I bought my first house eight years ago. I was 32 and did it all by myself, no parental assistance, no guidance. I was really excited when I signed the papers, because my net worth went up immediately. But the down payment and the mortgage didn’t leave me anything to spend on fixing it.
Once I had some money, after two years or so, I got started, and I’ve been renovating ever since. I replaced every single window, every piece of plaster. Almost every person working on my house has made an error of some kind. I’ve been through two licensed plumbers, two licensed architects. Three contractors. The new plumber will always say the old plumber did something wrong, and redo it. Even just cleaning up the backyard gets complicated—you get someone to empty it for $1,000, and then the contractors put all the garbage in the backyard and you spend $1,000 again. Once the yard is clear, then the weeds grow. So you have to pay another $1,000 for someone to pull the weeds and clean it out one more time. I think I used twenty Dumpsters, and a Dumpster costs a lot of money—another $1,000.
There are things you don’t think about, like water pressure. When you turn on the shower and the water just sort of comes out? That was acceptable 30 years ago. But in 2012, everyone wants the water really strong. [That cost] about $7,000.
You try to work with the basics, but as soon as you fix one thing, you see that it makes others look wrong. You realize, Oh, my shutters don’t match the fireplace, and then, Oh, the tiles are falling out of the fireplace, and I need to replace them. When you clean everything up, you start noticing, This wood is light brown and that’s red, and they’re right next to each other. Today, I was at Lowe’s buying polyurethane for the shutters.
Working moment-by-moment cost me. It would’ve been worth it for me to hire someone for even $100,000 in the beginning, to do a lot of the work in one go, if I’d had the money. I just didn’t have it. My life would also be a lot better right now if I had bought my house two years later, because then I would’ve renovated it and finished it quickly. I thought the whole experience would be $400,000 maximum, and it’s turned into $700,000. I’ve sold 50 townhouses as a broker since then, and learned things. I had no idea what I was doing. But I’m glad I did it.
—Todd Stevens, as told to S.J.R.