Home & Style

Diary of a Fixer-Upper: Finding and Prepping for the Contractors

Heather got by with a little help from her friends.

Now that I’d found my fixer-upper and decided that I was going to buy it with an FHA 203(k) construction loan, it was time to start talking with contractors to figure out what needed to be done—and how much it was going to cost. I started with a list from my real-estate agent of contractors his clients had recommended; each one came with at least two references. I also looked around on some neighborhood forums; Prince of Petworth was particularly useful.  

Then I started making phone calls. It was hard to find time to meet with contractors. Sometimes I squeezed in long lunches. I also overlapped meetings, trying to put as many in an afternoon as possible. My apartment was a mile away, so I scheduled several 7 AM meetings (of course my house was in the opposite direction of my office, making those days not only very early but also capped with a four-mile walk to work, all before coffee). Since I needed estimates before I could sign on the dotted line for the house, this made for some long weeks before closing.

Want to see more photos from Washington events and parties? Click here for Washingtonian.com's photo slideshow page. 

I got estimates from about 15 to 20 companies. After deciding who I would use for the best price and quality, I submitted my construction proposal to my lender and was, finally, officially approved for the loan. I signed and took possession of my first piece of land.

The former owner had boarded up the place, but not before squatters busted in the back door and rear window. I couldn’t take the boards down until the windows were repaired. This is where my handy friends came in, well, handy. I wasn’t sure I could replace a door and its frame by myself, at least as quickly as I needed it done. A contractor told me he would do it for $600 on top of the cost of the door; I quickly scrapped that idea and made my first “Enlisting Friends” phone call. Nick came over, fired up my new power drill, cut some shims, and installed my new back door. Total cost: $180 + brunch at Wonderland—plus a toast to my first project as a renovator.

Before contractors could begin work, I also had to deal with the trash heap in my backyard. With no backyard fence, some jerk renovator down the street took advantage of an unoccupied house, backed up his truck, and dumped couches, very heavy bags of roofing material, and piles of other random construction junk. My agent and I tried to get the former owner (a bank) to get rid of it, since the trash landed on its watch, but you can imagine how well that went.

Instead of spending $200 or $300 for a junkyard hauler—who, I’ve heard, might just dump it in someone else’s yard—I asked around for help. And just like that, I discovered a friend of a friend who is a government contractor with a pickup truck that he was happy to let me borrow. Our mutual friend, Brian, picked it up, came over, helped with the back-breaking work of getting all the trash in the truck, and made a couple of trips to the junkyard. In addition to a new, junk-free backyard, I also acquired lots of embarrassing stories about two tech-savvy people dumbfounded by the buttons that run a hydraulic lift. Total cost: A tank of gas, dinner, and beers.

With the help of friends, the house was now prepped and ready for the professionals.

To read Heather's home adventures from the beginning, click here.