Make Home Improvements with a Plan

Gene and Katie Hamilton

The best approach to remodeling while living in a fixer-upper is to create a twofold plan. Start with a long-range plan for completing the house to its ultimate condition, with a working estimate of the investment dollars you plan to spend on the house. That’s the overall plan and budget to update the property.

Make a short-term plan that’s more immediate. It should include quick fixes and repairs that are needed to make the house safe. Take care of a faulty roof, plumbing, heating and other essential elements of the house. Then make low-cost instant-gratification improvements that you can enjoy while you are living there. We always paint the rooms and refinish hardwood floors to create a clean, new living environment. Sometimes the first improvements are not cosmetic such as upgrades to the heating and cooling or electrical systems. Both are often required in houses without air conditioning or enough outlets.

No matter what our ultimate decorating scheme is, we start with a coat of white paint on the walls and ceilings to freshen the look and give the property a nice clean smell. Paint the ceilings and walls the same color so that you won’t have to make the time consuming cut between the ceiling and wall colors. We add inexpensive miniblinds to windows instead of investing in expensive window treatments. Other quick fixes can include repairing a wobbly railing on the back stairs, replacing the handle on a sliding patio door, adding a new mailbox, painting the front door – any improvements that are necessary to make the property more livable, functional and attractive.

If an older house doesn’t have a shower, which tops our priority list of creature comforts, we have a plumber run the water lines and valves for a new one in the tub. Then we throw up a shower curtain, but we leave the rest of the bathroom as is until we’re ready to remodel it. In one house, there was no storage space to speak of, but there was an unfinished attic, so before we did anything else, we built pull-down attic stairs to give us access to the space. We also had to reinforce the floor and put down some plywood decking. In many bedroom closets of older homes, we have replaced the traditional single shelf with shelving components that greatly increased the storage capacity. These inexpensive improvements increased the livability of a house, and we could enjoy them immediately.

We put off any improvements that change the floor plan of a house until we’ve lived there for a while because it’s important to see how the space works. Moving a wall might seem like a good idea, but until you’ve lived in a space to see how it functions, it’s difficult to consider all the choices you have. While it doesn’t seem so at the time, there are advantages to living with a kitchen and understanding its shortcomings before tearing it apart. Only by living in a house can you see how the windows in a room open up the space to daylight or recognize the need to widen the window opening to a family room.

Excerpt from Fix It and Flip It by Gene and Katie Hamilton, McGraw-Hill


Gene and Katie Hamilton are authors of 20 home improvement books and creators of, a website that compares the DIY and contractor costs of hundreds of repair, decorating and remodeling projects. Their weekly column Do It Yourself or Not is syndicated by Tribune Content Agency.
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