• April 7, 2006

What Would You Have Said?

What advice, caution or encouragement would you offer to a young family taking on a house restoration

Restoration Diary,


We recently received an email from a couple considering buying a house that sounds like it would need a good amount of work. I wanted to be supportive and encourage them, but I also felt that I needed to be honest about our experience. I’m left wondering if I just ended up scaring them away?

I question if someone had told me upfront what I was in for if I would have wanted to go forward with the house? Who am I kidding? Of course, I would have still wanted our house. I would have assumed our house would somehow be different, our experience would somehow be easier. Kind-of like when David tells me that the screaming child having a fit at the mall because he wants a cookie is an anomaly, that if we ever had children they would never act that way.

Fellow house restorers, what would you have said? Do you have any advice, caution or encouragement for someone considering undertaking a fairly extensive restoration with 3 young children?

Subject: Should we do this crazy thing?

Hi Heather!

We came across your site when doing research into a 1912 bungalow located in Southern California that we are considering buying. It has always been our dream to buy a Craftsman home, and we found this one and can’t believe how beautiful it is. We have three small children who would have to live through a major “cleaning up” of the house, and we have spent the last week stressing about all of the pros and cons of buying it.

Your site has only added to our problem with this big decision. It looks like a LOT of work, but you sure do look happy doing it! The house we are looking at needs tons of work and is WAY overpriced. I guess the days of buying a fixer upper at a fixer upper price are long gone. Our question is, would you guys do this over again if you had the choice? Do you think your type of remodel would be doable with kids in the house?

Thanks so much.

My Response

Thanks so much for contacting us. First of all, I have to say that I am glad that we got the house. After 3.5 years I feel like I have some perspective. There is nothing like bringing a house back to life and these old homes are so special. When we get our house done I am sure I will think it is all worth it.

That said, this process is much more difficult than I had imagined when we first purchased the house. The main thing I didn’t realize is the amount of time it would take. I don’t just mean the amount of time it takes to complete the projects, I also mean the amount of time it takes away from your “normal” life. The first year we were in the house we didn’t go out to dinner, movies, see friends, watch tv (ok, we watched less tv) or all those little things people do without giving it much thought. Yes, we could have still done those things but it is so hard to enjoy time away from the house when you know there is so much to be done just to make your house livable. In the beginning it isn’t so bad because everything seems like an adventure and is still fun.

I also didn’t factor in the amount of dust and dirt these projects generate. We had 2 shop vacs going around the clock and plastic partitions up to try to contain the mess but it doesn’t really help all that much. Be prepared to have a layer of dust covering everything you own no matter what you do.

Then there is the money. In our case we grossly underestimated how much the work on the house would actually cost. A little bit of money spent here and there really adds up quickly. In our experience, you can start out doing a little project and as you get into it, you discover a structural problem or a plumbing problem. You delve into that problem and find something even more expensive behind that. The whole one step forward two steps back has led me to tears many times.

The best way I can explain it is to think of the house as a child. A very demanding child with special needs. Because that is the kind of focus and dedication the house will end up requiring. The house does add strain and takes the focus off your primary relationships. Because you are so busy working on the house you aren’t able to give your other relationships the same amount of time and energy as before the house. There is a constant level of strain. There have been times when I am washing the dishes in the bath tub, taking a shower at the gym or going to the Laundromat for months because of a plumbing issue when maybe I would rather come home, kick my shoes off and relax. But, I can’t kick my shoes off because everything in my house is covered in dust. It’s that kind-of thing for months or even years on end that just gets to you.

Then you get to where we are now. We have the house basically livable. But, we still have lots left to do and I can’t get geared up to go through all that again. I just want to live in the house and enjoy a semi-normal life. I don’t want to deal with the dirt, dust, energy and cost that I know will come with more work on the house. We’ll get to the point where we will work on the house again but we haven’t worked on the house for over a year and it’s very hard to get back into it once you stop.

I hope I haven’t scared you completely away from the idea but I am trying to be as honest as I can be. Personally, I would not go through a restoration as extensive as this one again unless we had the money to bring in a team to do the work and complete the project in 6 months – before we moved in. At the time we bought this house, I think we would have been better off finding a Craftsman house that was in better condition and spending more for it. We ended up putting that money into fixing this house up anyway.

But, it has been rewarding and we are now at a place where we can enjoy the house. I just wish that the house was completely done but we still have lots left to do. Even though we have done all this work, we are only half way there.

You have to go with your heart. There is nothing that anyone could have said that would have stopped me from buying this house. I fell in love with it the first time I saw it. It hasn’t been easy and I do think it would be even harder with young children unless there is a way you could bring in help to get the work done quicker.

I hope this was helpful. I wish you and your family all the best!

Comments { 20 }
  1. dave

    Bungalow home owners are a special breed. We love to restore a home to what it could have been or better. We read books and websites, and watch DIY TV until our eyes bleed, trying to get ideas that may work in our own homes (we TIVO anything with “bungalow” or “craftsman” now). We tend not to modify our homes beyond what they were originally designed to be. In fact, we cringe every time we find out that someone removed a built-in cabinet or moved a wall.

    If you love that home you are willing to buy. I say go for it. It will be a labor of love. It will consume your daydreams during the day, and your discussions over dinner at night.

    We have owned our bungalow for 2 years. Everyone thought we were crazy to buy it. Now those same people want their own craftsman style homes. They see the workmanship that you just cant get in a tract home.

    Saturday we will be renting a moving truck to carry the 4500 linear feet of siding to redo our home. We are so excited to be improving our home in a big way, and we cant shut up about it.

    If you fall in love with the house, it will only get better with your attention. I say go for it!

  2. homeimprovementninja

    I think they have to figure it out themselves. It’s like the scene in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” where they are warned about certain things by their future selves, but it doesn’t make any sense until they experience it, and by then it’s too late, so they try to fix it by warning their past selves etc.

    So, they’ll proabably buy it anyway, then start their own blog to vent.

  3. Carol

    With 3 small kids? I would say ‘no way’, unless they can hire out alot of the work. The people in my neighborhood with small kids are always having to hire out even the simplest of tasks. They are the ones who replace all their old windows instead of restore them.
    Just my 2 cents.

  4. amanda

    If I had this to do over again, I would have bought something cheap, gutted it and started over. Maybe I would just build a new house with an old home feel. I’m only about 2 years into it, but I agree with everything that you said. Hang in there!

  5. restorationharcourt

    I think it is a decision not for the faint at heart. You make sacrfices – in time, money and basic comfort because your eyes are on the prize – restoring your home to its former glory. That being said, I think it would be a challenge to take on the task with 3 small children. I sequenced my projects to have the bedrooms and bathrooms done first so that I could move in while work could continue in the kitchen, nook and laundry areas. The kitchen, nook and laundry are blocked off from the rest of the house to prevent my cat from snooping around and to allow me to enjoy the progress made thus far. I would say if you can accept the challenges ahead going in, by all means buy the house. Perhaps you could have some work completed prior to move-in in order to make life in the house a little easier.

  6. Patricia W.

    It can be a huge undertaking. However, I paid a fraction of what houses cost in my neighborhood because it needed lots of TLC. By the time I get done, I figure I will have put $45K into the house. Even so, this cost combined with what I paid outright will still come in below $100K and houses here sell for around $135 – $150K. It will be money well spent and I have no regrets.

    I would also like to add that I have no intentions of moving again if I can at all help it. They’ll have to carry me out feet-first! So, putting the time and money into the house is okay with me. If I were a house flipper, I probably wouldn’t be nearly as courageous and would have not bought this house.

    Also, something I’ve found with having a 10 year old. If at all possible, get their bedroom(s) finished first so that they have a retreat. My daughter has been living like a gypsy with me, she is such a trooper but it’s hard to not have a place for your things and I find myself getting cross with her because her stuff is everywhere in the living room and then I have to stop myself and remember why this is so. Kids must have a space of their own to go to.

  7. Derek Canavan

    I love my bungalow and take great pride in restoring it. There is just an amazing thing to bring the house back to its 1920 splendor. The house was ready for demolition and ALL the people who watched as we bought it and referred us to a mental hospital now are jealous… but HELL NO! I would NEVER do this again!! Ever! I’m broke, tired and haven’t had a “house free thought” in 3.5 years. And, I do have 3 kids, under age 4 and they make this impossible. I can’t spend the kind of time with them I want. Again, I LOVE my house, but I’ve had enough. Visit my site. Its called Brockton Bungalow and its on houseblogs.net. Or, send me an e-mail and I’ll send you pics.

    No kids and a GREAT budget, maybe I’d do it, but probably not.

  8. deb

    we bought our bungalow when seth was just 2months old and ella was about to turn 4. it’s definetly harder to renovate with kids around, but you somehow manage. naptimes, grandparents, and neighbours become invaluable. we’re planning on continuing to do everything ourselves except for the stuff on the roof. i wouldn’t have it any other way… i grew up in an old home and i have some great memories of my parents renovating that place… well, except for the time my dad cut his fingers off… (don’t worry too much though, they stuck two of them back on)

    • Heather

      OMG! That is horrible. Your poor Dad.

  9. Jocelyn

    I don’t believe in regrets- I think they are a waste of time. That said, I do not think this is for everyone. While Steve and I are relatively content with having an endless list of projects – I know some people consider this kind of work pure torture. We like projects and seeing tangible results- house “work” fulfills that need. It’s true there have been rough times- but it has made us closer as a couple. I cannot imagine doing this with kids though, but I know some people are doing it successfully.

    when all else fails, I always like to fall back on the old addage, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

  10. martha

    (i didn’t post my real e-mail address because i didn’t want it to be harvested from your site–please don’t be offended.)

    i’ve been lurking on your site since we bought a bungalow of our own in september of last year. ours is not fancy; it has no built-ins, no fantastic cabinetry or paneling, not just a ton of architectural interest from the outside. i’ve been enjoying all of THOSE things vicariously through you guys, via this terriffic web site. all the while, though, i’ve been learning to love our place for what it was built to be: a modest, functional, well laid-out home that is user-friendly and welcoming without being high-maintenance. i don’t think that people in 1920 thought much about feng shui, but if they had, they’d have been delighted at how much of it craftsman-style homes inherently possess. ours is a great house, one among many of its kind.

    ok, having said that, i am insanely desirous of a true arts and crafts home, with everything that our house currently has as well as the built-ins, the paneling, etc.

    …and having said THAT, the only way i will ever be able to afford such a home is to buy a teetering wreck in the ‘hood.

    well, i found the teetering wreck in the ‘hood last week. i’ve almost written to you 10 times asking you the very same question that your other reader asked: should we do it? i’ve been unable to sleep and unable to think about anything else. i’ve been running the numbers in my head constantly. i’ve been trying to estimate how much a fence and a good security system will cost because we couldn’t live in this house without both of those in place first. i’ve factored in private school tuition x 2 because the local public school is not good. i’ve factored in the second mortgage to start the basic repairs. i did all of that, and not only was it shocking to discover how quickly an affordable house became unaffordable, but it was sobering to think about the length of time it would take to make the house liveable–not even to get a real START on how to return it to its former beauty and graciousness.

    meanwhile, is it fair to my children to 1) move them into a neighborhood in which i wouldn’t let them leave the fenced-in yard without a parent? 2) change their schools? 3) ask them to help me wash their clothes in the bathtub? 4) ask them to help me wash the dishes in the bathtub, too? 5) ask them to spend every weekend watching mom and dad patch plaster and replace pane glass and strip paint off woodwork? …all of those things, and much, much more to boot.

    and here’s what i decided: no, it’s not. we bought our modest home for the school district and the neighborhood and the fact that it was immediately liveable, with cosmetics being the bulk of the issues that have yet to be resolved. we spend lots of time on the house, of course, but we also spend lots of time playing in the yard and chatting with our neighbors and going to do fun kid things with our fun kids. we have separate places to wash dishes and clothes, and life is pretty good. we made a conscious choice to modify our so-called standard of living in order to maximize our quality of life. i work enough to pay for what we need, and i have time to enjoy what we have. and right now, that’s enough. i also know that those values were espoused by the “parents” of the arts-and-crafts movement as well, and that helps.

    yeah, i want the paneling and the one remaining original light fixture, and i nearly cried when i looked at that gorgeous stained-glass window in the stairwell of the teetering wreck. but for kid reasons, for financial reasons, and for personal reasons, it’s not the right thing to do for our family right now. maybe when the kids are older and they think camping out amidst piles of plaster is no big deal, or maybe when i win the lottery…

    (the teetering wreck is a repo, by the way, and it’s up for auction next week. i might go, just to see who buys it. give them some helpful hints about the restoration, offer them access to my library of bungalow books, suggest paint colors, etc…)

  11. Suzanne Prieur

    Any activity must align with your general goals in life. Buying an old house is buying a project & it is a huge commitment. If it serves your life & your goals, do it! But do take a good look at what you want to achieve on a long term basis as far as your personal life, your family & mankind at large.

    I am on my third bungalow & have loved the work, the learning, the challenges, the results, the admiration & gratitude, the neighborhoods & the profits- almost everything about all my projects. (The “almost” comes from times I planned poorly.)

    I advise anyone contemplating an old house project to consider if it might further & enhance their life plan. If it could, I wish you to have all the wonderful experiences I have!

  12. heather


    Hi. I can tell from your post just how taken you are with The Fixer In The Hood. I know how it is to find that special, beautiful home. As much as you love the house, I think you made the right decision for all the reasons you mentioned. When the time is right there will be another amazing house waiting for you.

    There are quite a few families with children who have moved into our area. Most of the children that I know of are still fairly young but some people I have met do have school age kids. I’m not sure what they do about school but I assume most do send their children to private school. I do not see many children playing, riding their bikes or walking the neighborhood unsupervized. Maybe parents enroll their children in more structured type of activities like gymnastics, etc.?

    We do have an alarm system. We also have 2 dogs. They aren’t big but they bark at everything and when they both get going, they sound slightly intimidating.

    My hunch (and hope) is that as more and more families continue moving into this area things WILL continue to change for the positive. I have already seen a change in the short amount of time we have lived in the neighborhood. But, it’s not there yet…

  13. OA

    If you are asking what would I prefer to do restoring a home or raising children?

    I would have restored 20 homes over one kid (this, after raising 3 children now grown)!

  14. Erik Steimle

    My wife and I have been checking out your site for sometime now…its great. We have a 1915 Bungalow in Northern Utah that was bad shape when we bought it in 2001..and we have spent most of our free time and some that wasn’t restoring a home that had almost 30 years of serious neglect. You can see it oun our website at:


    We are only the second owners of this home. The house stayed in a single Mormon family from the time it was built in 1915 and was passed down to various grand children and great grandchildren as a form of rental starter home..(which led to its real neglect). My question is this…my wife and I are not Mormon and (which somewhat of a big deal here) and I would like to ask the previous owners for some historical photographs of the house…any suggestions on how to go about successfully asking….

    PS..they like the changes we have made to the outside but, are rather standoffish about wanting to view all of the restored wood work or other remodels on the inside…I get the feeling they don’t understand why we are so in love with this old house…

  15. heather

    Hi Erik.

    My husband’s family moved to Utah in his late teens. We spent a few holidays in Sandy before his parents moved to Hong Kong. So, I kind-of have an understanding of what not being Mormon means in Utah (my husband’s family is not Mormon either).

    We were lucky because the family that shared photos of our house had special memories of the house and growing up here. I explained that we really want to restore the house and that old photos would be extremely helpful. We were graciously given copies of the exterior but no interior photos.

    We have been in email contact with the great granddaughters of the man who built our home. They mentioned having photos, which we would love to see or have copies, but people get busy and we haven’t yet recieved any of those photos.

    Even if the family you bought the house from doesn’t understand and thinks you’re “crazy to be so in love with that old house”, if you tell them how much you enjoy the house and fixing it up they might be more willing to share old photos. Let them know that any older photos that show what interior rooms looked like originally would be very helpful to the work you are doing on the house now. Or maybe ask if they have photos of a particuliar room that you are working on. Hopefully, they will be willing to share.

    I’ll be sure to check out your house photos.
    Best of luck!

  16. Monica

    Hi Heather!

    Love your site. We have a 1908 stuccolow A-frame in Forest Park, Illinois.

    I think your email is right on the mark. My husband and I would love to have kids, but not when a band saw is residing in the guest room and there are nails on the floor. It’s hard enough keeping the house clean for the dog and cats, I couldn’t imagine kids!

    As for house pictures, I have a bad story. Our house was built by the previous owners parents and the previous owner had lived and raised 5 (3 bedroom house!) kids for 80 years.

    When Jim and I bought the house, we nicely asked for any pictures since we had expressed intrest in restoring the house to it’s orginal state. The previous owners took offense to that. They had done a lot of “upgrades” that they were very proud of. One was enclosing the close to orginal claw foot tub in partical board. Oh, it was awful. Oh and the horrible drop ceiling they installed to hide the horrible pipe placement.

    We have since freed the tub and just finished restoring the bathroom to what it may of looked like. We guess.

    Happy Restoring!


  17. steel head

    I think it comes down to what the motivation source is. If someone is doing this because it is what their heart is driving them, then it is ok. They will be better able to handle the work and sacrifices. The work and sacrifices should never be underestimated.

  18. stephen

    hi, i just saw this entry. i think i agree with your response for the most part as my wife and i have had mostly the same experiences. it’s taken a 6 month hiatus to get us (well, me) working on our house again after 22 months of MAJOR work. i seriously could not imagine a project like ours (and yours i think) with small kids in the house. we routinely had tons of nails, staples and tools littering the place, not to mention piles of debris, likely lots of lead paint, fiberglass, and other toxic whatever in spite of our best efforts. then there are the exposed live wires etc!!.

    if we ever did anything like this again and we had kids, we either wouldn’t do it at all, or we seriously would not live in it. on the other hand, our cat loved the adventure. every day a new nooks and crannies to explore! however, he too was glad when we had our walls back up, cuz then the neighbor cat could no longer pilfer his food!

  19. Nikki

    I’m so behind, but I just read this. I’m young and just purchased my first condo (new construction)in Chicago a little over a year ago. Now selling (long story) and I desperately want an OLD HOME with all the amazingness old homes have. Living in a new place…I had painted every wall, done designs on the doors, repourposed furniture, added built ins, etc etc, etc….but then it was over. THere was nothing left to do! I kept trying to make my new place appear older than it was (difficult) and once my projects were done….soooo bored. I hate sitting still, I love to work on art or anything really while watching tv. I am glad to have read this….for more perspective. But I am so excited to get into a home like this (maybe not quite that bad in the beginning) but I want to get my hands dirty! Thanks!

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