We’ve been in our house for almost two months. Ever since our home inspection over three months ago, we’ve had a big list of things we’ve wanted to fix, upgrade, and replace in our house. In the last two months, we’ve been tackling that list one item at a time. It’s been quite an adventure and I’ve learned quite a few things about myself and my capabilities / limits.
First some context: Not even two years ago, we were living in a 600 square foot, one-bedroom apartment in the Bay Area. Then we moved to an 1,100 square foot, two-bedroom apartment in San Diego. Now we’re in a 2,800+ square foot, four-bedroom house. We are used to low-maintenance rentals with no landscaping or plumbing issues to worry about.
In the last two months, we’ve spent almost $20k (!) on home improvement, tools, and furniture. The funny thing is, I don’t see the $20k when I casually look around the house, but when I look at a spreadsheet I can’t think of many areas where I would have done it for less. I wanted to use this post as a way to document what we’ve done.
Here are the main areas where we’ve spent money:
- Plumbing – $3,800
- Landscaping – $1,900
- Kitchen appliances – $5,800
- Door hardware – $1,800
- Furniture – $4,400
- Tools – $1,000
- Lighting – $350
The inspector identified several areas where our plumbing needed attention. The seller addressed a few of these areas, including replacing the pressure regulator (the pressure meter was reading a crazy high 150 psi), and fixing a leaky drain. The inspector noted two other major things that needed replacement:
- One-piece angle stop valves and supply lines throughout the house
- Hot water heater that was over 10 years old with corroded lines and no drain pan.
Angle Stop Valves and Supply Lines
The first thing I did once we took possession of the house was to replace the angle stop valves + supply lines. They were very corroded and looked like a risk to leak.
I bought all of the parts myself from Amazon, including replacement valves and lines, the necessary wrenches, ferrule remover, deburring tool, escutcheon plates, etc. It took me 9 hours to replace 12 valves and lines. The existing valves were a nightmare to remove due to the corrosion, but installing the replacements wasn’t bad or so I thought. When I went to turn on the water, the first valve started leaking a lot of water. We shut the water off again and I tightened the compression nut further, but after we turned the water back on, it still leaked.
I got really stressed out and upset because this was the first thing I tried to tackle in the house, and it was an abysmal failure. The next day, I was covered with bruises all over my body, and I had cuts in unusual parts of my hands and arms. I decided to call in a professional. The first plumber had a reasonable rate, but they could not get someone out for another four days. I just wanted to get someone in ASAP. I called another plumber who quoted a much higher amount. I just went with them because they had good reviews and they were able to come the next day.
In addition to the 12 valves I mucked up, I also had them replace the valves for the kitchen sink and 3 toilets so 17 in total. It took them two visits and the total came out to over $2k. They did a great job and I chalked the cost up to a lesson learned. I asked the plumber for feedback on my attempted installation, and he said that I had not compressed any of the ferrules. Even though I had not used any pipe dope, I had still been worried about over-tightening!
Before our plumber left, we asked for an estimated quote to replace the hot water heater. True to form, his quote was very high. I think he quoted $2,700 for a standard heater or $4,600 for a tankless heater. A few weeks later, we reached out to the other plumber from before and he quoted us a more reasonable $1,425. With a baby on the way, we did not want to risk having to deal with a leaky hot water heater, especially with no drain pan or other mechanism to divert or catch water. (The heater is located in a spot where leaks can damage hard to reach parts of the house.)
I didn’t hire everything out. I managed to successfully install a kitchen faucet, unclog several drains, replace a leaking drain, re-caulk a shower, replace the washer hoses, and replace a shower head.
While we’re on the topic of water, let’s talk about landscaping. One of the early things I did was to walk around the house while the irrigation system was running to ensure the system was working as intended. I noticed that the spray heads were misting (indicating high pressure), and the shrub risers were all putting out way too much water and leaving puddles of standing water, and also spraying against the house.
One day when I was doing my usual inspection, I also noticed that a valve was leaking. I tried to tighten it up, and then it completely failed. That meant the valve could no longer stop the flow of water so we had water gushing everywhere near the pond. I searched helplessly for a shutoff valve for the irrigation system, but could not locate one. I called our lawn care company and eventually got them to send someone over. He was somewhat inept to put it kindly. He did manage to turn off the water at the street. He didn’t have any of his own tools, so he borrowed our wrench and drill (and ruined one of my driver bits in the process). He tried replacing the valve once, but it still didn’t stop the water. He came back hours later and replaced it again, then asked us to turn on the water at the street in 30 minutes and left. Fortunately, this stopped the gush of water. (But even then it started leaking again at the valve a few days later.) This cost us $250 since it was an emergency repair. That company actually went out of business a few weeks later. They had five stars on Yelp, but we thought they were terrible. We had weekly service with them, but they only showed up three out of the six times they were supposed to come.
During this time, I was still tweaking our irrigation system to 1) stop wasting water and 2) stop water from spraying against the house. I converted some micro-spray heads to bubblers, capped off some sprinkler heads, adjusted the flow of others, but I was mostly fighting an uphill battle. The reason is several fold — first the irrigation system has no pressure regulation. So it was blasting away at the same 150 psi we saw in the house during our inspection. That is what likely caused the valve to fail in the first place. Second, the shrubs around the house and the koi pond do not need spray irrigation — they need drip irrigation. Our setup was using multi-gpm sprinkler heads for every two plants, which made no sense, plus it was spraying on the stucco of our house leading to spalling.
We hired another crew to maintain our lawn. We had a solid recommendation that they would do a good job repairing and upgrading our irrigation system. So one weekend, we had them come out to (1) add a shutoff valve to our irrigation system; (2) add a pressure regulator; and (3) convert our non-lawn areas to drip irrigation. That cost almost $1,500. But they did a fantastic job and so far it’s been money well spent as there are no more puddles!
I also spent $160 on a smart irrigation controller (after an $80 rebate from our local utility). I no longer have to run out to the garage to turn the system off and back on every time it rains (and it’s been raining quite a bit over the last few weeks around here).
The original kitchen appliances in our house were pretty gross. Not just cosmetically, but also the oven was dirty and smelled bad and one of the burners on the cooktop did not light. My wife likes to cook and I wanted her to enjoy a nice kitchen. I spent a lot of time researching appliances. I learned that measurements are really important and so are power requirements. I got lucky and narrowly avoided disaster even though I failed to adequately measure the cooktop width. Fortunately, we had enough wiggle room to get the cooktop to fit. I also avoided another disaster by backing off my initial range hood selection, which was 11 inches tall. I realized at the last second that it would not have had enough distance between the bottom of the hood and the top of the cooktop, and would have required me to stoop down to get under the hood. I ended up going with a relatively high CFM model that was only 5 7/8″ tall. Most higher-end ovens require a 30 amp circuit, but we only have 20 amps. Fortunately, we found one that was compatible, but it took a good deal of searching. My wife also likes the fact that it has knobs, as opposed to buttons. The knobs are all electronic so they may not end up being that much more reliable than buttons.
In total, we spent about $5,000 on our appliances, including gas cooktop (Wolf display model), single wall oven (Monogram refurb), built-in microwave (Monogram display model), and under-cabinet range hood (the only brand new appliance). I learned my lesson from the angle stop valve disaster and hired someone to install the appliances for $800. We had some scheduling issues, but when he finally could come, he did a good job on the cooktop and range hood. We had some issues with him on the oven and microwave. We corrected those issues on our own, including ordering a replacement trim piece for the oven and getting a technician to fix and adjust the microwave (covered under warranty).
So far we love the cooktop and oven. Going with display and manufacturer refurb was a great choice as it saved us 40-50% off of retail prices.
Door Hardware ($1,800)
We replaced all of the door hardware in the house, including 17 door levers, 38 hinges, 8 closet pulls, 2 deadbolts, and an exterior handleset. The original door hardware was builder-grade quality (that means cheap) with a shiny brass finish. The finish was starting to change colors and flake off. It just felt really low quality. I thought this upgrade would be worth it because higher quality hardware would not only look good, but also feel good to the touch.
I decided to go with Baldwin Reserve door hardware in a darker matte brass finish for the living areas and satin nickel for the bathrooms. The feel inside our house is warmer and the style is best described as transitional so a modern chrome or even satin nickel finish wouldn’t go well with the surroundings (except in our bathrooms). Baldwin Reserve hardware is made with solid brass, as opposed to cast metal like the typical Schlage or Kwikset you might find at a big box home improvement store.
Amazon had some amazing deals on door hardware. The typical BR lever sells for $70, but I was able to score 6 levers for $25 each. I saved $200 on the handleset too. But BR has a lot of combinations of styles and finishes so it was hard to get everything at a good discount. We paid full retail for quite a few of the levers and almost all of the hinges.
We replaced all of the door hardware ourselves. The levers and deadbolts were the easiest, and most of the hinges went in just fine (except the exterior door hinges which required a bit of drilling). Surprisingly, I had the hardest time with the closet pulls. We got these from Emtek and they required small screws in tight spaces. The screw heads stripped easily so I basically had one shot to get it in. I installed some of them a bit crooked, others have the screw poking out more than I’d like. I also had to drill 2 1/8″ holes in two of the french doors for the full dummy levers. The first one was a little off center, but I got the second one right.
All said and done, I’m very happy with the upgrade, although I wish it did not cost as much as it did. At first, I thought I’d be able to get it for a fraction of retail but as we bought up the discounted stock, we were forced to buy the remainder at retail.
We had very little furniture so we bought a few additional pieces. The most expensive one is a leather recliner from Bradington-Young. We paid $1,850 for the display model at a brick-and-mortar store. We had been there just to browse but my wife really wanted it for nursing and it happened to be her birthday so we just bought it. We saw later than we could have paid a few hundred less by buying it online. We did score some great deals off Craigslist, which kinda, sorta offset overpaying for the recliner. For example, we bought a pair of Hancock & Moore leather chairs for $100 apiece and four Restoration Hardware dining chairs for $320.
The other furniture purchases were more mundane. We bought an entryway bench ($383), queen bed for the guest room ($480), pair of nightstands for the master ($295), and dining room table ($416), all from Wayfair. The quality seems OK for now, but they’re all mass-produced. They certainly will not hold up like our Hickory Chair, B-Y, and Hancock & Moore pieces should. We also bought another latex mattress for the guest room ($425) since we expect my in-laws to stay with us for a bit after the baby is born.
I had the very basics like a hammer and screwdriver, so we really needed to get some tools in order to do the work we wanted. The bigger purchases included a refurbished Makita subcompact 18V threadless drill and driver set ($132), a multi-position ladder ($75), a fire extinguisher ($57), a Kreg drawer slide jig and clamps ($75) (we need to redo the drawer slides in the kitchen), a DeWalt saw horse / miter saw stand ($113), a refurbished DeWalt compound miter saw ($194), and a Makita cordless vacuum ($108). I also bought a printer for $250 since I kept running to the library or UPS to print documents. It got to be too annoying.
The last big category is lighting. I wanted to convert all of the incandescent and fluorescent bulbs to LED. In the living and dining areas, we went with 2700K bulbs and in the kitchen, bathroom, and garage, we went with 3000K bulbs. Where we spent the most money though is on an electrician ($190). What had happened was I tried to switch out the bulb outside our front door, but it didn’t work because the programmable switch requires a minimum of 40W. The switch then went dead, and I bought a new switch that supports LED bulbs. When I tried installing the new switch, it didn’t work. I got a replacement, but that also didn’t work. I figured at this point the neutral wire was not hot so I bought a different switch that did not require a neutral wire. This also did not work. So I felt totally stuck, as if there was some mysterious reason why nothing would work.
I got the electrician to come in and he got the first switch to power up. I’m not sure what happened here. I had redone the wire nut for the neutral bundle several times myself with no response. But even after he did that, none of the exterior lights would turn on. It turns out that all the fiddling had caused one of the bulbs to burn out, and since they are connected in series like old-school Christmas lights, if one goes then they all go. After we replaced the old bulb with a new LED bulb, everything lit up. The electrician was in and out in 30 minutes and he didn’t even have to turn the power off at the breaker. I wish I had more work to give him as the $190 would have covered 2 hours of work.
I’m not sure who this post will appeal to since our spending is not in the spirit of FIRE. But it marks another step we have taken on our journey. I think our home purchase and subsequent upgrades reflect our instinct to nest as we are expecting to become parents very shortly.
We’ve obviously spent a lot in the past two months — beyond our initial down payment and ongoing mortgage payments. Fortunately, I’ve been busy with work during that period. I’ve gone from $5,500 of income in March to $30,000 of income in June. So these improvements are basically paid for out of income. Our net worth also continues to climb, increasing by $275k since the beginning of the year.
One way to justify the expenses is we should make the house the way we want it, instead of doing it other way around by upgrading only when it’s time to sell. This way we get to enjoy the improvements too. And it’s also likely not a recurring expense, unless we get bitten by the renovation bug (unlikely). Some might also argue that these improvements increase the value of the home, but we don’t really care to even think about that. Redfin and Zillow seem to think our house is now worth $50k more than we paid for it three months ago. But again that’s not really going to affect us on a daily basis. We’re planning on staying put for a long time. That says a lot coming from someone who has rented six places in the last ten years.
I previously made the remark that I don’t like buying cheap things. I enjoy quality and don’t mind paying more or buying used to get it. That has been a big recurring theme with these purchases, but I also recognize how buying quality can snowball when you’re talking about housing and real estate. For example, I found one door lever on sale, and all of a sudden I was trying to buy 17 of them, most not on sale. But for kitchen appliances and furniture, the approach of buying display or refurb models really paid off.
I still have a bit of work to do around the house, but this mostly requires my labor. I hope to have a productive weekend, but after that our lives may be forever changed as we shift our focus to parenting!