How to Buy a House You Can't Afford

by Amy Dorsch Heavilin (photo above: Amy’s very own fixer-upper!)

Thinking of a buying a fixer-upper, but scared to death? Of course you are — we’ve all seen The Money Pit! To help clam your fears, we asked the lovely Amy of Vivacious Victorian to share with us all she’s learned about fixing up a beautiful Queen Anne home on a small budget.

My husband and I have owned four houses. Scratch that. Five! Although we’ve only lived in four. That seems like a lot for a couple in their thirties, and maybe it is. It comes with good reason – the first three houses came with job changes, and the last just happens to be the house of our dreams that we couldn’t pass up. Then in the middle, we bought another house to restore because it seemed like a fun idea to become landlords (really). People often ask us if we are flippers because we have solely owned and restored old or historic houses. The answer is a resounding NO. We would be the most terrible flippers known to mankind. We are good at what we do, but my goodness, we are so slow. We’ve learned a lot on our journey, and I’m happy to share some thoughts with you. Some are probably common sense. Some might not work for 90% of the planet. However, maybe something will encourage you to think about buying a historic house, so you can save it for future generations.
I’m a teacher (a band director). He’s a software engineer. We are not tradespeople, and aren’t millionaires or even thousandaires. So, to do what we do, we have to be creative.
Each house we have called home was in worse repair than the last one we were in – each one prepared us for the next one. The first needed a new kitchen floor. That’s it. If we buy another house, and it’s par for the course, it will just be a bull-dozed pile of rubble that we will have to put back together.
I twisted my husband Doug’s arm to go see our current house, a sprawling 4,600 square foot Queen Anne Victorian. We had both loved this house from the moment we moved to Franklin, Indiana. It was just three blocks from the house we lived in, and often went by it on walks. It came on the market at a scandalously low price, so I said, “Let’s go see it!!!” He – rightly – knew we’d buy it if we went; he let me go anyway. And, to be fair, he wanted to buy it just as badly as I did. He just wanted to buy it AFTER we’d seen it. I wanted to buy it before.
We weren’t ready to sell our current house. Miss Queen Anne needed a new roof (and we chose to replace the existing slate with new slate), a new exterior, and some walls and ceilings. This seemed like a really poor financial decision. We first acted with our hearts, and then made the finances work. Seriously, if I could do for old houses what Sarah McLaughlin does for the ASPCA, I’d be glad to.

Find a Bank

You never actually KNOW what you are getting into with an old house. But, you can certainly know a lot more than the average house buyer. In our case, we went through the house first on our own, then a couple of times with a historic contractor, and of course had an inspection. We made lists of major projects and minor projects. We decided that two things HAD to be done, no question : the roof, and the rotted exterior. We couldn’t buy the house without financial help on those two issues. The kitchen, which was completely not usable, was a close third. We got some formal and informal estimates, then went to beg for money. We had no idea if a bank would lend us over twice what the house was on the market for, but that is what we needed. Start with local banks – show them what you plan to do, and why it is good for the community at large – this helps them to try and find every way to help. Ask your local historical society what banks (and what agents) they recommend. Make sure you have all the information about their loans. The bank we went with was awesome – and unique – in that it allowed us to do some work ourselves. We would tackle the kitchen, and the contractor would tackle the exterior. A bank that allows you to do some work yourself allows you to save money. Of course, we had to put together a proposal to show that we were capable and knew what we were doing, but that was actually kind of fun! We ended up with a loan that covered the house, the entire exterior, AND the kitchen in one easy-breezy payment! It’s also very important to find a contractor who is knowledgeable about historic homes, and loves them. If someone wants to rip all the plaster out and put up drywall, slowly walk away.


Buy a House that is Eligible for Grants

This is not possible for everyone. But if you LOVE a house, see if it has any protection or eligibility for any funds that might be available. We knew our house was on a street which is on the National Register for Historic Places. People like to get all bent out of shape about a historic designation, and they think you give over all control to a crazy person with a clip board who is going to choose the colors right down to your shirt for you. Our experience has been phenomenal. And to be honest, if anyone had said, “Hey, don’t do that. It’s not accurate and here’s why,” I probably would have listened. Because I dearly WANT the house to have accuracy. Being on the Register gave us access in our area to a number of tax credits. We wouldn’t get money back until April, but it is extraordinarily helpful – and will happen year after year as we continue the restoration. People always ask me about grants, and I will be honest, I haven’t looked into any yet. But I am sure they are out there! If you get there before me, let me know what you learn!


Don’t Own Three Houses

We owned the house we lived in, bought a little cottage we are turning into a rental, then turned around and bought the Queen Anne because it was too perfect to pass up. It took six months to sell our first house. The cottage and the Queen Anne were both foreclosures (and inexpensive), but still. Maybe not something I would recommend during my saner times. It’s a bit daunting.


Do as Much of the Work that You Can Yourself

We are often asked how we got started in this world of renovation. We had the TINIEST bathroom known to man two houses ago (seriously – a friend once went in, and then threw his fanny-pack out the door because it was so small. Then we had an intervention about the ownership of the fanny pack in general). It needed skim-coating, and someone wanted $3,000 for it. Whatever. Doug thought he could do it for $50 in materials, and if he screwed up, we were just out $50. He researched everything, and did a beautiful job. We loved it, and kept going with that formula : I designed it, he researched it, and we both implemented it. And if we got in over our head, we called for help. So try to educate youtself. Watch how-to videos online. Buy books for things you don’t even think you’ll use. Find back-issues of magazines. Become a sponge. Don’t be afraid to fail.


Be Your Own General Contractor

Rules on this vary from region to region (know them!), but if you can, be your own general contractor. ONLY do this if you have the basic construction knowledge you need, can keep remotely organized, know how to pull permits, and have the gumption to be able to manage multiple contractors and be able to be firm when you need to. This will save you a lot, but only if you can do it. If you CAN’T do it, this can be a money drain if you do this by yourself – this might be the most controversial part of my list, and I understand that completely! We were also fortunate that Doug worked from home during the majority of the renovation, and could be here for any questions if an emergency arose. This one might not be for everyone!


Know Your Limits

We are not the type of people to dig into something, get lost, and go : “We are going to finish this if it’s the last thing we do.” NO. If you get in over your head, call someone. And then, when they come over to fix it, watch closely and ASK QUESTIONS. My limits are easy : If I have to use muscles and be strong, I need back up. So I know to never start a project where I need to be physically strong while I’m on my own. There is absolutely no reason to be a hero.


Buy a House That Can be Done in Stages

People also ask us why two people with no kids and two dogs need a house with 4,600 square feet. The truth is, we don’t. No one really does. What we fell in love with was the charm and character and the WOODWORK (please, pretty please : don’t ever paint original woodwork if you are lucky enough to have it. It lowers the value of the house and future people will hate you for it). If our house had the same amount of special detail and was smaller, we still would have purchased it. What we realized once we moved in, is that the size helped us. We didn’t HAVE to get everything done NOW. All you need when you move in is: a place to cook (note that I didn’t say you need a kitchen), a working bathroom, and one room to sleep in. That’s it. If you have that, you can plan your restoration in stages to make it easier financially. We have 4 bathrooms, two that fully function, and two that partially function. We can work on one, and still have something that works and not have to order a port-a-potty to the house. Because no one likes that and it’s gross.


Live Through Your Renovations

It’s like camping! Or living at the beach, except it’s sawdust and not sand! If you have enough space to live in the renovation, do it. Now, we don’t have kids, and I realize this isn’t for everyone. Some couples would kill each other by hour two. We really have a partnership when we work, so it wasn’t ever an issue. Also, because the house is so large, we were able to (and still) live on the third floor while we restore the first two. If you can escape the sawdust and plaster dust somewhere, it saves sanity. Living without a kitchen wasn’t really that bad. I actually yell at the people on HGTV who can’t handle life without a kitchen for a week. They need to pull it together. Be creative. Use a crockpot. Get a hot plate. Use a toaster oven. The internet is rife with directions for amazing meals using those – all you need is some planning. I’ll be honest, washing dishes in a bathroom sink is awful. So we went to Habitat for Humanity restore and put a utility sink in our basement for $25. Dishes became less of a hassle. Also always wear shoes. And be up to date on your tetanus.


Donate or Sell Your Leftovers

Find someplace, whatever it is, and donate your leftover construction materials. Or sell them online. You can either make some money quickly, or have deductions come tax time. Also, local salvage yards or Habitat are often willing to come out and help you with demolition. Getting rid of everything in your bathroom from the 1980’s? Someone out there wants it. So donate or sell it. BONUS : you make friends with those people quickly, and then you can say things like, “If you come across a clawfoot tub, can you let me know?” Also, reuse and recycle in your own house. Those awful bathroom cabinets? Maybe they can fill a need of storage lacking in your garage or basement.


Find Workshops

See if your historical society, or any local organizations, offer “How-To” clinics on ANYTHING. We just went to a window restoration workshop sponsored by Indiana Landmarks. Not only did we learn a lot and get some new skills, but we met some experts and some homeowners that we now have contact with. No workshops? Ask them to host one. Say, “I’d love to learn how to weld my broken cast-iron fence. Any ideas? Maybe we could find someone to do a workshop?” If they know there is interest, someone can make it happen. I’m dying to take a stained class course. That’s what I want to do next!


Have Good Friends

We have the best friends. Ever. Whenever we have jobs that really need a lot of help, we ask. And pay them in food and beverages. Some help because they know that the house was on a tight timeline with the bank initially. Some help because they want to learn skills for their own place. Some help because they live in a condo or a McMansion and want to be hands-on. Whatever the case, we are so thankful that when we send out a plea for help, people actually say yes. Another great resource are college groups. Doug and I met through Kappa Kappa Psi, the national band fraternity. That group is FILLED with student leaders dedicated to service. And we have had chapters from Butler University and Indiana University do demolition and yard work for us, in exchange for a donation to their university bands or chapter. We get to help college bands, and they bring a lot of fun and hard work to get a lot done in a day. We also give them a good home-cooked meal, which I suspect is the real reason they actually help. So you might be able to find a college group who would love to work for a donation!


Share Tools

We own a lot of tools. Because we know we will use them multiple times. And we lend them out like a library, because we know if we help others, they will help us! Someone may have something we need to use, and so if all of our friends have a silent pact to share what we have, we can save money. You might have a job that requires two ladders, or three wallpaper steamers and you only own two (which is true, and both are currently not in my house but in the hands of friends for very noble work). It’s like Kindergarten. Sharing is caring. Also (and this was a tip I stole from the window workshop) if there is a specialized tool that you won’t use much, talk to the historical society and see if they might start a lending library, or ask neighbors who might also be renovating if they might like to go in on a specialized tool. If everyone has copper pipes on your street, surely you’ll all need a torch sometime. Also, crème brulee.


Plan Extra in Your Budget

It costs three times as much and takes twice as long. It just does.


Pick Your Battles

If it starts to get stressful, take a break. If you are overwhelmed by a project, hire it out. You’ll have more sanity and be happier. When we discovered our turret was rotting – a sentence I hope you never utter – all the molding on the inside had to be taken off. Curved moldings. Zillions of pieces. We said, “We can put it back together! No problem. Let’s not waste that money.” Just kidding. We looked at it, and said, “This is money well spent to have the guys put it back together. We will screw this up.” Could we have done it well? Yes. Was it worth the stress? Nope.


Be Your Own Decorator

I’ll be honest: I’ve never hired an architect or a designer because it’s just too fun to do all of that myself. And I totally get that some people need to. But if you have a vision for the feel of your home, and keep track of pictures in magazines or online, you should be able to get a great end result. Personalize your spaces. Surround yourself with things you love. I’ve been told I’m really good at putting colors together. You know what I do? I find a fabric I love, and pull the colors out of that piece of fabric. That’s exactly where I found the exterior color scheme for the house and other rooms. It takes out so much guess work, and everyone thinks you’re a genius. Make floor plans of your rooms, measure all your windows, and take the measurements everywhere you go. You never know when you’ll drive by a yard sale with that PERFECT piece. I always have my book of measurements and a tape measure with me. AT ALL TIMES. A flashlight isn’t a bad idea, either. If you can teach yourself to sew simple drapes, that helps, too. I have 44 windows in this house, most that have 5’ of glass and are about 8’ or taller with 11 foot ceilings. Buying drapes for that height is almost impossible to do without ordering custom, so if you can alter store-bought drapes or sew your own, you will save a lot.


Pick Your Splurges

We renovated a bathroom at our last house that ended up in “This Old House” magazine, which was super exciting. Everyone loved it, and remarked how exquisite it was (and it was really lovely). People thought it was really expensive. Nope. The tile on the floor was $2 a square foot. The pendants over the sink were $3 each. The vanity was an antique store $40 desk. The medicine cabinet was an ebay steal at $50 because it had a scratch on the top corner (my apologies to any NBA player that might come and visit – they might see it). The room cost us nothing – but we put in an air-jet claw foot tub. It was a beautiful centerpiece for the room. We splurged on it, but felt we could because we were so smart everywhere else. Splurging on floor tile just wouldn’t have made the same impact as that tub did. Likewise, in our current kitchen, we splurged on a Heartland reproduction range. It is GORGEOUS. The rest of the appliances were crazy cheap, because we bought them on Black Friday. Pro-tip: The big box stores have GREAT deals on everything on Black Friday, and it’s not crazy pandemonium like everywhere else. You won’t hate life, and you’ll get a great deal on a refrigerator. Another great time to shop for tools is Father’s Day. If you have anything to get and can hold off until June, you can score some deals.
I have no idea if this is helpful or not. But I am a firm believer that any house – new or old – comes with a myriad of problems that will need to be fixed, even eventually. I’d put my money, trust and effort towards a house that has been around for 100 years, more than I would for a house that was built in 8 days. I wish this view was more widely shared, but there are so many really smart people out there who think that newer is always better. I just don’t believe that. I love watching DIY and HGTV, but sometimes their programming frustrates me. I think the drama of television builds up this idea that renovations and restorations are filled with fights, surprises, and you have to be a millionaire. Or that historic preservation isn’t a community effort. While I love what those networks do (a lot), I don’t want people to be scared away from buying an old house, or doing it themselves. It’s rewarding, amazing, and solidifies our buildings for a future generation. Don’t be afraid of it. It’s fantastic and fun and incredible. (This sounds like a show I would watch or host. Listen up, HGTV!). But seriously, buy an old house. Start an adventure. Let me know how I can help. It’s kind of my favorite, and I’d love to be a part of your brainstorming community as you take this adventure!

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