Moving into a new house is surrounded by as much consumer fanfare as a new baby. There’s a temptation–and a goading by the likes of HGTV–to buy all new furniture, renovate immediately, and deck every wall in a trendy palette. But this urgent wish for everything to be precisely perfect is detrimental to both budgets and longterm planning. Hard as it might be, the frugal route is to bide your time.
Impose A Waiting Period
Before we moved into our first home–the one in Cambridge that’s now a rental property–Mr. Frugalwoods and I put together a massive list of upgrades we wanted to do to the house. Urgently. Ideally before we moved in. Thankfully, we restrained ourselves because after living in the home for six months and then a year, our thoughts on what we wanted to do to the house changed radically.
Had we rushed into all the renovations we thought we wanted, we would’ve wasted thousands of dollars on upgrades that, as it turned out, weren’t necessary. Nothing ignites home improvement fever quite like a new house (or apartment or condo or townhouse). It’s the adrenaline of new and the pressure to “create your dream home” that’s levied by marketing and the media (not to mention HGTV… ).
You know how I advocate waiting 72 hours before purchasing anything? I do that because it enables a cooling-off period–a time to reflect on whether or not you actually need the item you’re lusting after. I also recommend it because–more often than not–those 72 hours will elapse and you’ll realize you don’t need the thing you so desperately wanted after all.
It’s the same situation with home improvement projects except that the waiting period is longer. I recommend waiting a full year before diving into any home upgrades that aren’t strictly necessary from a safety perspective.
This year allows you to live in your home, assess how your family uses the space, and then select paint colors and bathroom tiles with a full twelve months’ worth of data. Renovating immediately is flying blind–you’ve never lived in this home before and so you’re basing your improvements off of what has worked for you in previous homes and previous iterations of your life. Waiting provides the opportunity to strategically plot what’ll be best for you in the longterm.
The Benefits Of Waiting
This year also gives you the opportunity to remove the compounding stress of moving coupled with renovations. Moving is its own fresh hell, so why stack on the trauma of renovating your kitchen and ripping out carpet at the same time? Get the move over with, get settled into your new life, and then consider what changes you might like to make.
Plus, buying a home is expensive–between a down payment, closing costs, and moving expenses, you’re likely to be out quite a bit of liquid capital. And paying for elective renovations with anything other than cash is folly.
Cosmetic updates to a home are luxury purchases and should be paid for like any other luxury: in full with cash. If you can’t pay cash, then you can’t do the renovation. This yearlong moratorium will allow you to shore up your cash reserves and rebuild your net worth.
The caveat here, of course, is if you purchase a home that requires a gut renovation before it’s safely habitable–that’s an entirely different can of beans. Another caveat is if the flooring is in atrocious shape and needs to be removed/refinished/redone for safety/health reasons. It’s a lot easier and cheaper to redo a floor before you move all of your stuff in on top of it.
Waiting to renovate also creates a spirit of gratitude for what you already have. Just owning a home is a tremendous privilege and I find that when I allow myself to settle in and appreciate that fact, I’m thankful for my house as opposed to endlessly identifying its faults. Because no home (or person or situation or life) is perfect. There are idiosyncrasies in every house and things that might not be precisely to our taste. But reflecting on the blessing of having a safe, clean, warm place for my family is a profound lesson for me in my effort to live out gratitude instead of a constant desire for more. Plus, waiting makes it more likely you’ll DIY the project, which’ll save money and teach you a new skill set.
Do Nothing Before You Move In
Almost a year has passed since we moved into our homestead here in Vermont and we haven’t done a single thing to the interior (or exterior, for that matter) of this house. Not so much as a lick of paint has graced its walls. We haven’t even patched the many nail holes and other wall maladies… Other than move in, clean periodically, hang a few pictures, and perform small maintence necessities, not to mention baby-proof… the house is untouched. We have grand plans for this home–our likely abode for many decades to come–but we’re biding our time.
Before moving in, we were mired in an overwhelming list of potential projects for this house. But now? After ten months of actually living here? Our priorities have narrowed and come into focus. Plus, we’ve already changed our minds about several upgrades that we both thought were “mandatory.” For example, our washer and dryer.
The washer and dryer in our Vermont home are located in the main floor half bathroom. I thought this was odd and wanted them migrated down to the basement ASAP–ideally before we moved in. After all, my washer and dryer in both Cambridge and DC had been in our basement and I liked it that way. Well. A cooler head (aka Mr. FW) reminded me of my waiting period rule and adamantly refused to relocate the washer/dryer before one year elapsed.
Good thing he intervened because as it turns out, I absolutely love having the washer and dryer on the main floor. Why? Because I now have a toddler. Since the main floor bath is open to the rest of the main floor, I can do laundry and keep an eye on Babywoods while she plays. This would not be possible if the washer and dryer were in the basement. Before moving in, I was calibrating my wishes off of not just our previous homes, but our previous child-free lifestyle. Moving a washer and dryer is not a terribly expensive or un-doable renovation, but it would’ve been a hassle and it’s a great illustration of how our perceptions change after we’ve lived in a place for awhile.
Cheap, Temporary Fixes Are OK
It’s often possible to ameliorate an immediate concern with an inexpensive temporary fix before diving into a full-on renovation project. Take our living room, for example. It has no lights. And it’s a big room.
We don’t own many lamps, but I put all two of them in that room in an attempt to brighten things up. This approach worked well enough during the summer months when the sun stays out until about 9pm. But in the winter when the sun sets at 5:00pm? It was getting pretty dim in there.
This room contains the woodstove–as well as our dining room table and couch–so we tend to spend a lot of time there. In the long run, we’re thinking of installing sconces or perhaps an overhead light or two. But those are fairly involved, expensive projects. And so, we came up with the immensely cheap solution of hanging LED Christmas lights around the perimeter of the room. Unconventional? Yes. Tacky? Perhaps. But the lights create a cozy, whimsical feel and give the room a wonderfully warm glow for a mere $14.99.
Our Priority: The Kitchen
Mr. FW and I have decided that our priority is renovating the kitchen. We had our eyes on revamping this kitchen from the start, but we decided to wait and see if that desire held up. It has–and it has intensified–so it’ll probably be the first major project we tackle. By cooking in this kitchen every single day for ten months, Mr. FW has developed a clear sense of how he’d like to redesign it.
Without this data, he’d be reliant upon other people’s conceptions of kitchen design–not necessarily what’s most conducive to his cooking work flow. One discovery? The pantry is located a long distance from the prep area, so you have to circumnavigate the kitchen to grab ingredients. If we instead cut another entryway into the kitchen, the chef’s path to the pantry would be direct as opposed to circuitous.
Before moving in, our desire for the kitchen to be more efficiently designed was lost in our tumult of project ideas: renovations for all three bathrooms, wall painting, and doing something about the ugly handrail on our staircase. After a year, thanks to the wisdom granted by time, those other projects have faded in urgency and the kitchen has surfaced as goal number one.
Our Dishwasher: Rule Breaker Extraordinaire
I’ll confess to you right now that we broke our one-year waiting period rule for one thing: a dishwasher. This house, for some bizarre reason, lacked a dishwasher (and no, modern dishwashers are not bad for modern septic systems). We decided to try out life without a dishwasher and for five months, we hand washed every single fork, baby cup, bottle, plate, pan, pot and spoon. And we both agreed we wanted a dishwasher. Really, really badly. Like really badly.
After confirming our fervent desire for a dishwasher, we got into an “if you give a mouse a cookie” conversation where we reasoned that, if we were going to add a dishwasher–which would require reconfiguring the kitchen slightly–why not just redo the entire kitchen? But we backed off and realized we could meet our need for a dishwasher without prematurely taking on the whole tuna.
We did this by accepting the imperfect. By being at peace with a slight oddity in our kitchen. Because in order to squeeze the dishwasher in next to the sink, Mr. FW had to cut out several cabinets, which meant that their accompanying countertop went along with them. And so, we now have a dishwasher that lacks a countertop above it. But you know what? It works just fine!
Waiting also allowed us to get a deal on our ‘washer. Mr. FW went to Home Depot, selected the model he liked best, and then searched the internet to see if it could be found for less. Lo and behold, it was a lot cheaper from AJ Madison. And yes, he did this all on his own because he installed the dishwasher as a surprise for me when I returned from my extended trip to CA to visit family with Babywoods.
Empty Space Is Not A Sin
In addition to the temptation to knock down walls and rip out bathroom sinks, I find that every single time we move (5 times in the last 10 years), I am beset by an obsession with furniture and decor. And every time, I remind myself that empty space is not a sin. There’s no reason I need to fill up every room the instant we unpack.
When we moved from Washington, DC into our home in Cambridge, we had about six pieces of furniture (one of which was a folding table and another of which was an air mattress). But we didn’t rush out and put a bunch of brand new furniture on a credit card.
We slowly built a collection of Craigslist finds, garage sale deals, hand-me-downs, items from my Buy Nothing group, and roadside treasures. In a desperate need to get off the air mattress, we did buy a mattress on Amazon for $279, which I gave a five-year update on the other week.
By taking the leisurely route to home furnishings, we spent well under $1,000 to equip our entire home with tables, chairs, beds, dressers, a couch, and wall decor. We’re following that same trajectory once again. Our current home is quite a bit larger than our Cambridge home and so, we’re the lucky owners of some empty rooms. And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. There’s no empty room police that’s going to come fine me for having nothing but some baby toys in what is ostensibly a dining room. Sure, we could afford to furnish many houses over, but to what end? To have all matching, brand new furniture? Boring, I say! I’d rather wait for the serendipity of used items to come my way. Plus, it gives Babywoods and Frugal Hound plenty of space to romp.
At some point, we will find furniture odds and ends either for free or for cheap. Just the other month someone in my parents’ group was cleaning out their basement and offered up a free coffee table and side table, both of which I gladly took. In addition to the money this approach saves, I find it’s a more interesting way to live. Anyone can copy and paste showroom furniture, it takes a special kind of frugal weirdo to cobble together an eclectic array of turquoise end tables, orange chairs, and red sideboards.
Design Your Home For You
I’ve also come around to an element of minimalism in my home furnishings. When we moved to Vermont, I made the decision–as we were unpacking–to only unpack things that we use and like. Gone were the decorative throw pillows on our bed–all they did was take up my time (removing them at night, storing them under the bed, putting them back on in the morning… ) and clutter up our space.
Gone were elaborate candle centerpieces that always got in our way on the dining room table. This approach means we need less, the house is easier to clean, it’s not cluttered, and principally, our living space is in full alignment with our current phase of life, which is that we have a 16-month-old.
Rather than chase after Babywoods all day long in an attempt to save delicate vases and prevent her from eating decorative pebbles and knocking over tippy end tables, we’ve fully baby-proofed the areas of the house she hangs out in. Makes our life easier and gives her more freedom to roam and explore her surroundings.
A reader recently asked me how I found inexpensive rugs to cover our wood floors to which I responded that we don’t have a single solitary rug in our home. Why? They are expensive, I like how wood floors look, and it’s a lot easier to clean without rugs. Neither Mr. FW nor I are rug fans, so we just don’t have them. Easy as that. I have a foam mat for Babywoods to play on and now that she’s walking, I imagine she’d just trip over a rug if it was there.
Being content, at ease, and happy in your home is something I consider supremely important–especially for frugal weirdos who tend to spend a lot of time at home. But having a comfortable home doesn’t require expensive furnishings. Have the things that you enjoy using and don’t worry about what a home is “supposed” to look like. You live there, random other people do not, so make it work for your needs.
The compulsion to perfect a home the minute you take up residence is a natural extension of our desire to nest and create a safe haven. But don’t lose sight of what you need in your home versus what you want. And let that year elapse to give yourself the time, the experience, and the money to perform the renovations you’ll enjoy for years to come–not the upgrades that spring to mind before you move in.