Sweat Equity

In winter months, when Wisconsin’s cold weather keeps us mostly indoors, our family has largely kept ourselves busy with home remodeling projects. When we moved into our home in mid-2013, we were excited beyond measure for this property’s “potential.” That’s a kind way of saying, we purchased a serious “Fixer-Upper.”

Not only was the home a base-model manufactured house, but the previous owner had been unable to properly care for it the last few years due to old age and disability. Because the house looked unkempt and incredibly dirty, we were able to purchase it for more than $30,000 below average price for a three bedroom home with seven acres of land.

You see, from the beginning, our entire vision of a cozy home was borne out of a belief that we could clean it, fix it and upgrade it over the next few years in order to really make it our own. That’s part of the beauty of sweat equity: you build not only a lovely home, but the self confidence to continue on this journey of skill-building and craftsmanship. Also, once you buy a lot of the tools you need, you will most certainly use them again, so the cost per project tends to go down each time (depending on what you are doing).

That vision has been countless hours of hard work and tenacity because for awhile, it seemed as though the task list only grew with each chore completed.

In the first few summers, our attention was turned to “taming” our outdoor property. The grass was overgrown or missing. The trees had been planted too close together and were now 15 years old and over crowded. There were dead bushes and trees all over. The fenceline along the road was one long matted mass of wild grapes, thornapple trees and sumac bushes. The lawn itself was undefined, with prairie flowers and random field stones sort of defining a border. After two summers of weed-wacking, chainsawing and pruning, I finally felt able to focus on a family garden. (I’ve written a lot about that already here).

Each winter brought us a new challenge inside the home. We began our first winter (2013-14) working on our kitchen. We removed a small wall, a row of upper cabinets and washed every square inch of the room. Next, we mudded the walls (our entire house was paneled with drywall and “finished” with small wooden strips to cover each drywall seam) and removed the flimsy baseboard. After that was completed, the next step was to paint. We wanted a farmhouse feel and chose a cheery New England blue for the walls. The walls had previously been covered in tiny floral print or poorly painted a teal blue by the previous owner.

This single step brought about so much unity and peace to the space that we left it at that for a little bit. But our cabinets begged for our attention. The cheaply made units were covered in wood-grain contact paper and all of it was peeling off (both by accident and by meddling little fingers). After several experiments and some trial and error, we decided to paint the cabinets white, after using a hair dryer to peel the rest of the wood-grain contact paper off. We removed all the drawers and doors and painted them with three coats of white cabinet paint. Before we put them back on, we spray painted all the knobs and hinges (and screw heads) an “oil-rubbed bronze” which brought them from nasty faux gold to farmhouse chic.

Attaching them back to the cupboard bases took very little time and suddenly we had a brand new kitchen!

However, we didn’t stop there. We wanted to get rid of all traces of brown in the kitchen, so we painted the trim above the walls. I can’t really call it crown molding because the material is one step up from cardboard. But painted white, it somehow seemed less cheap.

We also used some Christmas money and bought a beautiful high-necked oil-rubbed bronze faucet for our sink. It was both lovely and functional as our shallow sink and original faucet did not allow our large canning pots to fit in for washing.

The last thing to bring the kitchen up to par was to add a unique and inexpensive backsplash behind the stove. We couldn’t afford tile of any sort, but found a company called Fasade which makes thermoplastic panels to resemble old fashioned tin ceilings. It was the perfect way to make a lovely focal point in our freshly painted kitchen. Best of all, the total cost was only $100 and we were able to cover the entire back wall instead of just behind the stove.

While we were unable to do everything we’d hoped for (a refrigerator in the size our family needs is well beyond our budget right now, and the stained linoleum needs replacing soon), the changes we did make turned that room into a whole new living space. The best part of all? We did it nearly all by ourselves and it only cost about $500.

Fast forward to the winter of 2014-15 and our focus turned to our shabby bathrooms. My intent was just to mud the walls and paint away that nasty floral pattern (yes, the same pattern as the kitchen). But as we got going, we saw how a few Craigslist deals and unique flooring options allowed us to completely make them both over for less than $600.

The large cost was a new vanity for the second bathroom but it came on sale and we jumped on it. Removing the old vanity and getting the new one to fit around the plumbing proved more time consuming than we’d hoped. The other bathroom should have been easier as we kept the under-cabinets and only replaced the countertop.

But it wasn’t. It was even more work. The space for the master bathroom sink and cabinets was wedged between an outer wall and the wall of the shower. It was exactly 47.5 inches wide. All modern counters are made 48 inches long to allow for a little bit of overhang on the cabinets they sit upon. Our bathroom required no overhangs, but ordering a custom countertop (even a completely basic one) in the size we needed was hundreds of dollars. It was ridiculous. Then I found a 47-inch countertop on Craigslist for $60 and immediately went to buy it. We got it home and found out that it, too, was actually 48 inches long.

It was frustrating because we already had the original countertop and sink removed. The only thing we could think to do was cut a rectangle out of the wall and gently slide it in the space.

After the plumbing was hooked back up (another arduous task because apparently, in manufactured homes of our caliber, everything is made just a little bit smaller than standard sizes) we were free to use our bathroom again. Between the two bathrooms, we mudded and painted both rooms’ walls, covered the linoleum flooring with peel and stick tiles and replaced the sink faucets with oil-rubbed bronze counterparts. One was found on clearance at more than half off at a hardware store and the other was found for $5 at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. In the master bathroom, I had pulled all the top molding off and discarded it with the intention of mudding the seams and getting rid of the molding altogether. This proved ineffective and I found myself wishing I could put the old trim back up. In the second bathroom, I learned from my mistake and simply painted the existing cheap trim white. It actually looks quite nice. We added white trim to the doors, baseboard and around one window in the master bath.

The color of the bathrooms is a cheery bright yellow. In a larger room, the color would be overwhelming, but in our small [essentially] windowless bathrooms, it serves its purpose to brighten the rooms up very effectively. We left the showers alone because they had funky shower heads and knobs that are usually only found in trailer homes. No suitable replacements could be found amongst the “normal” fixtures in retail stores.

The final large purchase we made was a faucet for our Roman tub in the master bath. The existing faucet was corroding and just looked plain ugly. We looked around and found a brand new oil-rubbed bronze faucet that would actually fit for $60 on eBay. For once, the plumbing swap was easy and by the book.

When we wrapped up our bathroom adventure, it was a full two months after we began. In fact, we still have a few minor things to wrap up in the master, but we keep putting off because we’re not sure how we want the final space to look. The second bathroom is completely done, however, and we are pleased with how it’s held up over the last year.

Now that brings me to the winter of 2015-16. That’s this year! We were no less busy. In fact, we began early! In November, we bought a used wood stove off Craigslist. For $600, we were able to get a large Vermont Castings wood stove with catalytic converter, all the stovepipe and chimney. We looked it up; the stove was eight years old and in perfect condition. The owner had moved to a home with a fireplace and this stove was taking up space in his garage. He just wanted it gone. The retail value for that exact stove (which is still in production) was well over $1700. We couldn’t believe it.

After bringing it home and cleaning it, we built a 4-foot x 4-foot x 6-inch platform for the stove to sit in our living room. We learned how to tile and put down natural slate tiles both on the platform and four feet up the wall behind. Then Andy’s parents built a homemade mantel to go behind the wood stove. We spray-painted the stove with specialized high temp stove paint. It went from chalky black to a lovely off-white, the perfect color to offset the dark slate tiles it would sit in front of.

Installing the stove took some help from a friend who does construction and my two dads. First we measured and cut a hole in the ceiling and roof. Then the chimney was installed and the roof shingles repaired. The next step was to build the platform and set it in place beneath the stovepipe hole in just the right spot. After that, we tiled the platform and waited a good long while for the slate to set. Finally, we brought the 500lb stove in, piece by piece and it still took three of us to lift it those six inches onto the platform. The last task was to build the stove pipe up and match it to the setting in the ceiling. Thankfully this went off with little trouble.

After it was all installed and sealed, we painted the stovepipe black (it was a little scuffed up from moving) and had the inaugural fire. A full month after beginning, the hearth was ready just in time for Christmas decorating. It made for a very cozy January and February as well!

The last place in our home that needed improving were the three bedrooms. They need new carpet, walls mudded and paint. Since carpeting is cost prohibitive, we are waiting on our tax returns. But everything else can be done with tools and know-how that we’ve built up from the last two winters of home improvements.

When we hit up our kids’ bedrooms, we had two kids per room and nothing whatsoever had been done to improve those rooms. No paint, no decor, nothing. The first step was to mud and sand all the drywall seams. Next, we used leftover kitchen paint to paint the first bedroom and effectively changed the entire room for the cost of about $20. Since the blue paint had been counted as cost for kitchen, that was free. The white paint we used for ceiling and window trim had been purchased a year ago for the bathroom cabinets. That was free. The five gallon bucket of mudding compound was brand new for this project, so that added $12. We already had all the tools and mudding tape. Free. We also needed to buy one door knob to replace an old, ineffective one on the main door. $8. The rest was just time and work.

We began on a Monday morning and had all the kids’ beds moved back into that one bedroom (a new set-up! all of them in one room!) by Thursday evening. During that time, we had also been working on the second bedroom, mudding and painting the trim. (more free improvements since we already had the supplies.) We did have to buy wall paint for this room; one gallon of orange for the accent wall and two gallons of a light beige for the other walls. But since we only used a half gallon of the beige (and the rest is intended for when we repaint our living room soon) I only count the cost of 1.5 gallons of paint. ($30). The next several days were spent painting and finishing the second bedroom which became our new Craft/Toy Room. By the following Monday, just one week of diligent work, the kids finally had a space in the house that was their own; to make crafts, to read, to play. It is a great set up because now they aren’t in the living room all the time with their toys, or in the kitchen all the time with their papers and markers and paints.

It’s also become a very cozy space for all of us and you’ll find Andy and I in the Craft room just as much as the kids.

As it has now turned into March, I’m not sure we’ll get to our bedroom yet this winter. It, too, needs mudding, sanding and painting just to bring it up to par. We’d like to replace the carpet in there as well. I’m hoping that our ambition doesn’t wear thin. My garden is within a month of planting and I need to turn my attention to some serious planning in that arena.

All I know is this: after untold hours of work, work, work, we are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. We aren’t done by a long shot, but it’s finally becoming the home we envisioned through all the clutter and dirt just three short years ago.

  • Published on Mar 2, 2016
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