On Owning a Home

Some call it The American Dream. But how can something that is supposed to be a dream, and by definition difficult to achieve, be so easily attained by (seemingly) anyone with a heartbeat and a credit score?

Perhaps it should be reclassified as The American Entitlement. Everyone thinks they DESERVE to own a home, regardless of their financial ability. Much like everyone thinks a car is a necessity, but we’ll talk about that some other time.

I bought my first home at age 23, less than a month after graduating college. It was technically under contract before I graduated. Which means the bank approved me for a loan while I was still a student. Sure, I had a job lined up, but I look back at that moment and it is no surprise to me that the real estate market crashed the past few years.

We had no down payment – but no problem – most banks were more than happy to lend 100% of the home value (sometimes even over 100%) in return for paying private mortgage insurance (PMI). So in addition to being in debt to the bank, we had to pay an insurance company to protect their asset (the mortgage). Nice work if you can get it.

We also had no savings to speak of. Hell, I was fresh out of college, finally on my own and earning a decent living. I wanted to buy “stuff”. I didn’t worry about things like insurance deductibles, roof replacement, or even general home maintenance. I realize now one major expense could have bankrupt me, or at best sent me to seek more credit. Not to mention what could have happened had either of us lost our job.

I look back and realize how stupid I was. But I got caught up in it because it was what everyone was doing. That’s not an excuse. I just want to point out that just because everyone is doing it doesn’t make it right. Heck, I’d venture to say going against what most people are doing is the wiser bet.

To add to the stupidity, after a few years, we decided to sell our “starter home” and move up to a bigger home, even though we had plenty of room in the first home. After all, we were working – we DESERVED a nicer home.

Hogwash. All that home did was stress me out beyond words. We were truly living paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes I would have to send in bills late because we didn’t have enough income on the current paycheck cycle to cover it. It was one of the worst, most depressing times of my life. So much for living a Dream.

I even suggested to my wife at the time (now my ex-) that we sell the house, pay off our debts and rent a cheap apartment for awhile to get a safety net built up. She had none of it. I think she was more worried about what it would look like to our friends and family. Not surprisingly, for this and other reasons, we divorced soon after.

That’s when I pledged never to get into such a financial mess again. If I was going to buy a home it was going to be comfortable. I was either going to have a 20% down payment (and a nice cash cushion to pay for unexpected repairs) or find a place that was cheaper than renting and would allow me to use my DIY skills to fix up and potentially sell for a profit.

After that, I rented for a few years and got serious about living frugally. I realized I didn’t have to own a home and fill it with a bunch of stuff to be happy.

Only when I met my current wife did I even think about buying another home. We would sit in our apartment and talk about finding a nice little unloved house that we could renovate and make our home. We window shopped for a long time. Realtor.com was at the top of our “favorites”. We looked long and hard and came up with a list of must-haves or to-dos for our future home.

In September 2005 we found a hideously ugly 2 bedroom house in a cool downtown neighborhood that we enjoyed. S didn’t even want to go in at first. I saw a blank slate, not to large to overwhelm our budget, assuming it was mechanically sound. We didn’t have quite enough for 20% down, but the since mortgage payment wasn’t going to be much more than our rent we decided to make an offer. Soon after, we got the keys and started working, putting those plans in action.

I’ll never forget that house. We transformed it from an eyesore to one of the nicest looking homes on the street. It wasn’t fancy, but was simple and we did a good job. Several neighbors were amazed and what we achieved with a little money and a lot of sweat.

It was a good feeling. And we were comfortable. We didn’t stretch ourselves to buy the biggest house we could – thereby selling the next 30 years of our lives working to pay off the debt.

We brought our first child home to that house. Our dream came true, but it was a lot of hard work. I think that is why we appreciated it so much.

We sold that house in July 2009, wanting to find a larger home with room to expand our family. Tears were shed. But we carried forward the lessons, memories and photos from that house.

Our current home was done “right”. We put down 20%, have a savings account that has already allowed us to replace a malfunctioning HVAC system and have the knowledge and skills to tackle nearly any home improvement project. We hope to pay off our mortgage early so we’re not living to work.

My new dream is to use the skills I’ve learned rebuilding our homes to help others make their home a dream. Or perhaps buy another ugly little house, fix it up and rent it to the next couple that is doing it the right way, not quite ready to buy.



Yesterday I finished painting our front porch posts, railings and spindles. As soon as we moved in last July, we knew this job was coming. Quite a bit of the paint was cracking, getting mildew spots and just generally dirty and grimy. We finally decided to tackle the job this fall.

We chose to paint it with Olympic’s exterior satin in “White”, since the existing color and siding is white. Here’s the breakdown of time spent:

  • 1.5 – 2 hours sanding, scraping and hosing off the dirt
  • 2 hours last Sunday painting 2 sections of the railing
  • 1.5 hours on Tuesday painting another section
  • 4 hours yesterday finishing the painting and touching up

So about 9 or 10 hours total, but it definitely looks much, much better than when we started. It will be interesting to see how long it lasts until it needs repainting. My biggest concern is the mildew returning since about half the porch gets little to no sunlight and has little chance to dry.

Now that this project is done, we have a couple more small painting projects in the house – S’s room needs to be finished (hopefully this weekend) as well as the laundry room. I need to finish the threshold/transitions from the tile to hardwood floors and hang the new wood blinds in S’s room. The goal is to finish it by Halloween since we’re having a party.


Learn. Create. Experience.

I saw these three words on a postcard over at AONC and thought:

  1. Wow! That is exactly what I’m pushing myself to do.
  2. What a great lesson to teach my kids.

Learning is so much more than going to school – kindergarten, elementary and high school, then maybe on to college to get your degree. I’ve probably learned more just talking to my wonderful wife – how to love, forgive, be patient, talk to people, and more importantly…listen.

I stopped learning for a few years and recently realized I was really stagnating. I didn’t read, didn’t challenge myself. I just kind of floated through life. Coasted like a car going downhill. I can’t make up that time, but I can will do a better job going forward.

Creating something feels so good. Standing back and saying “I did that” is a rush. I know some of my creations will last well beyond my time on this Earth. I don’t expect to be da Vinci or even Norm Abram, I just want to see what I can accomplish with the talents I’ve been granted.

I don’t want to collect experiences the way some people collect beanie babies. That’s just a different kind of materialism. I want to remember the simple times too.

Last night when we took advantage of a break in the string of 100 degree days and walked up to the playground at the school about 2 miles from our house. It was a tough walk – pushing the 2 kids in the stroller. But we made it. And we had a fun little picnic on the grass, played wiffle ball and watched our son run around on the playground while I played alligator down below.

Learn. Create. Experience. Three simple words I will remember and apply to everything I do in life.

On Saturday I completed goal #2 on my list. I finished staining the bookshelf I built for our living room. I actually purchased the wood for this project back in March, but with all the work on the house we’ve been doing to prepare for our baby’s birth the project was pushed to the back burner.

The piece was built using plans found on Knock-Off Wood.

My goals for building this project were:

  1. build a functional, attractive piece of furniture for the kids’ toys
  2. increase my knowledge of building furniture so I will eventually be able to build a piece from scratch (without plans)
  3. build the piece of furniture for less than it would cost to buy

I can safely say my bookcase fulfills #1. At my son’s birthday party that night, everyone was complimenting me on how nice the bookshelf looks and were shocked that I built it.

Here is a similar bookshelf to the one I built, available for $300 at Pottery Barn. I spent less than $100 to build my version of the bookshelf.

Cost breakdown:

  • lumber – $65 (approximately – I can’t find the receipt)
  • stain – $10 (can was $15, but we used part of it to re-finish our kitchen table)
  • miscellaneous supplies – $10 (sandpaper, screws, nails, etc.)

Time breakdown:

  • about 2 hours to cut and assemble the wood
  • about 30 minutes to sand
  • about 2 hours to stain it

Finished product:

I absolutely love the way it turned out, and it fits perfectly into our style – simple and traditional.

See Part 1 and 2.

Cleaning up our mess

We pick up the story with a thick, gritty haze on a majority of our new tiles. The traditional method of using a wet sponge in a circular motion is not working since we’ve let the grout set too long.

I returned to Lowe’s to take back some unused materials and inquired of one of the employees what my next step should be. He seemed confused but finally pointed me to a “haze remover” product. At $7 a bottle it was a little pricey but I was desperate to save my butt. I took it home, poured it on and let it sit a couple minutes like the directions stated, then started scrubbing. A little of the residue was coming off, but not enough. I turned to Google for help.

Eventually, I found a really comprehensive tile forum and after finding no existing questions that gave me an answer, I signed up and posted my own question. Upon further reading though, it looked like using vinegar was working for a lot of people. We tried mixing it 50/50 with water but it still wasn’t working. Not even straight vinegar made much of a dent.

I got a couple responses on the tile forum, but nothing that I hadn’t read elsewhere. LW finally got the great idea to try vinegar with a scrubbing pad, so I picked up some at the store. We were positive they wouldn’t damage the tile, since we had already used a metal chisel to scrape off some of the thicker areas of leftover grout.

Success! We found that the following process worked to get the hardened grout off the tile:

  1. Spray vinegar on the tile and let sit for a few minutes
  2. Scrub like heck

Definitely not an easy task, we estimated each tile took about 5-10 minutes to scrub. With over 200 tiles…well you can do the math. Eventually we took it up a notch and tried steel wool, which worked a little better.

We’re just now (almost a month later) getting rid of all the haze and the tile looks amazing.

Finishing the Bathroom

The last major part of the tile job was to paint the bathroom and install the new pedestal sink, toilet and fixtures in the bathroom.

We choose a deep yellow color for the bathroom that seemed to go well with the existing greens we had in the living and dining room and kitchen. But when I started painting, I was worried. It was really bright. LW agreed. We deliberated and decided to try painting the floor trim white to see if that would help…..it didn’t.

After living with it a couple days, we both agreed if we left it this color all people would notice was the brightness and not pay attention to all the other work we had completed. We decided to repaint it a toned down yellow.

Disappointed by the color, we decided it was time to pick out our sink and fixtures. LW and I wanted to make a date night out of it, knowing this might be our last night out before K2 arrived. We dropped off K1 at the grandparents and headed out. After a couple other stops, we had a nice dinner and around 7 headed over to Lowes. We knew they had the toilet we wanted, since we had the same one at our first home.

First, we picked out the light fixture and tried to coordinate the faucet and accessories (TP holder, towel hoop) with it. However, we originally chose a pewter light only to find out there was no pewter faucets except one we both hated. Back to the lighting section, we choose a chrome finish light since we found both a faucet and accessories in that finish. LW even let me buy the expensive TP holder that I fell in love with, thanks sweetie! We picked up the toilet and looked at the pedestal sink we found online. The sink ended up having some funky design on top that we hated. The only other options were a really cheap looking pedestal sink combo and a really expensive one. Bummer. I guess a trip to Home Depot would be needed. But it was getting late, so we rushed to checkout just as they announced the store would be closing in a few minutes. We loaded up our purchases and headed back to pick up a sleeping K1.

Up early the next morning, I repainted the bathroom again. This time, the color was perfect, just enough to brighten up the small space but not too rich or bright to be distracting. With that success under my belt, I was ready to tackle installing the new toilet after the paint dried.

If you’ve never installed a toilet before, it really isn’t that difficult. Most are sold in kits, so everything you need is in the box. The only tricky thing with this install was the tile raised the floor up about 1/4′, so I wasn’t sure if the flange on the floor would be high enough to make a good seal. Turns out I was right, the first time I set the toilet down there was no seal at all, I was able to pick it right back up without the wax grabbing on at all. Not good.

To add to the frustration, the subfloor under one of the bolts that hold the toilet down had been cut out for the pipe to come up from the basement. The first time I put the bolt through the hole, it fell right through into the basement. I grabbed a scrap of cardboard to span the hole and hold the bolt in place temporarily. To raise the flange, I unscrewed it from the subfloor and installed some shims. I was a little concerned, because there is a little gap within the flange and the pipe beneath, but upon further investigation, it is glued together and the flange goes inside the pipe. I thought the chances of a leak would be minimal. The wax seal grabbed on the second time I lowered it on to the flange. I tightened everything up, installed the tank – being careful not to over-tighten the bolts and crack it, hooked up the water supply and crossed my fingers….flush!

No leaks! On the first try! I was pumped. I went into the basement to double-check the flange seal and didn’t see any evidence of a leak. Just to be safe I did a few more test flushes and didn’t see any water. Woohoo! I decided to take the rest of the day off and enjoy my work.

The next morning we headed over to HD to pick up a sink we found online. It was a little more pricey that the original but we both liked it. The only problem was the faucet we purchased wouldn’t fit – it was 4″ centerset – the sink was 8″. So we’d need a new faucet as well. HD actually had 2 sinks we liked, one cheaper option and the one we saw online. Factoring in the new faucet (8″ center set are more expensive), it would be about $150 extra. We debated back and forth, all while K1 was running up and down the aisles and hiding behind boxes. We were almost set on the cheaper option, when we finally agreed to spend the extra money and get what we wanted. Our budget for the project so far had been pretty close, and an extra $150 wasn’t going to hurt too bad. Plus, I thought if we bought one we loved now we’d be less likely to want to change it in the future. We loaded it on the cart and headed for the checkout.

Some background: we wanted a pedestal sink to give us a little more room since the bathroom is only about 3′ x 8′ and the door swings in. With the original vanity, it was a squeeze to open the door and get in the bathroom far enough to shut the door. We were hoping with space on either side of the sink there would be more room to maneuver.

It was already getting late in the morning when we got home and I really wanted this project done, so I unloaded everything and started working on the sink installation. It went pretty easily, other than the fact that in hindsight I definitely would have mounted the sink drain BEFORE mounting the sink on the pedestal. Like I mentioned, it is a small space and the pedestal was basically a “U” shape, so the drain was hidden inside, making it very difficult to get a wrench in there to tighten it. After some maneuvering, I found the best way to do it was to turn the whole pipe, then hold the “nut” with the wrench, while turning the pipe with my hands. I bet it took a good 20-30 minutes to get this last step done so the drain wasn’t leaking anymore. Man was I glad to get that over with.

A little later, I installed the light fixture, toilet paper holder and towel hook. It really finished off the bathroom and made all the hard work and frustration worthwhile.

Wrap Up

At this point, we’re basically done with any big projects. Our new baby is due any day now, so starting anything else really isn’t practical. Also, since LW quit working as of last Friday we are trying to conserve money as much as possible. We’re pretty sure we can live on just my income, but don’t have a lot of extra room in the budget. We’ve been planning for this for a long time, so we saved quite a while to do all the projects I’ve blogged about recently.

Day 2 – cool tool time

I woke up early Saturday ready to kick some tile ass. My plan was to go around a mark all the tile that needed to be cut, rent a wet saw, come home and cut all the tiles then lay them when all the cutting was complete.

The marking went pretty quickly – since our breakfast area was covered with full tiles that really cut down on the number of cuts. I started along the cabinets and marked tile after tile to cut. (In case you’re reading and don’t know the marking trick – you can take a full tile and butt it up against the wall, then mark it where it meets the other tile (leaving space for the grout line) and cut it there. When you go to lay it, turn 180 degrees and it should fit perfectly.)

I guess it took around 3 hours or so to mark everything. After that, I drove to Lowe’s to pick up some more threshold tiles and grout samples, then to the tool rental place to pick up the wet saw. The reason a wet saw is used is to lubricate the blade while it cuts the tile and also keep the dust down. The saw was probably the coolest tool I have ever used. Here she is:

It was really easy to set up, basically just sit it on the stand, fill the tub with water and make sure the pump is covered, flip the switch and go.

Cutting took quite a bit longer than I expected. I’m sure there was a faster way, but my method was basically one tile at a time so I wouldn’t lose track of where they went. Here’s my process:

  1. get a tile to cut
  2. cut it
  3. go back and dry-fit
  4. re-cut or grab the next tile

I probably only had to re-cut 4 or 5 tiles and was able to use partial tiles in some places, which greatly cut down on waste. Also, I only broke 1 tile, which was a “win” considering the tiles are 16 x 16 and dripping wet when they come off the saw.

I stopped cutting and dry-fitting around 5:30-6, so we went out to eat (still no oven hooked up). After dinner I mixed up another batch of thinset and started laying tile. I had to trim some pieces as I went, but by about 10:30 I had laid all but about 10 tiles. I figured it was too late to be cutting outside in the garage, so I called it a night. I also forgot to borrow a tile nipper to cut some of the little chunks off, so that would have to wait until morning anyway.

Day 3 – the great grout adventure

Another early start since I had to get the saw back by noon. No problem though as I was done cutting and laying the remaining dozen or so tiles by 10am.

Since the first tiles I laid had been down over 24 hours we decided to try grouting a sample section. I’ve you’ve never grouted before, it can be frustrating. The actual process is not bad, just matching the colors. The color on the box/bag is rarely ever what shows up when you actually mix it and put it on the floor. (We tested the area that would be under our washer/dryer and stove.)

The first grout was way too light – it almost ended up an off-white, despite the sample on the container being a light beige.

Slightly peeved but expecting this, it was time for me to return the saw. I took it back and stopped at Lowe’s for a second grout sample on the way back and stopped at Penn Station for some lunch. Yum.

The second grout was way too dark – it was almost like chocolate, despite the sample being slightly darker than our tile when I held it up next to the jar in the store.

We were growing frustrated and beginning to run out of inconspicuous test areas. We decided to try Home Depot. They had some pre-mixed buckets, which to me were like gold. After mixing 4-50lb bags of thinset mortar, I was ready to pay for the extra convenience of pre-mixed grout. We also had the advantage of seeing the finished product by just opening the lid, rather than a powder that would change color when mixed with water. We picked the third sample and headed home to test it.

Third Time IS the Charm

Score! The third grout was exactly what we were looking for – just slightly darker than our tile and was labeled as stain resistant. Perfect for a house with a toddler and 2 big dogs.

When K1 went down for a nap, I ran out for a couple more buckets and started grouting when I returned. Grouting is actually pretty fun for me. There’s something rhythmic about going back and forth with the “float” and finishing off the job. LW even joined in the fun after donning protective gloves and a mask (she wasn’t sure if the fumes would hurt the baby).

We finished later than night, just in time to head over to dinner at my parents house. The grout said to let sit for a few hours before removing the haze*, so I hoped to start that after we returned.

*when grout dries on the tile, it gets a little “haze” to it that you remove with a wet sponge

After dinner and putting K1 to bed, we both started working on removing the haze. Immediately I could tell something was wrong – the haze wasn’t coming off very easily like it should. There was a residue left behind after wiping it down with the sponge. I re-read the instructions on the grout buckets. Uh-oh.

We both had misread the instructions somehow. They said to start wiping it down after 5-10 minutes but remove the final haze after a few hours. Crap. I was worried our big job that looked so great was going to be ruined by the final step and a dumb mistake.

To be continued….

When we first found our lovely home online*, I didn’t think it was worth looking at in person. The pictures were atrocious – dark, dated looking and only about 6 or 7 total. I thought the people were trying to hide something. Did I mention there was pink carpet in the kitchen? But LW wanted to see it, so I went along. Long story short….well that’s another blog post….

*We seriously spent hours on realtor.com each day for about 3 years straight, always hoping that perfect home would pop up.

Fast forward 10 months (can’t believe it’s been that long) and we’re smack dab in the middle of remodeling our kitchen before baby #2 comes along. Earlier, we had ripped out the old pink carpeting (the day after moving in); taken down the dark pine wainscoting and replaced it with a brighter more to scale wainscoting; painted; and installed a dishwasher (my second and hopefully last); new range and over the range microwave, among other smaller projects.

The last big job was to tear up the damaged old linoleum floor and replace it with either stone tile or hardwood. We eventually settled on tile since hardwood  would require sanding, sanding, and more sanding then staining it to match what we currently have in our dining room and half the hallway.

I took off work on Friday, 5/14 to start the tile job. My plan was as follows:

  • Friday – tile to be delivered, goal was to lay all the tiles that didn’t require a cut
  • Saturday – lay out the tiles to be cut and mark them, rent a wet saw, cut and lay the remaining tiles
  • Sunday – grout the tiles after the 24 hour waiting period

It was an ambitious plan, to be sure, considering it was about 450 square feet total between our kitchen, hall, laundry room and 1/2 bathroom and I would be doing it by myself for the most part.

Here’s some before shots:

Breakfast area - note the awful pink carpet.

Other half of the kitchen

Day 1 – Hiccup #1

The delivery truck arrived around 10:30. After watching the guy unload the pallet full of tile and thinset mortar from the truck and pull it slowly up the driveway, I thanked God I had the sense to pay the $59 and have it delivered. The delivery person dropped the tile in the garage, I signed the papers and sent him on his way. I carried the first box inside and set it down to the sample tile we bought, anxious to get started. CRAP!

The tile delivered was 12×12 inch, we had ordered 16×16 inch squares. The delivery guy had already pulled away. I quickly found the receipt, called the store and told the operator what happened. She put me on hold for the manager. A few minutes later he picked up and I told him my story. He said they would pick the wrong tile up and get me the right stuff ASAP. Then literally a minute later there was a knock at the garage door. It was the delivery guy! The store called him and had him turn around immediately. He picked up the tiles, reloaded them and was gone. I was slightly disappointed to have lost valuable time but the store promised to be back by noon.

My stomach was already screwed up from nervousness about starting the job, now I had to wait around and think about it for another hour or so. You see, when I undertake something I’ve never done before, I get serious butterflies in my stomach. As much as I plan things out and try to visualize what steps I’m going to follow, I get worried I’m going to fail. This was one of the biggest home improvement projects (and most expensive) I had tackled. It would be visible to anyone that came in our home. I didn’t want to screw it up and disappoint LW.

True to their word, the delivery truck arrived shortly before noon and brought us the correct batch of tile. The pallet of boxes was imposing, I wish I had taken a picture. After a short lunch break with my Mom and youngest brother, I got started.

The first task was to mix up a 50 lb bag of thinset mortar. We had done this once before at our first house and I had not-so-fond memories. Our drill wasn’t powerful enough to mix it, so we had to dump it into a big plastic storage bin and mix it by hand. I had a better drill now, so I was confident it would work and in a few minutes I’d be off and tiling. No such luck. Once again, my new drill was not up to the task. I hurriedly grabbed our recycling bin, rinsed it out and dumped the mess in and started churning it by hand with much cursing under my breath.

After some final hemming and hawing on where to begin**, I laid my first tile! From there it was just repetitive – trowel the thinset, lay a tile, insert spacers, repeat. My Mom and Brother stayed to help for awhile. After they left, I cranked up the music and got into a zone. I finished with our breakfast area (in the picture with the pink carpet above) in about 90 minutes I think, which was about 40 tiles. Not too bad I thought. The only thing slowing me down was mixing up additional batches of mortar. I decided do mix smaller batches after the first time to make it a little easier.

**Conventional wisdom says to measure and mark the center of the room and start from there, expanding off that first tile in all 4 directions. But since we had a hallway involved, not just a big square room, we opted to start at the corner where the hallway and kitchen meet and work from there. It also ended up measuring exactly 7 tiles from front to back in the kitchen which made that area look more polished.

LW arrived home from work and I was probably 2/5 done at that point. We took a quick break for dinner, I drank a lot of Mountain Dew and started up again when we got home.

The rest of the night was pretty uneventful – grab a box of tiles, put down the thinset, lay the tiles and do it all again with another box. It was really starting to come together the more I finished and I was feeling good. LW even said she couldn’t believe how much I finished in one day.

Day 1 – mission almost accomplished. I successfully laid all the full tiles except for a few in the bathroom since I miscalculated the amount of smaller tiles we used in the doorways to serve as a kind of threshold. I think I finished around 11pm and surprisingly was not that sore. I took a quick shower, watched a little TV with LW and then went to bed, knowing Saturday would probably be another long day.