feeling overwhelmed - long and detailed

blackcats13September 7, 2008

Normally I am the type to figure out what needs to be done and "just do it", even when it's something I don't want to do. But now I'm feeling paralyzed more and more often, there's so much that needs to be done, and so much that builds on other things, etc. So I need a set plan that I can go to, can I get some advice on a plan?

Some background. We just bought a new to us house built around 1920 in Chicago. We both have decent jobs, and we purposefully bought a house that left us with a little $ left over after the bills every month. We have some cc debt, not a HUGE amount, I think around 10K, all around 10% interest. I know this is kinda personal, but it's relevant. We both have college debt. Our cars are paid off, but old. So far no sign of trouble, but I'm holding my breath (we have 1 mandatory 2 - 3 hour car trip weekly). I have a small amount of medical bills from back trouble this summer. We have DSL but not cable or satellite. Eating out will be a rare occasion now that we've mostly settled from the move. I've already worked out most of a budget plan for mortgage and monthly payments, but will need to put more towards the cc for my own peace of mind.

I still have to be very careful of my back.

Still a lot of unpacking to do.

In no particular order we need to: Reside (not terribly urgent YET), new tear off roof (no leaks yet but ASAP, and expand already there dormers if that is possible), rip out concrete on one side of house and re-grade then waterproof that basement wall from inside (preferably soon), gut and redo the upstairs bathroom (not currently usable for reasons we haven't determined) before the downstairs bathroom becomes unusable (it also needs a gut), replace vent hood above stove, in the basement sister some beams and add a little support (DH can do this himself for not too much $), more insulation in the attic, drywall back stairwell where insulation is and probably put more insulation in actually, turn upstairs kitchen into master bedroom (involves hopefully removing wall separating orig house from add on so the room is a little bigger, or somehow adding a window if not), either replace rotting stairway outside in front of house or (our preference) add small front porch. Oh yeah, electric prob needs some work eventually. We don't have AC, and don't have the best air flow through the house due to the angle it faces and some stupid picture windows. The furnace is going to need to be replaced sometime in the next few years. Plumbing needs work, probably best to replace it all, but that isn't necessary yet.

Things we want to do: if there is room in that master also add a tiny bathroom with shower and sink (it will be on the other side of the wall from a current bathroom), wash/prime/paint EVERYTHING, tear up carpet and hope wood floors don't need lots of work (they don't seem to), clean and repaint exterior siding until it can be replaced to make it less ugly, there are 2 huge picture windows to replace with double hung - preferably not vinyl, add patio door and small deck off kitchen in back (currently have to go out a door, downstairs and out another door to access backyard - not great for grilling), plant a garden in back and flowers in front, finish stripping gunk off kitchen cabs so I can paint them and not have a paper towel wrapped around each handle because I'm so grossed out by touching them.

Things that will NOT be DIY: roofing, siding, plumbing, maybe electric (DH informally trained already), adding windows. Everything else DIY, unless further research determines it to be out of our ability.

We have no real savings, but are planning to put a very small amount every month into a "high" interest rate savings account that I already own, just so we are putting something away. We are both contributing to our 401K up to company match. We've been wondering lately if that is wise due to markets. I know that one is a personal decision, but throwing it out there anyway. And here's a big one - if we are going to have kids, we'll need to get started in the next year or so, as we aren't that young anymore. If we do have more then one kid we'll need a bigger car. And I can't be a stay at home mom because I'm the bigger paycheck AND the more stable job.

Does anyone have any advice on how to tackle this? Or even what you would do? I'm not adverse to seeing what someone else would do and how it may or may not fit my situation. I've already got the prayers going to every god I know and my grandmother that nothing goes so seriously wrong that we end up a bankruptcy statistic LOL I also haven't lost my sense of humor.

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blackcats, first off, remember to breathe. My situation was pretty similar 4 years ago in terms of having an enormous to-do list and feeling unbelieveably overwhelmed. I still feel that way occasionally, but most times, I just look around my house with love and congratulate myself on all the progress we've made.

I think getting started on an emergency fund is really really important. Even if you can only put in $20 a paycheck and the change you find on the sidewalk, it'll be a start. Put away as much as you can whenever you can and don't touch it unless you absolutely have no choice. Emergencies will always come up in an old house, and anything you can save before they do will hedge the pain. That said, keeping your retirement saving at levels that get your companies' match is wonderful.

In terms of house jobs, I'd try to determine which are saftey issues (rotting front steps?) or issues that need to be dealt with because they are harming the house (like the re-grading if you're getting water in the basement or your foundation is deteriorating). I'd look to see if anything on the list is low cost, but will have high impact in comfort and a cost savings -- like the insulation. You're going to have a list for a very long time...embrace your list and use the time to think through how you want to do things. Look for stuff you need on craigslist or by the curbside. It's amazing what other people throw away.

A couple of the things on your list are almost no cost at all and will definitely make you feel better about your home -- scrub those kitchen cabinets and hardware...buy yourself a six-pack of pansies and plant them where you'll see them every day. Pull up the carpeting. Clean your windows. Paint a room or two. This kind of stuff will make it start to feel like home.

Any just keep reminding yourself that every single thing you do adds up and makes the house just a little bit better. It'll take a while to feel like you're achieving critical mass, but you'll get there.

    Bookmark   September 7, 2008 at 2:59PM
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I absolutely believe you need to carry on the 401K. Markets go up and down routinely, but the company's helping you build a retirement fund and that's important - where it is when you retire is what matters, not where it is today. I do so wonder if you did not have a house inspection before buying in - it sounds like you bought a huge lot of fixes! Yes take care of safety things first (if not only to save litigation problems in future). Consider living on one level of the house only until you can clear whatever needs doing on the other in time, and also be able to (can you?) turn down the heat on the unused level. Forget about siding til way in the future, and the roof til unavoidable, but when you do need to pay for work, don't just go the cheapest route - it's not always the smartest thing. Address necessaries, forget picture windows and such for now.

    Bookmark   September 7, 2008 at 5:07PM
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You've gotten good advice above already, but I'd just like to repeat: breathe in. Breathe out. Everything will be fine. Seriously.

One of the things I love about houses (old houses in particular) is that you generally *don't* have to do things immediately. (Exceptions, as noted: roof, general safety issues.)

For the non-essentials, I'd think about what will improve your life in the near term that's also affordable. Hate the paint? Great: change that. Tear carpet? Perfect: even if the floors could use sanding, maybe that can wait. (Trick: slop a bit of linseed oil on bare patches/scratches... it'll make a world of difference.)

Don't get stuck thinking about things that would go in a particular order in a perfect world. Dormers, while perhaps nice to expand, would be good to do before a roof, but really and truly, shouldn't prevent a roofing job. If you had the roof done now-ish and the dormers done 5 years from now, the extra money you pay for the roofing of your new dormers will be trivial.

I would get a plumber in as a consultant to evaluate your plumbing. You should figure out what's going on, in order to make good decisions in the future. If it was me, I'd make the downstairs bathroom work and ignore the upstairs bath in the near term.

Anyway, good luck and don't panic. It'll work out fine.

    Bookmark   September 7, 2008 at 9:11PM
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THANK YOU for the advice so far, it's soo good to hear from others who've been there done that. This will be quick because I'm exhausted. Today we put in more towel bars and a cabinet (I put it together mostly by myself! Yay me!) in the bathroom to make it way more usable. And we actually did have a plumber come in and his opinion was NOTHING was critical. Downstairs bathroom will probably be fine for another 5 years LOL Damn that felt good to hear! He's going to draw up a plan of attack and estimate for everything (he's a friend of DH) and recommended working with a builder or contractor to make plans for the big picture. He also recommended not doing anything except safety critical stuff (structure repair mostly), saving up for a few years, then doing a whole floor at once. Today we also spent several hours walking to and being at the park with DH's 9 yr old daughter =D

Last - yes, we did have an inspection, that's how we made a good part of our to do list LOL. This was what we had to do to get a house in the neighborhood we wanted to be in and near what we needed to be near. Still a worthwhile decision, even with all this. It's doable, I just started feeling like there was too much that needed to be done NOW. If there is more advice, please post, but at least I'm over my current panic ;)

    Bookmark   September 8, 2008 at 12:00AM
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I absolutely agree with building an emergency fund and still funding the 401ks. The #1 rule of good financial planning is to pay yourself first, then pay the bills. We've also found with the 3 old homes that we've owned that DIY is a huge money saver. We also started out with very little DIY experience, but have learned tons as we go (mostly from this and the forums at oldhouseweb dot com).

I also agree about doing things first that impact the integrity or safety of your house. On the interior, I would focus on one room at a time. Get that first room like you want it and you'll always have a clean place to retreat to. Plus, it's alot easier to get 1 room done instead of pieces of lots of rooms and, if you do it that way, you get the satisfaction of patting yourselves on the back, saying "job well done" ....and actually be done!

I'm an Oak Parker so I'm guessing you have a bungalow...we do, too. Our little homes are solid as rocks. Take a look at the blog "houseinprogress.net". They had a baby while working on their bungalow - kids and old homes can be done! Keep breathing.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2008 at 6:43AM
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I don't have much to add except that I feel like my old house will never be "finished." Oddly, that's what I love about it. Almost 7 years ago we bought our old house. It was dated on the inside and outside and needed some major fixes. We started with electrical upgrade (required before home owner's insurance would cover-it was that bad!). We (mainly me) did lots of cosmetic fixes-removed wall paper, painted, peel & stick, refinished wood floors) every weekend nonstop for 3 months before we moved in. At that point the house was more than liveable and much much cleaner feeling. And, it finally felt like ours instead of the previous owner's. Since then we've replaced the roof, remodeled one of the bathrooms, redone the landscaping, decided to paint the aluminum siding instead of replacing it, added a fence and a patio, partially finished the basement, repainted most of the interior again, and totally redid the kitchen. We had professionals do the big stuff and did what we could when we could. We paid for the smaller projects as we did them and used 2 home equity loans for the bigger projects. (I have not input as far as the financial soundess of our decisions, but we have a house that's worth more than what we owe).

We also had two children during all of it. We both work full time. It can be hectic and messy, but it's possible.

It's a labor of love, and in a way it's a lifestyle. I guess my point is that matter how big or small the house, there's a never enough time or money, but you make do. And with every project the house becomes your home.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2008 at 10:26AM
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And more thank yous!!! These comments are making me realize what I knew before we got into this - it can be done, lots of people do it, and this forum is one of the best!

Patser - sadly not a bungalow. We tried but it just wasn't in the cards (or maybe I should say bank account) for where we wanted to be. I LOVE house in progress, and I'm in a nearby neighborhood to them. I read many of their archived posts this weekend to make myself feel better =D

I'm going to reread and reread these posts whenever I get the chance (and in the future whenever I get frantic again!) and use this advice to put together our to-do list, one bit at a time. First off - finish finalizing our regular living budget and start saving! Well, after we go to Lowest tonight and buy concrete and support posts anyway ;)

I'm not sure if it's a benefit or detriment, but I'll sure be online a lot less with all this stuff to do!

    Bookmark   September 8, 2008 at 3:43PM
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Most of us know that old houses require the same care that almost new houses require. My friends that have purchased brand new houses have changed light fixtures, appliances, put in landscaping, painted every room inside, etc. Do they have serious problems to work on? No probably not, but they are still spending lots of money on their homes. When you are a homeowner, you have to plan for emergencies no matter how old your house is. The advantage we have is that our homes have characture and history and we are contributing to it. Now, I will get off my soapbox...

Break down you projects into small goals. When you reach a goal, check it off your list and take a break to do something fun. Then pick the next thing on your list, and follow the same procedure. Every time I finish something in our house, I imagine the house smiling.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2008 at 4:42PM
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I think your circumstances will actually turn out to be a great blessing since they will prevent you from making the most common mistake of new old house owners: rushing in and making permanent changes that turn out to not be such a good thing in the long run.

The ideas you arrive with at a new house are not going to be as appropriate, attractive, economical (of both your money and the remaining historical materials and significance of your building) or practical as those that grow out of your experience living in the house. Don't worry, the house will tell you what it needs - all you have to do is be open to the clues.

Naturally you have a strong instinct to "make the house yours" right now. Satisfy it by confining yourself to the deepest, most thorough cleaning you will ever do. Rip out with great gusto things like tatty modern carpets or resilient flooring (be mindful of asbestos risks in removing old tile or mastic). If the house is cold this winter because there isn't time to completely winterize it, don't worry: close off rooms, put up plastic on some windows.

As you go through the building save all the little old bits, labeled as to where you found them. You will almost certainly find knobs, doodads and pieces of the puzzle that will turn out to be exactly the right thing when you figure out what it is.

If the house isn't storm or fire damaged, you can live there for the time being.

The only two caveats for me would be safe wiring and safe from fire or carbon monoxide poisoning heating system.

More than two decades ago when we bought this farm (not having a dime to spare for repairs because of paying right at the top end of what we were able swing until we sold our other house) we discovered that the only chimney used to heat the house was unsafe to burn a fire. (This is wood-heated house in northern NY, and we closed on Dec. 10th!) For that winter we got by with electric space heaters in a few of the rooms to keep the plumbing from freezing. My DH worked away in an office, but I was driven by the need to be in warmly heated rooms during the day to spend most of my time researching my house's history in local public record rooms, historical soc. archives, etc. I am so grateful for that enforced hiatus in my urge to restore this house because it allowed me to learn more about the style, structure, history, construction and changes made to the building in the 19th c than I ever would have if I had launched right into renovations. And I would have made serious, irreversible mistakes, too, that I would regret forever.

So, clean your house, paint its walls in whatever shape they currently are (except I wouldn't paint over wallpaper, as that's really bad reno/decorating karma), arrange your stuff in the various rooms and see what your ideas are like next spring. Meanwhile, let your finances recover from the costs of the move

Think of it this way: you have no idea where/if the daffodils may be planted, and you won't know until the seasons come around again. If you organized up a massive redo of your garden right now then you'd almost certainly stab the bulbs with your spading fork. I'd be willing to bet that there are things that will enchant you about your house that right now you just haven't recognized or absorbed yet. Flinging yourself at early, major reno projects will almost guarantee that you will inadvertently stab those as-yet-unrecognized things with at least a metaphorical wrecking bar, if not a real one.

I've attached a link to an excellent source of information about living with and repairing old buildings. It's my standard "housewarming present" to new owners who fetch up here asking for advice.



Here is a link that might be useful: National Park Service Preservation Bulletin Series - a wide variety of old house topics

    Bookmark   September 10, 2008 at 8:30PM
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I've lived in old houses all my life and have been in the carpentry/remodeling business working under a 50 year carpenter for about six years now. Probably though, most of the advice I will summarize here has to do with what I've learned on my own. I've lived in the unliveable and lived in the luxuriously restored.

First off, like others have said here, take a breath. Seems to me you have a good idea of your financial health and have a realistic view of what you need to do to survive -- most importantly, not getting sucked into the disease of needless consumerism.

In summary here's how you should look at the issues in your house:

1. Basic functionality: a) will you stay warm enough in the winter to survive? b) will you have working plumbing to enable basic sanitary functions? c) will your structure be able to keep the elements out? That is, wind, water and cold.

Why do you need your roof stripped now? If it isn't leaking, you can hold off probably until spring for that, you may, depending on the number of layers and the allowance of code, be able to get by with another layer for now if you have to.

You mention that the bathrooms need gutting. That's a large and expensive project to undertake, do you need to do that now? What does the upstairs bath need to be operable? At least so that you can use the lav and the toilet? Are there major plumbing issues or are these more cosmetic issues?

I'd say that your major issues are:

Fix the plumbing issues if that is what is occuring in the baths. Improper or poorly functioning plumbing can lead to sanitary issues as well as further damage to the interior walls and floor of the rest of the house, much less more plumbing damage. Get some quotes and plan on doing that, do some research and see what you can attempt yourself. Make some friends who know plumbing.

If the bathroom is gross and the flooring and walls are gross, rip out and replace on your own, recover the flooring with luan and sheet vinyl, paint the walls, fix the plumbing. Now you've got a usable bathroom with a little elbow grease and maybe a couple paychecks.

You can go back later and do the real fix-up that you want.

Is the wiring dangerous or just outdated? An electrician once told me when doing some wiring at one old house I lived in long before I got into the trades, "I always tell people to leave well enough alone, never touch old wires and don't rewire when you don't have a problem." Old wiring has old insulation that will flake and fall off if touched. Better to leave well enough alone. If it looks intact, works well then you are fine. Yes, we'd all love a re-wired house, but the cost is prohibitive and the payback isn't always so great.

Removing plaster and scraping paint, removing old flooring and the rest will stir up a lot of lead and possibly asbestos, if you plan on having children, delay that until most of the rough work is complete. If you have children now, cordone off the areas you are working in with plastic taped securely around. Use a "zip-door" to enter and re-enter the work area.

Since you are starting from scratch in a sense, I'd suggest also that you consider integrating more energy efficient design techniques with your design ideas. You could consider installing a solar hot water heater, or possibly a combination wood/gas fired furnace. You don't mention what kind heating system you have.

Focus on:

1. Sanitation
2. Structural
3. Comfort
4. Aesthetics

In that order. Of course oftentimes these four will converge, but when looking at a project from a budget point of view, you often have to ask yourself, "what can I live with, how can I live with it and for how long?"

Oftentimes you can make small fixes now and as your budget, knowledge and ideas ripen over time, you'll have the flexibility to approach things from a different, wiser perspective.

Unlike the stupid fix-it shows on teevee, remodeling and improving a house is in fact a long term process that requires a lot of forethought, planning not only in design, but choice of materials, relation of cost to function/value and of course, investment in sweat or dollars. The best fertilizer for that planning/development process is prudence, which often is exercised only when we have to.

    Bookmark   September 10, 2008 at 11:32PM
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look on the bright side- with our old houses when things are torn up and in the middle of demo just smile at visitors and say "we're in the middle of a remodel"...lol or so i keep telling myself!

    Bookmark   September 11, 2008 at 4:25PM
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Thank you for the further advice and resource! Molly - that lack of heat sounds like my worst nightmare! Your advice is good, and it's not possible for us to paint directly over wallpaper since the several layers that we found on one wall were already painted over, then paneled over :D The whole house has paneling. That we will paint over ... for now.

Yes, the house is totally safe and livable. Not sure how it will heat yet, but we're going to have a furnace guy come out and do maintenance (gas furnace). Even the structural stuff DH is starting this weekend isn't critical like the house will fall down tomorrow.

Newenglandbuilder - Needless consumerism is one of our pet peeves! The 1st floor bath has been leaking behind the shower, but mostly it's just old and ugly. Adding a cabinet and towel bars fixed the immediate need, so we are ignoring that room for now ;) Gutting it is several years away, but can't be done until there is a shower upstairs that works, which requires a gut upstairs (for various reasons). I'm actually thinking that can wait awhile now as well. As everyone has said, better to wait.

Wiring we were told by the inspector needed to be upgraded, but we haven't had an electrician out yet. It's working fine and with 2 of us and no AC it's not a huge load. Plumber said plumbing isn't critical. Energy efficient design is a big thing with us, but I need to do more research.

I'm going to make that big list of small projects and research research research, to fulfill my need to plan. But nothing will be set in stone and nothing major will be started yet, except structural (sanitary is not a problem), broken, or small things like paint. And really, before that, I'm going to finish unpacking and cleaning!!!

    Bookmark   September 12, 2008 at 12:07AM
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You've gotten good advice here, not much more I can add on to that. Just want to say 'Hi!' and welcome you to the world of endless, yet rewarding, house projects! Our old bungalow is also located in Chicago.

We are on our 6th year of living in DH's family home which we bought from his mother. It was discounted due to the fact that it needed work and was full of family accumulation. Before we moved in we had to clear out full bedrooms and closets and then patch, cauk, scrape, prime and paint. We had to get the upstairs bathroom functional before moving in...but other than that we moved in and have lived with our work in progress ever since.

You take it gradually and steadily and somehow through love and persistence the house keeps improving as life goes on. In the process, you both will greatly increase your knowledge, skills and ability while you learn how to do this stuff.

We just had 3+ years showering in the basement and having a main floor bathroom with lathe and plaster walls. Every holiday and family event was a reminder that project had stalled due to the fact that it was huge and DH's job now requires constant travel. Finally, we bit the financial bullet and had a contractor friend finish our main bathroom. It should be finished this week with the exception of the shower door. This is the first time we paid for labor and while it hurts, it's worth it. What a luxury to watch someone else do the work! There's still plenty of projects for us to do, as someone else said its never really done, but truly you do get to a point where the big jobs are more or less completed.

Here is a link that might be useful: Some of our projects

    Bookmark   September 12, 2008 at 7:59AM
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