Home & Style

Diary of a Fixer-Upper

This was what Heather's living room looked like when she purchased her Columbia Heights house. Read on for how she's renovating the entire place.

Three months ago I bought a fixer-upper in Columbia Heights. Before that, I’d never even considered purchasing a piece of property, loved my apartment and landlords, and was substantially paying down credit-card debt I’d acquired paying for law school.  So what changed?  Why did I suddenly decide to sign away a few hundred thousand dollars to a mortgage company, give up my cozy rental for a drafty rowhouse with no heating system, appliances, or even floors?

Good question.  And one I’m still answering myself. 
As we all know, it’s a buyers market. I didn’t suffer the same fate as friends who bought property a few years ago and were forced to bid on houses ten minutes after the tour, or lose it forever.  I suffered just the opposite.  This house, my first, was a foreclosure property, “For Sale by Bank,” and after putting my initial bid down, it was an entire month and a half of what turned into agony waiting for a response. It was another month until I finally signed the closing papers. (I didn’t get to experience that moment where the title attorney hands you the keys—THE keys to your first home—because my house didn’t even have locks.) Nevertheless, I got what amounts to, in DC anyway, a pretty good bargain.

The other reason to buy, I won’t lie, wasn’t the ephemeral dream of home ownership; it was simply dollar bills.  Between tax credits and deductions and the difference for which I hope to sell my house eventually, I will have saved tens of thousands of dollars and—everyone cross your fingers—paid off my school loans. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not a house-flipper out to make big bucks.  I’ll be in this house for years, and I see my future plans aligned with those of the city I’ve come to love.  I’m happy to invest my money here, perhaps shining up the place a little, and in the end we’ll both be better off.

I began my search by talking with my landlords’ real-estate agent. I trusted them, and they recommended him highly, which was a blessing. I had expected to deal with some form of sleaziness, even just the subtle kissing-my-ass kind. Luckily, he was a keeper, and we spent an afternoon discussing my budget, my “dream” house, and deal breakers.

Most important, I needed to live where I could walk to work, in the U Street, Columbia Heights, or Shaw neighborhoods of DC. Perhaps Petworth, but that was pushing it. I’ve lived near U Street for the past three years and have become a neighborhood snob the same way people become Capitol Hill or Northern Virginia snobs. This area … well, it’s my home, and I refuse to leave.  

There were a few other things. I have no car, so the house needed to be no more than six or seven blocks from a Metro stop. I love to garden, so I crossed my fingers for a small yard or porch for potted plants. Hardwood floors. Washer/dryer hookups.  Typical stuff.

My budget, according to the estimate from my mortgage lender, was $300,000 for a house, $250,000 for a condo (condo fees bring up the margin).  You know what that gets you around U Street?  Not much. Not anything, actually. So in late July, my agent and I started by focusing on Shaw and Columbia Heights.

We looked mostly at condos, primarily because there are more of them on the market. But even in these two neighborhoods they’re crazy expensive and what’s more, they all look alike—same marble counters, same floors, exact same fixtures.  Which isn’t to say I disliked them, in fact some of them were pretty swank, but the more I saw, the more I needed character and originality.  It was like going to a party and realizing not one person, but *everyone* in the room is wearing your dress.  And they’re all your neighbors.

Interestingly enough, the house I eventually bought was on our schedule to see the second day we went out.  I was nowhere near ready to buy.  This whole thing was still a game I’d concocted because I was between projects and needed something to do, right?  I mean, we’re buying houses now? Seriously?  When we walked in the house, my agent was genuinely surprised at its condition— it needed work, but not like some of the trash heaps we visited over the next two months, which required tanker trucks of bleach and Hazmat gear and often boasted “natural” skylights.  This house had, Yes! Say it with me: Potential. (Later I learned that my agent, after our first visit, liked it so much that he had discussed with his partner if they could buy it as an investment property.)

I didn’t think much about the house until September, when I’d seen every single property on the market from P Street to Otis. I asked my realtor to pick me up.  I just wanted to take some pictures of the house.  When I got home I posted them on my Flickr site and demanded my friends tell me I was crazy.  Most of them did.  “What’s wrong with the floors?”  (That’s plywood)  “If there’s no mirror or light in the bathroom, isn’t it just a creepy closet with a hole in the ground?”  (Yes.)  “What’s up with the mattresses?”  (That’s where the squatters sleep, naturally.)  

Friends told me about shootouts they’d witnessed a couple blocks from this place.  They asked me if I even *owned* a hammer.  They wanted to know if I was prepared to live with severe inconvenience for what could be a very, very long time.

So why did I buy it?  Well, it’s safe to say that I’m at least a little bit crazy.  And that I’ve watched too much HGTV in my life.  But the truth is:  I love projects.  I knew I could do this.  (And, in fact, I own an entire toolbox and know how to use it.) I knew when I was done it would not only be a great investment, but this would be my unique little place in the world.  When the inspection revealed that the electrical and plumbing systems and the roof were in great shape, friends told me, “You’ve already bought it in your head; put your bid down already.”

And then I did.  I bought the house for exactly what I wanted to pay for it, under a construction loan that gave me money upfront to do some work, which we’ll talk about soon enough.  It hasn’t been easy and I haven’t done it all right.  I’m single, I don’t have much money at my disposal, and I’m still not sure I understand the mortgage process.  This has meant relying on my flexible work schedule, as well as the extreme generosity of my friends and family with their time and willingness to listen to the never-ending stream of Today’s Crisis With the House.

One thing I should have seen coming? That my water heater would break the day I moved in, and I’d spend the first two weeks in my new home getting up early to shower at the office gym.

Check back every Tuesday to follow along with Heather's renovation. See all of her posts here.

Are you remodeling your own house? Thinking about it, but not sure you're ready to take the plunge? Leave  thoughts, tips, and questions in the comments for Heather and she'll incorporate them into a future post.