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Toolmonger reader Scott writes in with an interesting question:  “I just bought a house built in 1958;  do you have any posts on general advice for a first-time homeowner?  We’re already planning several projects including adding more insulation to the settled insulation in the attic.”

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Scott, a thousand things are about to come at you at warp speed, but I guess the first advice is, don’t get too carried away with the fluff stuff if there are function/utility issues you can tackle first.  For instance, if you need a new garage door opener and new carpet in the den, go with the garage door opener.

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How ‘bout it, Toolmongers?  What words of wisdom can you muster for a fellow tool guy and first-time homeowner?  Let us know in comments.

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Thanks to Patrick Q for the sweet photo.

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35 Responses to Reader Question: Tips For A First-Time Homeowner

  1. Nordmann says:

    Keep an extra $500-$1000 on hand for all the odd & ends (ex. coat hook, rug, paint, phone for extra floor, shelves, yard tools) needed for the first month of the new house. Also check Lowes and Home Depot’s web site they often have coupons for people with new homes.

  2. beano_t says:

    I agree with the article, start wit the bones, work your way out. After a foundation check.. roof, wires(including panel), water(plumbing and heater)….then insulation, siding and so on.

    The best thing is one thing at a time. I have been in my old house for a decade and I still have a list of things to do.

  3. Thomas says:

    Caulk covers holes in white paneling REALLY well. Caulk fixes air leaks. Caulk is paintable and sandable. Caulk is sweet. n’ check under the house for drain leaks.

  4. Gene says:

    Learn how to do stuff yourself. Volunteering with your local Habitat for Humanity is a great way to learn how houses are built.

    Don’t get discouraged if in fixing something you find the trouble actually goes deeper (e.g., a water leak has lead to some rot). If you do find a deeper problem, fix it right the first time.

  5. morga says:

    Buy a service plan/ warranty/ insurance for your water, sewer, and gas lines. $75 of insurance per year is well worth it when you consider that installing a new sewer line could run you several thousand dollars. (This is all moot if you live out in the country and have a well, septic tank, and propane.)

    Tackle projects one-at-a-time. They WILL take longer than you think and it’s just going to aggravate you if you have several unfinished projects going on at the same time.

    Get permits (and follow applicable codes) for any major changes you undertake. The next buyer will be curious about these if you make any large claims to justify a hike in price between you and the previous seller.

  6. Chris says:

    If you undertake any plumbing projects, understand that you will be making at least TWO trips to the hardware store. Fight it as much as you want but unless you buy up the entire plumbing department, you will never get all of the correct pieces the first go around. If the project requires shutting off the water, start in the morning. The last thing you want is closed stores, an unfinished project, and no water. My personal record is 5 trips in one day. Good luck!

  7. Patrick says:

    Seconding learning to do it yourself.

    The first time you do it, it’ll cost more than hiring someone because you’ll need to buy tools, you’ll under- or over- purchase materials, it’ll take forever and you’ll break something expensive. The second time, it’ll cost WAY less.

    Do it right the first time and don’t buy cheaply made materials/appliances/whatever. Both mistakes will cost you in the long run.

  8. MikeT says:

    Make a budget for every project, then budget for a 30% cost overrun. In my experience, that’s about right.

    Home warranties are not worth the money. They nickel and dime you to death on every expense, replace broken items with low-end replacements, and my experience with the tradespeople they’ve hired has been less than pleasant.

    But my number one piece of advice is to completely finish each project before you start the next one. “I’ll put the trim up later.” turns into years of “When are we going to get that trim up?”

  9. ShopMonger says:

    1. be patient
    2. watch this old house
    3. Prepare in advance for harsh season, caulk windows for winter, get ac clean for summer ect….
    4. takle only one project at a time.
    5. make it the way you want it……..

  10. HammerDrill says:

    I would do a through inspection for water leaks and fix those ASAP.

  11. Mark Bickford says:

    Check the wiring in the attic first!

    A lot of houses built in that era had knob & tube wiring, which when covered with extra insulation, becomes a fire hazard. You’ll have to replace it first.

  12. Benjamen Johnson says:

    ShopMonger: I have to take issue with #2. Maybe Ask This old House, but not This Old House. The show should be renamed This Old Mansion, or in the case of this season This New God Awful Looking Barn.

    The projects they do are so far out of the average American’s budget it’s not even funny. That’s not even counting the free stuff they get from sponsors.

    I find shows like Ron Hazelton and Hometime tackle things much more suited for an average home-owner.

    As for Tips:
    1) If you have a contractor do work for you, no matter how small, get a contract and definitely check references.
    2) It’s not a real project unless you have to buy at least one new tool.
    3) Never follow any advice you get from a Home Depot employee — I’ve been burned several times.

  13. SharkyTM says:

    [quote]
    # ShopMonger Says:

    2. watch this old house
    [/quote]
    I’d like to make a suggestion. Avoid “This Old House”, as its turned into a pretentious show about spending WAY too much money on rebuilding an old house. Instead, watch “Ask This Old House”… its more geared to DIY’rs, and is extremely useful.

    Check out Lowe’s Mover’s Edge program. Every $500 you spend, you get $50 back, and its free. They’ll also send you a 10% off coupon when you register with them. Ditto with the USPS, do the online change of address form, it costs $1, and you can get a 10% or 15% off coupon from Home Depot. I really have come to dislike HD, and love Lowes.

    And with regards to insulation, I just blew in 9.5″ of cellulose into my attic, which had 10.5” of fiberglass already. It was a solid day of work, but the results have been awesome. Its warmer, quieter, and our attic was useless to begin with, so we lost nothing and gained a lot. Cellulose is also fire-rated, anti-insect, and doesn’t leak air like fiberglass. I’m a huge fan of it now. Protip: Wear a good woodworking dust mask with removable filters, and tape a flashlight (LED) to the end of the blower nozzle.

  14. Scott says:

    Thanks for all the great info everybody, keep it coming 🙂

    I pretty much assume that everything is going to cost more / take longer than originally planned.

    PS – We close on the house on Friday, I’ll be sure to keep you folks updated via the Toolmonger flickr pool.

  15. Angelo says:

    I’ve been involved in this sort of silliness on and off since I was about ten and my dad realized I could help him. Owning my own home the last few years, I’ve developed a few key principles that I intend to stick by in the next house.

    0.) Do anything involving flooring FIRST, especially refinishing hard wood.

    1.) My personal advice on homeowner project management, especially if you intend to do it yourself: If it involves the kitchen, the bathroom, a really bad looking wall/floor/roof/etc., budget and be prepared to go right down to stud and replace EVERYTHING. You never know what surprises the previous owners left you.

    2.) When you do your budgeting and sourcing for materials, shop around a few places. Don’t count on the big blue and orange stores for your pricing. Take toilets for instance. Yeah, a lot they have are around say $125-150. But could you go to a plumbing/fixture supplier and spend say $50 more and get a better model, that wasn’t thrown off a palette by a kid who’s one drug test away from getting fired? It doesn’t cost you to check the major specialty suppliers in town.
    Locally, a couple of my buddies and I have sworn by a local lumber yard just for the StoraEnso 2x4s. Same price as HD, etc., but they’re laser STRAIGHT in comparison. Totally worth the extra trip for working with good materials.

    3.) If you have the luxury of extra time off from work, use it when you anticipate having to run to the store for parts, or may have to return something. This is especially useful when you use suppliers who have limited weekend hours, if at all.

    4.) Find the nearest True Value, Ace, or other hardware store and then find one with the best weekend hours. Spend some time there so you have a rough idea of what they carry. There’s probably one closer to you than a big box store, and you’ll be in and out in less time.

    5.) If you think you could use the help of a rented tool, do some shopping and budget it in.

    6.) Take inventory of your own skills and shortcomings. I have a relatively short patience with hammers and nails, so I’m quickly tempted to borrow my friend’s Paslode framer when necessary.

    7.) This is a personal preference, but I like to keep my wife out of the house when I have to do these things. It just makes my life easier. I can focus and not having someone complaining because I’m not doing it the way she “expected” it to be done. Anyways, that’s just me.

    Hope some of this helps someone.

  16. David Bryan says:

    That Mark Bickford’s a smart fellow. A house built in 1958 most likely won’t have open wiring on insulators, but it may very well have inadequate wiring, or boxes not designed to support heavy fixtures or ceiling fans; and it’s likely to have the kind of problems you get with older wiring, such as deteriorating insulation and connections. A lot of things can go wrong in an attic because of heat, moisture, or animals, or just because it’s not the kind of place you keep a close eye on. A house built last year can have a lot of wiring problems you wouldn’t immediately associate with a new house. And you might want to add fans, switches, or light fixtures. All this stuff is a lot easier to find when it’s not buried under a lot of insulation.

  17. jbrowning says:

    I suggest you make a list, then prioritize from there. THis is the only way to maintain your sanity. I am in my second house and have been so for about 6 years. I have done quite alot in that time, but finally realized that the only way to get a handle on the remaining things is to put them on a list. THe list ended up being over a page and a half long, but I feel better having the documentation rather than relying on my caveman brain to remember it all.

  18. Chuck says:

    As someone who lived in a 1942 home for years, the best advice I can give you it to have a good attitude about it. You will be living in a house that will be more prone to failure than just about anything else you’ve ever touched before. If you let it get to you, you’ll age quickly. Take everything in stride, and don’t let it get between you and the significant other.

    Don’t get in a hole – it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Upgrade where it makes sense, and budget time and money. Set an hourly rate for yourself and apply that to the work that you need to do.

    Enjoy the ride. There are beautiful things to see and make when you take your time.

    I also second Mike T. Home warranties are crap, as they WILL find a way to screw you.

  19. Erin L says:

    I’m a firm believer in no carpets. I like a nice wooden floor that is finished but throw rugs everywhere – in the bathroom, main traffic areas, etc. That way if you have a spill, you can throw the rug out or clean it and it protects the floor. Check to make sure the house has insulation as you can save a bundle in heating bills that way. Best advice is: Do the practical things first, save the fancy shmancy stuff for last (ie – fix leaks, shingles, insulation, wiring first – add the ceiling fans, new vanity, light bar in the bathroom, etc. LAST)

  20. Jon M says:

    I agree with the advice about making lists and prioritizing the important jobs first. It’s taken me 3 houses to fully recognize that my wife is better at that than I am and she provides a useful reality check on where I need to focus. My other observation with a 1940’s era house is that it’s generally better to replace items than to repair. Have you got a pinhole leak in a long run of drainpipe? Just replace the whole thing because it’s likely rusted through. Leaky old hose bib? Just replace it. I spent way to much time tinkering with items that in retrospect should have just been swapped out because the item was at the end of its useful life.
    I’d also strongly recommend that you have a house inspector who is also a GC with construction experience. We had a sad experience on our first house where the inspector missed some major structural defects under the house and we didn’t discover them until years later.

  21. Olaf says:

    Well, I recently came through a fairly simillar odeal (complete remodel and joining of 2 apartments in a 40 year old building).
    First thing that comes to mind is: Sell your house now and buy/build a new one , if you can afford it in any way possible!
    Why? Because when you invest heavily in bringing it up to your desire (and you want to have the best possible of everything, right?) you will have everything new in a 50 year old house….and you will still have a 50 year old house.

  22. Michael W. says:

    Someone new to owning and repairing a home can benefit greatly from the Time-Life Homer Repair and Improvement series of books. The sets can be found pretty easily used.
    I’ve owned my set since they first came out. I don’t open them up that much anymore (I restore and renovate houses professionally), but I do loan them out to friends (and use the Plumbing and the Electrical volumes for my house as those aren’t my specialties).
    Older houses can be wonderful. The level of quality in the craftsmanship can be quite high, and the wood is usually better quality also.

    Plumbing, heating and electrical usually are the areas you need to upgrade in an older house. If the roof is fairly new (and not leaking – something you can check easily when you’re up in the attic looking at the old insulation by checking the underside of the roof sheathing) I’d move on to those areas.

    Adding insulation is not a bad idea if you are in an area that gets cold in the winter. Saving money on heating your house means more money for improvements. It’s cheaper than immediately forking over the dough for a new furnace/heating system and will continue to be a benefit even if you upgrade the heating.

    Electrical problems in older houses generally are the lack of adequate grounded outlets, lack of GFCIs in the kitchen and bathrooms and most likely inadequate Amps in the breaker boxes. We depend on more electricity than people in the past an with all our computerized electronics also depend on “cleaner” current. Unless you want to be constantly shuttling back and forth to you breaker box you will want to look into upgrading your electrical.

    WORD OF CAUTION – if your house was renovated/repaired in the 1970’s there is a chance someone used aluminum wiring. No longer used in houses, aluminum wiring has been implicated in numerous house fires. Supposedly it can cause fires if not properly installed – operator error, not a condemnation of the wiring itself.

  23. tooldork says:

    I’m glad to know that I’m not alone. There is a lot of wisdom to be learned from previous posts.

    As owner of a house built in 1900 and countless less than adequate renovations, I’ve seen a ton of “What were they thinking?” areas of my house.

    Know that new materials are not the same as old ones. I’ve found that my 2x4s are really 2×4, not 1 1/2 x 3 1/2. Doors aren’t manufactured to the size of my original, etc.

    Point is, each project may require a certain amount of customization.

    As stated earlier, it’s easier to replace than repair in a number of instances and cannot be stressed enough when it comes to electric, plumbing, the core systems that can either make life more comfortable or more like hell.

    I disagree, but not too strenuously, with some advice about not listening to HD/Lowe’s staff. The plumbing guy at my HD is the whip. He knows his stuff in and out and when they don’t have what I need, he knows which specialty store will have it.

    I’ve just started contracting for some stuff after 10 years. Not because I can’t do it, but my time is better spent doing other things. For about 3 years solid, all I did was work on the house and my wife was doing the same.

    After a while, it became apparent that our relationship was straining because of it. Now, we’re selecting which projects we want to do and will enjoy versus what has to be done and we’re enjoying ourselves and our home more.

    Buy the best you can afford and upgrade when you can.

    Never underestimate the power of tools, they need to be treated with respect or they will bite. Safety first.

    Don’t go to work on Monday with nasty stuff under your nails or on your hands. Trust me on this one.

  24. Dave says:

    Don’t be afraid to try anything. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Houses are not designed or built by geniuses. You’re smarter than them. I remember when I was much younger, my first friend to buy a house telling me about how much it was going to cost to have some wiring work done. I asked her why she didn’t just do it herself, and her response — which I’ll never forget — was to sort of laugh and say that a homeowner can’t do his or her own wiring, period. Bull! You may need to buy a book or spend a few hours researching, but you can do anything to a house, including building the whole thing yourself. Builders, contractors, government bodies and professional associations–the ones who have a stake in us _not_ doing things on our own–are the main people telling us we can’t. So be brave, young man, and dive right in there.

    As far as what specific projects to undertake, I agree with the others: hit the “infrastructure” items and/or additions first and do the pretty stuff later. Buy tools like there’s no limit to your credit, and don’t hesitate to rent the big stuff to save labor. You’ll still come out way, way ahead economically as compared to paying a contractor.

  25. Josh says:

    Remember that your house is made up of layers, and think of projects in this way. There’s no sense adding insulation until you know you’re not going to take down the ceiling below it, and the wiring above it (as mentioned) is good. Don’t do the sheet rock on the inside of the porch until you’ve redone the out side (I made this mistake, and ended up having to bring the outside down to the studs. Thankfully, it was the first project and came off with out a hitch.)

    Learn to do it yourself. Thank God for the internet and libraries.

    Subscribe to Fine Homebuilding mag. and use their message boards. Great information from pros and home owners alike. One tip there, before asking a question, search the archives.

    Buy a good set of core tools. If you’re thinking of renting any tools, find out what the purchase price would be before renting. Often times a few days rental could have purchased the tool.

    Good luck.

  26. Josh says:

    Oh yeah, be safe. Eye and ear protection and dust masks. There’s some nasty stuff in old houses.

  27. inigo says:

    NO matter how important you think a project is, it is not as important as the one which will make a significant others life, just a little bit easier.

  28. Chuk Gleason says:

    Wow!! All great suggestions; I feel almost unqualified to add anything, but here goes:

    1) If you have forced air heat, chances are your ductwork in older homes is not tight; you’ll find little openings at every seam. Take a few days and several rolls of metal foil tape, and/or mastic compound (DO NOT USE DUCT TAPE!! the adhesive doesn’t last) and seal as many seams as you can reach. Esp. if your ducts go thru an unheated/conditioned crawlspace or attic. Our early 70’s house cut our energy bill by about 10% after I did this, and that’s money that can be put to future projects. Low cost, low skill, but has been very effective.

    2) Any plumbing: Any time you replace a toilet mechanism part or faucet washer, get extra & do the rest of the house. 3 toilet mechanisms in one day is better than 3 mechanism in 3 separate years, & you’ve got all new, all at once. Because after the first one fails, the others will be close behind it; and your installation learning curve is shortened. In fact, I got tired of faucet washers every 9 months in 3 sinks; just did 3 whole new single-handle fixtures in one day. Satisfaction! ! Wife & daughters are very pleased at not having to swap sinks while I fix another one!!

    3) Whenever you have to shut off water to do work or replace a section of pipe, consider STRONGLY!! budgeting to add another shutoff valve in the system. This way you can section off one part of the house & work in peace, calmness, and sanity, and not have to worry about the pressure of little ones screaming “DADDY!! I GOTTA GO!!!! When’s the water gonna be back on??” (or even the wife!).

    4) Crawlspace foundation vents: check that they work & can be opened in the spring & closed in the fall. & do it on schedule so you maintain the integrity of your substructures.

    5) Insulate hot water pipes, especially if they run thru crawlspace; again easy to do, saves money year round. A box of lengths of pre-slit foam wrap is pretty cheap investment that will pay back within a year.

    6) Map your breaker/fuse box!! What does which lites, outlets, etc. We’ve been surprised at what’s tied together with what!

    7) If your bathroom does not have GFCI protection, add it at the sockets, or at the panel. It’s a safety issue.

    8) Make sure the attic is adequately vented; a lot of older homes are not. Adding a gable fan is a moderately tough job, just because of physical access to it, but pays back in lower summer cooling costs.

    9) I made a foam insulation box/lid to fit over the attic stair pulldown opening; tall enough to let the mechanism clear above the floor level. Simple: foam-board (mine’s blue – not styrofoam – it’s too fragile) & foil tape, a half-day of work & cuts down on air leaks.

    These are only a few; but they’re quick, effective & very high payback.

  29. paganwonder says:

    Mid-twentieth century electric service and 21st century tech are not compatible- find a good electrician- they may even throw in a hot tub circuit for all the trouble. Also, the only way to learn DIY is to DIY, make mistakes and learn- only not with electricity!

  30. paganwonder says:

    The only way to learn DIY is to DIY, make mistakes and learn- only not with electricity!

  31. Zathrus says:

    You can DIY and learn with electricity just fine. There’s one cardinal rule — turn off the breaker (or, in the case of 50s era stuff, the fuse). You’re safe then. And when it comes to turn it back on, do so with your left hand behind your back and use your right hand (it’s further from your heart). There’s your daily dose of paranoia.

    Start with the simple stuff, obviously — replacing switches, receptacles, and lights. Next is a two or three way switch. Then learn how to run wire and add a circuit to the breaker box (again, if you’re paranoid, cut off the power to the house for this step and realize that the mains coming from the power company are still energized). Probably last is a sub-panel and running power to a detached building. And just stop before even thinking about messing with the mains — that’s where you’re talking about life threatening because you don’t have the ability to turn off the power. Get a pro.

    How to learn? Get a book — the Time Life series is fine, as is the Home Depot series. I like Rex Cauldwell’s Wiring a House.

    The most important thing is, as others say, learn your boundaries and be willing to hire a pro when needed. Swapping out a broken outlet or adding GFCI is one thing; running wires through a finished area is something else and usually leads to dry wall and other work (even for the pros).

  32. Joe says:

    Dave, no offense, but no one should assume they’re smarter than a “dumb” builder. Nor, to your point, should they assume the task is beyond them. I’m only trying to say that I’ve seen too many well-intentioned DIYers who think that a book and a new tool are enough. We all need to know our limits, everchanging that they are . . ..

  33. Lear says:

    Get a digital camera and take pictures of what you are working, especially with plumbing projects.

    The reason is three fold.

    1) You have photos of how things came apart which frequently helps in putting things back together.

    2) You can take the picture to the hardware store and say “I am doing this and I need this bit that fits here” That saved me buying a $75 dollar part when a $5 was what I needed.

    3) Bragging photos for toolmonger…

  34. gary says:

    Just a few safety tips. Lead based paints were probably used at some point on a house of this age and there could be asbestos in old linoleum or vinyl flooring adhesives used up until the 1980’s. Protect yourself accordingly.

  35. Will E. says:

    When I bought a house I realized that “P.O.” stands both for “pissed off” and “previous owner” — not coincidentally.

    My family lives 1500 miles away, but my in-laws are in the next town. My FiL and I bonded a lot in the first years after my wife & I bought that house. :7)

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