Financing a Home Renovation: Our Happy Medium


Now that my older children are becoming more interested in what their friends think and do, and our income is more in line with the middle-class neighborhood we live in, it is not as easy to beat a different path. An old-fashioned simple slow life is a beautiful ideal, but clinging to a rigid ideology has the potential of making my family unhappy.

After a year of epiphanies, I am seeing the beauty in compromise. As much as I believe in outdoor play and extended childhoods, for example, my oldest daughter believes in fashion and pop music. And as much as I might love walking everywhere and puttering around the house, my husband Enrico likes sports cars and weekend trips.

Finding a Middle Ground

Conflicting desires — within ourselves and our families — are normal and they make life interesting.

While the kids and I are doing the chores on the weekend, you can now hear Taylor Swift and Katy Perry booming from the new iPod in our living room. (Last year’s Christmas present to the girls.) ¬†Together with hand-me-downs from our cousins, my girls are now sporting jeggings from the mall.

And, after years of no TV reception, we have a cable box in our attic, where my husband can sometimes be found watching basketball (or the kids and I, America’s Funniest Home Videos, our new guilty pleasure).

And the compromise that inspired this post? Well, against my frugal, debt-averse instincts, I got convinced to borrow money to do work on our house. I felt more comfortable squirreling funds away to pay for one-off projects, but that approach stressed out Enrico. He felt more comfortable with smaller, predictable payments — even if they’re spread out over 30 years.


Our basement under construction

There is no one right decision, after all. The important thing is to be aware of how our choices affect the overall budget or our life plan. How will the balance change and what will we have to adjust to stay on track?

Taking out a remodeling loan felt extravagant to me, and it took a few years to convince me to go for it. But now that I’m on board, I’ve been having a lot of fun figuring out how to tailor the house to our family while maintaining its old-world charm.

We worked with an architect in the neighborhood to create a master plan, and were able to convince the contractor who did a fantastic yet affordable job on our foyer to take on this project.

What We’re Doing to Our House


A view of our kitchen from the second floor, as the fireplace flue is being installed

So what is in the blueprints? Perhaps the most important change is creating a third bedroom on the second floor by fixing an odd layout which had Enrico and me sharing quarters with our little boys. On the main floor, we’re adding a fireplace to the living room to create a gathering spot for the family. And in order to host our parents when they come in town, we are adding a guest room and bathroom in the basement, in addition to some family hang-out areas.

We’ve been keeping a detailed spreadsheet of the costs, which helps us see how each decision affects the big picture. Unfortunately construction and infrastructure updates are leaving a lot less room than we had hoped for the fun stuff.

Already, visions of handmade Arabesque tiles from California have been replaced by the clearance section of a Rockville tile shop. But just as living on a limited income for our first ten years of marriage has challenged and changed me for the better, I know that renovating on a budget will fuel my creativity and inspire projects that I’ll always remember.

I’ve already gotten a lot of satisfaction out of finding salvaged house parts to retrofit our 1916 house. Five-panel solid wood doors, beaded oval knobs, and decorative cast-iron radiators are built to last and cost a fraction of new. And I can start to envision myself painting faux wallpaper, repurposing IKEA furniture, and sewing shower curtains out of vintage linens.

My Old House Passion


“Old houses have a way of getting under our skin and bringing out an obsessive-compulsive, make-it-better mindset,” says Demetra Aposporos, editor of Old House Journal. I think I’m there.

Many old houses, like ours, have been tinkered with and added on to over the years, and now that we’ve begun, I’ve gotten a little perfectionistic about getting all the gunk cleared out and restoring the house’s original character. Considering this is the first house Enrico and I have bought, and it may very well be our last, the project has taken on a sentimental quality that makes the work even sweeter.

It’s been two months since we got started, and we have several more months to go. We’d love to be done by the time baby Diana is born in August, but I’ve heard enough stories to know that finishing on time is more like a fairytale.

The process has been both exciting and exhausting. When crews of workers and clouds of dust pour out of gaping holes in our walls and ceilings, it makes me wonder if it wasn’t a better idea to just hang a flat-screen TV in the living room and turn on the fireplace channel.

But Phyllis Rose says renovation is a lot like childbirth: when it’s over, you don’t remember the pain. I hope she’s right.


One happy side effect of having to rip holes in our walls and ceilings is that we will have to repaint. My daughters have complained for a while that “everything in this house is brown,” and on this point, we agree.

We’ve decided that the kitchen will be blue. The question is, will it be Soft Chinchilla or Heather Blue? But that’s for a whole other post.

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  • National Paint Contractors Cape Town May 31, 2013, 3:24 am

    A fireplace is one pf the most popular renovations in a home, next to bathrooms and kitchens.

  • Robin from Frugal Family Times May 15, 2013, 5:21 pm

    We did a very similar thing – almost 6 years ago we added a second storey to our home. When our son was born – it was either renovate or move – and for so many reasons, moving wasn’t right for our us. This called for a near doubling of our mortgage – which was a hard pill to swallow. But, it allowed us to stay in our lovely neighborhood, in the house that was my grandparents. We are so pleased with how it all turned out – and proud of how living a frugal lifestyle has allowed us to make our dream home and life.

    Congratulations for all the changes ahead for your and your family, Amy! For our reno we needed to move our whole family (2 kids + 2 cats + 1 dog) in with my mom’s at her townhouse for 4 months! It really is like childbirth – I hardly the remember the stress and hassles of that time!

    • Amy May 15, 2013, 9:21 pm

      Hi Robin,

      It was heartening to hear your story. I’m so glad you don’t regret a thing. I think being able to live in your grandparents’ house in a lovely neighborhood is something to sacrifice for.

      Moving out for 4 months — into a much smaller place — sounds challenging! Either way you cut it — live through or move out — renovating is a trial. So glad you hear that you think it’s all worth it.

      Take care,