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.
  • 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. 
  • Wear a toolbelt with the essentials packed in it
    • I've learned to keep several:
      • One for plumbing
      • One for general carpentry
      • One for electrical

Obtaining materials on a budget

  • 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
  • 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
  • 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. 
  • 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.
  • Graveyards often have free fill dirt available for free 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

Miscellaneous tips

  • 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!)
  • Tie a pair of protective earbuds around your neck
  • A carpenters compass fits perfectly over your ear when doing carpentry or woodworking projects
  • When you need a breather from projects that require a respirator, turn it around and wear it like a like a backwards baseball cap, or just buy one like this
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • When buying reused hardwood flooring, buy more than you need. Not all pieces will be usable. 
  • Old galvanized piping works great for leveling a patio. 10' pieces are perfect for laying out the patio. 5' pieces are perfect for leveling pathways.