to on those days that you just want to lay around and relax.
  • Budget a substantial amount of money for Home Depot/hardware store runs
  • Utilize the contractor bidding programs at Home Depot and Lowe’s if you’ll be spending $2,500 or more on supplies. Basically, you give them your shopping list and make an offer for about 20% less than the total amount. The stores will counteroffer and you can save quite a bit of money.
  • Focus on the kitchen or bathroom first, but never both at the same time. You'll need to shower and do the dishes... somewhere
  • Don't replace the kitchen sink until you've finished all the painting
  • Use the neighborhood app, Nextdoor, to find recommendations for cheap laborists who do quality work
  • When removing old wallpaper, shave down the corners of the scraper so that you don't jab the wall.
  • If your floors were painted and you plan to refinish them, scrape the paint out from between the floorboards before renting the sanding machine from Home Depot. You can do this with a utility knife and/or a 5-in-1 painters tool
  • An empty beer bottle is perfect for holding paint rollers while they dry.
  • Use a retired crock pot to 'cook' old layers of paint off vintage hardware.
  • Do all your laundry before starting a plumbing project, otherwise you might be wearing jeans and t-shirts to work...
  • If your plumbing system is a jungle jim of old galvanized pipe, scrap it and start from scratch with PEX. 

Must-have tools for demolition

  • A general-use, curved hammer with a broken tip is the absolute, most useful tool you can have in your kit. Buy a cheap file to keep the tip sharp
  • A utility knife with built-in blade storage, like this Dewalt model. It's one tool that is ALWAYS in my back pocket
    • Replacement blades. I prefer heavy-duty blades like these over the cheap, thin drywall blades. They last longer and the tips don't break off. 
    • Flip the blade around when one side gets dull
  • Dust control. A shop-vac (or Rigid vac) with a HEPA filter is great for large debris and general dust collection, but it is technically not suitable for lead and drywall dust. I bought my 12 gallon shop-vac from Lowes on sale for $45. If I were to do this again, I would use the shop-vac for general vaccumming and also invest in a smaller, portable vac for easy dust collection. 
    • Tips: 
      • Filters are way cheaper on Amazon
      • The filter will last longer if you have a bag in the shop-vac. 
  • Nail pullers 
  • This AMAZING demolition bar made by Crescent is a must-have for demolition (belovingly referred to as “The Claw”)  
  • A respirator (watch my review) with P100 particulate filters (I use filters so frequently that I use Amazon's Subscribe and Save service to receive them regularly)
  • Borrow a powerful, preferably cordless, reciprocating saw from a friend— you'll rarely need it after demolition. 
  • Extension ladder
  • LiquidWood and WoodEpox kit for repairing rotted or damaged wood (it is expensive but the repairs were more cost-effective that replacement in many instances) This stuff is great btw
  • Pawn shops are great for basic hand tools, drills, impact drivers, recipricating saws and orbital sanders
  • Craigslist is great for circular saws and other power tools

You'll constantly be asking yourself "Where did that tool go?" To prevent this:

  • Buy a large toolbag so that you can always have the essentials on-hand. I recommend this one.
    • Keep a checklist in your big tool bag with what to pack in your tool belt for each job (e.g., plumbing, electrical, general carpentry). The 5 minutes it takes to draft will save you oodles of time in the long run
  • A utility cart on wheels, like the IKEA RÅSKOG Utility Cart, is a great way to hold the rest of your essentials. This way you will always have the tools you need on-hand when you're working on a project. The wheels make it easy to cart them around the house and you'll be thankful to not constantly be running back-and-forth to grab a drill bit or whatever you will ultimately forget to have on hand. 
  • Create storage kits to store like items together. 
    • e.g., a kit with everything needed for sanding, painting, etc. This way you can quickly start a project without having to go hunting for all the essentials. 
    • A DIY paintbrush rack is especially handy because it keeps your brushes protected and easy to find.
    • Obtaining materials on a budget

Home Depot Tips

  • Military service member receive 10% off with a valid military ID. Home Depot honored 10% off for veterans on Memorial Day in 2016, so that may be something to look into as well.

Miscellaneous tips / Lifehacks

  • Gloves. 
    • A small earth magnet glued inside the index finger of your gloves makes it easy to pick up dropped nails
    • Avoid wearing out the fingertips on your gloves by coating them with Plasti-Dip spray paint. To do this, fill the gloves up with sand (or something) and then spray on and let dry
  • Work gear.
    • Tie a pair of protective earbuds around your neck so they're always ready-to-use
    • A carpenters compass fits perfectly over your ear when doing carpentry or woodworking projects
    • Take a breather from your respirator by turning it around to wear like a like a backwards baseball cap (or just buy this one)
    • A slim headband helps to keep the sweat out of your eyes when working outside in the heat. This one from Halo has a silicone grip on it that keeps the headband in place. (also great for cycling!)
  • Hand tools. 
    • I find that the Kobalt brand at Lowe's is a better product than the Husky brand at Home Depot. Kobalt is less prone to rusting than many of the Home Depot products, particularly when it comes to drywall tools.
  • Hardwood floors. 
    • When buying reused hardwood flooring, buy more than you need. Not all pieces will be usable. 
  • Laying a patio.
    • Old, long pieces of galvanized pipe are great for leveling a patio. 5' pieces are perfect for leveling pathways.
  • Painting.
    • Need to take a break from painting but don't want to clean your brushes? Put them in the refrigerator. They'll be ready to go when you return from your break
  • Local historic salvage warehouses are phenomenal. They're great for making tax-deductible donations of materials you've removed from the house. Scan a copy of the receipt and keep the scanned copy in your records
  • Free salvage doors and windows.
    • Drive around gentrifying neighborhoods the evening before heavy trash day. Bring a pair of gloves and a flashlight. Pick up all reusable hardwood floors, doors, or window sashes that you find. Keep the ones that meet your needs and donate the rest. Best to do this in areas where a lot of DIY renovations are underway. Better yet, keep a mental note of the houses that are being renovated--this way you'll know which houses to scout out before heavy trash day
      • Discarded old doors and windows that you can't use make great, deductible donations
      • If a window is missing a pane of glass, just take it to your local glass shop to have a replacement piece made. It sure beats buying a new window and often is cheaper than getting one at architectural salvage
  • Free lumber scraps. 
    • Construction sites may set out leftover scrap materials for free pickings. Particularly good for fill dirt (contractors have to pay disposal fees so they’re usually happy to unload some in your driveway) and insulation. I scored about $300 worth of foam board insulation this way. Stop by to chat with the crew and ask if they expect to have any materials away for free takeaway. For 2x4's, it's best to do this when framing is near completion, but before they've thrown everything in the dumpster (they're happy to give it away because it saves them $ on disposal)
  • Cheap tools
    • Pawn shops FTW, particularly those that accept returns
    • Craigslist, of course!
    • Ebay, particularly if bidding ends on a holiday
    • Home Depot tool rentals often have used inventory for sale. You can get pro-quality tools for cheaper than the new ones the sell off the shelf. Use their website to search by zip code for deals in your area and make sure to test it out before buying--tools are sold as-is
    • The Federal Transit Administration has warehouses all over the country that sell items confiscated from airports. These can be great for power tools. First come, first serve.
  • Fill dirt.
    • Graveyards often have free fill available for pickup (seems like bad juju to me, so I opted to skip this 'opportunity'). 
    • Fill dirt is cheap and you can find good, *clean* fill dirt for super cheap at local yards. Many offer free delivery if you buy 4 or more cubic yards. 
    • You can also go the Craigslist route and get it for free, but make sure to check the quality before they dump it in your driveway (p.s., request the first load so that you don't get the deep 'clay gumbo' from a later dig
  • More free stuff.
    • Talk to people in the neighborhood—everyone is always excited about a newly renovated house on the block and many folks may pitch in to give away items they don't need
    • Get to know local contractors, carpenters, builders, etc. They love teaching their trade and might also tip you off to deals or free, leftover building materials in the area